The Publican and the Pharisee: A Sermon

The Publican and the Pharisee

Beloved of God, today as we begin the Lenten Triodion, we read the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. And so the first theme the Triodion puts before us, prior to setting out upon the struggle of Great Lent is humility. Humility is the firm foundation upon which every virtue depends and without which every good thing we do is in danger of rotting. So today we will talk about humility and in doing this I would like to mention some examples of humility in the ascetics I have met.

First I will mention Mother Makrina. She was the abbess of the Monastery of the Theotokos Ogiditria or Theotokos “The Directress” in the village Portaria near the sea port of Volos in central Greece. She was well known as a gifted Eldress and “directress” to monastics, so much so that there were even some Athonite monks who visited her for their profit. I also went to see her for soul-profiting instruction. As we began to speak she learned that I was a priest, and she got down on her knees, and with tears in her eyes asked me to pray for her and bless her. It was amazing to see the humility she had acquired. I told the Elder Ephraim about this and asked him: “How did Mother Makrina acquire such humility?” He answered: “She was in obedience to my Elder and she considered herself to be the least of all the sisters.” This is something to marvel at: She surpassed all that were with her, in labors and the grace of God, yet she considered herself lower than all. How did she accomplish this? I will pass on some words of hers which can give us some idea. I asked, “How does a monk combat the thought that you are better than some of the other fathers who appear to be negligent?” She replied: “Say, ‘They are angels, I must strive very hard to keep up with them.’” This may be hard for the logical mind to accept but if we apply to this another precept of Mother Makrina it is quite possible, and that is, “Don’t think pray.”

Then there is the Elder Elias of Optina. His patron saint is not the great prophet but one of the Forty Martys of Sebaste. He was asked to come from the Holy Mountain to Optina. Once he visited America, and he came to St. Tikhon’s Monastery for a Saturday night vigil. I could describe him as simple and unpretentious. Somehow you could especially see this latter in him. I asked him: “How can a monk acquire humility?” He smiled and shook his head as if he were to say, “Do you really expect me to answer this?” Then he said, “Be well acquainted with your sins and your weaknesses.”

Several months later I visited a monastery in California. The whole brotherhood had gone to get the blessing of the Elder Elias when he stopped at the Cathedral in San Francisco dedicated to the icon of the Theotokos “Joy of All Who Sorrow”. A young novice there expressed to me his experience of meeting the Elder as follows: “When we were told that we were going to see an Elder from Russia I thought we would meet someone who was ready to blast off to the moon. But he was nothing! I couldn’t believe it, he was nothing!” Such was the effect of the Elder’s humility on the young novice.

Finally I will say something about St. Paisius the Athonite. When I visited Athos in 1986, while a novice at St. Tikhon’s, I went to him with the question: “Should I stay on the holy Mountain or return to my monastery in America?” I gave him a letter to read which a monk at Philotheou Monastery translated into Greek. We talked a bit with my broken Greek and the more trust I put in him the more humble he became. He asked what the Elder Ephraim of Philotheou said to me and I told him, “The longer you stay the better it will be.” I continued, “I said to Elder Ephraim that I want to go to Father Paisius and do whatever he says and he replied, ‘Yes may it be blessed’”. At this point Father Paisius, so-to-speak, exploded with humility. I was basically asking him to tell me God’s will and he considered this to be something beyond him so he sent me to another renowned Athonite Elder. He said, “Papa Ephraim of Katounakia is very spiritual, much more spiritual than I am. Go to Papa Ephraim of Katounakia.” His humility was such that I also was enveloped in it to some degree. This feeling of humility stayed with me so strongly that for a whole week a proud thought could not even come into my mind. In closing with Father Paisius what can I say? To come in contact with a man in whom virtue has become organic can be more profitable than many words of wisdom. In such a meeting you encounter a piece of the living God through the medium of a human being.

So let us struggle to acquire humility and in addition to what has already been said I would like to add one more comment of Elder Ephraim. When I asked him, “How can someone acquire grace and remain humble?” He answered, “Realize that without God you can do nothing. My Elder said that without God you cannot even move your foot.” So let us seek to lay humility as a foundation of our struggles. And to avoid pride let us ever keep in mind the words of St. John Chrysostom: “What shall we do to have acquired true humility? We shall in no way ever do it, but to whatever degree of humility we may have acquired, the greater part remains to be accomplished.”

To our Lord Jesus Christ Who said, “Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart” be glory together with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.