This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

I began by quoting Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and I come back to him now, for he taught that:

However important prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The question is how we are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers are all-too-aware both of our capacity for self-deception and of the power of the demons to imitate a virtuous life. However, there was one virtue that they were absolutely clear that the demons could not imitate and that was humility. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

We can probably all think of examples of false humility, but true humility has something self-authenticating about it. It is one of the most difficult things that there is to learn and I suspect that for most of us it takes at least a lifetime. Yet it lies at the very heart of the life of repentance, of a genuine turning to God, and in the lives of the saints we see how liberating and joyful it can be.

I also started by quoting Saint Seraphim “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Christian life is not just for ourselves, but is something that has implications for those around us and indeed for the whole cosmos. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all,” for Saint Paul tells us that God desires all people to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) For this reason all manner of people are mentioned in the litanies. Likewise, the point of conversion, of the breaking open of our hearts, is that they will expand and be filled with compassion for all. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Gospel calls us to. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’ And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’ ‘And what is humility?’ ‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’ ‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.


If you see a man pure and humble, that is a great vision. For what is greater than such a vision, to see the invisible God in a visible man, the temple of God.

Saint Pachomius the Great,  quoted in The Synaxarion, The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Volume 5. 164.

I love this quote. I am also reminded that Saint Pachomius, whose feast we celebrate today, was first attracted to Christianity through the love of the Christians of Thebes for the conscripts-cum-prisoners among whom he was numbered. And how he understood his vocation to be be to serve all humanity, despite it being a pretty withdrawn one – indeed, perhaps even because of it being a pretty withdrawn one.


It’s a bit late to post anything about Theophany, but I have been thinking quite a bit these words of Father Lev Gillet in the last week. In his meditation in The Year of Grace of the Lord, he speaks about how we cannot separate the manifestation of Christ’s humility and His glory which are presented to us in this feast. Speaking of the solemn manifestation of Christ in His baptism in the Jordan, he writes:

What does this manifestation consist of? It is made up of two aspects. On the one hand, there is the aspect of humility represented by the baptism to which our Lord submits: on the other hand, there is the aspect of glory represented by the human witness that the Precursor bears to Jesus, and, on an infinitely higher plane, the divine witness which the Father and the Spirit bear to the Son. We shall look at these aspects more closely. But first of all, let us bear this in mind: every manifestation of Jesus Christ, both in history and in the inner life of each man, is simultaneously a manifestation of humility and of glory. Whoever tries to separate these two aspects of Christ commits an error which falsifies the whole of spiritual life. I cannot approach the glorified Christ without, at the same time, approaching the humiliated Christ, nor the humiliated Christ without approaching the glorified Christ. If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing Him whom Augustine delighted to call Christus humilis, and, in the same upsurge, worshipping Him who is also God, King, and Conqueror. (82)

It strikes me that it is the failure to hold these two aspects of Christ’s manifestation together that is at the heart of many of the problems that we see with Christian witness around us. In recent decades there has been an emphasis on God’s self-emptying of Himself in Christ which, in some circles has resulted in a sort of “Well, he’s not any different from any of us,” even if that is not stated so explicitly. In fact, just recently I was told that the whole point of Christmas was that God became a baby, like any other baby. I suppose that that gives people something to say at Christmas, but it’s hardly much of a basis for worship, or for building one’s life around.

But glory without humility is ultimately non-existent, or at least it’s not a Christian glory. It might be propped up by the expectations of Church or society (while they last) or even the demands of one’s own ego, but it can never be truly revelatory. For glory is something that shines forth, that is real, even if we only glimpse it fleetingly. And, as Father Lev reminds us, it is intimately connected to humility.

It remains spiritually impossible to talk of Hell for others. The theme of Hell can only be broached in the language of I and Thou. The threats in the Gospel concern me; they form the serious tragic element in my spiritual destiny; they prompt me to humility and repentance, because I recognise them as the diagnosis of my state. But for you, the numberless you of my neighbour, I can only serve, bear witness, and pray that you will experience the Risen Christ, and that you and everyone will be saved…

Olivier Clement quoted in Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church, 227.

This is probably stating the obvious, but I was suddenly struck today by the realisation that the true mark of maturity is a genuine humility. The humble person is not necessarily “right” in every instance, but he or she is fundamentally trustworthy.

Needless to say, I am talking about true humility, of people who are secure enough in who they are before God that they are able to admit to their own failures, ignorance and weakness. And then I wonder whether the expectations that we have of religious leaders do not militate against a growth in such humility – perhaps that is why the desert fathers counselled their monks to flee bishops (i.e. ordination) – thereby undermining their ability to radiate a true authority. For the authority of the truly humble is somehow self-authenticating and, at least in my experience, also enables others to begin to grasp something of the truth about themselves.

And I also wonder whether, at least for most of us, growth in such humility only comes with age and hard experience? It is probably not for nothing that Orthodoxy ascribes a particular role to the elders, however much I may dislike the romanticism with which that term is sometimes used!

It has perhaps seemed remarkable to many a reader of The Way of a Pilgrim that the traditional formula for the perpetual prayer of the heart goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He may have been surprised that this centrepiece of the hesychastic tradition in the Eastern Church is actually a sort of penitential prayer. Anyone who has read the chapter about the tears of metanoia, though, will not be surprised. Rather, it will seem to him quite consistent that the Fathers finally agreed upon this formula, which we do not hear about in the early period of monasticism. For it reflects perfectly that spirit which from the beginning inspired the Fathers in their endeavours. (113)

In this third section of the third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, Father Gabriel (Bunge) outlines the development of what has come to be known as the Jesus Prayer, which originated in the Desert tradition of using oft-repeated phrases in prayer, and which is rooted in an attitude that calls out to God for help. This practice of short invocations goes back to the origins of monasticism and soon became known outside of Egypt. Evagrius advocated frequent and uninterrupted prayers like “spear thrusts” that were often comprised of scripture verses. While Evagrius did not seem to know of any fixed formula, Saint John Cassian passed on the Egyptian tradition of praying “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me.” Abba Ammomas advised a monk to recall the prayer of the tax collector – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” whereas Abba Macarius the Egyptian, when asked “How should we pray?” answered:

It is not necessary to ‘rattle on,’ but one has only to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will’ and ‘as you know’, ‘have mercy on me!’ On the other hand, if a battle is impending, pray, ‘Lord, help me!’ He himself knows what is necessary and treats us with mercy. (116)

Whatever the differences in form, these “ejaculatory prayers” are all cries of help to God. This is what Evagrius meant when he recommended “praying, not like the Pharisee, but like the tax collector,” for

The spirit common to all of these ejaculatory prayers is the spirit of metanoia, of remorse, conversion, and repentance. Precisely that spirit, then, which alone is capable of accepting the “glad tidings” of “reconciliation in Christ”.

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel. [Mk 1:15]

Without “conversion” (μετἀνοια) there is no faith; without faith there is no share in the gospel of reconciliation. For this reason the sermons of the apostles, which Luke has preserved for us in his Acts of the Apostles, almost without exception end with this call for “conversion”. This metanoia, however, is not a single act, but rather a life-long process. The “spirit of repentance”, that is, humility that comes from the heart, is not attained once and for all. A lifetime is not sufficient to “learn” from Christ this essential feature, which, as he himself tells us, is his distinguishing characteristic. The practice of repeating over and over again – audibly or in one’s heart – this “supplication” (which was discussed in the previous chapter), in the spirit of the remorseful tax collector, is one of the best means of vigilantly maintaining an interior desire for genuine metanoia. (117-118)

These prayers were usually directed to Christ, even if, in the case of psalm verses, this was not always explicit.

The formula that later became usual, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, merely says explicitly what was meant implicitly from the beginning, namely, that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”, except through the Name of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is with good reason that the Fathers later gave particular emphasis to this salutary affirmation of “Jesus the Christ” – to the extent of developing a full-fledged mysticism of the Name of Jesus. For the person who prays with a “supplication” consciously takes his place among the blind and the lame, and so on, who cried out to Jesus for help during his life on earth. They did this in a way that is in fact appropriate only when one is turning to God – and thus they demonstrated more clearly than by any verbal profession their faith in the Divine Sonship of the Redeemer. (119-120)

The third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition is entitled “Manners of Praying” and in it Father Gabriel (Bunge) is concerned with the disposition of those who pray which is reflected in the manner in which we pray. And the first “manner” that he discusses is that reflected by the tears that are to accompany our prayers (Heb 5:7).

For both Scripture and the Fathers, tears and prayer were intimately connected. These tears “belong to the “practical manner” of prayer, for they are part of the labours of praktike, that is the first stage of the spiritual life. (97)

Why this insistence on the necessity of tears, which appears so strange to modern men? Is the Christian not supposed to be joyful instead? Certainly, by the Fathers viewed the human condition more realistically perhaps than we do.

Abba Longinus had great contrition when he prayed and recited the psalms. One day his disciple asked him, “Abba, is this a spiritual rule, that a monk should weep all the time he is praying his office?” And the elder answered, “Yes, my Child, this is the rule that God now demands of us. For in the God did not create man so that he might weep, but rather so that he might rejoice and be glad and might glorify him, as pure and sinless as the angels. Once he fell into sin, however, he needed tears. And all who have fallen need them just the same. For where there are no sins, no tears will be necessary.” (99)

While the first stage of the spiritual life is marked by repentance, conversion and a change of heart,

The very thought of such a conversion, however , is met with unexpected interior resistance. Evagrius speaks in this regard about a certain interior “wildness” (ἀναισθησια) and dullness, which is overcome only with the help of tears of spiritual “sorrow” (πένθος).

Pray first for the gift of tears, so as to soften through contrition the wildness that dwells in your soul, so that by “confessing your transgressions to the LORD”, you may obtain forgiveness from him. [Evagrius](100)

Tears are a particularly effective remedy against that oppressiveness of soul that the Fathers refer to as acedia, or taedium cordis – weariness of soul, boredom and empty indifference.

However, tears should never become an end in themselves. As Evagrius says:

Even if you shed streams of tears as you pray, do not therefore become at all presumptuous in your heart, as though you stood high above the crowd. For your prayer has simply received [divine] assistance, which enables you to confess your sins eagerly and makes the Lord favourably inclined toward you through these tears. (101)

Therefore do not turn the defense against the passions into a passion itself, lest you anger the Giver of grace even more.

It is also a mistake to think that a proficient soul no longer has need of tears. Indeed

Even when a man has attained the goal of the “practical life”, the state of interior peace of soul, tears do not just vanish! At this stage, however, they are the expression of humility and as such are a guarantee that this state of peace is genuine (as opposed to the many forms of demonic counterfeits). Therefore the Fathers consider tears to be in fact a sign of a man’s nearness to God

“The nearer a man is to God, the more he feels that he is a sinner”, one of the Fathers has said, because only God’s holiness makes our sinfulness truly visible. Hence tears are not only found at the beginning of the spiritual path of conversion, but also accompany the penitent as far as his goal, where they are transformed into “spiritual tears and a certain joy of heart”, which the Fathers esteemed as a sign of the immediate action of the Holy Spirit and thus of nearness to God. (102-103)

He who ministers to many wounded persons, wiping away the matter from their wounds and applying mendicants appropriate to the particular injury involved, does not find a motive for pride in his ministrations, but rather for humility, anxiety, and energetic action. Far more thoughtful and solicitous ought he be who, as the servant of all and as being himself liable to an account on their behalf, performs the office of curing the spiritual weakness of his brethren. In this manner he will fulfil the aim which the Lord had in mind when He said: ‘If any man desire to be first, he shall be the last of all and the minister of all.’

Saint Basil the Great, “The Long Rules,” 30, in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 293-294.

A heart full of sorrow on account of its feebleness and impotence regarding outward physical deeds takes the place of all physical works. Deeds of the body performed without sorrow of mind are like a body without a soul. The man who is sorely grieved in his heart but gives rein to his senses, is like a sick man who suffers physically but who opens his mouth to every kind of harmful food. The man who is sorely grieved in his heart but gives rein to his senses is like a man with an only son, whom he slaughters with his own hands, little by little. Sorrow of mind is a precious gift before God; and the man who bears this gift as he ought is like a man who bears holiness in his members. A man who unleashes his tongue against other men for good or evil is unworthy of this grace. …

Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves; and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons. Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.

As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures. As a man who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest, so is he who remembers wrongs and prays. As the flame of fire cannot be checked from rising upward, so the prayers of the merciful are not hindered from ascending to Heaven. The current of a stream runs swiftly in a narrow place, and likewise the force of anger whenever it finds a place in our mind. The man who has acquired humility in his heart is dead to this world. He who is dead to the world has died to the passions. For to the man who has died in his heart to his kinsmen, the devil is dead. He who has found malice, with it has found him who originally found it.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, I, 51, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 243-244.


… why should we wonder that He rose from supper, and laid aside His garments, who, being in the form of God, made Himself of no reputation? Literally, “emptied Himself,” as in the Greek. And why should we wonder, if He girded Himself with a towel, who took upon Him the form of a servant, and was found in the likeness of a man? Why wonder, if He poured water into a basin wherewith to wash His disciples’ feet, who poured His blood upon the earth to wash away the filth of their sins? Why wonder, if with the towel wherewith He was girded He wiped the feet He had washed, who with the very flesh that clothed Him laid a firm pathway for the footsteps of His evangelists? In order, indeed, to gird Himself with the towel, He laid aside the garments He wore; but when He emptied Himself [of His divine glory] in order to assume the form of a servant, He laid not down what He had, but assumed that which He had not before. When about to be crucified, He was indeed stripped of His garments, and when dead was wrapped in linen clothes: and all that suffering of His is our purification. When, therefore, about to suffer the last extremities [of humiliation,] He here illustrated beforehand its friendly compliances; not only to those for whom He was about to endure death, but to him also who had resolved on betraying Him to death. Because so great is the beneficence of human humility, that even the Divine Majesty was pleased to commend it by His own example; for proud man would have perished eternally, had he not been found by the lowly God. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost. And as he was lost by imitating the pride of the deceiver, let him now, when found, imitate the Redeemer’s humility.

Saint Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 55. 7.

Next Page »