by H.H. Pope Shenouda III
What is the Place of Humility among the Virtues
Humility is the foundation upon which all virtues are built up. Humility is the rampart that guards all virtues and all gifts.
Hence we can consider it as the first virtue in the spiritual life with regard to the order of the spiritual building, on whose top sits charity towards God and people.
It is the beginning then. The Lord of glory in His sermon upon the mountain, he has begun the blessings by saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3); then He blessed the meek (Matt. 5:5).
Any virtue which is void of humility, is exposed to be stolen by the devil of vainglory, and to be dispersed by vanity, glory, and self-admiration.
That is why, if God has given you to behave well in one of the virtues, ask the Lord to give you humility, in order to forget that you are behaving in a virtue, or even in order to understand that it is nothing when it is compared with the virtues of the saints. Likewise if God has given you one of the superior gifts, pray to Him either to give you the humility of heart with it, or to take it from you, lest you fall into pride, and perish because of it.
God acts well in giving gifts to humble people because He knows that it will not do harm to them. For the divine Incarnation, He has chosen a humble girl who crushes herself in front of that magnificent glory... "for He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant" (Luke 1:48); that one who remains in her humility though all the generations call her blessed (Luke 1:48). The Bible says that God unveils His mysteries to the humble, and that He gives grace to the humble, "the lowly" (James 4:6), (1 Peter 5:5), (Prov. 3:34). The more He adds glory to these, the more they increase their humility and crush their souls the more in front of Him.
Humility is not only a virtue in itself, but it is intermingled with the rest of the virtues.
Humility is like the thread which enters into all the grains of the rosary, so that no grain can remain if the thread does not enter in it... Any virtue which does not embody humility, is not considered a virtue, and God does not accept it. That is why we said that humility is the foundation of all the virtues. We said also that it is a rampart for the virtues which protects them from the vainglory.
The Benediction of Humility
When our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all the virtues are perfect, wished to lead His saint apostles into imitating Him, He said to them:
"...and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29).
He said this, in spite of the fact that we can learn every virtue from Him. It was possible that He would have said: learn from me wisdom, charity, compassion, quietness, service, instruction, strength of personalitiy... why then has He concentrated upon meekness and humility? Is it not because of the extreme importance of these two virtues?
Likewise, we see humility occupying a prominent place in the sayings and in the lives of the Fathers.
Saint Isaac said: "I want to speak about humility, but I am afraid, as one who wants to speak about God...this is because humility is the garment that divinity wore when He appeared among us...for this reason, when the devils see a humble person, they are afraid, because they see in him the image of their Creator who has subdued them."
How truly wonderful are these words about humility!
Humility can subjugate devils:
That is very clear in the story of saint Abba Macarius the Great, to whom Satan appeared and said to him:
"Woe to me from you, Macarius. What thing do you do, which we do not do?! You fast, we do not eat. You keep awake, we do not sleep. You reside in deserts and lonely places, we do the same. But with one thing you defeat us." The saint questioned him about that thing. He replied: "You defeat us with your humility."
That is obvious, because the devil cannot be humble. He is always proud and stubborn. That is the reason why the humble defeat him, because they possess humility that the devil could not possess.
The value of humility appears in the life of Saint Anthony:
This great saint saw the nets of the devil which were spread all over the world. So he fell down before God saying: "O Lord, who can escape from them?" A voice from heaven came to him saying: "The humble escape from them". Someone would ask why especially the humble can escape from the nets of the devils?" We reply:
"The humble, feeling that they are weak, lean on the power of God"; and so, the power of God supports them and protects them from the nets of the devils.
That is the opposite of the "wise" who lean on their wisdom, and the "strong" who lean on their strength, amd the "just" who are confident in their own justice.
As for the humble man, who is completely convinced and who confesses that he has no strength, no wisdom, and no justice, God supports his weakness, and fights for him. And that is what the devil fears the most.
That is why the exorcism of devils necessitates humility before anything. The Lord said: "However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting" (Matt. 17:21), because it is in prayer and fasting that humility appears in all clarity. He who prays, confesses implicitly that he has no personal power. That is why he asks for strength from above through prayer. If the devil is cast out, he does not glorify himself for having cast him out, because this has not happened by his strength, but by the strength of God who has intervened through prayer. Likewise true fasting is that in which man crushes himself and mortifies himself before God through humility, and feels that he is weak.
Through humility, devils used to run away from St. Anthony. When the devils violently attacked St. Anthony, the father of all the monks, he answered them humbly, saying: "O you strong, what do you want from me, the weak one? I am unable to fight the smallest one of you." And he prayed to God and said: "Deliver me, o Lord, from those who think that I am anything, while I am dust and ashes." When the devils would hear this prayer full ol humility, they disappeared like smoke. Verily, the saints have become perfect in humility, with such marvelous image!
The saints have not only humbled themselves before God and before people, but also before the devils, and they have defeated the devils through their humilit as we have seen in the life of Saint Anthony, and the life of Saint Macarius, and as we shall see in the lives of the rest of the saints.
Probably the greatness of the virtue of humility will appear distinctly if we consider the horror of the vice that is opposite to it, and that is pride and greatness.
Pride has brought down from heaven a brilliant angel, and changed it into Satan.
Verily, the first sin which the world had known, was the pride with which Satan fell down. The prophet Isaiah has registered the story of the downfall of Satan, in the words of the divine intuition which were addressed to that fallen angel: "For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the star of God: I will also sit above the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north, I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit." (Is. 14: 13-14).
It is with the same downfall of pride, that Satan seduced our first parents.
Just as he said in his heart: "I will be like the most High", so he said to our first parents: "...and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Hence it seems that pride is absolutely never satisfied, but it wants to become continually higher, though its position is high; even if he is in the position of a cherubim, who is full of wisdom and perfectly beautiful (Ez. 28: 14,12), or is in the resemblance of the image of God, yet he wants to become high and elevated. But in this pride, he will be brought down to hell, as the Lord has said:
"For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11).
When the angel had wanted to exalt himself, he was brought down to hell, to the bottom of the pit, he lost his position as an angel, and became Satan.
When man, who is the image of God, had wanted to exalt himself, he lost his divine image, and was chased out of paradise, and suffered what he suffered. The most difficult thing to which the proud is exposed, is that God himself stands against him. Hence, how grave is the word of the Bible:
"God resists the proud" (James 4:6).
At the same time, when God pitied the sinners and the publicans, and led them to repentance, the apostle said that God resists the proud... And what will be the destiny of those whom God resists? Do you want to expose yourself to the resistance of God himself against you?! The second half of the verse consoles us, saying: "but gives grace to the humble".
May we become afraid of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"For the day of the Lord of hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up---and is shall be brought low---upon all the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan; upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up; upon every high tower, and upon every fortified wall... The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day" (Is. 2: 12:17).
Credits and Attribution
This article appeared in a series of articles on "The Life of Humility and Meekness" in Watany Magazine in 2000.