Several of my parishioners are older Romanians who suffered under Ceaușescu. One of these older couples has been passing on to me, as they are translated into English, the lives and sayings of some of the elders who were sanctified under the terrible prison system of communist Romania. Many Orthodox Christians in the English speaking world are already familiar with Elder Cleopa from the book Shepherd of Souls, published in 2000 by St. Vladimir Seminary Press.
However, Elder Cleopa had several monastic brothers who also excelled in holiness and wisdom. Their lives and sayings have just recently become available in English. One of these is Elder Arsenie Papacioc. The book is called Eternity in the Moment. It was published in 2018 by St. Herman Of Alaska Brotherhood. One of the profoundly wise words of Elder Arsenie is “Humility is the art of staying in your place” (p. 100).
I love this word from Elder Arsenie first because it is so offensive. It is counter cultural. We live in a time when everyone who has any grievance is encouraged, almost obligated, to protest it, to change it, to flee from it. Everyone is an empowered victim (the concept oozes with irony). The word of humility grates against our sensibilities. We wonder, doesn’t humility encourage oppression? We wonder how it can be that humility is a virtue.
Of course, humility can only be a virtue if one believes in God. To believe that humility is a good thing, one has to believe in a God who is humble, a God who teaches that the poor in spirit inherit the earth. They have to believe in a God who humbled Himself, taking on human form and nature. And not only human nature, but the position of an oppressed person under a tyrannical king and a corrupt religious system (a true religious system, but a corrupt one). They have to believe that rewards and punishments are not merely in this life but continue into the Age To Come. And perhaps most importantly, to believe that humility is a virtue one has to believe in love, the kind of love that sees others as more important that one’s self.
“Humility is the art of staying in your place.” Staying in your place is an art. Like all arts, there are rules and there are exceptions. And it is knowing, or rather intuiting, when exceptions are necessary, even while following the rules, that makes one a great artist. Humility is staying in your place, staying in your cell (as many monastic Elders have put it). Humility is staying in your place, and then not. The trick is knowing, or rather intuiting, when not, which makes humility an art.
In my own life I have experienced many long periods when I was not where I wanted to be. I was not where I was sure God wanted me to be. However, for me to take the situation into my own hands to force a change was also clearly not the right thing for me to do. I felt I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, and I also knew that God had put me where I was. That is, circumstances that seemed miraculous, seemed to be answers to my prayers, had put me in a situation; but once I had been there a while it seemed to me that I was not where I was supposed to be. I was uncomfortable. I was annoyed. I wasn’t fulfilling my potential (or so I thought).
And nonetheless, there I was. All that was left for me was to pray, to cry out to God for deliverance, and to look for rays of sunshine where I was. All that was left for me was to be where I was, to be a Christian where I was, to love the people who were in front of me. I found a funny thing happened when I spent years choosing to love the people in front of me. I began to love them. I began to listen to them, and pity them and pray for them. Staying in your place changes you. Perhaps this is the beginning of humility.
Like any art, there are exceptions. And sometimes, the most humble thing one can do is flee an abusive situation. You do not love someone by allowing them to continue sinning against you or against someone you are responsible for. Humility in this situation often looks like leaving the predictable pain of the current situation to risk, to trust in God in an unpredictable situation. Humility is sometimes looks like courage, the courage to say no.
Jesus humbled Himself. Those who are being deified, who are becoming like Jesus are also becoming humble. And one huge aspect of how we become humble is by staying in our place. One priest put it this way: It’s like God works to get us into a situational vise. Once firmly in this vise, the Holy Spirit can work on us shaving off the rough bits and building up the weak areas. But if we flee this vise, God has to get us into another one so that the Holy Spirit can continue His work in us. Perhaps this is why people keep making the same mistakes (I know I do) and perhaps why they keep finding themselves in similar situations.
“Humility is the art of staying in your place.” Yes, there are exceptions, like any art. But also like any art it is by committing yourself to the rule that you come to intuit when and where exceptions are needed.