5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled. (Matthew 5)
Sub-deacon Emmanuel talked last week about the heart and the need to repent. The heart is a strange organ, it is more than just a pump, and we all know that it is said to be the seat of true emotion and literally lies at the centre of our lives. The heart has its nerves and it has been said it contains enough of these to make a small brain in its own right.
The monastic tradition talks about prayer of the heart, when our real selves pray, not just with our mind but from the very centre of our being. There is no rationalising there, no self justification, we pray just us as we are.
But if the mind and the brain are where we think, where we argue with ourselves, where ideas flash around, the heart is simpler. I would say the brain gives thought and sometimes confusion, the heart is simple and honest, once purified.
The two verses we consider now are about being meek and about hungering for righteousness.
The fall we all experience into sin, in falling short of perfection is the result of following our own desires. It is a sort of pride we all experience that somehow we know better than others what we need and want. Alas the “others” include God. We think, or act as if God did not know better than ourselves what is good for us. This is pride.
The reverse of pride is humility, and that is what meekness is. It is not at all being quiet and letting others walk all over us. That may be wrong too; humility is truly valuing ourselves honestly. “Every time a thought of superiority or vanity moves you, examine your conscience to see if you have kept all the commandments, whether you love your enemies, whether you consider yourself to be an unprofitable servant and the greatest sinner of all. Even so, do not pretend to great ideas as though you were perfectly right, for that thought destroys everything.” as one of the desert fathers put it.
Now once we realise that we are adrift and proud of our achievements, when we recognise that we fall into error then we may learn our lessons and take the grace that God gives us. Then he can move us to greater actions and achievements.
There is also a sort of false humility which can creep in. Archbishop Chrysostomos has given us some examples. He points out that a priest who does not like his hand kissed is assuming that the faithful are venerating him, rather than what he represents. This is a sort of humility, I am not worthy, they say. In fact the worthiness is nothing to do with it; they have been blessed (or cursed) with priesthood. No-one is worthy of such an honour. Yet the Church needs priests to serve the mysteries, and the priest has that honour from his office. To say: “I am not worthy of such veneration” assumes that it is personal. In fact, the treating of the Church’s ministers with respect venerates Christ; it is a lesson in true humility to the priest as well.
Likewise it undervalues the Church when we say that she is just one church amongst many.. We tend to hold back in the west and say that other faiths are equally valid ways to God. To say that the Orthodox Church is the TRUE Church sounds very much like arrogance. In fact, it is simple truth as the fathers have taught that from the beginning. The Church is the guardian of the Truth, even in the fallibility and sin of her members, and in this she is still the body of Christ, “without wrinkle or blemish.”. Any false humility we profess here compromises the truth and harms our witness by hindering the salvation of others.
When we embrace radical humility we are empowered by God. So, we do not trust ourselves, but rather we trust our spiritual fathers and mothers, we trust Church Tradition and we strive to obey. In seeking to obey God can do mighty things through us, and then we can achieve greatness, not in our strength, but in His.
This very sense of our own unworthiness is armour against sin and the devil. Again it is was said of one of the desert fathers “As Abba Macarius was returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm-leaves, the devil met him with a sharp sickle and would have struck him but he could not. He cried out, “Great is the violence I suffer from you, Macarius, for when I want to hurt you, I cannot. But whatever you do, I do and more also. You fast now and then, but I am never refreshed by any food; you often keep vigil, but I never fall asleep. Only in one thing are you better than I am; and I acknowledge that.” Macarius said to him, “What is that?” and he replied, “It is because of your humility alone that I cannot overcome you.” (citation)
Once we become aware of our failings we can seek to do better. We can truly hunger and thirst after righteousness. We can really want to do better. Aware of our own failings, we can seek change and what we want is freely available. I cannot say that we can achieve perfect social justice, or perfect peace in the world, but if we seek to be right we can achieve much.
One of the joys of ministry is that I can often see people being honest with themselves. I have seen people, faced with great wrong, accepting that the fault lies in part with themselves, and they have given their situations to God, repented and moved on, showing both great humility and great virtue. Seeing God working out healing of mind and spirit is a great blessing. To be a small part of that is also a greatly humbling experience. I see God valuing everyone with love. It hurts me that many do not see His actions as they are, but when a glimmer of the reality comes through, this is wonderful.
As the Church, as individual Christians, we have the calling, and a major one at that, to show this glory in the world. We cannot do it if we think we know best. In obedience to God, in constantly turning to Him, we can show forth HIM and not us. In other words, we must be humble.
In this, we are faced with a paradox. When we know our weakness God can do great things through us. As we decrease He increases; “He must become greater; I must become less.” As St John the Baptist said. (John 3:30)
So we can pray in Lent especially and with deeper humility:
“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, despair, lust for power and idle talk.
But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity humility, patience and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.