A Mystery Solved

IMG_0537If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for humility.

-St. Isaac of Syria


I cannot count the number of times that people have complained of their lack of “progress” in the spiritual life. In our cause and effect model of life, we are used to doing something and seeing some result from our action. Things are not like that in the spiritual life where Christ is the cause of all good things – and He does not behave as an impersonal cause.

Thus, in the words of St. Isaac, “recompense is given… for humility.” And it is well that it is so – for recompense “given for labor,” would establish only the strong and never the weak. We would see the same oppression in the Kingdom that we experience in our fallen world. Instead, God gives us what is “necessary for our salvation,” and it is humility that is required above all for “God resists the proud.” 

I recall Archimandrite Zacharias (of Essex) saying, “Never praise a monk – it’s bad for him.” He had just been introduced with a  typical American flourish. You could hear the pain in his voice when he asked not to be spoken of in such a way again. It was the sound of true humility – the sound of knowing how dangerous is the cult of personality.

How dangerous is the cult of all things proud.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And not a single voice of “I told you so” will be whispered on that day.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






22 responses to “A Mystery Solved”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Br. Ephraim bringing relics for the veneration of Orthodox pilgrims in the courtyard of Mar Saba Monastery in the Judaean desert.

  2. Aaron Taylor Avatar

    This reminds me of the 8th letter of Elder Joseph the Hesychast in Monastic Wisdom: ‘If a righteous person falls even 10,000 times, he does not lose courage, but he rises up once more and gathers his strength, and the Lord registers victories for him. However, He does not show him his victories, so that he will not think highly of himself. Rather, He makes him fully aware of his falls, so that he sees them, suffers, and is humbled. But once he has passed the barracks of the enemy and has amassed unseen victories everywhere, the Lord begins to show him little by little that he is winning and is being rewarded; that his hands are touching something that he was previously seeking but had not been given.’

  3. […] words by Fr Stephen in his closing of today’s post on humility and “progress” (or the lack thereof) in our spiritual […]

  4. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I was especially pleased to read the words of Archimandrite Zacharias. That’s always a tough call for me, since I have a truly *great* priest — but how do you compliment a priest without being a temptation for him?! I asked that on one of the Orthodox chat groups, and was told, “Just do what he tells you and offer him respect.” So I try. But when it comes to Byzantine chant — urgghhh. ONLY for this man would I EVER attempt Byzantine chant!!!!!

  5. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    And with humility comes true charity.

    Some of the most humble saints were accused of arrogance because they spoke with great certainty about Jesus Christ. Strange what the world sees as arrogance.

  6. Lou. Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    This post points toward a great puzzle for me.

    You noften refer of Dostoyevsky and other modern writers. But most accounts, Dostoyevsky may have been pious but certainly was, um, beset with sins of the flesh. I have not heard you address these. Perhaps this is all that is to be said.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Dostoevsky is a writer with a genius for stating many things that are at the heart of Orthodox thought and teaching. He is not considered a saint nor is his life considered an example. But his writings seem to transcend his personal failings. He is beloved by the Orthodox, particularly the Russians. His sins of the flesh, I assume, were addressed by his priest and confessor, and are not a concern to me. He was not a murderer, nor a thief. He had problems primarily with money and a gambling habit. But he never abandoned Christ or his struggle to write an account that expressed his inner heart and its understanding.

    I don’t think Dostoevsky is particularly arrogant (vain perhaps). I’m not sure why this post should point to a great puzzle.

    I take it to be the case that Dostoevsky is an example of the mercy of God – who did not take away the writer’s insight or gift despite his weaknesses.

    The serious sins are not the ones of the “flesh” associated with Dostoevsky – but those of the spirit, such as envy, pride, slander, hatred, etc. Many pious people who manage to avoid the obvious sins of the flesh are “inside full of dead men’s bones.” These are frequently very religious in appearance. I don’t fear the Dostoevsky’s of the world.

  8. David Avatar

    What bothers me about my lack of progress, is not that my efforts have not had their reward, but rather the damage I continue to do. Not the least of which is my mouth. Foul things come out of it, foul things that are more foul because they sound fair and are believed fair by those who hear them. In fact, many praise my rotted breath as great sweetness.

    It is enough to make me want to cut out my own tongue. But as no messenger from God has allowed me such a release, I have to go on bearing witness to my own filth. And watch others be poisoned by it.

  9. davidperi Avatar

    Progress?? When I view this it is my closeness to the Lord and His holiness and righteousness…and the awareness of my own sinfulness.

  10. omorphia Avatar

    Concerning St. Sabbas monastery: When I went to Bethlehem, I wanted to go there. But the only taxidriver I could find told me that only russians could visit, so I was only able to view the monastery from a distance.

    Do you think this taxidriver might have fooled me? (I acctually suspected that when I was there, but now I feel even more certain:) )

    I will remember the words of Fr. Zacharias when I meet monks. One question though; how do we applicate this in daily life, when we meet our friends or our family? I think it can be difficult to sometimes to know the difference between complementing someone to the degree of praising them (basically; braging about them, for them!), and just to commend them.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    There’s a Greek flag flying over the monastery – so I suspect something other than Russians can go there. It is only open to the Orthodox (to the best of my knowledge, and only men). Perhaps the taxi driver meant “Orthodox” but said “Russians.” It’s easy for some not to know that the terms Russian and Greek are not always synonymous with Orthodox.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think you said it very well. In our modern culture where the individual is defined as individual (rather than as member of a group, etc.) there is necessarily more talking about one’s self. Of course, in many ways it is a false self (for the mystery of who we are is “hid with Christ in God”. Thus in America there is the phrase, “reinventing yourself,” in which people tell their personal story in a whole new manner and are thus “new and different.” But it is still not the true self.

    The true self is first found in silence (the sound of humility) which is rarely found in modern culture at all. We are a a noisy lot.

    (Thanks to Damaris for the vocabulary correction)

  13. Meskerem Avatar

    I wanted to say something on both your posts on humility but really did not know how to express it.

    I think here we tend to talk a lot about ourselves. In fact ,if we don’t people will tend to see us in suspicion or someone who is of less knowledge, so the trend is to say something about ourselves. First it was like a shock to me, how could someone say things just about themselves? Of course now I am in it too.

    But this is all the opposite of how I grew up. Only someone else talks of you or your work, in no way you even mention about yourself. This is part of being humble that came from the church teaching I think. That quietness and not saying much about yourself or as a whole being low key. No one mentions of what they do, they just do it. Feed and clothe the poor, contribute towards the church. In fact the rich and the poor live together. This is because the rich do not say about their rich at all or push away the poor, but help them instead, and the poor are so thankful they are helped and also help the rich in their own way. Everybody goes about on what needs to be done.

    I read Father Arseny’s book and while he was in jail with people who call him names and treated him so awful, he always stayed in silence and how he prayed, took care of the sick, shared his food and clothing in that difficult situation, he was just doing what needs to be done. That is real being humble.

  14. Moses Avatar

    Thus, in the words of St. Isaac, “recompense is given… for humility.” And it is well that it is so – for recompense “given for labor,” would establish only the strong and never the weak. We would see the same oppression in the Kingdom that we experience in our fallen world.

    Thank you Father! Why is it always so simple with God and yet so complicated with us?

  15. wpatrick Avatar

    My priest said “humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

  16. David Avatar

    I’ve spent most of my life trying to retrain my thoughts when I should have been ignoring them.

  17. Damaris Avatar

    Father Stephen —

    Thank you for this excellent post. May I mention that “noisome” means smelly or foul, not noisy? Perhaps your choice of words was intentional — we are a noisome bunch as well as noisy.

    I have recently been reading and discussing “Beginning to Pray” by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I’ve found this a wise and challenging book and echoes what you say about silence and humility. I would recommend it highly.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    Ha, ha! Here I am with egg on my face! I certainly misused the word and learned something new today (it’s the problem with using a fairly antique word).

  19. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    You might be interested in reading this Moldovan Pastor’s perspective on Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Convictional Theology: http://college-ethics.blogspot.com/2009/03/dostoevskys-orthodox-convictional.html

  20. zoe Avatar

    Father Bless.

    One’s own loved ones will truly test one’s humility (if it exists at all). If one unpleasant remark from a loved one causes me to be angry this means that I’m still full of pride. Does humility means that I still feel the pain of the insult but decided not to respond. or does it mean that when one achieve true humility that they don’t feel the hurt anymore?

    Another question I have is how one respond to compliments in the orthodox way, especially if the deeds done is for the Church. If I say
    “thank you” I feel like I’m accepting the credit for myself instead of for Christ. If I don’t say anything then I feel that I’m being rude.

    Thank you, Father, for another timely blog.

  21. Albion Avatar

    Zoe, may I suggest you just say “to God be the glory for all things.”

  22. Karen Avatar

    Zoe, how well I relate to your words about having one’s humility tested in one’s own family! I would suggest that humility has many levels–all of which are humility in different degrees. For me, right now the best I can muster is being honest about my anger and contrite before others and the Lord about what this means (in terms of the poverty of my spirituality). The worst part of pride is when we sin and then try to justify or defend or deny our sin. I’m just working on trying to be more honest about my true reactions (as poor as they sometimes are) and admitting it to myself and others (including the Lord) that this is who I am without His help.

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