Sunday, August 12, 2007

Humility and the Worship of God

I served Liturgy this morning with Fr John Steffaro, the pastor of St John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church in Campbell, OH (about a 20 minute drive from our apartment in Poland, OH). St John's is beautiful church and the congregation both last night after Vespers and this morning after Liturgy was very warm and welcoming.

Before Liturgy this morning I was thinking about how the right worship of God requires humility. As Chesterton points out in the contemporary understanding of humility, humility “has moved from the organ of ambition. . . [and] settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.” Rather humility is,

largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything -- even pride.

To really worship God, to really have a sense of the enormity and significance of the Christian vocation to send and offer worship to God requires just this willingness to make ourselves small, but in a very particular way. Again Chesterton:

The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

The fact is that no matter how hard I try, my worship of God will always fall short of the honor that is His due. This should, or at least isn't meant to, undermine my trying to worship Him, but spur me to try harder, to do more. The poverty of my efforts is meant to be like the experience of thirst or hunger—the poverty of my attempts should increase my desire to worship God like hunger makes me desire food and thirst makes me desire, move towards, water.

For this to happen though, we need to foster in our lives a sense of gratitude not just for the opportunity to worship God, or for our salvation, or our spiritual life, but for life and all the things and people in our lives. Again, Chesterton:

When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?

Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

In this, Chesterton is simply repeating the advice of St Paul, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10.31). Real humility, a real sense of my inadequacies, doesn't cause me to turn inward on myself—but outward toward God and toward my neighbor.

We get a taste of this wholesome taste of humility in the Akathist Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things” when we sing in the first ikos:

I was born a weak, defenseless child, but Your angel spread his wings
over my cradle to defend me. From birth until now, Your love has
illumined my path, and has wondrously guided me towards the light of
eternity. From birth until now the generous gifts of Your Providence
have been marvelously showered upon me. I give You thanks, with all
who have come to know You, who call upon Your Name:
Glory to You for calling me into being.
Glory to You, showing me the beauty of the universe.
Glory to You, spreading out before me heaven and earth,
like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom.
Glory to You for Your eternity in this fleeting world.
Glory to You for Your mercies, seen and unseen.
Glory to You, through every sigh of my sorrow.
Glory to You for every step of my life's journey,
for every moment of glory.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

Humility and the right worship of God are all facets of the experiencing our own contingency, our own absolute dependence on God and our relative dependence on our neighbor, as fundamentally a good thing. In effect, humility and the right worship of God grow out of, and foster, a sense of gratitude, wonder at the gift of our humanity.

The man who cannot embrace with gratitude and wonder his own humanity, his own status as a creature whose life comes to him as a free gift from God, will always lack humility and for this reason never quite rightly worship God.

Because I'm tired, but mostly because he said it better than I could (and he ALWAYS says it better than I could), I'll give Chesterton the last word:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race—because he is so human. As the other extreme, we may take the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart. Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth. Zola tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth. But in Torquemada's time there was at least a system that could to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other. Now they do not even bow. But a much stronger case than these two of truth and pity can be found in the remarkable case of the dislocation of humility.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory