February 9, 2020

Homily on Humility (St. Basil the Great)

Homily on Humility

By St. Basil the Great

Would that man had abided in the glory which he possessed with God he would have genuine instead of fictitious dignity. For he would be ennobled by the power of God, illumined with divine wisdom, and made joyful in the possession of eternal life and its blessings. But, because he ceased to desire divine glory in expectation of a better prize, and strove for the unattainable, he lost the good which it was in his power to possess. The surest salvation for him, the remedy of his ills, and the means of restoration to his original state is in practicing humility and not pretending that he may lay claim to any glory through his own efforts but seeking it from God. Thus will he make amends for his error, thus will he be cured of his malady, thus will he return to the observance of the holy precept which he has abandoned. For the Devil, having caused man’s ruin by holding out to him the hope of false glory, ceases not to tempt him still by the same allurements and he devises innumerable schemes to this end. For instance, he represents a large fortune to him as a great good, so that man will regard it as a cause for boasting and expend effort to obtain it. Wealth, however, leads not to glory but to great peril. To build a fortune is to lay the foundation for avarice and the acquisition of money bears no relation to excellence of character. Rather, it blinds a man to no purpose, arouses vain conceit, and produces in his soul an effect something like an inflamed swelling. Now, a tumour combined with inflammation is neither healthful nor beneficial to the body, but unwholesome, injurious, a source of danger, and a cause of death.

Such an effect does pride engender in the soul. But money is not by any means the only instigator of arrogance. Men do not take pride only in the costly food and clothing which money buys, nor in setting luxurious tables with unnecessary extravagance, wearing superfluous ornaments, building and furnishing immense piles for their homes and adorning them with all sorts of finery, and attaching to their person great throngs of slaves as attendants and innumerables hordes of flatterers. [Not only by reason of wealth,] but also because of political honours, do men exalt themselves beyond what is due their nature. If the populace confer upon them a distinction, if it honour them with some office of authority, if an exceptional mark of dignity be voted in their favour by the people, thereupon, as though they had risen above human nature, they look upon themselves as well-nigh seated on the very clouds and regard the men beneath them as their footstool. They lord it over those who raised them to such honour and exalt themselves over the very ones at whose hands they received their sham distinctions. The position they occupy is entirely out of keeping with reason, for they possess a glory more unsubstantial than a dream. They are surrounded with a splendour more unreal than the phantoms of the night, since it comes into being or is swept away at the nod of the populace. A fool of this sort was that famous son of Solomon, youthful in years and younger still in wisdom, who threatened his people desiring a milder rule with an even harsher one and thereby destroyed his kingdom. By his threat, the very expedient whereby he hoped to be elevated to a more royal state, he was bereft of the dignity already his. Strength of arm, swiftness of foot, and comeliness of body—the spoils of sickness and the plunder of time also awaken pride in man, unaware as he is that ‘All flesh is grass and all the glory of man as the flower of the field. The grass is withered and the flower is fallen.’ Such was the arrogance of the giants because of their strength. Such also was the God-defying pride of the witless Goliath. Such a one was Adonias, exulting in his beauty and Absalom, glorying in his luxuriant hair.

Again, the goods which, of all man’s possessions, appear to be the greatest and most enduring wisdom and sagacity these also are the causes of idle boasting and nourish false pride. For, if the wisdom which is from God be lacking, these acquisitions are worthless. Even the Devil’s plots against man worked against himself and unwittingly he contrived his own undoing by his schemes for the ruin of mankind. He did not so much injure him whom he hoped to alienate from God and eternal life as he betrayed himself, becoming as he did a rebel against God, doomed to death forever. He was himself caught in the snare he laid for the Lord. He was nailed to the cross upon which he hoped to crucify Him. He died the death wherewith he intended the Lord to be destroyed. But, if the Prince of this world, the supreme, consummate, and invisible master of worldly wisdom, is caught in his own traps and ends finally in ultimate folly, far more will his followers and supporters be thus ensnared, even though they devise a thousand wiles; ‘professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.’ Pharaoh resorted to trickery for the ruin of Israel, but his clever scheme was suddenly foiled from a quarter he least suspected. The babe condemned to be exposed at his order was secretly reared in the royal household, destroyed his power and that of his whole nation, and led Israel to safety. The homicide Abimelech, bastard son of Gideon, slew the seventy legitimate sons, and, thinking he had hit upon a ruse for securing his grasp on the royal power, he destroyed his accomplices in the crime. He, however, was in turned destroyed by them, and in the end was slain with a stone cast by a woman’s hand. Again, all the Jews devised a deadly plot against the Lord, saying to themselves: ‘If we let him alone so, all will believe in him and the Romans will come and take away our place and nation.’ Passing from the conspiracy to the actual slaying of Christ with the intention of saving their place and nation, they suffered the loss of both through their intrigue, for they were not only cast out of their place, but were also made strangers to the laws and worship of God. In short, countless examples teach us that the profit of human wisdom is illusory, for it is a meagre and lowly thing and not a great and pre-eminent good.

No sensible man, then, will be proud of his wisdom or of possessing the other goods I have mentioned, but will follow the excellent advice of blessed Anna and of the Prophet Jeremiah: ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom and let not the strong man glory in his strength and let not the rich man glory in his riches.’ But what is true glory and what makes a man great? ‘In this,’ says the Prophet, ‘let him that glorieth, glory, that he understandeth and knoweth that I am the Lord.’ This constitutes the highest dignity of man, this is his glory and greatness: truly to know what is great and to cleave to It, and to seek after glory from the Lord of glory. The Apostle tells us: ‘He that glorieth may glory in the Lord,’ saying: ‘Christ was made for us wisdom of God, justice and sanctification and redemption; that, as it is written: He that glorieth may glory in the Lord.’ Now, this is the perfect and consummate glory in God: not to exult in one’s own justice, but, recognising oneself as lacking true justice, to be justified by faith in Christ alone. Paul gloried in despising his own justice and in seeking after the justice by faith which is of God through Christ, that he might know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to His death, so as to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Herewith topples the whole lofty pinnacle of arrogant pride. Naught, O man, remains for you to boast of, inasmuch as your glory and your hope consist in mortifying yourself in all things and in striving toward the life to come in Christ. The foretaste of this life we now enjoy, and we are already in possession of its goods, living as we do entirely by the grace and gift of God. God it is ‘who worketh in us both to will and to accomplish according to his good will.’ God also reveals through His own Spirit His wisdom which is ordained unto our glory. It is God who grants efficacy to our labours. ‘I have laboured more abundantly than all they,’ says Paul, ‘yet not I but the grace of God with me.’ God delivers from dangers which are beyond all human recourse. ‘We had in ourselves,’ says the Apostle, ‘the answer of death that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raiseth the dead. Who hath delivered and doth deliver us out of so great dangers, in whom we trust that he will yet also deliver us.’

Why, then, pray, do you glory in your goods as if they were your own instead of giving thanks to the Giver for His gifts? Tor what hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?’ You have not known God by reason of your justice, but God has known you by reason of His goodness. ‘After that you have known God,’ says the Apostle, ‘or rather are known by God.’ You did not apprehend Christ because of your virtue, but Christ apprehended you by His coming. ‘I follow after,’ says the Apostle, ‘if I also may comprehend wherein I am also apprehended by Christ.’ ‘You have not chosen me,’ says the Lord, ‘but I have chosen you.’ Yet you, because honour is accorded you, exalt yourself and find an occasion for pride in the mercy that is granted you. Know yourself, at length, for what you are Adam expelled from paradise, Saul abandoned by the Spirit of God, Israel cut off from the sacred root. ‘But thou standest by faith,’ says the Apostle ‘be not high-minded but fear.’ Judgment will be in accordance with grace, and the Judge will make examination of how you have used the graces bestowed upon you. If you do not understand that you have received grace and by an excess of stupidity ascribe to yourself the success which is a gift of grace, you will fare no better than St. Peter. Indeed, you will not be able to surpass in love for the Lord him who loved Him so ardently that he desired to die for Him. Yet, because he spoke boastfully, saying: ‘Although all shall be scandalised in thee, I will never be scandalised,’ he fell a victim to human cowardice and committed the act of denial, gaining prudence and caution through his fall. Moreover, he learned by discovering his own weakness to be indulgent to the weak. And clearly did he come to understand that, just as he had been lifted up by the helping Hand of Christ when he was sinking into the sea, so, when he was in mortal danger from the billow of scandal because of his incredulity, he was protected by the power of Christ who had foretold to him what was to be, saying: ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired that he may sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.’ Peter, thus reproved, was deservedly given aid, for he had learned how to put away his pride and show forbearance toward the weak. Again, that stern Pharisee, who in his overweening pride not only boasted of himself but also discredited the publican in the presence of God, made his justice void by being guilty of pride. The publican went down justified in preference to him because he had given glory to God, the Holy One, and did not dare to lift his eyes, but sought only to win mercy, accusing himself by his posture, by striking his breast, and by entertaining no other motive except propitiation. Be on your guard, therefore, and bear in mind this example of grievous loss sustained through arrogance. The one guilty of insolent behaviour suffered the loss of his justice and forfeited his reward by his bold self-reliance. He was rendered inferior to a humble man and a sinner because in his self-exaltation he did not await the judgment of God, but pronounced it of himself. Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many grievous transgressions. Do not, then, justify yourself as regards another and never condemn yourself on the verdict of God by justifying yourself on the basis of your own. ‘I judge not my own self,’ says Paul, ‘for I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet I am not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord.’

Think you that you have done something good? Give thanks to God and do not exalt yourself above your neighbour. ‘Let every one prove his own work,’ says the Apostle, ‘and so he shall have glory in himself only and not in another.’ How have you helped your neighbour by making a profession of faith or by suffering exile for the Name of Christ, or by enduring austerities with constancy? The gain is not another’s, but yours. Take care not to repeat the fall of the Devil. He, in exalting himself above man, fell at the hands of man, and is delivered up to be trodden upon as a footstool to him who had been under his heel. Another example is the fall of the Israelites. Although they vaunted their superiority over the Gentiles whom they regarded as unclean, they themselves became, in reality, unclean, but the Gentiles were made clean. And the justice of the Israelites became as the rag of a menstruous woman, but the wickedness and impiety of the Gentiles was passed over because of their faith. In short, bear in mind that true proverb: ‘God resisteth the proud but to the humble he giveth grace. Keep as your familiar that word of the Lord: ‘Everyone that humbleth himself shall be exalted and he that exalteth himself shall be humbled.’ Be not an unjust judge of yourself and do not weigh your case favourably to yourself. If you appear to have something in your favour, do not, counting this to your credit and readily forgetting your mistakes, boast of your good deeds of today and grant yourself pardon for what you had done badly yesterday and in the past. Whenever the present arouses pride in you, recall the past to mind and you will check the foolish swelling of conceit. If you see your neighbour committing sin, take care not to dwell exclusively on his sin, but think of the many things he has done and continues to do rightly. Many times, by examining the whole and not taking the part only into account, you will find that he is better than you. God does not examine man according to the part, for He says: ‘I come to gather together their works and thoughts.’ Furthermore, when He rebuked Josaphat for a sin committed in an unguarded moment, He mentioned also the good he had done, saying: ‘But good works are found in thee.’

Such reminders as these regarding self-exaltation we should keep reciting constantly to ourselves, demeaning ourselves that we may be exalted, in imitation of the Lord who descended from heaven to utter lowliness and who was, in turn, raised to the height which befitted Him. In everything which concerns the Lord we find lessons in humility. As an infant, He was straightway laid in a cave, and not upon a couch but in a manger. In the house of a carpenter and of a mother who was poor, He was subject to His mother and her spouse. He was taught and He paid heed to what He needed not to be told. He asked questions, but even in the asking He won admiration for His wisdom. He submitted to John the Lord received baptism at the hands of His servant. He did not make use of the marvellous power which He possessed to resist any of those who attacked Him, but, as if yielding to superior force, He allowed temporal authority to exercise the power proper to it. He was brought before the high priest as though a criminal and then led to the governor. He bore calumnies in silence and submitted to His sentence, although He could have refuted the false witnesses. He was spat upon by slaves and the vilest menials. He delivered Himself up to death, the most shameful death known to men. Thus, from His birth to the end of His life, He experienced all the exigencies which befall mankind and, after displaying humility to such a degree, He manifested His glory, associating with Himself in glory those who had shared His disgrace. Of this number, the blessed disciples are first, who, poor and destitute, passed through this world, not adorned with the knowledge of rhetoric, not accompanied by a throng of followers, but unattended, as wanderers and solitaries, traveling on land and sea, scourged, stoned, hunted, and, finally, slain. These are divine teachings inherited from our fathers. Let us follow them, so that out of our abasement may spring up eternal happiness, that true and perfect gift of Christ.

But how shall we, casting off the deadly weight of pride, descend to saving humility? If such an aim governed our conduct under all circumstances, we should not overlook the least detail on the ground that we would suffer no harm therefrom. The soul comes to take on a resemblance to its preoccupations and it is stamped and moulded to the form of its activities. Let your aspect, your garb, your manner of walking and sitting, your diet, bed, house and its furnishings reflect a customary thrift. Your manner of speaking and singing, your conversation with your neighbour, also, should aim at modesty rather than pretentiousness. Do not strive, I beg you, for artificial embellishment in speech, for cloying sweetness in song, or for a sonorous and high-flown style in conversation. In all your actions, be free from pomposity. Be obliging to friends, gentle toward your slaves, forbearing with the froward, benign to the lowly, a source of comfort to the afflicted, a friend to the distressed, a condemner of no one. Be pleasant in your address, genial in your response, courteous, accessible to all. Speak not in your own praise, nor contrive that others do so. Do not listen to indecent talk, and conceal insofar as you can your own superior gifts. On the other hand, where sin is concerned, be your own accuser, and do not wait for others to make the accusation. Thus, you will be like a just man who accuses himself in the first speech made in court, or like Job who was not deterred by the crowd of people in the city from declaring his personal guilt before all. Be not rash in rebuking, nor quick to do so. Do not make accusation while your passions are aroused (for such action savours of wilfulness), nor condemn anyone in matters of slight consequence as if you yourself were perfectly just. Receive those who have fallen away and give them spiritual instruction, ‘considering thyself also lest thou be tempted,’ as the Apostle advises. Take as much care not to be glorified among men as others do to obtain this glory, as you remember the words of Christ, that one forfeits a reward from God by voluntarily seeking renown from men or doing good to be seen by men. ‘They have received their reward,’ He says. Do not cheat yourself by desiring to be seen by men, for God is the great Witness. Strive for glory with God, for His is a glorious recompense. Suppose you have been deemed worthy of the episcopate and men throng about you and hold you in esteem. Come down to the level of your subordinates, ‘not as lording it over the clergy,’ and do not behave as worldly potentates do. The Lord bade him who wishes to be first to be the servant of all. To sum up, strive after humility as becomes a lover of this virtue. Love it and it will glorify you. Thus you will travel to good purpose the road leading to that true glory which is to be found with the angels and with God. Christ will acknowledge you as His own disciple before the angels and He will glorify you if you imitate His humility, for He says : ‘Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest to your souls.’ To Him be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.