The Holy Scripture teaches that humility is the essential virtue, without which it is impossible to bear any good fruit at all. Our Lord Jesus Christ began His Sermon on the Mount with a call to humility, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). As the common poor realize they are in need of everything, so does the one poor in spirit see himself as imperfect and in need of divine assistance. Being conscious of this, in turn, attracts God's mercy, which makes him abundantly rich.
Unfortunately, most "worldly" people underestimate and even despise the virtue of humility. They tend to think that while preaching humility, Christianity is degrading the human person and obliterating one's natural feeling of dignity. Humility, they say, deprives one of an active attitude in life, extinguishes all initiative and nurtures a servile mindset. Such an erroneous notion of humility is only rooted in a lack of spiritual knowledge.
The essence of humility is best illustrated in the Gospel. Let's take the example of the healing of the Roman centurion's servant. In one of His visits to Capernaum, Jesus Christ was approached by a Roman centurion (an officer in modern terms), who had the following request: "Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented," to which the Saviour, Who never declined anyone's wish, promised that He would visit his home and heal the servant. Every believing person would have rejoiced at such a promise. But the centurion's reaction was far from average: "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed." The centurion's profound faith and humility moved the Lord to such an extent that not only did He immediately heal his servant, but also made him an example for others, saying: "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel" (Matthew 8:6-13).
Having heard of the numerous healings that the Saviour had performed, the centurion acquired an intense faith in His almightiness. Without denigrating his dignity in any way, he realized, at the same time, that he was unworthy to demand any kind of special attention toward his person, all the more so being a pagan and a foreigner. He also remembered that if he, being a common man, is unquestionably obeyed by his minors, so much the more everything will obey the will of the One sent by God.
The acknowledgement of the divine almightiness, on the one hand, and of one's imperfection, on the other, are the basis of the attitude which is called humility.
When man, led by a deep faith, encounters the Creator's infinite power, he cannot help perceiving his smallness and weakness, seeing himself as a tiny insect on the shore of a boundless ocean. This is why in the presence of God humility is but the most natural feeling. Vanity and pride can only exist in the one who, being removed far from God, is comparing himself to other minute creatures like himself.
Sound faith, according to the word of the Saviour, is capable of moving mountains (Matthew 17:20) — not due to some kind of supernatural power that comes along with such faith, as certain sectarians will teach, but because it is capable of attracting the divine power — and the latter can do the impossible. For this reason all known examples of a firm and wonder-working faith are, at the same time, examples of a profound humility: the woman suffering from hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-28), the mother from Canaan (Matthew 15:22-28), and many others. The stronger one's faith is, the more he is humble; and vice versa, a proud person cannot possess a profound faith, being all absorbed in one's self. Being spiritually weak, he is therefore unquiet and easily scared, although he might do his best in order to conceal it.
Spiritual and lay literature alike have known many examples of great and gifted personalities. Many gifted people realized that they were only too far from the measure of perfection or knowledge that they were capable of achieving. Knowing this did not, to the least extent, make them feeble or low-spirited. On the contrary, it gave them more incentive to pursue excellence. To think that humility kills one's initiative, giving him an inert and servile disposition, is to miss the essence of Christianity. The latter's decisive trait is that it calls the man to perfection by way of ascension from the present state, which is damaged by sin, to a likeness of God, as is said: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). The self-sufficient proud man is in fact the most wretched one, because he is so blind he cannot even perceive his misery (Revelation 3:17).
Finally, the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Who had descended from the skies, the word of Whom was the immediate law for the whole of nature and for the immaterial spirits as well, Who brought the dead back to life, is, at the same time, the greatest example of humility. Who could ever be higher than Him — the Creator of everything visible and invisible alike? And yet He was always the example of obedience towards His earthly "parents," He was obedient towards the lay authorities, He paid taxes, and He meekly forgave His enemies. Striving towards humility, we are doing so in the steps of our Saviour, Who left us His commandment: "Take My yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29).
The Elder Siluan wrote: "When the soul sees the Lord in the Holy Spirit, how much He is meek and humble, then she becomes humble herself. It is a special state that no one is able to describe, since it is only known by experience in the Holy Spirit."
According to the holy Abba Dorotheos, there exist two types of humility: "The initial humility consists of considering one's neighbour more clever and better than oneself... The other kind consists in that one should attribute all his accomplishments and benefits to God and not to himself — this is the perfect humility of the saints. It is found naturally within the soul due to the fulfilment of God's commandments. The branches of a tree that have a lot of fruit hanging on them bow downwards. A branch devoid of fruit is stretching right up. There are also trees that bear no fruit while their branches grow straight up, but as soon as someone, by tying a stone to the branch, bows it down, then it will start bearing fruit. So does the soul, when it humbles itself, become fruitful, and the more it bears the fruit of good deeds, the more does it humble itself. The saints give us the same example: the more they got close to God, the more they saw themselves as sinful and unworthy."
Thus, humility is the most precious virtue without which it is impossible to achieve anything righteous. The holy John of the Ladder says: "If pride has turned some of the angels into demons, than there is no doubt that humility can make angels out of demons. Therefore, have courage, ye the fallen, placing your hope in God!"
Excerpt from: The Poverty that Enriches. On the Virtue of Humility.
By Bishop Alexander (Mileant), Translated by Fr. Sergiy Kisselev