“That night, following his suggestion, I perused the work of Abba Dorotheos, an early Christian elder whose work had been spiritual nourishment for monks and hermits for centuries.  The section that Father Maximos asked me to read was on humility, the sine qua non of the spiritual life and the foundation of “perfect prayer”.

“Humility” I began reading, “is the highest of virtues encompassing all others.  Only humility has the power to attract God’s Grace to the human soul”.  I turned the pages and read further.  “Humility renders the person immune to anger and incapable of making anyone else angry.”  According to Abba Dorotheos, if something unpleasant happens to the humble person he always takes full responsibility.  “He criticizes no one and refuses to blame others as the cause of whatever problem he may face.  For this reason his mind is perfectly at peace.”  As I went on reading I lamented the vast gulf that separated my state of mind from Abba Dorotheos’s idea of humility…

There are two types of humility, Abba Dorotheos taught.  First, you must always consider others wiser and better than yourself, and second, you must never take credit for whatever achievements you may attain but attribute everything to the Grace of God.  This is the perfect form of humility that characterises the saints throughout all generations.  “The closer the saints come toward God, the more they see themselves as unworthy and sinful.”  I went on reading and came across a passage where Abba Dorotheos clarified this paradoxical claim with an example.

“I remember one time,”  Abba Dorotheos wrote, “as we were talking about humility, a nobleman from Gaza overheard us saying that the closer one comes to God, the more sinful he sees himself.  ‘How is this possible?’ he asked with puzzlement.  ‘Your Lordship,’ I responded, ‘just tell me, how do you consider yourself within your own town?’ ‘I see myself as the most important nobleman,’ he replied.  Then I asked him: ‘If you leave your town and go to Caesarea, how would you see yourself?’ ‘I will consider myself as the lowest of the local nobleman,’ he replied.  ‘If you leave and go to Antioch, how would you then see yourself?’ I asked him again. ‘ I will see myself like a worthless peasant,’ he replied.  I then asked him further: ‘Suppose you move to Constantinople, living next to the king, how would you see yourself?’ ‘I would feel like an absolute pauper,’ he said.  ‘That’s exactly how the saints feel,’ I told him.  ‘The closer they come to God, the more sinful and worthless they consider themselves to be.'”

I placed the book about Abba Dorotheos next to my bed and held my arms behind my head as I reflected on the extraordinary difficulty of being truly humble, particularly in our ego-absorbed, individualistic age.  yet, the saints warn us that neither worldly achievements, nor philosophical virtuosity nor psychic powers can lead us back to God, but only metanoia and humility.  “Very, very difficult, very difficult,” I sighed, and turned the light off.”

From Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence, p211