June 2, 2019

On Conceit and Humble Mindedness: A Sermon for the Sunday of the Blind Man (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov)

By St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

Beloved brethren! After our Lord Jesus Christ healed the man born blind — about which we have heard today in the Holy Gos­pel — He said, "For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind" (John 9:39). The proud sages and righteous men of the world, such as the Jewish Pharisees, could not listen to these words of the Lord indiffer­ently. Due to their self-love and high opinion of themselves they considered themselves to have been insulted. They replied to the Lord's words with a question expressing, simultaneously, their indignation, conceit, mockery, and hatred for the Lord, combined with contempt for Him. "Are we blind also?" they asked. In reply to the Pharisees' ques­tion the Lord showed them their state of soul, which was the initial reason for this question. "If ye were blind," He told them, "ye should have no sin: but now ye say, 'We see;' therefore your sin remaineth."

What a terrible infirmity of soul conceit is! In human affairs it deprives the proud of the help and advice of their neighbors. And in the affairs of God, in the work of salvation, it has deprived and con­tinues to deprive arrogant Pharisees of the most precious treasure: the gift of God, brought down from heaven by the Son of God. It has de­prived and continues to deprive them of Divine Revelation and, along with the reception of this Revelation, a most blessed relationship with God.

The Pharisees considered themselves able to see, that is, quite fa­miliar with the true knowledge of God and in no need of further progress and instruction. On this basis they spurned the teaching about God that was taught directly by God.

The virtue opposed to pride and its particular expression in the human soul — conceit — is humility. As pride is primarily an infirmity of our spirit, a sin of the mind, likewise humility is a good and blessed con­dition of the spirit, and is primarily a virtue of the mind. For this reason it is very often called in the Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Holy Fathers "humble-mindedness."* What is humble-mindedness? Humble-mindedness is man's correct understanding of humanity; conse­quently, it is man's correct understanding of himself. The direct effect of humility, or humble-mindedness, consists in the fact that a man's cor­rect understanding of humanity and of himself reconciles a man with himself, with human society, with its passions, shortcomings and abuses, with personal and social circumstances; it reconciles him with earth and heaven. The virtue of humility received its name from the inner peace of heart born from it.** When we are speaking only of the calming, joyous, blessed state produced in us by the virtue, we call it hu­mility. But when we wish to indicate both this state and its source, we call it humble-mindedness.

Do not think, brethren, that our definition of humble-minded­ness as man's correct way of thinking about humanity in general, and about himself in particular, is an arbitrary definition. The Lord Him­self indicated such a definition of humility and humble-mindedness. He said, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). But what is this spiritual freedom taught by the Truth, if not holy, grace-filled peace of soul; if not holy humility; if not evangelical humble-mindedness? The Divine Truth is our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 14:6). He proclaimed, "Learn of Me," of Divine Truth, "for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matt. 11:29). Humble-mindedness is man's way of thinking about himself and humanity, inspired and instilled by Divine Truth. ("The lips of a humble-minded man speak the truth," said St. Mark the Ascetic [see "Homily on the Law of the Spirit," chapter 9).] Conceit is piti­ful and destructive self-delusion; it is a death-dealing deception by which blinded humanity deceives itself, and by which the demons be­guile it.

False are the opinions and foundations of human pride, human conceit. A proud man looks upon himself as a self-existent being, and not as a creation of God. Earthly life seems to him endless, and death and eternity seem to him to be non-existent. God's providence does not exist for him — he acknowledges human reason to be the ruler of the world. All of his thoughts creep along the earth. His life is offered up in sacrifice exclusively to the earth, upon which he would like to delight unceasingly in sin. And it was toward this insane, unfeasible goal that the blinded Pharisees and Sadducees strove with all their strength.

On the contrary, the remembrance of death accompanies a hum­ble-minded man on the path of eternal life, instructs him to act on earth for the sake of eternity and — what is wondrous — inspires his deeds with a special beneficence. A humble-minded man labors for the sake of the virtues, not at the inducement of the passions or for the satisfaction of the passions. Consequently, his actions cannot help but be beneficial to human society. A humble-minded man sees him­self as an insignificant speck of dust in the midst of the enormous universe, in the midst of time and the generations and events of man­kind — both those of the past and those yet to come. The mind and heart of a humble-minded man are capable of receiving the Divine Christian teachings and of thriving unceasingly in the Christian vir­tues. The mind and heart of a humble-minded man see and feel the fall of human nature and are therefore able to recognize and receive the Redeemer.

Humble-mindedness does not see value in fallen human nature; it contemplates humanity as the supreme creation of God, but at the same time it contemplates sin, which has permeated the whole of man's being, poisoning it. Acknowledging the splendor of God's cre­ation, humble-mindedness simultaneously acknowledges the ugliness of creation distorted by sin, continually mourning this calamity. It looks upon the earth as upon the land of its banishment, and strives by repentance to return to heaven, which it lost through conceit. But pride and conceit, having procured for mankind the Fall and destruc­tion, neither see nor acknowledge the Fall in human nature. They see in it only merit, only perfection and refinement. They consider the infirmities of the soul and the passions themselves as virtues. Such a view of humanity renders the thought of a Redeemer utterly superflu­ous and foreign. The sight of the proud is a terrible blindness, while the lack of sight of the humble is the capacity for seeing the Truth. It is to this that the Lord's words refer: "For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind" (John 9:39). The humble received the Lord and were enlightened by Divine light. The arrogant, satisfied with themselves, spurned Him and darkened themselves even further by this rejection and blaspheming of God.

Innumerable stars shine brightly in a clear sky at night, compet­ing with one another in the magnitude of their light. But at the ap­pearance of the sun the stars disappear — they disappear as though they had ceased to exist, although in reality they all remain in their places. So too, human virtues, when they are compared with one an­other, have their own light. But at the appearance of Divine Good­ness, they disappear before the Light of Divinity. The Apostle, speaking about the virtues of the Patriarch Abraham, said that "Abra­ham hath whereof to glory; but not before God" (Rom. 4:2). But con­cerning God he says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness" (Rom. 4:3). In this way the Pharisees too ought to have acted, who boasted in their descent from Abraham according to the flesh, but who alienated themselves from him according to the spirit. In contrast to Abraham's course of action, they wanted to hold onto the imaginary worth of the old man, and through this they made themselves incapable of self-knowledge and the knowledge of God. They heard the Lord's terrible verdict: "If ye were blind," that is, if you had acknowledged your blindness, "ye should have no sin: but now, being blind, ye say, 'We see;' therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9:41). You have inculcated it within yourselves, and impressed it upon your­selves by your conceit.

The holy Apostle Paul was, in his youth, a pupil of the Pharisees, but he did not conform to the bitterness and conceit of the Pharisees. He was, as he relates to us for our edification, "an Hebrew of the He­brews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;... touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excel­lency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:5-8).

Beloved brethren! Let us emulate the holy Apostle Paul and the rest of the God-pleasers. Let us draw near to God, having entirely rejected pernicious conceit through humility. By means of humility let us cling to God. Let us through humility attract the attention and mercy of our God, Who said, "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word" (Isaiah 66:2). By seeing and acknowledging our sins, let us include ourselves in the number of the sinners who are beloved of God. By repudiating con­ceit, let us exclude ourselves from the number of the false righteous ones, or else God will reject us, saying, "I am not come to call the righ­teous, but sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:13).

May our hearts be renewed by humility to become spiritual altars of sacrifice to God, [St. Poemen the Great said, "The Israelites were only permitted one place in which to offer up sacrifices and perform the common divine services. In the spiritual sense that place is the heart." (From the Alphabetical Paterikon.)]. And may the priest of the Most High God — our mind — offer up spiritual sacrifices to Him. May it offer up a sacrifice of contrition, of repentance, of confession, of prayer, and of mercy, filling every sacrifice with humble-mindedness, for "a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise" (Ps. 50:17).


* This word in Russian, smirennomudrie, is distinct from smirenie, the word for "humility." The Romanian phrase smerita cugetare, literally “humble thinking,” is translated here as “humble-mindedness.” This is distinct from smerenie, ‘humility’.

** The Russian word for humility — smirenie — has as its root the word for peace (mir).