October 26, 2020

Love in the Desert (2) : On Humility

Desert Father

[The Desert Fathers] believed, in spite of society’s pressures, that love is the goal of the Christian life and humility is what it takes to bring us toward it.

• Roberta C. Bondi

 • • •

What does it take to love?

First and foremost, argues Roberta C. Bondi in her book, To Love as God Loves, it requires humility. But this is perhaps one of the most misunderstood virtues, and so she provides some thoughts on the subject for us from the teachings of the fourth century saints who took to the desert to seek from God hearts of genuine love.

The cultures of the world are, by and large, loveless. This was the case when men and women fled to the wilderness to try and break the hold of various love-destroying externals on their lives. They recognized that lack of love is more than an external problem. But as Bondi writes, “Those who chose the monastic life, however, believed that for themselves only radical renunciation of the external as well as the internal patterns of their culture could put them in a position where they would be able to begin to love.”

We might criticize their choices and view the lives they chose as needlessly separate from the daily challenges to love that a majority of believers must face in their ordinary callings. Yet their extraordinary quests yielded insights into the human heart and relationships that have stood the test of time. In the laboratory of the desert they made discoveries we are still benefiting from today.

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The [devil] struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.” (from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Ward)

Anyone disciplined enough can practice renunciation and participate in rigorous devotional exercises. According to this saying, even the evil one can imitate such asceticism. What the devil cannot achieve is humility, the attitude of heart that frees us up to show genuine love to others.

At its root, humility is the mindset of acknowledging my humanity, my common standing with all other people as a limited, weak, imperfect, and sinful person. Under God. I need God’s grace just as do all my brothers and sisters. I need others as well. “We are all vulnerable, all limited, and we each have a different struggle only God is in a position to judge,” Bondi affirms. I am no better than anyone else, nor do I take on a false humility, imagining that I am lower than others. I also have gifts which God has bestowed upon me that I may share with others. My neighbor also has much to offer me.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3, NRSV)

We are all in this together. We can look at each other, eye to eye, and know that we are free to both give and receive in a relationship of mutual benefit.

desert_fathersHowever, warped ideas of humility abound. Bondi notes that these false understandings have been especially hurtful to women, minorities, and others deemed to be on the lower rungs of society. People in these positions may hear a call to humility as a further call to submit to oppression and another blow to whatever self-esteem they’ve fought to maintain. The exhortations they have heard to humbly submit, serve, and obey have often meant “accept an inferior position,” “give up your self and all your personal desires to serve others,” or “accept injustice and cruelty as your lot in life and don’t try to change things.” Genuine love that grows out of humility is not “selfless” in this way; in fact, it requires someone with a strong sense of self and appreciation for God’s grace and gifting. As Bondi says: “One reason the monastics left ordinary life in their own culture was that they were trying to establish a new model where everyone was on the same footing, where loving service was the model for everybody.”

We must also beware of other kinds of false humility. Sometimes we feign a humble demeanor in order to manipulate others. Bondi calls this the “you take the good chair” approach. Or, we may think that being humble involves going around feeling guilty all the time. That’s not humility, that’s self-punishment. Instead of acknowledging our guilt, repenting, and moving on, we cling to a self-absorbed penance that paralyzes us and keeps us from being sensitive to the needs of others. On the other hand — and this was a particular temptation for novice monks and nuns — we sometimes feel responsible to be heroes and to take on heroic tasks. In fact, this may paralyze us just as much a feeling guilty. Daydreaming about all the great things we can do to save the world easily becomes a mind game that keeps us from washing our neighbor’s feet.

Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They needed to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed. They had to learn to accept it as true that all tasks contribute to the final goal, and the small ones are often of infinite significance.

Christians who are especially scrupulous may also avoid the humility that leads to genuine love by focusing so much on their own holiness that they confuse ends with means. The goal is always love. If my pursuit of “discipleship,” “Christian growth,” or personal purity does not contribute to that end, in Paul’s words, it is nothing. This gets especially dangerous when, in my quest to be “above reproach,” I start thinking more and more about my reputation, what other people think of me. It can be a subtle transition but soon my need to look good takes priority over truly giving myself to serve others.

It is a short step from there to the attitude that is most devastating to humility: the spirit of judging others. Bondi cites a saying of Dorotheos:

That Pharisee who was praying and giving thanks to God for [his own] good works was not lying but speaking the truth, and he was not condemned for that. For we must give thanks to God when we are worthy to do something good, as he is then working with us and helping us. Because of this he was not condemned, as I said, not even because he said, “I am not like other men,” but … because he said, “I am not like this tax-collector.” It was then that he made a judgment. He condemned a person and the disposition of his soul-to put it shortly, his whole life. Therefore the tax-collector, rather than the Pharisee went away justified.

Roberta Bondi encourages us to remember that, “To be humble is to identify with the sinner, and rather than take secret pleasure in another person’s downfall, when you hear of it, say, ‘Oh Lord, him today, me tomorrow!’ recognizing your kinship with the sinner.”

x-prehis1On the positive, what can we say humility is and what does it act like? Here are some statements (and paraphrases) from To Love as God Loves:

  • “It calls for the renunciation of all deep attachments to what the world holds dear: goods, social advancement, the satisfaction of appetites at the expense of others, the right to dominate others in any personal relationship.”
  • “Humility has to do with taking and accepting radical responsibility for the things that happen in life.”
  • Humility involves “letting go of the need to look good in the eyes of ourselves or of others.”
  • Humility involves a radical realism. It is realistic about the world, about the ineffective nature of force to truly change the world, about my own limitations and weaknesses and the common humanity I share with others, and about the kind of unflagging commitment it takes to practice love in a world like ours.


In the sight of God and others.

In my own heart.

With a commitment to live so that those around me will benefit.

By God’s gracious presence and power in my life.

A much later saint with the spirit of the Desert Fathers said it well: “Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)


  1. I was glad… that I was humble.

    But then I was sad about being glad that I was humble.

    Then I was glad about being sad that I was humble.

    … I was sad about being glad about being sad that I was humble.

    ( that makes me glad :D)…

  2. I love the Desert Fathers.

    A few years ago, I had the privilege to visit Egypt (before all the troubles began) and made a trip of about 4 hours into the desert to St Antony’s monastery. In the hill behind it was the cave where Antony spent years of his life. It’s a very small thing, a narrow crevasse stretching back into the hill, opening into a tiny cavern not higher than two men and barely wide enough to take three or four steps in succession. I sat in this cavity in the rock, in near-darkness (there was a single candle but no other lighting) and thought to myself, ‘If I were stuck here in the dark inside a mountain in the middle of nowhere, day after day, I would go crazy. I probably wouldn’t last a month. But Antony? Ok, he had some weird experiences (reading between the lines in Athanasius’ biography of him, it sounds like he had a lot of hallucinations in the early days) but in the end, it didn’t send him stark raving mad, it made him saner than everybody else. Why else was everyone chasing him, seeking his advice? Why else did so many follow his example in the years that followed?’

    There’s something about that stark, solitary existence. Those guys peered deep into the human heart. Some of them got a bit eccentric, but when it comes to human nature, they could see more clearly than most of us. And perhaps it is humility that is the key to that, or at least an aspect of it. In a cave in the middle of nowhere, you’ve got no one to compare yourself to. There’s just you, an imperfect soul naked before God. A Pharisee without a tax-collector to make himself feel better.

  3. Here are two of my favorite quotes on the topic – both by Brennan Manning:

    “… a poor self-image reveals a lack of humility. Feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority, and self-hatred rivet our attention on ourselves. Humble men and women do not have low opinions of themselves; they have no opinion of themselves, because they so rarely think about themselves. The heart of humility lies in undivided attention to God, a fascination with His beauty revealed in creation, a contemplative presence to each person who speaks to us, and a “de-selfing” of our plans, projects, ambitions, and soul.”


    “Humble people are small in their own eyes, honest about their struggles, and open to constructive criticism. Following to take the counsel of Jesus to take the last place, they are not shocked or offended when others put them there. They trust that they are loved, accepted, forgiven, and redeemed just as they are. Aware of their own innate poverty, they throw themselves on the mercy of God with carefree abandon.”

    • Which Manning books are those quotes from? Thanks

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “Feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority, and self-hatred rivet our attention on ourselves.”

      This, absolutely. And it is not difficult to observe this truth.

      “”Humble men and women do not have low opinions of themselves; they have no opinion of themselves, because they so rarely think about themselves”

      Hmmm, nope it looses me there. As I do not believe “think about themselves” is even a cognitive possibility. While I understand the point he is trying to make; however I do not see who this kind of thinking does not still loop back on itself into another degenerative form of selflessness.

      The Humble people I have had the privilege to be acquainted have all been majestic in their way, and I have no doubt whatsoever they are very aware of that. And they couldn’t not be as it was written in how most people respond to them.

      “The heart of humility lies in undivided attention to God, a fascination with His beauty revealed in creation, a contemplative presence to each person who speaks to us, and a “de-selfing” of our plans, projects, ambitions, and soul.”

      Perhaps this is a world-view issue. As when I read this I see “undivided” then followed by an enumeration. That kind of thing irritates me. I’ve spent half a lifetime analyzing data. Maybe I just don’t think in a way compatible to his linguistic form.

      Most days as I am on my way to work – especially this time of year, early autumn – as I roll into the river valley between old turn of the century buildings and the grunting and beeping of construction equipment I am simply in awe of the beauty, detail, and dynamism of creation, I am overcome with gratitude for all my forbears and neighbors have done to make such a beautiful life in a beautiful place possible, and how merrily insignificant I am – all that can fall under an umbrella of “undivided attention to God”? I do not understand what his “undivided” means.

      ““Humble people are small in their own eyes, honest about their struggles, and open to constructive criticism”

      Being honest about struggles and accepting of constructive criticism also describes confident people who feel secure in their societal roles. That never describes insecure people.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        I have found it to be generally true that humble people tend to be much more secure. However, insecurity is a prime engine to achievement, so many proud or insecure people see great success, at least in the short run.

      • Yes, the idea that anyone could, or should, rarely think about themselves has the ring of pious conjecture rather than lived experience.

  4. Thanks, Chaplain Mike. Those are great words about humility.

  5. Humility involves something that seems like the forgetting of self, though it is not; it does, however, involve “forgetting” to put oneself first.

  6. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > Humility involves something that seems like the forgetting of self, though it is not; it does,
    > however, involve “forgetting” to put oneself first.

    This. But I would replace the final “forgetting” with “not being/feeling compelled”. That describes it more specifically.

    • Yes, I put it in quotation marks because I wasn’t sure that it was the right word. Your suggestion fills it out a little more, but it doesn’t cover everything that I was trying to say.

  7. The use of realism vs. idealism seems important. Idealism leads to a defensive against or relevance to or purity from positioning that is not humble. We all need a good dose of how(not) to be secular( James K.A. Smith). The conditions of belief and the milieu of our lived experience is so much different in what he and Charles Taylor call secularization3. And humility calls for coming to grips with that reality.

  8. Christianes says

    good to mention the humility of St. Paul . . .

    St. Paul’s humanity with all of its quirks has never been in question . . . we remember he had to be knocked off of his horse before God could get his attention . . . that’s a serious indication that Paul had some human issues to overcome . . . but Our Lord saw something more in him than his human faults . . .

    Paul had the discernment to carry with him the humbling awareness that he ‘was the greatest of sinners’ and that he was, at every moment, dependent on the mercy of God, as we all are who live and sojourn with our own humanity in all of its strengths and weaknesses . . . most of us completely unawares of the length and breadth that runs from our frailty to our strength, which only when tested in the fire reveals much about who we are in the midst of this life . . . then we know the truth all too well more often than not

    St. Paul reminds us that in the realm of the Kingdom, it is the ones who come closest to Our Lord who will then see themselves as ‘little’ and humble in contrast, and this helps strengthen the observation that those who walk closest with God do so in humility . . . a lesson many who say ‘Lord, Lord’ have forgotten . . . or perhaps never knew

  9. You know the pagans of those years of the desert fathers thought that the virtues were a balance. Not too haughty, not too self-esteemless. Or positively, humility meant he could walk with his head in the air, but not with his nose in the air. Being a mixture of two things it is a dilution of two things. Christianity, though, sees the virtues as parallel passions. And hard to hold simultaneously at that. One cannot think too highly of oneself, one cannot think too highly of one’s soul. This will let a man look up and see marvels(Alice must be small to be Alice in Wonderland). And it can lift the soul to sing, and point it toward a fire that has the possibility of making it clear like crystal( Yes, our God, He is a consuming fire).

  10. The pictures and illustrations you use are powerful. I always look forward to them, especially since the Maine ones. You have a gift for picking the right ones.

  11. I have found that in my own life that even some things that I have done were begun with a humble heart soon turned into works of pride. In a small group that I was leading we decided that we would wash the feet of every one there. I don’ know if you have ever done this, but its pretty humbling, not to mention weird and uncomfortable It was also incredibly a spiritual moment It just felt earthy. We didn’t do it often, but when we felt that God would bless it. It is a very unique thing to see the puzzled look on ones face when we told them that we were going to wash their feet. But eventually even this became a source of perverted pride. We became the small group that did “FOOT WASHING”. Pride replaced humility eventually. We quit doing it. It was the measure of sin in my heart the pride overcame my humility. It’s interesting that in the Seventh Day Adventist church that foot washing is called the “ordinance of humility.

  12. OT:I have taught the game of contract bridge to folks over the years. They are eager and willing to study, but don’t want to hear much about their mistakes. I tell them this: you can’t have a big ego and learn and you have to pay your dues which is humiliation at the table. this might apply to other life situations.

  13. Thomas Merton, in the introduction to his translation of some of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert, writes that the Fathers were “thorough and ruthless” in their “determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the dominance of alien compulsions….”

    Aside from the fact that, if this is what spiritual liberty requires, then I’m excluded, because I’m certain that I lack the requisite thorough and ruthless determination, I also always pause when I see the word ruthless at this point in Merton’s words, because it always reminds of something: The Grand Inquisitor began as a Desert Father (though not their contemporary, he is their type, nonetheless).

    If the desert (whether it is the desert of our hearts, or the Mojave) holds promise for a life free of spiritual fetters and grounded in the true self, it also is the place of maximal temptation, where the self may be completely lost, and the subtlest yet strongest of spiritual constraints may be forged, and all the more powerfully for being invisible to us and to those around us, who mistake them for virtues and strengths. In every spiritual tradition, warnings have been posted at the threshold of the desert to this effect, because this has been experienced and known. Yes, proceed, but proceed with caution, and be humble enough to learn from those who have gone before, like these Desert Fathers, who ran the risk of blazing the path without forerunners.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      Different graces for different people. I could never be a desert father (or even desert knave), because of my temperament. But I can learn from them, I think.

      • There is sense, though, in which none of us can avoid the desert, because it is a spiritual reality of our hearts more than a geographical location, whether we pay attention to it or not. I’ve learned from the Desert Fathers, but one of the things that was important for me to learn was that theirs was a vocation that they were called to for the benefit of the rest of us, not just for themselves. We are not all trailblazers, nor should we be, and it’s perfectly okay to scale down the radical aspirations of the Desert Fathers to something that is more commensurate with our everyday lives in the world; it’s okay to domesticate them. The extremism of the Desert Fathers is not central to the spiritual riches they have to offer.

  14. “To be humble is to identify with the sinner, and rather than take secret pleasure in another person’s downfall, when you hear of it, say, ‘Oh Lord, him today, me tomorrow!’ recognizing your kinship with the sinner.”

    Oh, Lord, her today, me today!

  15. ” I am no better than anyone else, nor do I take on a false humility, imagining that I am lower than others. I also have gifts which God has bestowed upon me that I may share with others. My neighbor also has much to offer me.”

    This disposition seems to push against two problematic tendencies: either to be always grasping (to assert one’s ideas and agendas over and against other people); or else always retreating (to be so self-effacing as to obsess over one’s faults, to refuse to own one’s thoughts or feelings, and to show reluctance to be known by anyone). Either of these tendencies throws up barriers between the self and others; in the first case, I refuse to “see” you; in the second, I refuse to let you “see” me. Bondi’s picture of humility, as a foundation for love, is striking by comparison: the self is at rest with itself (including its limitations and faults), and thereby it becomes more open to God and other people. It’s quieted down enough to be neither seething with passion nor hiding in shame, nor is it pushed around (as much) by anxieties. As such, it can make room within itself to identify with others and to allow the danger of their incursion.

    I suppose the discouraging aspect of this ideal is that it is rather lofty: who can hit it? Then again, in a way the call to humility is the call to shrug off the question and the anxiety it might create: it says, I’m fractured, you are fractured, there’s more than enough cause for us to eat together. And the sharing of that hour is in some small measure a healing thing.

    • Yes! As much as I’m tired of it, Leonard Cohen’s Anthem comes to mind:

      Ring the bell that still can ring.

      Forget your perfect offering.

      There is a crack in everything.

      That’s how the light gets in.
      I’m not a lover of bell choirs, but when I close my eyes and listen to an excellent one, I do hear beautiful music.