Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi
We’ve passed the midway point of Great Lent, this competitive arena, and now we’re moving towards the goal, when we’ll experience what it really means to venerate the holy feasts, which have so much significance for us.
I’d like to remind you of that beautiful verse from the last ikos of the salutations to the Mother of God: “Hail, height difficult for human thought to scale; hail, depths hard to scan even for the eyes of angels”. If you remember, the subject of the reading in the refectory at midday was about humility. Precisely what concerns us here. Because, even though humility is a general obligation for all Christians, it’s especially an aim and goal for monks. This is why the habit, the attire, the living arrangements, the nourishment, the behaviour and the whole of their position is geared towards this aim: a humble outlook. As we’ve said on another occasion, in detail, a humble outlook isn’t a matter of the moment, such as when someone practices a virtue in order to rein in and overcome the corresponding evil. We can’t describe the subject of humility, because not even outstanding Fathers were able to do so. What we can do is gently refer to some few snippets which might be of assistance to this end. If any monk loses the sense of humility, I very much doubt if he’ll be able to succeed in his aim.
Let’s begin these few items with a look at the personality of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Who “ bent down the heavens, descended, emptied Himself and put on our nature”, being “truly the Word of God”, to Whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given”. Despite that, however, He was content to be called “humble in heart”. And this “humble in heart”, in its God-seemly majesty, is not a cosmetic appellation, but an ontological reality, something which illustrates what God and human person are together. Humility, then, is in a way the basis of reality. Because the real personality exists only in humility, as do stability, certitude, stillness and truth. Where there’s no humility, there’s fear and uncertainty. The chief characteristic of the devil is his lack of humility, and, because of that, he’s in a constant state of turmoil, instability and uncertainty, suspicious of everything all the time. He doesn’t have anything of his own, he can’t ignore anything and he’s forever fearful.
Its impossible for us to describe humility because it’s become the raiment of divinity. Jesus, the center of our love, put it on and through it expressed His character. When He says: “Learn from me that I am gentle and humble at heart”, it’s as if He’s sketching His external form for us, so that we can copy Him, within our created and humble limitations.
So what else do we have to do? Since the center of our love and our efforts, the focus of the whole of our interest, is He Who is “humble at heart”, isn’t humility a matter of duty for us? We won’t turn to humility in haste, as we do with the other virtues, depending on the pressure from the corresponding evil, but rather we’ll approach it at walking pace, setting it as the main aim and purpose of our lives. Because through it, we, too, will acquire a personality which will be exactly the same as our archetype, the focus of our being and our love.
Now if Jesus has this feature of His character and we lack it, then we’ll be judged by that terrible, threatening saying of Saint Paul: “therefore you’re illegitimate and not children”. If people want to acquire the character of their Father, they should enter freely and become heirs with Him Who calls on God as Father and should have this kind of image engraved upon them. And when the angels see them at the hour of death and at the time of the judgment and of rebirth, then, holding fast to this image, they’ll be certain that they’ll enter freely, because they’ll have been stamped and accepted as genuine children of their Father. So do you see that humility is a duty and not a matter of free choice? And didn’t the Fathers pass this down to us, in great detail? And, in any case, on what issue should a monk not be humble? All his specific features bear witness to this. His exile in the desert, his retreat from the world, his black clothing, his frugal diet and his behaviour in general all help to make him think humbly. But most of all, there’s the example of our Fathers, which we follow with whatever strength we command. This is exactly what the hymnographer who wrote the salutations to Our Lady is referring to when he says that she’s a “height difficult for human thought to scale”. It’s impossible for human thoughts to approach the heights of her sanctity, which, basically, is her humility. When the Archangel told her that she’d be the one and only mother of God, she replied, indifferent to the praise implied in his words, by calling herself “the servant of Christ”. Where else could God the Word have dwelt, had He not found such a vessel, who would resemble Him so completely? And there’s the humble Maiden. Even before became fully aware of God the Word- because He had not yet come to dwell within her, though she had received rays of grace and sanctification- she said: “Behold, the servant of the Lord”, and demonstrated her humility towards the Word of God, Who, at that moment came to dwell within her. And what she said next: “Let it be unto me according to your word”, demonstrates her total acquiescence. And in this way, she healed humanity’s universal wound, cancelling out the curse of Eve and of the whole of the female sex, through her absolute compliance and obedience.
We Athonites in particular feel her special maternal affection and confidence in concrete ways because she’s here with us. There’s not a single Athonite who won’t have felt her distinctive affection and benevolence towards him. As our spiritual mother, she gives us her most holy life as an example. What is this? A humble mind and obedience, those are the features which monasticism brings to completion. This is what we hold on fast to within us as the most important spiritual lode-star. If you remain humble in yourselves and obedient to the will of God, you’ll already have reached your destination and your goal, by the grace of Christ. Amen.
Source: Elder Iosif , Αθωνικά μηνύματα, Ψυχωφελή Βατοπαιδινά [Messages from Monastery of Vatopedi, Holy Mt Athos, to Help our Soul], Publication of the Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi, Holy Mountain 1999, 2nd ed.