Truly, O Lord, if we do not humble ourselves, You do not cease to humble us. Real humility is the fruit of knowledge; and true knowledge, the fruit of trials.
St. Isaac the Syrian Homily 36
In homily 36, St. Isaac says that there are two levels to our being crucified with Christ. The first level is physical and is a matter of our will. It has to do with bringing our body in subjection to our mind, to reason. This, St. Isaac says, is to return our mind to its rightful place as king over our body. Of course our passions make this difficult. Our passions are our natural psycho-physical needs and urges that, because of sin, have become both perverted and out of control. For many people, it is difficult for them to tell the difference between their urges and themselves. That is they self identify with their passionate desires, fears and angers. For example, when angry they will say of themselves “That’s just the way I am.” Or if they experience same-sex arousal they think “I must be a homosexual.” Or if they experience sad or dark thoughts they think “I am depressed.” Notice all of the “be” words. People often confuse what they experience or think in their psycho-physical makeup with who they are. They think what they think and feel is who they are rather than just what they are experiencing. The Orthodox spiritual tradition teaches us that I am not what I think or experience in my body. I am the one noticing myself thinking and feeling. I am the me that sees me. Nevertheless, when the passions, the urges and thoughts of the body are out of control, it easily feels like my passions are me because my passions are indeed ruling me.
It is only as we begin to resist and control our passion—denying the perverted and out of control natural urges within us—that our minds, or the reasoning aspect of our minds, can begin to return to something like a healthy state as “king” over the psycho-physical part of ourselves, what the New Testament often refers to as our flesh. Of course coming to reign over our passions is not an easy thing. Everything in the world seems aimed at encouraging us to submit to our passions. Everything in the world seem to shout at us: “Go ahead. Give in. You know you want it.” And the biggest lie the world tells us is “it’s natural; it’s natural because it feels natural to you.” However, as any drug addict or alcoholic can tell you the most natural feeling thing of all is to take the next hit, to drain the bottle, to do whatever it takes to numb the pain. There is a reason why passions are called passions. Our body, our flesh, our psycho-physical make up, rules the rational aspect of our mind through pain or the fear of pain. This is why St. Isaac calls learning to control our passions the first part of our crucifixion with Christ.
The word passion means pain. And this is how our flesh, our psycho-physical makeup, rules our mind. But pain is an interesting thing. Pain is not always the same. Ask a body builder and he or she will tell you that “the burn,” the pain he or she experiences when working out cannot only begin to be experienced as a good thing, but can even become something that one looks forward to. The adrenaline rush that one person experiences as fear, another can experience as excitement. The hunger pangs that drive some people to eat irrationally, are easily ignored and eventually no longer noticed by those who develop a disciplined habit of what and when they eat. The driving desire for a shot of vodka or heroin or whatever drug one is addicted to gradually fades—even if it never completely goes away—it fades and gets easier and easier to ignore the longer one has stayed away from the drug and the triggers that one associates with it. As we learn to accept crucifixion, to accept the pain that saying no to ourselves inflicts on us, then we begin to overcome it. And as our reason starts to rule our body, a deeper level of crucifixion can begin.
This second part of our crucifixion, St. Isaac says, is the ascent into divine vision. This second part of our crucifixion with Christ does not involve our will—our will was expressed in the first part. In this part the Holy Spirit works. “The kingship of the mind is the crucifixion of the body,” St. Isaac says. And once this begins to happen, then the Holy Spirit can begin to work at humbling our mind and bringing us to a knowledge of ourselves which makes us able to begin to know God.
By the way, as an aside, notice I keep saying “begin.” This is not a linear process. It is not as though you complete the first part and then move on to the second. As I begin to bring my body under subjection to my reason, the Holy Spirit begins to enlighten “the eye of [my] understanding” (to use St. Paul’s words) so that I both begin to know myself as I really am (a broken, sinful human being), and thus can begin to know God as God is (a loving Father). All levels of this process are going on at the same time. That’s why I say “begin.” All we can do is make a beginning, to crucify our passions, our flesh, to say “not my will but Yours be done.” Again and again we make a beginning. Every day the struggle is new. Every day the struggle requires a new beginning. Every day I must die in some small or large way. This is the beginning. The rest is up to God.
St. Isaac tells us that this continual beginning again, this daily dying to ourselves, this inner or hidden crucifixion is how we submit to God; and in submitting to God, we acquire humility. Humility then is the manger in which peace can be born in our hearts, and peace calms the passions. When we are at peace, the pain, the fear, the darkness, the confusing, desperate, and unfair circumstances of our life, all of this, is so much easier to bear. The pain of the nails, that is, the bodily urges that cry out to us as though we will die if we do not cave in immediately, the pain of not knowing, of not being in control, the sufferings that we experience not only from our flesh but from the circumstances and accidents of our life—all of this pain is somehow so much easier to bear when we have peace, when Christ as the infant seems to abide in the humble manger of our hearts. And humility, St. Isaac says, is what brings this about.
And this is why God humbles us. This is why, once we have begun the journey, God does not allow us to become complacent. If we will not humble ourselves by embracing the daily death, the first part of the crucifixion, if we for some reason or another have gotten off track and are settling down in some comfortable nook of spiritual or physical or psychological self indulgence, then because He loves us He allows life itself to humble us. And in this humility, in this seeing of ourselves, seeing ourselves as much more broken, much poorer, much more sinful and confused and clueless than we had expected, in this seeing of ourselves we acquire humility. And humility creates a place in us for peace to dwell. It is the trials, the failures, the not knowing, that bring us to true knowledge. And this true knowledge, this knowledge of ourselves as poor, lame, blind and naked, produces the fruit of humility. And as King David reminds us, it is the humble and contrite heart that God does not despise. God saves the humble who cannot save themselves.