A man in the possession of a demon … once struck one of the elders … on the cheek, but the elder offered him the other cheek in exchange. The demon, unable to withstand the fiery nature of that humility, immediately abandoned the man..
The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection (Cistercian Studies) (p. 265). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition
Humility, Hildegard of Bingen assures us, is the queen of the virtues. But I have always thought of humility as simpering and self-effacing – silent because of fear or weakness. While reading the Desert Elders in preparation for this series of reflections, I was stunned by the image of a fiery humility. Where had that been hiding? And why had it ambushed me so, unawares?
Of course, I could have seen it on every page of the The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, one of the collections I have been reading. Almost every story and saying of the Desert Elders glows with it, like the small blue foundation at the base of a candle flame. The Desert Fathers, and even the few Desert Mothers, rebuke each other with calm forceful words or symbolic action. They cry aloud their grief in the assembly. They sit in the corner, stone-faced, or bow to the floor in silence in the presence of eminent guests – but they remain silent until the guests leave. They silently, without inner complaint and with firm resolution, accept blame that does not belong to them. They refuse cooperation with those who would lead them away from their devotion, escaping in stealth from churches that would draft them as leaders. They ignore wealthy gifts from well-placed donors, not even thanking them. They walk miles in the desert on errands that cause others to mock them.
These are men and women of action. The ferocity of this devotion, its singlemindedness and determination, must have a deep well as its source. They tell us, and we are told by others, that its source is humility, a fiery humility.
Sadly, the small, simpering, uncertain, fearful, humility of weakness can be found in many places. How does one, instead, find this humility, the fiery one? Mother Syncletica, one of the most widely known of the Desert Mothers, provides us this clue:
Let’s take a short break to reflect on one of the Mothers of the Desert. Women were treated in many of the Desert Father’s sayings as temptresses, but there is emerging evidence that the deserts and towns of Egypt were well supplied with women monastics. Mother Syncletica was born in Alexandria, of wealthy parents who sailed from Macedonia to settle there. As is the pattern with most monastics, she refused marriage, despite her parents’ pleas. After the death of her parents, she gave her inheritance to the poor and moved into a family tomb in a graveyard on the outskirts of Alexandria. Tomb dwelling was an ancient Egyptian practice that put one in touch with the spirit world. A community of women eventually gathered around her, and she is often called the mother of women’s monasticism (there are of course others). Nautical images abound in her sayings and in her teachings collected in a saintly biography. For instance, she says of humility that it is like the nails in a boat, without them, it sinks. Though acquainted with Evagrius’ abstract teachings, she preferred humble, earthy metaphors and stories.
So, we return to her teaching on humility: one gains it by obedience. And loses it by asceticism. We can get some idea of how asceticism leads to pride if we recall the many stories in the sayings of monks envying each other for greater severity in the ascetic practice of renunciation. This beating down of the self by force of will can lead to despair when it fails and pride when it succeeds.
And then we are left with two difficult words in one saying: we must learn humility by obedience. We now have some idea that this is not our modern idea of humility. It stands to reason that obedience will also be something surprising. It should not, like misguided ascetic practice, be the beating down of the self.
Obedience seems instead to be a tool that pries you free from attachments. Free from attachment to possessions, concern with personal pride, free from achievement. Free, even, from attachment to the Desert Elder who is your guide. All the Desert stories of obedience (we will get to these later) are about how the decision to follow the advice of an Elder gives the student insight into his or her false attachments to things, ideas, knowledge, possessions, goals, experiences, and people. These should not be the most important focus of our concern.
And this seems to be one sign of an Elder who is worthy of obedience, of an Elder from whom one can learn obedience and humility. She or he must desire to free you from all false attachment in order to find your own freedom – in the end, to find freedom and detachment even from your teacher. We find this pattern of obedience that leads toward freedom in the monastic traditions of all major religions. One famous example is that of the Sufi master Rumi, who was love-sick for this master, Shams-i Tabrizi. When Shams left him, Rumi's heart was broken. Rumi learned from that heartache and became his own master of the way.
We see the same pattern in the story of the Archbishop and Arsenius. The Archbishop comes to Arsenius to get a word of wisdom. He is turned away, but perhaps he is being turned away from a false attachment, from hero worship, even from false obedience.
Amma Syncletica has led us to an insight about that most difficult of monastic practices: why are people practicing asceticism and obedience? To become free. And it is only when we really are free that we will have the fiery humility to know what to do with our freedom.
Does your Lenten practice, or your daily routine, really feel like a burden? Then try to find the fiery desire of love at the heart of it that will set you free.