Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia, vol. 3: The Silence of Humility


If you had to pick just one commandment to follow, Ilias writes, let it be humility.

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All Fathers talk about humility as a cardinal virtue, yet familiarity often discourages re-thinking and introspection. What is it that we learn from Ilias about humility?

Humility, Ilias tells us, is not just an equal part of the whole. It is the prerequisite for getting a seat at the table; the engine, without which, the locomotive cannot move.

If we lack humility, we cannot ascend to God no matter how brilliant we may be or how much we engage in ascetic practice. In fact, without humility, we are simply not true aspirants to God, just as a merchant, no matter how skillful, cannot be called a true merchant if he lacks merchandise.

 41. Lacking gold, a merchant is not a merchant, even though he may be very skillful in trading

“Similarly,” Ilias continues, “lacking humility, a spiritual aspirant will never possess the joys of virtue, however great the confidence he places in his own intelligence.”

Why is it impossible to taste the joys of virtues without humility?

Ilias is inequivalent about the impossibility to be virtuous without humility.

Just as he who lacks gold is poor, even though this may not be outwardly apparent, so the spiritual aspirant who lacks humility is not virtuous.

Apparent virtues, in fact, without humility can convert into the opposite– sources of pride, hunger for praise, contempt of others, competitiveness. The turmoil and inner “noise” they generate prevent us from experiencing joy and peace when we practice virtues.   

Even the noble virtue of truth can be destructive without humility.

Truth without humility is blind. That is why it becomes contentious: it tries to support itself on something and finds nothing except rancor.

A truth, for example about exercise, healthy eating, a political fact, etc., can lead to self-righteousness and divisiveness without humility. Our own world is fragmented into factions that turn a truth into a weapon for attacking those who disagree, a justification for isolating themselves and a narrow lens through which they perceive everything else in the world.


Silence is another manifestation of humility. Without humility and restraint, we cannot achieve inner stillness and silence. Whether it is practice gone astray through the excess of asceticism, pride that causes jealousy, contempt, or comparisons with others, the absence of humility drowns out inner stillness and silence. Our souls are weighed down with anxious thoughts and warring passions and cannot experience the joy of the virtuous practiced.

Not all types of silence are the same. Silence, for example, is not simply the absence of speech, though it may be a first step. It is the absence of passions in one’s heart and the peace that stems from it. This is what Ilias calls “intelligent” or “quality” silence.

54. You can achieve frugality by lowering the quantity of your food, and sinlessness in speech by raising the quality of your silence.

Humility is enabled by, as well it enables, inner silence and restraint. We are asked to go beyond a virtuous act, such as charity and lose ourselves in another through empathy. We are called to set aside rampant thoughts and preoccupations with our own agenda so we can truly focus on others. Performing charity for praise or to check an unpleasant obligation off our list does not produce joy. While our hands or words perform virtuous deeds, our hearts are not freed from attachment to passions. We look like servants on the surface, but in our hearts we remain masters, losing the opportunity for love and connection and the peace of inner silence.  

50. He who washes his neighbor’s garment with inspired words, or who sews it up by contributing to his needs, has the outward appearance of a servant, but is really a master. But when he acts in this way, he must be careful to do so truly as a servant, lest by growing conceited he loses both his reward and his proper rank.

Through restraint and humility, we can harness passions to a good purpose. We are no subject to their control. We are no longer fragmented and conflicted. The entirety of our heart, soul and body are harmonized and aimed at the same goal.

52. ‘The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in’ (Ps. 121:8): that is. He will enable you by means of self-control to watch over the food you-take in and the words you give out. For the person who exercises self-control over food and speech escapes the desire that enters through the eyes and calms the anger that issues from a disordered mind. The spiritual aspirant must exercise the greatest care and exert himself in every way in relation to these two passions. By so doing he will strengthen his practice of the virtues and put his contemplation on a sound basis.

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