St. John Climacus boldly states: “If the pride of some of the angels made them demons, no doubt humility can make angels out of demons. Therefore, let those who have fallen take courage!”
St. John said this for our sake. He said it for the sake of all of us who feel ourselves to be like the demons by our sinfulness, passionateness, and wicked state of soul. We act like the demons whenever we are rude or angry or lustful or proud or evil in any other way. We think like the demons whenever we critically and harshly judge others, scrutinizing them and all their affairs by a darkened vision. We do not become demons by nature, but by disposition, activity, and state of soul.
But through humility we can become angels, not by nature, but by disposition, activity, virtue, innocence, and nearness to God.
The publican in today’s Gospel saw himself to be like the demons, unclean because of sin, sunk in self-condemnation by his useless and destructive life. He humbly saw himself as wretched as a demon, but he, unlike the demons, humbled himself before God, confessed his sins, and thus found righteousness, cleansing, and spiritual exaltation.
Let us remember who the publicans in Christ’s time were. They were apostates, worshippers of the pagan idols, of demons! They ruthlessly extorted money from their own people. They were sell-outs to their God and their own flesh and blood. They were seen by the Jews as traitorous, wicked, and blood-sucking parasites.
In the mind of the Jews, they were so hated and unclean that, when the Lord was teaching His apostles how to deal with stubborn, recalcitrant heretics—and all those who remained uncorrected and unrepentant in the face of constant exhortation and rebukes, and would not even hear the Church and Her highest authority lovingly calling them countless times to repentance—such ones were to be seen as “heathen men and publicans.”
Have we become this depraved? Even so, let us not despair of our soul’s salvation. Because, we yet have hope; and it is to be found in the sincere, heartfelt repentance manifested by the publican in today’s parable.
Let us remember that one heartfelt sigh can rid our soul of many habitual passions acquired over a long period of time; one moment of burning contrition can wipe out deep stains accrued on our soul made in the image of God; one minute of a profusion of tears can cleanse us of many sins which we have buried ourselves in for many months; one night of true, fervent, and heart-wrenching repentance can make us a new man, someone we have never been before, nor thought we could be. Such is the mercy of Christ to us, Who looks for every opportunity He can to teach us to be like Him and live in Him.
But we cannot acquire salvation through humility if we are taken up with fault-finding, or over-curiosity of the affairs of our brothers or the world, or of harsh judgment of others’ sins, while we are blind to our own. We want to be equal with our superiors, if not greater than them, judging their affairs in the light of our own darkened mind. We want to be more superior than our equals, and rise above the boundaries set by providence. We want to have control of everything around us, dissecting it, analyzing it, keeping it under the microscope of our seemingly all-knowing intellect, making our blind opinions infallible axioms of truth.
How often do we love ourselves so much that we take pride or pleasure in our spiritual stench. We tell a brother off—whether in word or thought, it does not matter—and we think ourselves justified. We boast of our struggles, and we think ourselves righteous. We count up our good deeds and virtuous actions and weigh them against our brothers who we see constantly sinning.
Abba Isaac calls fault-finding, over-curiosity in the affairs of others, harsh judgment, and the like, the tree of knowledge. We are too infirm to eat of this tree—that is, the contemplation of the life and affairs of our brothers and the world. We cannot see the providence and judgment of God in external things. We cannot see spiritually. We are too passionate and carnally-minded to see all men with a pure eye. Therefore, we should refrain altogether from eating of this tree, from looking outwardly, and return to ourselves, inspecting our own dismal spiritual state, humbling ourselves as the publican who would not even look up to heaven.
What is worse than the spiritual state of the publican? To add to it the pride and self-praise of the pharisee. What a wretched state we often find ourselves in: filled with all manner of sin and passion, but still somehow able to gloat over ourselves and our imagined virtues, and to criticize our brothers. What is the cure for this two-fold wretchedness? A desperate plea to God to deliver us who have become demonic!
God is always providing a means to grant us humility. But humility cannot be acquired without humiliation. Humiliation comes about either through our interior passions and falls into sin, or from painful circumstances of body or soul, or from our brother, or by the feeling of God’s grace having withdrawn from our soul, or from all of these together, or a combination of some of them.
Let us remember the Lord’s words, “He who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” Let us seek to be exalted not through our own self-praise or by comparing ourselves to our brother, but rightfully and lawfully through humbling ourselves. Let us take heart even if we find ourselves utterly destroyed by every passion and all manner of sin coupled with insane pride, for we are not yet sealed in a permanent and unchangeable state of spiritual abasement.
We can still arise from our fallen state. Death has not yet taken us; the Judgment has not yet come. But if we judge ourselves in this moment, we shall suffer the shame and exposure of the Last Judgment now, and escape it in the future. If we have exalted ourselves and have fallen flat on our face, and been humbled by the Lord, then let us take the opportunity to humble ourselves in our humiliation, and to acquire humility.
Abba Isaac manifests the spiritual law of inevitable humility when he prays: “Truly, O Lord, if we stop humbling ourselves, Thou shalt never stop humbling us!” To the old man within, to the proud and self-loving soul, these words are a threat. But to the inner man, which desires Christ and His Spirit, these words are akin to those of the Psalmist: “Thy mercy, O Lord, shall pursue me all the days of my life!”
Let us pray and fervently seek to see every pain, every trial, every fall into spiritual shame, every insult, every offense, every irritation, every battle with the passions, and every difficult circumstance, as a manifestation of God’s mercy pursuing us for the sake of our humbling, salvation, spiritual healing, and joyful life in Him. Let us see them as opportunities to humble ourselves, to learn patience, to acquire selfless love, to be rid of attachment to this life, and to put on Christ, be filled with the Spirit, and become a true child of the Father.
Let us add to this heartfelt pain over our wretchedness, sympathy of mind, excuses for our brothers’ faults, constant mindfulness of our many sins, begging God for those fiery tears that burn out sin, wash the soul, restore its Baptismal luster, and unite us to Christ in humility.
What greater sacrifice to God is there? For the Christ-like David said it ages ago: “A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a broken and humbled heart God will not despise.” The far-seeing Isaiah spoke of it also when he declared in the person of the Lord, “To whom shall I look but to the humble and meek, who trembles at My words?” The fiery Joel cried out centuries ago words ever-present and needful: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” That is, affect not an outward show of piety and repentance, but rip your inner heart with pain, sorrow, self-blame, humility, and desperate lamentations of an impoverished heart seeking but a small portion of the riches of the grace of the All-Merciful King.
Let us cry out “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!” And with this prayer let us await whatever form our cleansing comes to us from the Lord, begging His strength to endure the vision of our own sinfulness and the trials which strip us of the old man, and cleanse us through fire and water, opening and uniting our hearts to Christ our most humble and meek God, Who together with His Father and the All-Holy Spirit be praise, worship, thanksgiving, confession and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.