Orthodoxy Today
Humility And Purity Of Heart: A Lenten Reflection”

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew. 5:8).

What does purity of heart have to do with humility? Everything! Consider the words of St. Isaac of Syria quoted by Allchin (1989): "No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding."

Only someone who is humble can follow the prescription of the spiritual Church Fathers who point out that discrimination and watchfulness are the way to achieve purity of heart. For someone proud, this exercise will be useless. Let us reflect on these assertions.

Mental Status Exam

One of the ways psychiatrists and psychologists asses the mental health of an individual is by the mental status exam. Assessment of their thought content and form is part of the examination process. Thought content includes: delusion (false beliefs about reality), suicidal and homicidal ideations, and obsessions (recurrent, persistent and disturbing thoughts and/or images); thought form includes: circumstantiality (minutely detailed speech), tangentiality (excessive digressions), loosening of associations (lack of relationship between one phrase and another, flight of ideas (skipping from one idea to another unrelated idea), derealization (one's surroundings seem unreal or strange,) depersonalization (lack of feeling pleasant or unpleasant about events around you), dissociative events (a separation of emotions or personalities in the same person as distinct), concreteness (extreme descriptive specificity), grandiosity (boastful self-glory and/or praise) . The mental status examination goes well beyond evaluation of thoughts. It also includes the appropriateness of their appearance: how the person is dressed, posture, coordination and facial expression; the appropriateness of their emotional affect or mood; their speech: volume, length and speed, and the person's judgment and problem solving activity.

The reader may be thinking at this point: Why the detail on the Mental Status Examination in a psycho-spiritual reflection geared to the Lenten Season? The question is an excellent one, and the answer, I pray, fitting. If this much care and detail goes into evaluating mental status, how much care and detail must go into evaluating our spiritual status! Also there is a lesson to be learned from the complexity of the analysis of the patient's thought processes. Archbishop Hierotheus Vlachos (1994) has pointed out that the Church is a hospital and we are all patients with illnesses to be healed. It is exactly this model: the examination of the intricacy of our thoughts and behaviors related to our spiritual life that we should apply in presenting ourselves to Christ, Our Lord, as physician, and to His priest in Holy Confession. Many of the thought processes investigated in the mental status examination are the same processes that occur when sinful thoughts and actions follow when falling victim to the passions. For example, lustful thoughts often devolve into obsessional fantasies that are played out in intricate detail in the mind of the person who has succumbed to this "spiritual illness." Another example: the detail in plotting, for those falling to the passion of anger. Vengeance, for some, is dissociated from feelings, and is filled with detailed images of the angry vengeful act. The individual is extremely focused on such detail that it almost seems to "take over the person" whereby other situations around the person seem "unreal."

The Psychological Way to Achieve Change

For psychological change to take place there has to be an ability to discern that change "can" take place, and there has to be a "willingness" to make "interpretations" open to examination and to refocusing and restructuring. The patient, in a clinical setting for example, has to 'construe' that change can take place. George Kelly (1955) is credited with developing the personality psychology model that explains these processes. Stimulus patterns are not just "sensory patterns." Individuals actively give them meaning. They interpret and elaborate the world around them. This can be easily demonstrated in a figure every university Introductory Psychology student would easily recognize. The figure below, from a lesson on Sensation and Perception, is drawn ambiguously:

Ambiguous Woman

Ambiguous Woman

What do you see? Either a young woman or an old maid. Understanding the answer in terms of Kelly's model is that the drawing itself is simply a set of lines viewed visually (the visual sense). But the viewer "constructs" the interpretation. For those who need help to see "both" views, the two possible constructions are drawn unambiguously enhanced below:

Old Maid vs. Young Woman

Old Maid vs. Young Woman

If an individual sees only one view, either the Old Maid or the Young Girl, and does not think, or does not want to be open to the alternative view, the change process is thwarted.

One of the major constructions that individuals are capable of is to construe that their interpretations or views can change. If this is done, then the patient can move on to the cognitive-behavioral treatment needed to change maladaptive emotions and behaviors. Distorted cognitions can be perceived and restructured and accompanied by new functional behaviors (Morelli, 2006a,c). Not only is this fundamental to clinical treatment but also, as we will see, to spiritual development. Sinful thoughts can be turned into Godly thoughts.

Values: A Guide to Psychological Change

Bandura, (1986) points out that among the factors that influence our thoughts and actions are "values and personal standards." He points out, "through internal guidance people give direction to their lives and derive satisfaction from what they do."

Societal Consequences of Valuelessness

Bandura astuely points out that accidental influences (similar to the ambiguous figure above) are more likely to dominate "if the individuals involved share similar standards and values systems ... " Conversely, without internal guides "fortuitous influences hold sway more easily." He uses the example of the counterculture upheaval in recent times, like communes, cults, and drugs, that gave purpose and meaning to those individuals who had lives "devoid of meaning."

Psychological Health: The Democratic Character Structure and Enculturation Resistance

The Democratic Character Structure and resistance to enculturation was found by Abraham Maslow to be a feature of psychologically healthy individuals. Such individuals do have values. They are less susceptible to prejudice and to stereotyping people or to be affected by these factors. This is basically non-judgment of individuals based on sex, age social status occupation rank (Maslow, 1970; Morelli 2006b); but rather, a judgment based on the moral character traits of the individual such as serenity, kindliness, sympathy, generosity, non-pettiness, peacefulness, friendliness, frustration tolerance, tolerance of individual differences, courage, less tense, honesty and responsibility.(i)

Grace Builds on Nature

St. Maximus the Confessor has pointed out to us that God's grace builds on nature. Recall his words: "the grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the Saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it" (Philokalia II). Thus on a natural, psychological-social level it behooves the individual to have a set of Godly values that can serve as a guide to their lives and to be open to the change in mind and heart (metanoia) that is possible, and needed, to bring about a God-centered orientation.

The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian as a Spiritual Status Exam

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth , despair, lust of power and idle talk But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto the ages and ages. Amen.

In the Eastern Church, St. Ephraim's prayer is a core part of the weekday services during the Lenten Period - a special time set aside for examination and reflection of the status of one's spiritual life in preparation and reminder (anamnesis) to accompany Christ in His sacrifice of Himself to the Father for our sake: to conquer sin and death by His Passion and Resurrection. As St. Paul told the Hebrews (10:3-6): "But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure" (italics mine). So too, we are called in a special way in the Lenten Season, by frequent use of this prayer, to focus on and examine the condition or state of our spiritual life: sloth (indifference), despair, (lack of hope), and pride (control, power or status over others), and to pray to grow in purity, humility, endurance and love; to pray to judge ourselves, never others, so as to be vigilant and prepared to respond to Christ's redemptive sanctifying grace. In doing so we become defied, or achieve theosis: Christ indwelling in us, becoming "partakers of the (His) divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). This is the purpose of our very existence.

Schmemann (1969) asks: "Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire Lenten worship?" His answer: "Because it enumerates in a unique way all the negative and positive elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a "check list" for our individual Lenten effort." He calls this effort a "liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases." Such diseases not only "shape" our lives, but also make it virtually impossible to see God and to turn toward Him.

Our Goal: Purity of Heart and the Kingdom of God

Purity of heart and entrance into the Kingdom of God are inextricably joining together which is the purpose of our existence. This is the Godly value which we have to make intrinsic to our lives. St. John Cassian reminds us: "The goal ... is the Kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from this direct path, we must bring it back at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it is were a carpenter's rule" (Philolakia I, p.95) . We could say it is our Lenten work in a special way, but it actually should be the work of our entire lives.

How do we Keep our Hearts Pure and Humble?

St. Antony the Great, of the Desert, tells us it is by the virtue of discrimination that we keep our hearts pure and humble and can "see God." He calls discrimination the "eye and lantern of the soul" (Philokalia I p.99 ). Let us examine what St. Antony means by this. Although not using these terms, St. Antony is saying that life is full of ambiguities and the accidental counterculture influences, as noted by Bandura (1986) above. Although St. Antony would have been more likely to view these influences as Anti-Christ choices, in fact the saint does talk about choices: "swerving neither to the right through immoderate self control, nor to the left through indifference or laxity."

Discrimination: The Lamp of the Soul

St. Antony cites Jesus' Gospel teaching: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Mt. 6: 22-23). And he goes on: "And this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and set aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion." (p. 99) Following the analogy of the ambiguous picture above: there is a "correct" picture. We have to discriminate which one it is. The picture or figure which is the "correct" one to view is the one that is God's will, all else is delusion.

Watchfulness: Focusing the Lamp of the Soul

Other Church Fathers have given us some help to accomplish discrimination. That is, to discern God's will and thus to set aside all that is displeasing to Him. St. Hesychios the Priest (Philokalia I) tells us the way to accomplish such purity of heart is watchfulness. He defines it as "a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God's help from(impassioned thoughts,) impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries."(p. 162) St. Hesychios describes it and tells us of its effects: "Watchfulness is a graceful and radiant virtue when guided by Thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the alertness and deep humility of the human intellect." ... .. "it cleanses the intellect consumed in ungodliness by thee brine of demonic thoughts and the hostile will of the flesh, which is death." (p 171)

It can be so clearly seen that this refers to St. Paul's exhortation to the Romans (8:6-9):

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

St. Paul speaks of the mind set either on flesh, the world hostile to God, or on the Spirit whereby God indwells in us. To accomplish this requires that the individual can discriminate between world and the Spirit. It also implies watchfulness, the alertness necessary to apply discrimination when needed. The wiles of the evil one are so well known, but with focus and trust in God we will be delivered as the psalmist tells us:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust ... ... .. Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble ... (Psalm 90: 1,2-14,15).

Holy Hesychios the Priest tell us further:

Watchfulness is like Jacob's ladder: God is at the top, while the angels climb it. It rids us of everything bad, cuts out loose chatter, abuse, backbiting, and all other evil practices of this kind ... ..We should zealously cultivate watchfulness, my brethren; and when —- our mind purified in Christ Jesus — we are exalted by the vision it confers ... . If because of pride, self-esteem or self-love we are deprived of Jesus' help, we shall lose that purity of heart through which God is known to man (p. 171).

The Old Testament is an ikon of the outward bodily asceticism. The Holy Gospel, or New Testament, is an ikon of attentiveness, that is, of purity of heart. For the Old Testament did not perfect or fulfil the relationship of the inner self to God — "the law made no one perfect," as the Apostle says (cf. Heb. 7:19) — it simply forbade bodily sins. But to cut off evil thoughts from the heart, as the Gospel commands, contributes much more to purity of soul than an injunction (of the Mosaic law- or bodily discipline or ascetic practice in Christian times) ... these things are also good ... guard(ing) against the passions) ... but ... do not prevent mental sins ... ." "If we preserve ... that purity of heart or watch and guard of the intellect whose image is the New Testament, this will not only uproot all passions and evils from our hearts; it will also introduce joy, hopefulness, compunction, sorrow, tears, an understanding of ourselves and of our sins, mindfulness of death, and true humility, unlimited love of God and man, and an intense and heartfelt longing for the divine (p.181).

Guarding and Attaining Purity of Heart: Humility

It is precisely this one petition: humility, in the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim that appears so dominant in the writings of the Church Fathers in their understanding of the ability to attain the purity of heart to "see God." St. Antony, as quoted by Feiss, 1999, states: "Except through humility in your whole heart and mind, spirit and soul and body, you will not be able to inherit the Kingdom of God."

One holy mother of the church, quoted from the Life of Syncletica by Feiss echoes the words of St. Antony:

Because humility is good and salutary, the Lord clothed (H)imself in it while fulfilling the work of salvation (economy) for (mankind). For (H)e says: 'Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart' (Mt. 11:29). Notice who it is who is speaking. Learn (H)is lesson perfectly. Let humility become for you the beginning and end of virtues. He means a humble heart. He refers not to appearance alone, but to the inner person, for the outer person will also follow after the inner.

St. Isaac the Syrian tells us the relationship of humility to the other virtues. As quoted by Brock, (1987): "What is perfection? Profound humility,. ..What is repentance: ... 'a broken heart'.. And what is a merciful heart? ... 'The hearts burning for all creation, for human beings, for birds, and animals, and for demons and everything else there is.'" May I add this is love and, in God, perfect love.

The Core of Humility

St. Isaac the Syrian was able to penetrate humility not only as the pathway to attain purity of heart, but to tell us what it is. St. Isaac (as quoted by Brock (1987) asks:

And what is humility? ... 'embracing a voluntary mortification with regard to everything'." It ends up that humility is, and of itself is, purity of heart. St. Isaac makes a reference in this regard to those while in prayer: "O disciple of the truth, and the recollection of mind that exists in it, consist in the exact reflection on virtue in which we carefully engage at the time of prayer. ... it consists in the heart being purified of all evil, and in gazing favorably on everything, and considering it from God's point of view ... which is consistent in the abandoning of everything visible and invisible: visible meaning everything involved with the senses; invisible meaning all thinking about them.

A Personal Plan of Action

If we reflect on our spiritual status, know our goal and pathway to achieve it, next is to develop a personal plan of action to attain it. Of course this is best done through a holy spiritual father or father confessor, but at least some general guidelines can be listed that may be of some help to some. The following are some guidelines for personal change of heart, mind and deed based on the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:

  • To see God as Almighty, the Alpha and Omega, the meaning, beginning and end of my life in all things. This is to make real the first phrase of the Prayer of St. Ephraim: "O Lord and Master of my life"
  • To see that all we have, life, talents, family, use of objects (money, house etc.) is from God. "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.." (Jas. 1: 17).
  • To overcome all spiritual laziness (sloth), as St. Symeon the New Theologian counsels, in failing to fall "down upon the God of Love." St. Symeon notes that those who have acquired "purity of heart," (have) "triumphed over this" (Philokalia IV). It means a commitment to acquire self-control, to walk on God's path not that of the passions, that is self-centered sensual passion against His Will. St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II) says that by "enduring patiently the harsh and painful afflictions produced by the trials and temptations suffered against your will ... then you may expect to see God's salvation, for you will have become pure in heart."
  • To overcome lust of power in all our relationships. This lust is so beautifully illustrated in the friendship of Herod and Pilate to destroy Jesus as noted by St. Maximus the Confessor. (Philokalia II). The inspired saint links this lust both to unbridled narcissitic self-love and un-chastity. This led to the death of Jesus. We can kill others by physical, sexual, or psychological control and manipulation.
  • To overcome idle talk or empty words. Consider the message of St. Paul to the Ephesians (5: 1-6), in the relation of "empty words" to so much other sinfulness:
    Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
    Thus our task is to discriminate and be on our watch for idle talk, empty words. Such words are not really empty at all, but are the words of the "deceiver" and lead to idolatry.
  • To overcome anger. Anger is related to pride: " ... for anger is the explosion of frustrated self-will" writes Irenee Hausherr (1978), reflecting on the life of St. Dosithy , who was the disciple of St. Dorotheos of Gaza. St. Dorotheos, (quoted by Wheeler, 1977) makes it even more clear: "It is impossible for a man to be angry with anyone unless his heart is first lifted up against him, unless he despises him and esteems himself superior to him."
  • To acquire chastity in our lives in relations with others. Chastity, or rather the lack of it, derives from the "desiring aspect of the soul ... (it) is revealed through food, gestures and speech, through what appeals and does not appeal; through taste, sight and hearing, both by the use it makes of them and by the way it misuses them, and even by the neutral attitude it adopts toward them." It indicates what we want to control, covet and idolize. These words by St. Ilias the Presbyter (Philokalia III) indicate to us that all our desires: sexual or in care of our bodies, (food and drink) must be in accord with God's will and for the good and welfare of ourselves and others.
  • To acquire humility viewed as complete dependency on God. Recall St. Paul's words to the Corinthians (2Cor. 12:9): "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." St. Isaac the Syrian tells us there are only two forms of humility acceptable to God: awe or what Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2000) calls "religious trepidation," that is not to offend Him by sin, and "spiritual joy." Contrition of heart is essential to both forms. Bishop Hilarion quotes St. Isaac: "There is a humility that comes from the fear of God, and a humility that comes from the fervent love of God. One is humbled because of his fear of God; the other is humbled because of his joy." Modesty and right ordering of the senses is characteristic of the former, exuberance and a guileless insuppressible heart characterizes the latter.
  • To acquire love and patience. St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II p. 53 ) links love and patience together. He states "Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God." Patience, St Paul tells us is one of the characteristics of love. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1Cor. 13:4): "Love is patient and kind." It appears, therefore, that we have a reciprocally interlocking circle of virtues. Responding to God's grace one virtue not only leads to another virtue other, but they each strengthen one another. By placing our hope and trust in God we also overcome the despair we asked to be taken from us by God when praying St. Ephraim's first petition. As the psalmist tells us: "Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love ... " (Ps 33:18).
  • To focus on judging ourselves and not others in anything. The sin of the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk. 18: 10-14) was not that he was righteous before God, but that he thought himself "better" than the Publican. If we never judge others' actions or gifts, we work toward conquering the passions of pride, envy, jealousy all at one time. Consider the words of St. Isaac the Syrian. As quoted by Olivier Clément (1993), the Saint poses a question and answer: "Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity? Answer: When he considers all human beings are good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him. Then he is truly pure in heart." Priestmonk Christodoulos (Ageloglou, 1998) said of a modern holy elder, Paisios of the Holy Mountain: "He only saw the good things in life and he was blind to every evil."

Christ's Only Request: Humility

Elder Paisios said: "This is our aim to totally submit our mind to the grace of God. The only thing Christ is asking us is our humility. The rest is taken care of by His grace."

We started this essay with a statement that all is humility; we are ending the same way. It was also pointed out that with grace building on nature, we, by our God-created nature are free to make choices. Just like in the ambiguous pictures above, wherein we had a choice of either seeing the Old Maid, or the Young Woman, we are free to see the ambiguous world of today as based on the values of God or on the values of demonic evil.

Humility Encompasses All

Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev, 2000) comments that St. Isaac the Syrian notes "both inward and outward signs of humility." Bishop Hilarion considers drawing boundary lines between them is difficult, and cites the following passage as an example. I pray with all respect, to suggest an alternative but not contradictory interpretation. Namely that humility is the pathway to all other virtues.

Let us end with the words of one of our greatest Spiritual Fathers of the Church:

Humility is accompanied by modesty and self-collectedness: that is, chastity of the senses; a moderated voice; mean ( i.e. unadorned) speech ; self-belittlement; poor raiment; a gait that is not pompous; a gaze directed toward the earth; superabundant mercy; easily flowing tears; a solitary soul; a contrite heart; imperturbability to anger; undistracted senses; few possessions; moderation in every need; endurance; patience; fearlessness; manliness of heart born of deliberations that are ponderous, not light; extinction of thoughts; guarding of mysteries; chastity; modesty; reverence; and above all, continually to be still and always to claim ignorance.

How do we scale such spiritual heights?

"With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."


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(i) Maslow does not distinguish between judging the individual versus the behavior. In fact he states "respect for others who are worthy of it." Of course this is opposed to Our Lord's teaching and will be discussed later in this article.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: March 5, 2008

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