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Pride Masquerades as Humility

by Archimandrite [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos

There is also a strange pride which presents itself as the standard of humility. This false humility is almost wholly the product of self-righteous hypocrisy. It is perhaps, indeed, the most transparent kind of false humility—and yet, it is probably the most frequent. I saw it in its most spontaneous form once while visiting the city of San Francisco. In this, the most Orthodox of American cities (the city where St. Peter the Aleut was martyred by Jesuits in the nineteenth century and where the relics of a contemporary saint, Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch, rest), I felt less out of place as an Orthodox clergyman among predominantly non-Orthodox people. Given this, I was astounded when a passer-by commented, within my hearing, that I was "nothing more than a Pharisee." It surprised me, too, that his companion responded with rather unflattering remarks about my appearance. While this is not an unusual occurrence among Orthodox clergymen who keep traditional dress, I had been particularly struck because it had happened in a place where I did not expect it. And this prompted me to think more seriously about these hecklers.

Many find, in their desire to "fit into society," a rather strange basis upon which to accuse others of arrogance. Walking down the street in the traditional garb of an Orthodox clergyman almost immediately puts one out of step with the rest of society. And it is precisely this that identifies a Christian. If anything could be said about the Pharisees, aside from their spiritual pride, it would be that they were, indeed, in the mainstream of the then contemporary religious scene. And it was, to be sure, not their manner of dress which brought Christ's condemnation upon them. It was precisely their acceptance in society, their exploitation of religion as a way of gaining social respect. And above that, their judgmentalism and wholly external grasp of the spiritual were the very things which the Christian message so fundamentally challenged. If there were modern Pharisees, it would seem to me that one might find them on the street, condemning Priests in clerical garb as Pharisaical, all the while imagining themselves humble by adhering to the social trend.

We see this same false humility in the sometimes fanatic avoidance of the special dress, beard, and hair prescribed for Orthodox clergymen in the 102 canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Especially in the United States, Orthodox clergymen have proclaimed that they must not separate themselves from the laity by their dress. They eschew the traditional form of dress with such great vehemence that a modernist clergyman once told me that he would commit suicide before he would appear on the street in Orthodox clerical clothing. It is the vehemence of these declarations which betrays the ostensible humility of not wishing to separate oneself from the laity. (In fact, of course, the laity themselves, in traditional Orthodoxy, are also required to separate themselves from the prevailing fashions of the times.) Amidst the historically untenable protestation that Orthodox clerical dress derives from the "Turks," that it is Pharisaical, or that it is simply uncomfortable, one discerns that the actual problem is that the clergy lack two forms of humility: one which would prompt them to respect the Church canons (with which they take constant exception); another which would allow them to walk the streets witnessing their Faith to the heterodox, standing as reminders of the spiritual in a wholly materialistic world, and accepting the inevitable ridicule of those who wish to be rude. They do not, in fact, follow the modern dress trend out of humility, but out of a fear of humiliation! Theirs is a clear example of false humility.

This false humility in some Orthodox clergy is not limited to external dress. Often it manifests itself in a deep internal misunderstanding of Church tradition and of the role of the clergy in the Church. Actually from the very Early Church, Orthodox lay people have continued the habit of kissing a cleric's hand as a sign of respect for his religious role. Many contemporary Orthodox clergymen spurn this practice, pointing out that, as with traditional clerical dress, it elevates the Priest above the people. In truth, the practice has traditionally been accepted in the Church as a means by which the people can express their humility before the holy, the image of which is embodied in the Priest. When a Priest's hand is kissed, the kiss acknowledges the fact that he touches the Holy Eucharist, which elevates not the man, but the holiness with which he interacts in a literal way. As well, other religious in the Church, such as the Abbess of a monastery or a particularly holy elder or spiritual advisor without priestly orders, are afforded this honor by virtue of the fact that their lives are elevated and touch on the holy.

A cleric who disdains the practice of hand kissing often shows, by his apparent claim to humility, a certain hidden arrogance. False humility is that humility which is contrived and controlled by the human will. The desire to demonstrate to others that one is unworthy of respect, therefore, is actually an occasion for taking pride in the appearance of humility. And that pride lurks in such a cleric is easily demonstrated. Those who disdain this practice because it elevates them misapprehend, in the first place, the fact that the kiss is meant to rise up to the holy, not the individual himself. It is by this same logic that kissing an icon, for example, is not idolatrous. The Priest must set himself aside, when he understands his religious role, and become a mere image. That he thinks the kiss is directed toward him means that he has usurped the honor due his rank and the Grace operating within him, somehow fancying himself more than a Priestly Icon. He denies, therefore, the lay people a vehicle for expressing their own humility before the holy. If such clerics were not, indeed, falsely humble, they would not imagine themselves the objects of respect when their hands are kissed, but, like my own spiritual Father, who tells me that he feels as though he is under the feet of those who kiss his hand, would show true humility.

Another rather disturbing and dangerous example of pride masquerading as humility has simply devastated the Orthodox Church in this century. It comes to us in the form of ecumenism. The Eastern Orthodox Church, with historical foundations for the claim, has always maintained that it continues the very Church of the Apostles, the Church established on earth by Christ Himself. Our Fathers, throughout the centuries, have taken seriously the burden of preserving the pristine truth of early Christianity. They have practiced a conscious conservativism, avoiding trendy involvement in the spirit of any particular age, lest they tarnish with temporal thinking the eternal witness passed down to them from the Apostles. In this process of preserving an eternal truth from the vicissitudes of various ages, they have used conservativism as a tool, and they have always, if one reads their words with care, avoided an arrogant view of their role, even when they were called to severe positions in protecting the traditions of the Church. They always felt it their first purpose to proclaim the absolute historical and spiritual primacy of the Orthodox Church in a humble way, preserving the Church as the final resort of those who might stray away, over the centuries, from her authentic witness. In effect, the Orthodox Church is the mother of true ecumenism. It has been Her role to preserve the true message of Christ in its purest form, offering it up to the whole world as the standard and banner of truth.

Many contemporary Orthodox clergymen and lay people have come to think that the Orthodox Church's claim to primacy is an arrogant one which is an impediment to the spread of the Christian message. They often hold up the example of would-be traditionalist Orthodox, who imagine their Orthodoxy to be some exclusive right belonging to them alone and who almost happily condemn all others as heretics. They quite rightly point out that such "tradition" has its source in personal pride and violates the missionary conscience of the true Christian. One might even agree with them, were they to say that such "traditionalists" suffer from deep, hidden pride. One cannot, however, countenance the conclusion that, because errant traditionalists violate the Christian spirit, their understanding of the primacy of Orthodoxy must be put aside. This is in itself a form of false humility, for when we proclaim the primacy of Orthodoxy, if it is not a personal possession or a personal understanding, we do so without violating our own personal humility.

One can find a personal witness to divine primacy arrogant only if he imagines that divine primacy to be a personal belief and not, as It is, a divine revelation. In fact, there is perhaps no greater sign of humility than that of dedicating oneself to a truth which is absolute, which transcends the personal opinion, of boasting, as it were, of that which is above the individual. It precisely this humility which St. Paul reveals to us when, boasting of his sufferings and exploits, he tells us that they have meaning only in Jesus Christ. One cannot so boast if he thinks that Orthodoxy rises out of him, not out of God. Such a thought is horribly prideful and those who think thus, proclaiming that out of humility they cannot proclaim their religion to be the true religion, arrogantly deny Orthodox tradition, sadly deny a strong witness to others, and betray themselves as falsely humble. Such ecumenism is not really a form of humble love for others and for their Faith; it is a denial of the Orthodox Faith. It stands nakedly inadequate before the true ecumenism of the Fathers.

From Humility, Volume I of the "Themes in Orthodox Patristic Psychology" series, pp. 31-36