Interview with Archbishop John of Belgorod by Maria Gorodova
A chapter from the book by Archbishop John of Belgorod and Maria Gorodova Charity Suffereth Long
– Your Eminence, today we would like to talk about humility and what a meek person in the present-day world is like.
– At first glance being meek may seem to be the same as to be weak, yet humility is, in fact, something that makes it possible for a person to see their place in the world in proper perspective, both with respect to God and with respect to their neighbors. Humility is the greatness of the human heart that, having no unnecessary outer signs, may at times remain unseen by others. The opposite of humility is pride – excessive and even unrighteous haughtiness of one person over another, which can even lead to rivalry with God. Pride is a complete and developed pattern of human behavior, a passion that takes hold of a person. Humility and pride are two opposing poles of one’s measuring themselves and their life, and the measure is determined by the state of one’s soul.
For instance, if a singer has a strong voice, it is clear that this voice is God’s gift. So if this person is humble in mind, they understand Who gave them the gift and thank God for it. Such people are truthful, because they did not distort the real state of affairs and they see it as it is. Another situation is when the same singer considers their voice to be something that marks them out, and they treat this gift of God as their own merit that makes them special. And if they are not humble in mind they will look down on everybody and develop relationships accordingly. This distorted vision of their position in the world eventually leads to the person’s placing themselves above God. That is how what we call the sinful path begins, because pride demands that people constantly prove that they are ‘special’ by subduing somebody or committing sins, with their ‘exceptionality’ as an excuse.
– It is repeated in the New Testament many times that “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1Pe 5:5). That is, if people act out of pride, they fail. Is it really so?
– Of course it is. An example from the Bible is the Tower of Babel, when people said, “let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven” (Gen 11:4). It is not about the height of the tower, it is about their motivation. People wanted to build a tower reaching Heaven in their name, and that is more than just arrogance, that is pride. As God said through His prophet Jeremiah, Babel “hast striven against the Lord”. So what happens next? It is said, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen 11:5-6). And then God punishes the people, but mind you, the punishment was educational: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city [and the tower]. Therefore is the name of it called Babel (that is, confusion); because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:8-9). It was done to prevent people from interfering with God’s design. It is important to understand that the punishment, the confounding of the languages and the scattering of the people, was to guard the people. Lord saw that “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” and He stopped them on their sinful path. We wrote earlier that, as far back as in the time of living in paradise, man had attempted to take God’s place, to become “as gods, knowing good and evil”. When people seek their prototype, God, when they seek ‘deification’, it is one thing, but when people place themselves in the center of everything without realizing that they are God’s creatures, it is different. Man, and not God, becomes the criterion of all things, the center of the universe and the basis of everything at the same time. This sin is called lust for power. Such a great mis-measurement of man in this world results in tragic consequences for people themselves in the first place.
– How does it reveal itself?
– The person is destroyed. It starts when the person stops looking upon their pride as a sin. Proud people live for themselves, seeing only their wits, their talent, their merits. They do not notice anybody around, making themselves the criterion of everything, which results in utter confusion. They go further and further from the Creator on their sinful path, modifying their relations with the environment and other people accordingly. And that ricochets back on them.
In 1947, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb, said, “the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Unexpectedly for everybody, he refused to develop the H-bomb. Historians of science may offer various reasons for Oppenheimer’s refusal, but at least it is evident that his well-known statement has its roots in the Bible. I think he felt that people had interfered with God’s design and that humankind would be punished for that.
– Perhaps any science is against God’s design, and the desire to know something and to create something (that is, to become a creator) is a sin?
– Nothing of this kind. In a liturgical prayer that we read during the Liturgy of the Faithful, we ask God, “And count us worthy, O Master, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon Thee, the God of Heaven, as Father…” That is, we ask Lord with boldness, and this boldness is necessary if we want to overcome, know or create something. Boldness and pride are different. If a person has a talent granted by God, and they cannot manage it, what does it have to do with pride? This person must find a way to use their talent, for example, to write a book or to make a film. The same can be said about science. Although science which attempts to reveal the mysteries of the universe does always pose the problem of moral choice, of good and evil. But as for boldness itself, it is nothing like a sin. Pride is in how and what for you are being bold.
– We act with boldness either to build something “whose top may reach unto heaven” and “make us a name”…
– …or to follow God’s will. This is the criterion of whether it is pride or not. But pride is, in fact, not that simple a sin. We do think that signs of pride are haughtiness, arrogance, intolerance, vanity etc. But there is also such a subtle kind of pride as spiritual illusion. It is when a person has an illusory view of themselves. This is self-deception, a spiritual disease that is extremely hard to detect. It is a state of a person who has lost the measure, but not as a result of a sinful action. It happens due to excessive zeal in spiritual matters, when the person has no spiritual mentor. For instance, a person suddenly starts believing in their sinlessness. Indeed, they do not smoke, do not drink, do not fornicate, observe all the fasts of the Church and are formally ‘clean’. But all these actions (not drinking, not smoking, keeping the fast) betray their secret pride, that they consider themselves a model for other people. This is indeed a subtle temptation. It occurs to the person that they can do anything, that they are righteous, almost a saint even. Why should they care about others! As I said, this is quite a subtle temptation, which is characteristic of people who have already achieved something spiritually.
– Your Eminence, why do they say that the more a person achieves spiritually, the more severe are their temptations?
– What was it that Satan did? There is the world created by God, but Satan created a mirror world, a ‘downward’ one. God tells us to ascend and so we do, but we need not forget that the higher we go in spiritual development to reach the highness of the Holy Spirit, the deeper is the abyss underneath us. That is why the higher has a person ascended, the greater is their risk. This is an objective law of spiritual world, but it does not follow that we should stand still and do nothing because we are afraid of temptations. A person who has set foot on the spiritual path must realize that spiritual world is different, the further you go, the subtler are temptations. And if you started to advance spiritually, you should first say to yourself, “I am not an exception, my coming to church is not a ‘present’ for God.” You need to determine your priorities. In fact, people who are taking their first steps in faith, especially those who do intellectual work, begin to think that they did something good for God when they started to believe in Him. This is the first stage of temptation. As they come to know the basics of faith, they begin to actively teach others, they put on ‘a righteous man’s clothes’, not realizing that it is quite possible to keep all the fasts and yet be totally intolerant towards their neighbors. This does not necessarily reveal itself in such unrestrained actions as condemnation, homily etc. The person may even look humble, indeed they will humbly withdraw to their ‘monastic cell’ thinking, “Why should I care about others, I am a heavenly being.”
– So having learned to fast, the person still cannot love, be compassionate, show other people mercy, is that right?
– Yes, and this results from spiritual orphanage. A person cannot detect their pride on their own. This pride does not let the person repent.
– So outward humility is deceptive?
– Of course it is. Both humility and pride belong to a person’s inner world, they can show themselves differently, depending on the person’s temperament, character, and upbringing. In order to become meek it is not necessary to walk about with a glum face and eyes downcast. A person can be meek even if they are quick-tempered. They say that when St. Seraphim of Sarov was told, “Father, how meek you are, you treat everybody with such love…” he would answer, “I am not meek at all! Look at that soldier who meets people at the entrance, it is he who is meek.” “How is that?” wondered the people, “This soldier virtually pounces at everybody.” But it was that the soldier had been contused and wounded several times, his health condition was poor, and he was irritable and impulsive. But he suffered because of that, he repented and tried really hard to control himself, and in this was the greatness of his humility.
– Your Eminence, who should we be meek towards?
– Towards God. If we are meek towards people, how will we find the borderline between meekness and people-pleasing, the latter being known as a sin? If one’s human dignity is affected, if one’s personality is endangered, how can one not resist? We are meek towards God and His will, but His will is revealed under different circumstances every time, so our humility needs to be specific for each situation. That is why I am always against strict generalization, when people say that some action is certainly meek, and some is certainly not. There is no general recipe for humility. And even if there is one, it will sound different from what we expect to hear, “People should correctly measure themselves against the Creator and people around (that is, to have a criterion). They should try to understand God’s will for their lives and realize that they can be God’s coworkers, bringing light and goodness to this world that is far from ideal.” Actually, humility does not mean not being a fighter, humility is the ability to stem evil, but not by evil means. People should not ‘respond’ to evil as they are used to, even to defend themselves. It is that in this case you do not stop evil, you pass it to somebody else. So it can grow stronger and come back on you. But you can act differently when evil have attacked, you can stop it by taking it inside yourself and extinguishing it.
– So you should not respond to offence, but not just by silently taking it. You should forgive, understand and justify.
– Yes, that is right. But it does not follow that a meek person is unprotected. We can use the word ‘meek’ about warriors and fighters, as it is a spiritual quality that does not dissolve one’s personality, which remains unique.
That is, we deal with two systems of measurement. One of them is pride that makes itself the criterion of all things. Pride can show itself differently, but the main idea of it is the same, “I am the center of everything, I have achieved something and therefore I have a right for being exceptional.” The other system of measurement is humility. In theology there are concepts of humility of mind and humility of action. This measurement of oneself against God and other people can also be called the measure of gratitude. It is when a person is grateful to God for giving them talents and abilities, for sending to them people in good time so that the person was able to achieve something, for the person’s life, health and ability to be grateful. So if we manage to achieve these levels of relationship with God, we will become meek. We will take everything with peace inside us, in our souls.
– That is, humility is not grumbling about what is happening to you?
– No, you might grumble because grumbling is in your character, but you still accept God’s will. It is like that gospel parable told by Jesus, “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father?” (Mat 21:28-31).
Confusion results from that people erroneously think that humility is avoiding trouble, which is weakness. But humility is strength. What inner strength is required to hear the voice of Christ among the numerous voices that call us, to accept His will and reveal it by joining God’s will with yours.
– It means that, despite the stereotyped view, humility is not about giving up under circumstances or neglecting to realize your potential at work etc.
– You know, the point is that unless one relies on Christ, nothing else is worthwhile, everything else will be destroyed after all.
– Your Eminence, people believe that work humbles us. Probably, we are also humbled by weariness, illnesses and understanding our infirmity. But what else? And how do we learn to be meek?
– If one who is not meek realizes their weakness, it can lead to aggression and, eventually, to the disruption of their personality. This cannot happen to a meek person. Becoming meek means defeating pride and spiritual sloth in yourself in the first place. Why is pride a sin? Because it is something that separates people from God, it is a stumbling stone between people and God. But if a person takes a step towards God and repents, this person has already managed to overcome pride. Then follows the spiritual battle that we have already written about.
– Your Eminence, according to St. Ephrem the Syrian, “if a sinner acquires humility, he becomes a righteous man.” Why does humility have such great power to change everything?
– That is because being meek means being a winner in the first place, winning over pride in oneself. Also, humility is understanding that we cannot overcome our sins without God’s help. That is why we pray, “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions.”
We must not think that some spiritual exercises can immediately grant us humility. Many people have learnt to be meek by imitating their spiritual guides, people who have withstood the spiritual ordeals of this world. Illnesses and circumstances of life can sometimes teach us. The Apostle Paul said, “And lest I should be exalted… there was given to me a thorn in the flesh.” And then, “…the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness (2Co 12:7-9)
Here in Old Oskol we have the elder Aleksey, people call him Alyosha from Old Oskol. This man is very sick and weak physically, he does not even talk. If he needs to answer a question, he just points his finger at the letters in a list, thus forming words. Sometimes he does it and poems come out. Whatever happens to him or around him, he is always inspiring and full of love and warmth for people. For me this Alyosha from Old Oskol is the very embodiment of humility.
A. A. Golenishchev-Kutuzov
In times of hardship, despondency and depravity
Do not judge your brother if he is lost.
Instead, arm yourself with prayer and the sign of the cross,
And if you see pride, humble your pride,
If you see wickedness, learn sacred love
And execute the spirit of darkness inside yourself.
Do not say, “I am only a drop in this ocean!
My sorrow is helpless in the world’s grief,
My love shall disappear without a trace…”
Humble your soul and you shall realize how powerful you are.
Believe love and you shall move mountains,
And you shall tame stormy waters!
Prayer for times of sorrow and hardship
Cry to the Mother of God
What should I pray for, what should I ask from You? You do see everything and know it yourself, look into my soul and give it what it needs. You have endured and overcome everything, You will understand everything. You have wrapped the Child in swaddling clothes and taken Him off the cross with Your Own hands, only You know all the greatness of joy and all the heaviness of grief. You have become the stepmother of all humanity, look at me with maternal affection. Lead me from the darkness of sin to Your Son. I see a tear on Your face. It is me who You are crying about, so may it wash away the consequences of my sins. I have come, I am standing and waiting for your reply, oh Mother of God, oh Glorified by all, oh Our Lady! I ask for nothing, I am only standing in front of You. Only my heart, my poor human heart that is exhausted from yearning for righteousness is what I am throwing at your feet, Our Lady! May everybody who is calling for You reach the eternal day with Your help and bow to You face to face.
A. A. Korinfskiy
The one who is poor in spirit is blessed… But God,
You have given the wings of thought to my spirit,
You have let me realize what is more precious
And what is more than we can bear!..
You have given freedom to my dream
And you have granted insight to my mind,
You have allowed my ignorance
To reveal the mysteries of nature…
Oh, make them fall,
The chains of overwhelming passions!
Cover the nakedness of my soul
With the shroud of humility!..
Translated from the Russian by Alexey Malafeev