LEARNING IN HUMILITY: St. Peter of Damaskos (Philokalia, III)

In our perception of ourselves and the world, our knowledge, and the ability to learn, are unquestionable. This is why our conviction in the righteousness of our positions can be so firm that it justifies wars, alienation, division, and even hatred.

Peter of Damascus does not dispute our God-given capability to learn. He simply states that true knowledge cannot take place without humility.

Without humility we may read the Scriptures the same way we read fiction or the newspaper, with the same expectations for linear narrative and logical culmination of “plots.”  The danger is to “search the Scriptures simply with our minds and then out of pride think that we have grasped something.”

It is interesting that Peter brings up the frequent repetition in sacred texts. Reading only with “our minds,” and depending only on ourselves alone, will make us question the choice of “needless” repetitions in the text and make us impatient. Taking the time to understand the context, and leaving our ego behind to turn to God, will reveal meaning behind what, on the surface, appears to be redundant.

Divine Scripture often repeats the same words, yet this is not to be regarded as verbosity. On the contrary, by means of this frequent repetition it unexpectedly and compassionately draws even those who are very slow in grasping things to an awareness and understanding of what is being said; and it ensures that a particular saying does not escape notice because of its fleetingness and brevity.

In oral traditions around the world, there is frequent repetition of words, refrains and themes. In ritual poetry and song, repetitions—and even non-sensical words—are meant to transport you beyond words and objects, beyond yourself, to a level of spiritual engrossment.

In other words, our knowledge can be false if we rely only on ourselves and the framework of experiences to draw conclusions. Humility allows the emptying of self and, hence, openness of mind. It allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of others and listen without agenda or preconceptions. It requires that we eschew quick judgments and reactions and take the time to understand the contexts of culture, history, society, traditions, and community and to ask for help.

Reading the scriptures is not simply an act of following the narrative literally or transposing our own habits and assumptions into the text, but one of searching to understand the hidden mysteries behind the text.

For there are many mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures, and we do not know God’s meaning in what is said there.

Above all, learning in humility is based on the understanding that we cannot know deeply on our own efforts alone, but only through the gift of God and the Holy Spirit.

Learning without humility results in what St. Peter calls spurious knowledge.

Spurious knowledge, or ‘knowledge falsely so called’ (1 Tim. 6 : 2o),is that which a man possesses when he thinks he knows what he has never known. It is worse than complete ignorance, says St John Chrysostom, in that its victim will not accept correction from any teacher because he thinks that this worst kind of ignorance is in fact something excellent.

This essay is not a discouragement to learning but a humble acknowledgement of the impossibility of obtaining true knowledge without setting aside our ego, abandoning our certainties and seeking God’s help.

Knowledge led by pride can lead to delusion. How many times do we search for data that support our point of view?  How many times do we seek to be surrounded by those whose views and actions justify and support our own?

When reading the scriptures, we cannot penetrate the true meaning of the mysteries or experience a connection with God unless our ability to learn is harnessed to humility. We have to suspend dependence on words, ideas, logical sequences and factual learning processes and question the certainty in our interpretation to learn through immersion in humility and real-life practice:

For this reason, the fathers say that we ought to search the Scriptures assiduously, in humility and with the counsel of experienced men, learning not merely theoretically but by putting into practice what we read; and that we ought not to inquire at all into what is passed over in silence by Holy Scripture.

The man who has been enabled by grace to acquire spiritual knowledge should struggle to study the divine Scriptures and this knowledge with deep dedication, humility, attention and fear of God; for unless he does this he will be deprived of his knowledge and threatened with punishment, as unworthy of what God has given him, in the same way as Saul was deprived of his kingdom, as St Maximos explains.


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