Over the past year, I have been reading the “discourses and sayings” of Dorotheos of Gaza with my spiritual director and few other priests in the Diocese. Don’t worry—I have a Ph.D. in Theology, but had never heard of Dorotheos before, either. Dorotheos’ writings are wonderfully anecdotal, and he has sometimes been called “a master psychologist.” He stands out among other ancient writers for his understanding of human nature—meaning, he has both a keen grasp on the foibles and fragility that haunt us as creatures, and also, has a large hearted compassion for them.
This past month, we read his essay “On Humility,” which begins with these words: Before anything else we need humility…because through humility every device of the enemy, every kind of obstacle, is destroyed.
When I read that, I remember being struck by two thoughts. The first was how rarely I hear people extoll the virtue of humility anymore—even in Christian circles. Author Rebecca DeYoung—whose book Glittering Vices offers a brilliant “new look” at the seven deadly sins—has argued that “vainglory” is the defining vice of our age. If she’s right, that would certainly explain part of why humility rarely gets mention. I also imagine that humility is talked about less these days because of the toxic ways it has historically been exploited by people and systems of power—in order retain their power over others. In the past century or so, there has been an important corrective within Christianity that has called people to remember the ways our faith also provides empowerment and justice for those who have been oppressed. Nevertheless, Dorotheos’ words ask to us to consider: As we rightly address the failures of our past, are we in danger of losing something—namely, our humility—in the midst of it?
The second thought I had was: Why humility? Why humility before all things? Proverbs says “the fear of the of Lord is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov. 9.10). So why not start with “the fear of the Lord” (whatever it means)? Or why not one of the cardinal Christian virtues? Why not faith? Or hope? Or charity?
As I’ve been reflecting on this question, I think the best answer I can give has to do with the thing that humility seeks to remedy—namely, pride. Pride is a particularly insidious sin, for the very reason that it is so self-inoculating. That is to say, its existence perpetuates the belief in its non-existence. One’s own pride actually keeps one from seeing how harmful and destructive pride can be. It rather makes us instead, in the words Luke 18:9, “confident in our own righteousness.”
A confession from one of your priests. I struggle with pride (maybe that’s not news). But worse than this, there have been times in my life when even admitting my pride was a way in which I “looked down on everybody else” (Lk. 18:9). If I’m honest with myself, it was almost as if I was actually making (what the kids call) a “humblebrag.” I’m embarrassed to say it, but it was like I was saying: “My greatest weakness is realizing how few weaknesses I have.”
Now, it goes without saying that this was not true, and not only not true, but not true on its own terms. That is, it was not true, in the first place, because I had plenty of weaknesses I was failing to recognize. But also, in the second place, it was not true because pride is more than a misplaced recognition of our virtues. Just as with the boasts about fasts and almsgiving on the lips of the Pharisee (Lk. 18:12), pride corrupts all our strengths—distorts the use and the purpose of anything in us that might be virtuous.
And so, these words of Jesus have guided Lenten practice for Christians for centuries: everyone who exalts themself will be humbled, and the one who humbles themself will be exalted (Lk. 18:14).
This, of course, is not an encouragement to use humility as a means to greatness, but a reminder that all roads to God begin with our being humbled. In his adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, Philip James Bailey writes that lowliness is the base of every virtue, and he who goes the lowest builds the safest. This is something of what I think Dorotheos meant too. For those of us who are sick with the poison of pride, our Lord offers humility as a healing balm. This balm has a bitter fragrance. It casts down our eyes, and causes us to beat our chests (Lk. 18:13) Yet it is only here, in this lowness, that we are justified before God (Lk. 18:14)
Let us enter, then, into the season of our humiliation.