Humility features very prominently in Christian spiritual traditions as one of the most necessary of all virtues. A classic example of this in the Western tradition can be found in the 7thchapter of St Benedict’s Rule for Monks with its carefully described 12 stages. The Christian East is no less concerned with this most vital virtue. Here is one interesting example, from Diodochus of Photike’s Discourses:
When the irascible part of the soul is stirred against the passions, remember that it is time for silence- the hour of battle. But upon seeing that the upheaval is passing, be it through prayer or almsgiving, then it is the moment to let yourself be drawn by the ardent love of God’s words, affixing the wings of your mind to humility. For is a person does not humble himself exceedingly, he will never be able to speak of God’s greatness.
In Diodochus, humility is the necessary awareness of the inability of human intelligence to speak intelligibly of divine things – the things of God are beyond normal interpretive discourse. At times, the Christian tradition can seem to be saying that it is the inherent sinfulness of the human person that makes communion with God impossible and this can lead to the heavily value-laden judgements on human nature – we are simply too wicked, too undeserving, too base to be allowed into God’s presence. But I wonder if Diodochus is offering us a rather different angle. Might it in fact be the case that it is not our wickedness that holds us back from full awareness of God’s presence but the limitations of the ordinary workings of our minds?
An example from Buddhist tradition might offer a way into this rather different approach to humility. There is a traditional Buddhist teaching story that is included in an excellent little compilation of such parables by the Venerable Myokyo-ni called ‘Look and See’, published last year by The Buddhist Society in London. It goes like this:
King Milinda asked the Venerable Nagasena, ‘What is the difference between one who has passion and one who is free from passion?’
‘The one clings, the other does not cling.’
‘What do you mean by clings and does not cling?’
‘The one covets, the other does not covet.’
‘But as I see it, both he who has passion and he who is free from passion have the same wish, that, whether hard or soft, his food should be good; neither wishes for what is bad.’
‘He who is not free from passion experiences both the taste of the food and also the passion due to that taste; while he who is free from passion experiences the taste of that food, but not the passion due to that taste.’
In other words, the normal working of our minds often adds either desire or at least some level of expectation to the things we experience. We do not see things as they are but as we expect or desire them to be and this can lead us to a sense of dissatisfaction because we can say for sure that our desire will not be quenched by the experience of the thing we long for. The one who practices detachment from desire is thus enabled to experience things for what they are without expecting anything more from that experience. In that way, the food is tasted more purely and simply. The practice of learning how not to see things only in ‘my way’ is a practice of humility, but one which is simply conscious of the limitations of our habitual patterns of thought, not one which questions our fundamental value as human persons.
Diodochus may use the language of good and evil to describe our habitual patterns and, by contrast, a life lived in a godly manner, but his anthropology is fundamentally optimistic – it is quite within our reach to school our souls to be ‘readily disposed towards the good’. His method for doing this is not that far away from Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness – it is the constant remembrance of God through the prayer of the heart, through gratitude and through humility which is self-forgetting, not self-despising.