Orthodox America

 The Power of Humility

By Bishop Barnabas of the Catacomb Church

 Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant. 

Approaching Jerusalem together with His disciples, our Lord Jesus Christ again begins to speak about the sufferings awaiting Him in the city. This is already the fourth time that He speaks about them with His disciples within a relatively short period of time: I) on the road to Caesarea-Philippi (Mark 8:31), 2) after descending from the mountain where the Transfiguration took place (9:12), 3) while passing through Galilee (9:31), and 4) upon approaching the Eternal City (10:32-34), He speaks continually of one thing only---of the impending sufferings, of shame, and of death. The purpose of His messianic coming has been fulfilled; the final struggle is near, the struggle with death, which shall crown His great work of saving mankind. At the end of a difficult life, the Cross now comes into view. His mind now dwells constantly on this specter of a terrible and inevitable death. He is completely lost in thought about the climax of His work now building up. However, no weakness can be detected in Him; there is no desire to decline the terrible cup, and He voluntarily goes forward to meet with death. 

    But what of His disciples? Timid, trembling in fear, anticipating something dreadful, they obediently follow their Teacher, but they still do not understand Him. Perceiving their faintheartedness and weak faith, the Lord foresees that, caught unawares by the terrible events surrounding the punishment of their Rabbi, they might waver in their faith in Him as the Messiah. It is for this reason that He repeatedly warns them that it is necessary for Him to suffer, that it is precisely in this that His messianic service consists, and that He is taking this Cross upon Himself voluntarily. In spite of all His explanations, His disciples are unable to free themselves from the prejudices of their national pride, and, as before, they expect to see their Teacher-Messiah surrounded by the aura of an earthly glory and of a kingly power. The Lord Jesus Christ had barely managed to finish speaking about His coming sufferings when two of His most beloved disciples approached Him with a question which demonstrated that they understood absolutely nothing of His words. "Master? they said, "grant unto us that we may sit, one at Thy right hand, and the other at Thy left hand, in Thy glory." It is clear that the words of the Lord Jesus Christ did nothing to dissuade them, that they had not the faintest idea of the terrible fate awaiting their Teacher, and that they were dreaming only of the glory of an earthly kingdom, in which they were asking the best places for themselves. And these words were spoken by James and John, the Saviour's closest disciples, the same ones whom, preferring above the others, He took with Him upon the mountain of the Transfiguration in order to prepare them for the coming events. How difficult it must have been to bear that stubborn incomprehension, especially at that sorrowful moment, when the soul, troubled by oppressive misgivings, needs more than ever to have the concern and sympathy of a loving and understanding heart. Jesus said unto them, "Ye know not what ye ask." Yes, they literally did not know. If only they had even suspected what dark irony their petty vanity and naive misunderstanding of the unfolding events had given to this question! To ask the Lord for the places at His right and at His left! Why, this meant asking for themselves the fate of those two thieves who were crucified together with Him! Would they have wanted that?!

      Then, an interesting conversation arose between them and the Lord Jesus Christ which, owing to the disciples' lack of understanding, sounds like a cruel play on words. Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? the Lord asks them. The meaning of this was: "Will you decide to die on the cross like Me? Are you in a position to bear those sufferings which await Me? Can you drink of the cup of humiliations, shame, and torments, prepared for Me?" They answered, "We can." But they were following their own reasoning. They think that the Teacher is asking them if they will have enough strength and ability to share with Him in the work of conquering and ruling some future kingdom, and they rather self-assuredly answer, "We can." The Saviour does not disillusion them. Three vain attempts to open their eyes were enough to demonstrate the futility of any further tries. He simply finishes the discourse by saying prophetically, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of,' and with the baptism that 1 am baptized withal shall ye be baptized. But to sit at My right hand and at My left hand is not Mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.

      The Lord foretells to His disciples the sufferings and persecutions which will befall them as zealous propagators of His Gospel. Where, when, and under what circumstances these will come about depend on God's almighty providence and on His plans, but they will not die together with their Teacher. 

     The conversation which the sons of Zebedee held with the Lord Jesus Christ did not remain secret from the other disciples. They heard what was being discussed and became indignant with James and John. Such is always the case when human vanity and competition for earthly goods are involved. Before this question about primacy arose, the little community of our Lord Jesus Christ's disciples lived together in peace and in harmony. It did arise once earlier, during their travels through Galilee, but at that time the disciples still felt some shame for these manifestations of selfishness and egotism, and they decided not to bring this matter to the attention of the Lord. It was resolved without any special consequences within their close circle, although it did call for a remark and a lesson on humility from the all knowing Teacher. Now, though, competition again flares up among the disciples, and the most fiery of them, the "sons of thunder," now undertake some practical steps in order to secure for themselves the best places in the future kingdom of the Messiah. It is no wonder that they incurred the indignation of the other ten.

      On what, after all, could this pretense to primacy be based? For every one of the other disciples equally bore with the difficulties and deprivations of the itinerant lifestyle together with the Lord Jesus Christ, for His sake abandoning their homes, families, and the other things to which they were formerly attached. Some of them, for example Andrew and Peter, were even called earlier and were the first to enter into the number of the disciples. To recognize the superiority of the sons of Zebedee was something that no one wanted to do. In the blue sky of the apostles' peaceful life, there appeared the first sign of a cloud of dissension.

      Then the Lord, reconciling the disciples, gives them one of, those great commandments that were to completely change their lives. He not only reveals the usual cause of dissensions between people and the best way to avoid them, but He also establishes a completely new, and until now unknown, principle of order in the Christian community. Ye know, He said, that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you, but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister, and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

      This dissension among the disciples came about as a result of the desire of James and John to grab the first places. This attempt caused a general consternation and disapproval. Love of power and pridefulness always give rise to envy and rivalry. It is the usual and main cause for enmity and malice among people. People always strive to dominate others and to have that in which  according to their understanding, consist the grandeur and brightness of life, and since these good things cannot be shared, they rip them out of each other's hands.

   There are two opposing world views, two different directions for the will, two irreconcilable ways of understanding the purpose of life and its true grandeur. Usually people misunderstand the latter and strive for the external, ostentatious, and the show-offish, but the idol of this ostentatious grandeur requires sacrifice and struggle. But really, when you think of those things which are usually considered to be great, why do young hearts burn with passion and to what are thousands of miserly hands outstretched?

      Before us there passes a long line of nations, which have flashed through history. Emerging from the darkness, they cross the narrow stage of life before disappearing into the past without a trace. Chaldeans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Goths, Sarmatians...an anonymous line of nations stretches out like an endless ribbon. Their life flashed by and disappeared, and only their forgotten graves bear witness to the fact that they ever lived at all. Which of them has history elected and immortalized in the memories of their descendants, having placed the stamp of greatness upon them?

      There is a painting by Roshgross entitled The Pursuit of Happiness. In it there is a steep and jagged spire-like rock. Above it there is a colorless, gray sky, covered up by hazy clouds, heavy and depressing. In one place only, just above the tip, does this depressing veil of gray clouds part to admit a bright, gentle ray of sunlight. This is happiness. And towards this happiness, climbing up the steep slopes of this rock, people drag along senselessly. There are many of them, an endless number. The buffoon, the important high official, the visionary poet, the banker with diamonds on his fingers and a heavy gold chain hanging about his fat stomach, the young girl in her stylish dress, the hefty sailor with his robust fists....A whole crowd! And all of them are hastening towards one point, to where, between the clouds, there gleams a ray of happiness. Between them there is a dump, a wild and bestial dump, where all decency, shame, and pity are forgotten. Whoever is weaker is knocked from his feet and lies helpless, trodden over by the soles of thousands of people climbing over him, who have forgotten everything earthly in their desperate struggle. One lucky man has reached the top, but the rock ends in such a sharp point that it is impossible to find a place to hold onto there, and in the next moment the rough hands of his competitors pull him down, and he goes flying down into the abyss, helplessly holding his arms up towards the deceptive, unattainable vision...

Such is contemporary life.

      We call this the struggle for survival. "Crush or be crushed." "Either fight everyone, or lie in the mud." "Grab the last morsel from your neighbor, or he will grab it away from you." "Let no opportunity slip by." --these are the rules of contemporary life.

      So, they say, it should be, for throughout nature, even in the world of plants, we see this eternal struggle for survival, for a ray of sunlight, for moisture, for a breath of fresh air. Life means a struggle of everything against everything. As a result, there is eternal animosity, mourning, weeping and grief.

      On this field of the battle for life, it is the strong who prevail and predominate. The weak have either to give in, or they are condemned to die out . Over the corpses of the fallen, over the bodies of the weak, the strong scramble to the pinnacle of life, pinning down under themselves everything weak and helpless, their whole weight resting upon the shoulders of the destitute. Life takes on the characteristics of an ugly building, where the base, the foundation consists of the weakest elements upon which, nevertheless, rests the whole enormous weight of the building; the strong and the heavy are on the highest tier, pressing down upon the weak base. It is no wonder that with such an incorrect arrangement, the life of society becomes very flimsy, threatening to topple over at the slightest nudge. If the lords of the second tier would take but a moment to think about this, they wouldn't feel so secure about their position.

    The law of Christian life is altogether different, and the community is built up in another way. The main rule is this: Bear each others' burdens, and Whoever would be first amongst you, let him be the servant of all. Not only should each member of the Christian community not seek to predominate, but each is required to serve all the others. The stronger a man is in the spirit, the larger the burden of service he takes upon himself, the more earnestly he bears the burden of others, the lower he places himself in the building of communal life. "The stronger to the bottom." In accordance with this rule, those who are spiritually stronger are placed at the base, at the foundation, and all the helpless, weak, and lightweight on top. The building comes out stable and sturdy. There can be neither arguments nor animosity for they are precluded by mutual deference to the other and to humility, and there can be competition only in the noble tight to serve others.

    The most common objection to Christian humility and self-abnegating service to others, from the point of view of society at large, is based on the notion that humility is a weakness, and that the desire to serve can be taken advantage of. "Bend the neck a little and everyone will run over it." "Whoever yields, drinks only a drop." The humble man will go through life at the tail end, forgotten, downtrodden. Even if they do not exhaust him completely, he nevertheless derives no great joy from life. No. Man must be strong, bold. "He who is bold has two to eat." "He who picks up a stick, becomes a corporal." A man has to grab with his hands that which life would not give him.

       This is the philosophy held by the majority and the morality of the narrow-minded is based upon it.

       The fundamental error of this theory is contained in the fact that humility is not a weakness at all. It is a great power, a victorious power.

    The psychology of one man's influence on the soul of another clearly shows that men do not voluntarily submit to force. Even if the orders of a despotic power are carried out, it is always with irritation and invariably provokes opposition in the soul, which sooner or later, at an opportune moment, reveals itself openly. Slaves are always rebels. Only when external force finds a moral basis and justification for itself does it acquire the right to be accepted by those who are in submission and is made even stronger. Conversely, a man voluntarily submits to love and to humility. Which would you fulfill more carefully, the command of a power-loving despot, or the advice of a humble, loving elder? There can hardly be two answers here. The reason for this voluntary submission is that the command of a despot arouses your self-love and pridefulness. But the advice of a humble and loving man does not trouble you because you clearly see and feel that it is given not out of self-serving motives, not in order to saddle you or to subdue you--for a humble man himself seeks to submit to all others---but is given exclusively for your benefit. Not only does your self-love not suffer, but, on the contrary, it feels power at Humility flattered and readily agrees with the advice, maybe even with advice which is rather unexpected. It is for this reason that humble people have much more influence upon others than erratic, high-handed people and despotic egotists.

      In the final analysis, the words of the Lord Jesus Christ are deeply valid, applicable even to the present life, not to mention the future beyond the grave, and people who make themselves voluntary slaves and servants of others, will become the first and greatest in their influence. Who became for us, in Russia, the real heads and leaders of the people? Not the intellectuals, nor the rich, nor the famous, nor the strong, but the humble elders. People walked thousands of miles to hear their advice. And whoever saw even once that vast crowd of people of all ranks and positions, who gathered at the threshold of the cell of St. Seraphim or of Fr. Ambrose of Optina, realized at once that it was right here that the heart of the mass of the people beat, here was where the unwritten laws governing real life were edited and published.

      But a man of crude egotistical power, a Nietzchean man, despite all his strength of character and talent, can remain on the pinnacle of happiness for only a short moment because sooner or later there will be found a stronger fist of yet another egotist to knock him down, just as in the painting by Roshgross. 

     There is an old children's fable which illustrates rather well the relative power of a soft caress and crude force.

      Once upon a time, the sun and the Wind had an argument about which one was stronger. "Do you see that traveler," said the wind, "who is walking down the road with his overcoat around his shoulders? Whoever is able to take his coat from him shall be the stronger!" "All right," agreed the sun. The wind began to blow upon the traveler and with one gust tried to tear his overcoat away from him. But the traveler held onto it with his hands and pulled it closer to himself. The wind howled, and with still greater force began to pull at the overcoat trying to tear it out of his hands. The traveler buttoned it around the neck. Then, with all its diabolical cruelty, the wind whipped itself up into a veritable hurricane and threw itself upon the traveler. But the traveler put his arms through the sleeves, and no matter how strong the wind became, he had to admit that he had been defeated. Now it was the sun's turn. He gently looked down from between the sweeping clouds and smiled upon the tormented traveler. He dried him, warmed him, and caressed him with his rays. The traveler took off the overcoat himself and blessed the sun. Do not forget this charming children's tale, for it contains a wise rule for life. 

    In the lives of saints, just as in contemporary life, we find countless examples of the victorious power of loving humility. There is no power more invincible. In its eternal struggle with the evil side of life, Christianity always and invariably enjoys success precisely through this power. "If you are contemplating," says the Elder Zossima in one of Dostoevsky's novels, "a choice between using force or humble love, always choose the latter. There is no power which can oppose it."

      The Prologue tells of the following incident. Two bishops had an argument. In time their mutual animosity flared up and took on ever more scandalous forms. Finally, one of them, who was more noble-minded and filled with the spirit of Christ's teaching, gathered together his clergy and said, "What are we doing? By our animosity we break the commandment of God and give cause for scandal before our spiritual children. Let us all go together to our rival to ask forgiveness and to make peace. They departed. As soon as the other bishop saw them, his heart became inflamed and he was ready to meet them with a threatening, scathing speech. But the one who came with all his clergy fell at his feet and humbly asked for forgiveness. And the heart of the irreconcilable bishop wavered. He also fell to the ground before his former rival and said, "Forgive me, O my brother in Christi I have sinned before you! You are better and more worthy than me[ You have conquered me!"

      The great desert ascetic, Abba Pimen, once settled in a place where another elder who enjoyed great respect among the people had already been living. But after St. Pimen settled nearby, all the people began streaming to him, and the elder was left without any disciples or visitors. His slighted self-love could not stand this and his heart became inflamed with hatred for the Saint. The holy abba found out about this. "What shall we do with these people who understand nothing?" he said to his disciples. "They have left a great luminary and have turned to me who am unworthy. But let us go and make him feel better." When they knocked on the door of his cell, the elder looked out the window, but, recognizing St. Pimen, would not open the door. "O our father? said the Saint humbly, "we shall not leave here until thou open unto us and receive us." They sat down at the door and began to wait. The day was intolerably hot. The sun beat down mercilessly. But St. Pimen and his disciples sat at the door of the cell and waited patiently. The elder looked out the window several times, and seeing that they wouldn't leave, he was touched, finally, by their humility and patience and opened the door. Pimen and his disciples bowed down to the ground before him. "Forgive us, holy father," said Pimen, "for troubling you! And forgive those unwise people who know not how to appreciate you." "No," responded the elder, "you must forgive me. I see that they have spoken the truth about you. You are the sun of the desert, and I shall no longer be amazed that the people go to you." From this time forth, he spoke of St. Pimen only with the greatest admiration, and sent all whom he knew to him. Hatred was conquered by humility.

      Abba Sergius used to tell his disciples of a certain holy elder. "Once we got lost, and came upon a plowed field which we trampled a little. A peasant, the owner of the field, noticed this and began to scold us: "Have you no fear of God? If you had the fear of God, you wouldn't have done this!" The holy elder who was with us said, “For God’s sake, brothers, say nothing in response to him.” And turning towards the peasant, He humbly said “You speak justly my brother. Had we any fear of God, we would not act this way." The peasant continued with new anger to berate us. "For the Lord's sake forgive us," the elder humbly entreated. "We have sinned." And unto none of the words did he respond with annoyance, but only with love and humility. At last this touched the heart of the peasant and he stopped his scolding and fell silent. And then he suddenly fell before the feet of the saint and began to ask forgiveness himself for his anger and his agitation.

      And here is an incident taken from everyday life. It was told by a certain old lady, now dead, who lived a truly holy life. "You know," she began," I once had to do some charity work, and, to be honest, you have to take a lot of guff from those whom you sincerely wish well. You come across some really capricious characters. But there is always a chance to soften them and to calm them down.

      "Once I was looking after a poor, sick widow whose husband had left her with two small children. She had some kind of terribly serious disease which even the doctors could not diagnose exactly, something like malnutrition or anemia. She was unusually nervous, but, you know, this you always excuse. You need to know what the life of these unfortunates is like in order to understand that even strong nerves can be unraveled Even so, there was one time that I could hardly stand it. I had come down with the flu and had been in bed for two days. On the third day I somehow managed to get up, although with great difficulty, and went to visit my patient. I found her terribly upset. During these two days no one had been to visit her at all, and things had really become difficult for her. Even so, I did not expect the stream of profanities with which she met me. I don't remember anymore what exactly it was that she said to me, 'You cads, you bloodsuckers, acrobats of charity. You only pretend to have pity and to take care of someone. Any lousy little dog has more heart.' Anyway, it doesn't bear repeating. I was so pained and hurt. Without saying a word, I turned and walked out. At home, my husband noticed that I was upset, and after his interrogations, I had to tell him the whole story. 'Well,' my Peter Vasilievich said, 'if you really do feel sorry, for her and wish to help her, don't ruin your good deed, don't abandon her. Go and ask pardon from her.' To be honest, this took me totally by surprise. I had been insulted, cussed out like never before, and now I was supposed to ask forgiveness?! But after thinking about it a little, I decided to go. I did feel sorry for her, after all. I took Nora, my governess, and we left. There was a terrible storm, it was pouring rain. We barely made it, and when we got onto the porch, we were streaming wet. I left Nora in the shadows and went in. My patient was lying in her bed as usual on her back and seemed to be steeped in thought. 'Please forgive me,' I said to her as nicely as I could, bending down a little, 'I got a bit hot under the collar a little while ago. Please, excuse me for not being able to visit you the past few days.' I hadn't managed to finish when something unimaginable came over my patient; she fell from her bed onto the floor at my feet. She was shaking all over and began beating herself from grief. 'O Lord! What is this? I...you...it was I who insulted you, it was I who hurt you. I barked at you for all of your kindness. And you ask me for forgiveness?! My dear, sweet...angel? She wept. She kissed my hands and my dress. I was hardly able to calm her down." "Yes," added the old lady after a brief silence, "in the end, there are no evil people. You just have to know how to get through to the goodness that they have in their hearts."

       And this, we shall add, can be accomplished only by that power of which the Lord Jesus Christ speaks in that section of the Gospel that we have just read--by love, by meekness, and by humility.


Translated from Pravoslavnaya Rus', 1990, #18, by Priest Michael Maklakov. 


THE AUTHOR: Bishop Barnabas (Belyaev) was born in 1887, an only child, the answer to 18 years of prayer. As a student at the Moscow Theological Academy he was tonsured by the well-known confessor and theologian, Bishop Feoder (Pozdeyev). And he had several other illustrious spiritual mentors: Elder Barsanouphius of Optina, Schema-archimandrite Gabriel of Spaso-Eleazar Monastery, and Elder Alexis of Zosimov Hermitage.

    Two years after his consecration as bishop, in 1922, he set out on the path of foolishness-for Christ's sake. In the years that followed he was imprisoned many times, but his affected "insanity" saved him from a long-term sentence. Between arrests he lived a transient life of seclusion, guiding his spiritual children and writing; his major work was The Foundations of the Art of Sanctity.

    Bishop Barnabas rejected an opportunity to join the ranks of the Moscow Patriarchate in the late 40s, and did not allow his spiritual children to commune in its parishes except in case of fatal illness. He died May 6, 1972