Athletes for Christ' they called themselves. The Desert Fathers were quiet, fourth century hermits who went to extremes, leading a strenuous pursuit of spiritual rigor in the empty wastelands of Syria, Egypt and Palestine
Below is a writing from such a person, Dorotheos of Gaza AD 565 was an ascetic in Egypt. Their thinking and writing was unconventional to the Church in their day as it is in our day. We have something to learn from them.
One of the elders has said: "Before everything else humility of wisdom is needful for us, so that we may be ready to say to every word which we hear, forgive me; for by humility of wisdom all the arrows of the enemy and adversary are broken." Let us examine what meaning the words of the elder has. Why does he not say that continence (temperance) is needed first of all? For the Apostle says, (I Cor. 9:25) Every man that strivest for the mastery is temperate in all things. Or why did the elder not say that before everything else the fear of God is needful for us? For in the Scriptures it is said: (Ps. 110:10) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and again, (Prov. 15:27) By the fear of the Lord everyone departs from evil. Why did he not say that before everything else alms-giving or faith is necessary for us? For it is said, (Prov. 15:27), By alms and by faithful dealings sins are purged away, and the Apostle says, (Heb. 11:6) Without faith it is impossible to please Him (God).
Thus, if without faith it is impossible to please God, and if by means of almsgiving and faith sins are cleansed, if by the fear of the Lord everyone is brought away from evil, and if the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and one who is laboring must be continent in everything, then why did the elder say before everything else that humility of wisdom is needful for us, setting aside everything else which is so needful? The elder wishes to show us by this that neither the very fear of God, nor almsgiving, nor faith, nor continence, nor any other virtue can be perfected without the humility of wisdom. This is why he says, "Before everything else, humility of wisdom is needful to us—so as to be ready to say to every word we hear forgive me; for by humility of wisdom are all the arrows of the adversary broken." And so you see, brethren, how great is the power of humility of wisdom; you see what force the word forgive has. But why is the devil called not only enemy, but also adversary? He is called enemy because he is the hater of mankind, the hater of good, and a slanderer; and he is called adversary because he strives to hinder every good deed. If one should wish to pray, he opposes and hinders him by means of evil remembrances, by means of captivity of the mind and despondency. If one wishes to give alms, he hinders by means of the love of money and stinginess. If one wishes to keep vigil, he hinders by means of laziness and carelessness, and in this way he opposes us in every deed when we wish to do something good. This is why he is called not only enemy, but also adversary. But by humility of wisdom, all the weapons of the enemy and adversary are broken. For in truth, great is humility of wisdom, and every one of the saints has travelled by this path; by labor they have made short their path, as the Psalmist says, Behold my lowliness and my toil, and forgive all my sins; (Ps. 24:18) and I was brought low, and He saved me (Ps. 114:6). And besides, it is humility alone that may conduct us into the Kingdom, as the elder Abba John has said—but only slowly.
Thus, let us also be humbled a little, and we shall be saved. If we who are infirm cannot labor, then let us try to be humbled; and I believe in the mercy of God that for the little we do with humility, even we shall be in the place of the saints who have labored much and worked for God. Even if we are infirm and cannot labor—can it be that we cannot become humble? Blessed, O brethren, is he who has humility. Great is humility! One saint who had true humility said it very well: "Humility does not become angry at anyone and angers no one, and it considers anger completely foreign to itself." Great is humility, for it alone opposes vainglory and preserves a man from it. And do not people become angry also over property and food? But how is it that the elder says that humility does not become angry at anyone and angers no one? Humility is great, as we have said, and it strongly attracts to the soul the grace of God. Having come, the grace of God protects the soul from the two onerous passions mentioned above. For what can be more onerous than to become angry and to anger one's neighbor? As someone has said: "It is not at all the nature of monks to become angry, nor likewise, to anger others." For in truth, if such a one, (i.e. one who becomes angry or angers others) is not soon covered with humility then he, little by little, comes into a demonic state, disturbing others and himself being disturbed. This is why the elder said that humility does not become angry and does not anger. But what am I saying? As if humility protected from only two passions… It protects the soul also from every passion and from every temptation.
When St. Anthony saw all the nets of the devil and, sighing, he asked God: "But who can escape them?" Then God replied to him: "Humility will escape them," and what is even more astonishing, He added: "They will not even touch you." Do you see the grace of this virtue? In truth there is nothing stronger than humility of wisdom—nothing vanquishes it. If something painful should happen to one who is humble, he immediately turns to himself, judges himself that he is worthy of this, and he does not begin to reproach anyone, or lay the blame on anyone else. In this way he bears whatever happens without disturbance, without sorrow, with complete calmness, and therefore he does not become angry, nor does he anger anyone. And thus, before everything else, humility of wisdom is needful for us.
There are two humilities, just as there are two prides. The first pride occurs when one reproaches his brother, when one judges and dishonors him as being of no importance, and deems himself superior. If that person does not soon come to himself and strive to correct himself, little by little comes to the second kind of pride, rising up against God Himself. He ascribes all his labors and virtues to himself and not to God, as if he performed them by himself, through his own reason and efforts, and not with the help of God. In truth my brethren, I know one person who once came to such a pitiable condition. At first when any of the brethren would say something to him, he would belittle each one and reply: "What is the meaning of that? There is no one worthy apart from Zosimas and those like him." Then he began to judge these persons also and say: "There is no one worthy except for Macarius." After a little time he began to say, "Who is Macarius? There is no one worthy except for Basil and Gregory." But soon he began to judge these also, saying: "Who is Basil, and who is Gregory? There is no one worthy except for Peter and Paul." I said to him: "In truth, brother, you will soon begin to belittle them also." And believe me, in a short time he began to say: "Who is Peter? And who is Paul? No one has any significance except for the Holy Trinity." Finally he raised himself up in pride against even God Himself, and in this way he went out of his mind. Therefore, O my brethren, we must labor with all our power against the first pride, so that we may not little by little fall into the second, that is, into complete pride.
There is a worldly pride and a monastic pride: worldly pride is when one becomes proud before his brother that he is richer or more handsome than he, or that he wears better garments than he or that he is more nobly born than he. When we see that we are becoming vainglorious over such qualities, or because our monastery is larger or richer than others, or because there are many brethren in it, then we must know that we are still in worldly pride. It likewise happens that one becomes vainglorious because of some kind of natural gifts: one, for example, is vainglorious because he has a good voice and sings well, or because he is modest, works zealously, and is efficient in service. These qualities are better than the first ones mentioned, however this is also worldly pride. Monastic pride, on the other hand, is when one becomes vainglorious because he is exercising himself in vigils, in fasting, that he is devout, that he lives well and is careful. It likewise happens that one might become humble for the sake of glory. All this has to do with monastic pride. It is possible for us not to become proud at all; but if one is unable to escape this entirely, then at least let him become proud over the qualities of monastic deeds, and not over something worldly.
We have talked about the first kind of pride is and what is the second. We have likewise talked about worldly pride and monastic pride. Let us examine now the two kinds of humility. The first kind of humility consists in respecting one's brother as more intelligent than oneself and more excellent in every way, and in a word, as the Holy Fathers have said, it consists in considering that one is lower than all." The second kind of humility consists in ascribing one's labors to God—this is the perfect humility of the saints. It is naturally born in the soul from the fulfillment of the commandments. It is just as with a tree—when there is much fruit on it, the fruits themselves bend the branches down; and the branches on which there is no fruit strive upwards and grow straight. There are certain trees which do not give fruit; but if someone were to take a stone and hang it to the branch and bend it down, then it would give fruit. The soul also, when it is humble, produces fruit, and the more fruit it produces, the humbler it becomes; and the nearer the saints came to God, the more they saw themselves as sinners.
I recall that once we were conversing about humility, and when one of the well-known citizens of Gaza heard us say that the closer one comes to God, the more one sees himself as a sinner, he was astonished and said: "How could this be?" Not understanding, he wished to know what these words meant. I said to him: "Noble citizen, tell me what you consider yourself to be in your city." He replied, "I consider myself to be great and the first one in the city." Then I said to him, "But if you were to go to Caeserea, then whom would you consider yourself to be there? He replied, "To be the last of the nobles who are there." "And if," I said, "you were to go to Constantinople, and come near to the Emperor, whom would you consider yourself to be there?" He replied, "Almost as a beggar." Then I said to him, "Even so, the nearer the saints came to God, the more they considered themselves to be sinners. So, when Abraham saw the Lord, he called himself earth and ashes. (Gen. 18:27); and Isaias said I am wretched and unclean (Isa. 6:5); and likewise Daniel, when he was in the pit with the lions and Habakkuk brought him bread saying: Receive the meal which God hath sent thee, replied: Thou has remembered me, O God (Dan. 14:36, 37). What humility his heart had! He was in the pit in the midst of the lions and was unharmed by them, and not once only, but twice, and after all this he was astonished and said, And thus God hath remembered me.
Do you see the humility of the saints and how their hearts were? They even refused out of humility what was sent from God to help them, fleeing glory. Just as one who is clothed in a silk garment would run away if someone were to throw an unclean garment at him, so as not to soil his own precious garment, so also the saints, being adorned with virtues, flee human glory so as not to be defiled by it. One who seeks glory is like a naked man who desires to find some shirt or anything else with which to cover his shame; so also one who is not clothed in virtue seeks human glory. Thus the saints, sent by God to help people, in their humility refused glory. Moses said (Exod. 4:10, 12), I beg Thee to place another one who is able, for I am a stutterer. Jeremiah said: I am the youngest one (Jer. 1:6). In a word, each of the saints acquired this humility, as we have said, through the fulfillment of the commandments. But what precisely this humility is and how it is born in the soul, no one can express in words, unless a man learn this by experience; for it is impossible to learn it from words alone.
Once Abba Zosimas spoke about humility, and a certain sophist who was present heard what he said and desired to understand it precisely. He asked him, "Tell me, why do you consider yourself sinful? Do you not know that you are holy? Do you not know that you have virtue? After all, you see how you fulfill the commandments—so how can you consider yourself sinful when you act in this way?" The elder did not know what answer to give him, but only said: "I do not know what to say to you, but I consider myself sinful." The sophist insisted, desiring to know how this could be. Then the elder, not knowing how to explain this to him, began to say to him in his holy simplicity, "Do not upset me; in truth I consider myself to be sinful."
Seeing that the elder was perplexed as to how to reply to the sophist, I said to him: "Does not the same thing happen in the arts of both sophistry and medicine? When someone has studied an art well and is practicing it, then according to the measure of his practice the physician or sophist acquires a certain habit, but he cannot say and does not know how to explain how he became experienced. In fact, the soul acquires the habit gradually and imperceptibly, through practice in the art. So it is also with humility—from the fulfillment of the commandments there comes a certain habit of humility, but it is impossible to express this in words." When Abba Zosimas heard this he rejoiced, immediately embraced me and said, "You have understood that matter, it is precisely as you have said." Having heard these words, the sophist was satisfied and agreed.
The elders also have told us something which helps us to understand humility. No one can explain the very condition into which the soul comes from humility. Thus, when Abba Agathon was near death and the brethren asked him, "Are you also afraid, Father?" he replied, "As much as I was able, I forced myself to keep the commandments, but I am a man, and how can I know if what I have done is pleasing to God? For one is the judgment of God, and another the judgment of man." Behold how he opened our eyes to understand humility and showed us the path whereby we acquire it. But how it is in the soul, as I have already said many times, no one can say or aphrehend through words alone—the soul can learn this but a little, and only from life. However, the Fathers have told us what brings us to humility, for in the Patericon it is written: "A certain brother asked an elder, "What is humility?" The elder replied, "Humility is a great and divine matter. Serving as a path to humility are bodily labors, performed reasonably. Also, it is when one considers himself below everyone else and constantly prays to God—this is the path to humility. But humility itself is divine and beyond understanding."
But why did the elder say that bodily labors bring a soul to humility? In what way do bodily labors become spiritual virtues? By considering himself below everyone, as we have already said, one opposes the demons and the first kind of pride—for how can one consider himself greater than his brother, or become proud towards another or reproach or belittle anyone, if he considers himself below everyone? Likewise, to pray without ceasing also clearly opposes the second kind of pride, for it is evident that one who is humble and reverent, knowing that it is impossible to perform any kind of virtue without the help and protection of God, does not cease always to pray to God that He might have mercy on him. For one who is ceaselessly praying to God, even if he should be able to do something, knows why he did this and cannot become proud. He does not ascribe this to his own power, but he ascribes all his success to God, always gives thanks to Him, and always calls upon Him, trembling lest he be deprived of such help and his infirmity and powerlessness be discovered. And thus with humility he prays, and by prayer he becomes humble, and the more he advances always in virtues, the more he always becomes humble. And to the degree he becomes humble he receives help and advances through humility of wisdom. But why does the elder say that bodily labors bring one to humility? What relation do bodily labors have to the disposition of the soul? I will explain this for you. After transgressing the commandments the soul was given over, as St. Gregory says, to the deception of the love of pleasure and self-will and came to love the bodily. It became, as it were, united or one with the body, and everything became flesh as, is written, (Gen. 6:4) My spirit shall not remain among these men, for they are flesh. The poor soul then sympathizes with the body and with everything which is done with the body. This is why the elder also said that bodily labor also brings the soul to humility. For there is one disposition of soul in a healthy man and another in a sick man; one disposition in one who is hungry and another in one who is full. Likewise, there is one disposition of soul in a man who is riding upon a horse, another in one who is sitting on a throne, and yet another in one who is sitting on the earth; there is one disposition in one who wears beautiful clothing and another in one who wears poor clothing. Thus, labor humbles the body; and when the body is humbled, the soul is also humbled with it. So, the elder said well that bodily labor leads to humility. Therefore, when Agapius was subjected to warfare from blasphemous thoughts, knowing as a wise man that the blasphemy proceeded from pride, and that when the body is humbled then the soul is also humbled with it, he spent forty days in the open air so that his body, as the writer of his life says, began to bring forth worms as happens with wild animals. He undertook such a labor not for the sake of the blasphemy, but for the sake of humility. Thus, the elder said truly that bodily labors also lead to humility. May the good God grant us humility, for it delivers a man from many evils and protects him from great temptations. May there be glory and dominion to God forever. Amen.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon