Satan approached Abba Macarius and began to beat him. Seeing his attacks were of no avail, he left the saint. Before leaving, the adversary said, “I do everything you do and more. You fast; I don’t eat. You keep all night vigils; I don’t sleep. There is one thing in you that I cannot overcome. That is humility.” From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefor God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name, … Philippians 2:5-11
The only way to truly be an Orthodox Christian is to practice the faith in humility. When we fail to be humble, we make ourselves vulnerable to being defeated by temptations and living in ways that are the very opposite of what we proclaim to believe. When we are careful to practice humility, God’s grace empowers us to overcome the enemy of our souls. We make our souls even more pure so that we can see God active in us and others. And even if we fall into temptation, that empowerment calls us to repent quickly and not dwell in our wickedness.
Macarius the Great
This Lenten Fast has been a reminder of the necessity of humility in being an Orthodox Christian. Sure, we can talk about how we have maintained the traditions of Christ and His Apostles, determined the original Christian doctrine and the books of the Bible, and the whole nine yards. I had been comparing Baptist and Orthodox doctrine and practice for over a year before my conversion and am still fully convinced that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church. But, if we become arrogant or complacent about our faith, we do nothing more than just go through the motions. When the motions become empty rituals, Satan is able to maintain his foothold in our hearts and minds. He can even introduce new and more destructive sins into our being.
In her podcast “Search the Scriptures,” Dr. Jeanie Constantinou began this season by tackling the issue of corrupt clergy (yes, we have them in Orthodoxy as well). In the opening episode, she tells of one priest that was defrocked for having an adulterous affair. The affair was going on for 20 years. My statement of how Eastern Europeans were not involved in American slavery in my “To Be Black and Orthodox” blog article attracted comments from a couple of people of Roma (Gypsy) ancestry. They told me of how Orthodox Christians in Romania held Roma slaves for hundreds of years. Some sources even mention that there were Roma slaves in monasteries. I didn’t enter Orthodoxy blindly and knew that there were many sinful people and nations in it are past and present. These revelations did sadden and surprise me. Historians, psychologist, and other minds in the faith more experienced than my own have greater insights to these and other issues. However, I believe lack of humility in following the Orthodox faith is a contributing cause in individual and church failures.
In his original podcast, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” Fr. Andrew Damick stated, “When the hand that holds the cross also holds the sword, much is risked.” While the cross is a symbol of death to this world that leads to eternal life through Christ, the sword is a tool of earthly and immediate power. When humility dictates our faith, we take up the cross and deny ourselves the selfish pleasures of this world (whether consensual or exploitive). This is how we truly follow Jesus, as He taught in Matthew 16:24-27 . Without humility, we become enemies to Christ as were the Pharisees. That sword we use to attack or defend against worldly foes for the sake of earthly advantage is the same one we unwittingly use to cut ourselves away from the very One we claim to follow and His other-worldly kingdom. To practice the Orthodox faith in this way is hypocritical and makes us targets for critics and eternal captivity. As written in Isaiah 52:5 and repeated in Romans 2:24, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” As the skull of a pagan priest told St. Macarius, “Those who know God but denied Him are down below us.”
It is good that we have and made the effort to read the scriptures for the season and some other spiritual writings for our growth. Perhaps some of us have added to or made a change in our prayer rule that make us seem more complete. These things are good and (by the Holy Spirt and good counsel) can be carried with us beyond Great Lent. But, let’s not deceive ourselves. Satan is not only concerned by what we practice. He is also concerned with how we practice. Ten prostrations with Jesus Prayers in humility is a powerful breastplate that his fiery darts cannot penetrate. One hundred of these done for the sake of boasting to one’s self or others creates a mere empty room that a demon can return to and bring in seven more worse than himself.
As I reflect on my times of failure, I believe some were caused by my lack of humility. My readings, prayers, and almsgiving have all increased. I was blessed to write a few good essays for my classes as well as on my blogs. Except for receiving hospitality from non-Orthodox believers, I kept the fast well. But, I have had my moments where I thought that I was “the man.” God allowed me to fall on my face to remind me that I still have much to learn. As I think about the path God may be leading me on, I can see where I will be destroyed if I am not careful to strive to grow in humility. While I believe I have learned this lesson, chances are that I will, at some time or other, have to be reminded of this. Satan will have plenty of opportunities to tempt me with arrogance, pride, and self esteem. If I have any sense in my head, I will be watchful. Pray for me, a sinner.