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On Humility

St. Basil, Bishop and Doctor

Translated by M.F. Toale, D.D.

(PG 31, col. 525, Homilia 20.)

1. O that man had remained in glory with God! For he would then possess, not the glory now imputed to him, but his own true glory, made great by the power of God, made luminous by the divine wisdom, made blessed by eternal life and its joys! But since he turned away from the desire of the divine glory, hoping for a greater, seeking eagerly for what he could not obtain, he lost what he should now possess.  And now his surest salvation, the healing of his wound, his way of return to his beginning, is to be humble; not to think that he can ever of himself put on the cloak of glory, but that he must seek it from God.  In this way he will put right the false step taken; in this way he may return to the holy obedience he rejected. 

But having overthrown man by the hope of false glory, the devil does not cease from tempting him with these very same delusions; devising countless snares for this purpose, proving to him that it is a great thing to amass riches, that by this means he may become great, and that he should be eager to obtain them: which in fact do not lead him to glory, but may rather lead him into great danger.  For the amassing of riches is the beginning of avarice; and this amassing does not lead to any glory, rather it blinds men through folly, uplifts them to no purpose, and causes a sickness like an inflammation within the soul.  A body that is swollen is neither healthy nor of use to any man; it is rather an unwholesome state, the beginning of danger for him, and a source of death.  And this is what arrogance is to the soul. 

This swelling up of the mind does not arise from money alone.  It is not only because of their wealth, because of the elegance and richness of their dress that men become proud, nor because of their elaborate table, going far beyond what is needed, nor their excessive personal adornment, their splendid houses, splendidly furnished, their servants, their retinue of flatterers, but also because of their public office men become uplifted above what is natural.  If the people have entrusted some dignity to any of them, if they have been thought worthy of some post of honour, or some distinction has been conferred upon them, they imagine that through this they have risen above the ordinary nature of man.  They think that they now sit alone among the clouds, that the rest of men are but dust beneath their feet; holding themselves as superior to those who gave them their present dignity, they are contemptuous of those through whom they received their imagined glory.  This shows how filled with folly they have become.  For their glory is more fragile than a dream; their splendour more unsubstantial than a vision of the night: given them by the will of the people, and ended by the will of the people. 

A senseless individual of this kind was that son of Solomon (Roboam, III Kgs. xii), young in years, and still younger in mind, who when the people were eager for a milder king, threatened them with one who was harsher, and by this threat lost his kingdom; and where he had hoped to reign with a more arrogant rule was cut down from the dignity he already possessed.  The strength of his hand, his speed of foot, the beauty of his body, had made him insolent; things that an illness would destroy, and time consume.  He did not remember that, all flesh is grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of the field.  The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen (Is. xl. 6, 7).  Such was the arrogance of the giants of old, because of their size and strength (Gen. vi. 4); such also was the empty pride of Goliath who mocked at God (I Kgs. xvii. 4); and such also was Adonias, who gloried in his beauty (III Kgs. i. 5), and Absalom, who gloried in the beauty of his hair (II Kgs. xiv. 26). 

2.  Among the gifts given to men the greatest and most enduring seem to be wisdom and prudence, and these too have their vain uplifting, and their imagined unreal glory.  If they who have them have not also the wisdom of God, all their gifts amount to nothing.  For the evil which the devil worked against man turned against himself; without knowing it, what he contrived against man, he contrived against himself: for not only did he injure him whom he had hoped to separate from God, and from eternal life, but he betrayed himself, became an exile from God, and condemned to eternal death.  The snare he laid for the Lord caught him instead; he was crucified on the Cross he planned to crucify Him; and died the death by which he hoped the Lord would die. 

And if the prince of this world, the first, the greatest, the invisible master of human wisdom, is caught in his own artifices, and brought down to utter ignominy, how much more will not his disciples and imitators be abased, no matter how clever they are: For protesting themselves to be wise, they became fools (Rom. i. 22).  Pharaoh used guile to destroy Israel, and was caught unawares in a disaster he had never expected.  And the child exposed to death at his order, was reared in secret in his own royal house (Jdgs. ix. 1); and after casting down the power of Egypt would lead Israel to deliverance.  And Abimlach, the murderer, the natural son of Gideon, who slew the seventy lawful sons, and thought he had wisely planned to secure stable possession of the kingdom by slaying his accomplices also, was in turn crushed by them, and perished by a stone flung from the hand of a woman. 

And the Jews took counsel against the Lord which was to be their own ruin, when they said: If we let him alone so, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation (Jn. xi. 48) And after this plan of theirs, putting Christ to death, to as it were save their place and nation, by this very plan they came to disaster.  For they were driven from their land, and cut off from their laws and from their worship of God.  And so in a thousand ways we may learn how frail is the quality of human wisdom, how petty and lowly, rather than sublime and great. 

3.  Therefore no truly prudent man will think himself great because of his own wisdom, or because of the other things I have spoken of, but will attend rather to the excellent counsel of the blessed Anna, and the prophet Jeremias: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his strength, and let not the rich man glory in his riches (Jer. ix. 23).  But in what shall man glory: and in what is man great? Let him that glorieth glory in this, he said, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord.  This is the grandeur of man, this his glory and greatness, truly to know Him Who is great, to cling to Him, and to seek for the glory of the Lord of glory.  For the Apostle says to us: He that glorieth, may glory in the Lord (I Cor. 1. 31) where he declares: But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and justice, and  sanctification, and redemption: That, as it was written: He that glorieth, may glory in the Lord. 

This is complete and perfect glorying in God, when a man is uplifted, not because of his own justice, but because he knows he is empty of true glory, and made just only through his faith in Christ.  In this Paul gloried, that he thought nothing of his own justice; that he sought that justice alone which comes through Christ, which is from God, justice in faith (Phil. iii. 9); and that he might know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the sharing of His sufferings, and be made like Him in His death, if by any means he might himself attain to the resurrection which is from the dead.  It is here that the whole top-loftiness of arrogance falls down.  Nothing is left to you to glory in, O man; whose true glorying and whose hope is in mortifying yourself in all things, and in seeking for that future life in Christ, of which we have already a foretaste when we live wholly in the love and in the grace of God. 

And it is God who worketh in you both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will (Phil. ii. 13).  And God has made known to us His own wisdom, through His Spirit, for our glory (I Cor. ii. 7, 10).  And in all our efforts it is God who gives us strength.  I have laboured more abundantly than all they, says Paul, yet not I, but the grace of God with me (I Cor. xv. 10).  And God has delivered us from danger, and beyond all human expectation.  But we, he says, had in ourselves the answer of death, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God, who raiseth the dead: who hath delivered and doth deliver us out of so great dangers: in whom we trust that he will yet also deliver us (II Cor. i. 9, 10). 

4.  Why then, I ask you, are you full of pride, because of what you have, when you ought rather to give thanks to the Giver of what you have?  What hast thou that thou hast not received?  And if thou host received, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? (I Cor. iv. 7).  You did not come to know God through your own excellence; but God looked upon you out of His own goodness.  But after you have known God, or rather are known by God (Gal. iv. 9).  You have not laid hold of Christ because of your virtue; but it is Christ Who through His Coming has laid hold of you.  I follow after, he says, if I may by any means apprehend, wherein I am also apprehended by Christ Jesus (Phil. iii. 12).  You have not chosen me; but I have chosen you (Jn. xv. 16).  And do you pride in this, and make the mercy of God a pretext for arrogance?  Recognize yourself for what you are; another Adam cast forth from Paradise (Gen. iii. 24), another Saul abandoned by the Holy Spirit (I Kgs. xvi. 14), another Israel cut off from its holy root.  Thou standest, he says, by faith; be not highminded, but fear (Rom. xi. 20). 

Judgement is in accord with grace; and as you have used what was given you, so shall the Judge judge you.  And if you do not even understand this: that you have been given grace; or should you through great stupidity believe that the grace is really your own virtue, you will do no better than the blessed Apostle Peter.  For you cannot love the Lord more than he did who wished to die for Him.  But since he spoke out of very great conceit when he said: Although all shall be scandalized in thee, I will never be scandalized (Mt. xxvi. 33), he was delivered over to human cowardice, and sank down to denial of Him; so that from his own fall he might learn to be compassionate to the weak and acquire discretion, and come to see clearly, that just as he had been raised up by the hand of Christ, when he was sinking in the sea, so when he was in danger of perishing in the storm of scandal, because of his own faithlessness, he was protected by the power of Christ; Who also foretold to him what was to happen, in these words: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren (Lk. xxii. 31, 32). 

And Peter after he had been corrected in this way was greatly helped, and taught to put away his earlier boastfulness; and so learned consideration for those who are weak.  And that Pharisee, overbearing, and swollen with pride in himself, not alone trusting in himself, but speaking ill of the publican, and this even in the presence of God, lost the glory of his uprightness, because of the sin of his arrogance.  And it was not he went down justified, but the publican; because the publican had given glory to God the Holy, and had not presumed even to lift up his eyes, but prayed humbly for pardon, accusing himself even by his demeanour, beating his breast, and seeking for nothing save mercy. 

Watch, therefore, be on your guard against grievous loss because of pride.  This man forfeited his virtue because he was given over to pride.  He lost his reward because he trusted in himself.  He was placed lower than the sinful and the humble because he had exalted himself above him, and had not waited for the judgement of God, but had himself pronounced judgement.  Let you beware of lifting yourself above any one; not even above those who are great sinners.  For he who is guilty of many great sins, oftentimes will be delivered from them through humility.  So never let you hold yourself as more virtuous than another, for fear that declared just by your own sentence, you may be condemned by the sentence of God.  Neither do I judge my own self For I am not conscious to myself of anything; yet I am not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me, is the Lord (I Cor. iv. 3, 4). 

5.  Do you consider you have done some good action?  Give thanks to God, and do not set yourself above your neighbour.  Let every one prove his own work, and so he shall have glory in himself only, and not in another (Gal. vi. 4).  For what have you profited your neighbour when you confessed your faith, when you suffered exile for Christís name, when you laboured with fasting? The profit of your good work was not his but yours.  Beware lest you fall down like the devil, who raising himself against men was cast down by a Man, and placed beneath the feet of the one he had trodden on.  Such too was the calamity of Israel.  For raging against the Gentiles as unclean, they became in very truth unclean themselves; while the Gentiles have become clean, their own justice has become like a menstruous rag (Is. lxiv. 6); while the wickedness and impiety of the Gentiles was wiped Out through faith.  In brief, keep before you the proverb: God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble (Jas. iv. 6).  And keep at hand the words of the Lord: Every one that humbleth himself shall be exalted; and he that exalteth himself shall be humbled (Lk. xiv. 11). 

Be not an unjust judge to yourself; and do not try yourself with favour.  If you appear to have done something good, do not put that down to your favour, and consign your sins to oblivion; nor praise yourself for the good you did today, while pardoning yourself for your recent or past offences.  But should the present uplift you, recall the past; and the foolish swelling of your pride will come down.  And should you see your neighbour sin, beware of thinking only of his sin; think also of the good he has done, and continues to do, and keeping everything in mind, not looking at one thing only, very often you will find that he is better than yourself.  For God will not examine man with partiality.  I come, He says, that I may gather together their works and their thoughts (Is. lxvi. 18).  Yet when He rebuked Josephat for the sins he had committed, He remembered also the good he had done.  But good works are found in thee (II Paralip. xix. 3). 

6.  We should keep these and similar things before our minds as a safeguard against arrogance; humbling ourselves that we may be exalted, mindful of the Lord Who came down from heaven to our great lowliness, and was in turn raised up from lowliness to the sublimity that belonged to Him.  All that the Lord has done, we shall find, is intended to instruct us in humility.  As a Child He lay in a cave; and not in a bed, but in a manger.  In the house of a carpenter, and of a poor mother, He was obedient to His mother and to her spouse.  While being taught, He listened; learning what He had no need to learn.  He asked questions, and, because of His wisdom, His questions instructed those who heard Him.  He humbled Himself to John; that the Lord might be baptized by His servant.  He resented no one who assailed Him; nor did He use against them the ineffable power that was His; but yielded as to higher power, and yielded to temporal authority the power that belonged to it. 

He stood as a criminal before the High Priests.  He was led before a judge; and when He could have silenced His calumniators He bore their accusations in silence.  He was spat upon by the lowest servants and by slaves, and delivered over to be put to death, and to the most shameful death known to men.  And it was in this way He passed His life from birth to death.  And after these humiliations He manifested His glory; sharing His glory with those who were the companions of His lowliness.  Of these the first are the blessed Disciples, who poor and naked travelled the world, not with the words of wisdom, not with a multitude of followers, but solitary wanderers, destitute, journeying over land and sea, scourged with whips, stoned, persecuted, and in the end put to death.  These are the Paternal divine lessons we have been taught.  Let us return to them, that through humility we may also come to eternal glory, the true and perfect gift of Christ. 

7.  How are we to come to this saving humility, leaving behind us the deadly swelling of arrogance? By exercising ourselves in it in all things, and by keeping in mind that there is nothing which cannot be a danger to us.  For the soul becomes like the things it gives itself to; and takes the character and appearance of what it does.  Let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your bed, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.  And let your speech, your singing, your manner with your neighbour, let these things also be more in accord with humility than with vanity.  In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excessive sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing.  In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.  Be a help to your friends, kind to the ones who live with you, gentle to your servant, patient with those who are troublesome, loving towards the lowly, comforting to those in trouble, visiting those in affliction, never despising anyone, gracious in friendship, cheerful in answering others, courteous, approachable to everyone, never speaking your own praises, nor getting others to speak them, never taking part in unbecoming conversation, and concealing where you may whatever gifts you possess. 

On the contrary, accuse yourself of your own faults (Prov. xviii. 17), and do not wait for others to find fault with you: that you may be like the just man who in the beginning of his speech is his own accuser (Job xxxi. 34); that you may be like Job who was not ashamed to confess his faults before the multitude in the city.  Do not be heavy in rebuking; nor reproach another quickly or in heat (for this is a kind of arrogance), and do not find fault over little things, as though you yourself were wholly perfect.  Give your help to those who have made a slip, helping them spiritually to restore themselves, as the Apostle warns us: Considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted (Gal. vi. 1). 

Be as eager not to be glorified among men as others are to acquire glory among them, provided you remember the words of Christ, that he loses his reward with God who looks to be honoured before men, and does good that he may be seen by men.  For, He says, I say to you, they have received their reward.  So do not bring loss upon yourself, seeking to be esteemed by men.  Since God is a great watcher of men, seek glory from God; for He gives a splendid reward.  Have you attained to dignity, that men should stand about you, and show you respect?  Then become like those subject to you; not as having power, as the Scripture says, lording it over the clergy (I Pet. v. 3); and not after the manner of earthly rulers.  For he who would be first, the Lord has commanded him to be the servant of all (Mt. x. 44). 

In brief then; follow after humility, as a lover of it.  Love it, and it will glorify you.  If you wish to travel to the true glory, this is the way, with the angels, and with God.  And in the presence of the angels Christ will acknowledge you as His disciple; and He will give you glory if you have imitated His humility Who said: Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart, and you shall find rest to your souls (Mt. xi. 29): To Whom be glory and empire for ever and ever.  Amen.