In Father Sergius, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, a wealthy Russian nobleman enters a monastery under questionable motives, but ended up genuinely striving for holiness and virtue, and even finding that the battle for sanctity was worth it! Despite his progress, he constantly felt weak in his faith, and unceasingly begged God to grant more. He was humble.

After seven years living as a hermit, an attractive woman visited who was bent on seducing him (he was well known as a very handsome hermit). What she didn’t know was that just before she arrived he had been nearly overcome with thoughts of lust, so she had come at just the “right” time.

She banged and begged at his door as if stranded and alone, tricking him into letting her in on a cold Russian winter night (her friends had actually dropped her off), and after he locked himself in his room to avoid her, she told him to stay in his room because she was undressing – a fact she knew would make him imagine her.

He could hear her silken garments moving and, having exposed herself, she began moaning requests to him.   She pleaded that she had been stricken very ill, perhaps by the cold, and desperately needed his immediate attention. From his room he whispered prayers knowing that his faith was too weak for such a trial. He knew what she wanted. He wanted her. He then burst out of his room, sped past her straight to his porch where an ax lay for splitting wood, and laid down his finger and cut it off in an extreme act of mortification (to be understood, but not emulated). He had resisted sin to the point of shedding blood! Witnessing this, she collapsed into tears begging for forgiveness. He told her God would forgive her, and told her to leave immediately. Her friends picked her up and brought her home. Soon thereafter she entered a convent.

The news of this encounter spread, giving the hermit great fame. Pilgrims came for blessing and healing. As his fame grew, so did his pride. He pretended to dislike the constant attention, but inside he loved it more and more.

At the height of his fame, something had changed in him, and a man came and begged that he would bless his daughter – with his heart more prideful this too was just the “right” time. As she entered, he was overcome with her femininity, and lust surged within him. She seemed to know it.  She approached him, took his hand, and placed it on her breast. The two descended rapidly into their passions, his will totally overcome. The next morning he awoke with her in his bed and had to flee in a disguise.

The Difference Pride Makes

In the two instances of the monk being tempted, there lies a central theme: faith and humility.

Alone in the woods, presuming a lack of faith, he overcomes acute temptation by humility. By the time of his second temptation, he had swelled with pride at the stroking of his ego, forgetting that faith is a gift to be opened, not a “quality” that we master and display for man’s eyes. As we progress in the spiritual life, there will be moments of victory. Yet we must never let our pride get ahead. Not a bit. “Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).  With this story in mind, we can hear the gravity of these words from Sirach: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself…”

Humility is trust in God. Trust in God is faith, a total abandonment into the hands of true Power, Strength, and Greatness. Humility is not debasement or a conjuring of self-loathing, but the acceptance of the reality that God is God and we are not. Humility sees things as they are. Humility does not leave us weak in a corner, but lifted high by a mighty God. “[He] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest on me… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Are you sick of trying to overcome vices, lust? Be weak. You cannot overcome them. Not alone anyway. Need God more. Trust yourself less. Pray as if all of eternity rests on that prayer, because it might.

  • Jason Garrick Shirtz

    I’m not Catholic, so forgive me for my question.
    How does humility (to the point of severing your own finger) represent anything other than humility to the point of debasement, or self depreciation?

    My reading of this story talks of a man who lacked the strength of convictions to resist temptation with willpower alone, and terrified at the prospect of committing a sin, committed a act of self harm instead, as he knew that anything short of a blood act of self harm would lead him into sin.

    He later on, grew in worldly fame, and since he had learned the pain of sufferance once, and the joy and pleasure of status, succumbed to the sins of the flesh, not because of “pride” but because he had learned to enjoy worldly pleasures, rather than fear them to the point of self-harm.

    I mean, clearly i’m not a catholic so perhaps there is some understanding of the concept of humility that many catholics have, but I don’t but in my mind I think if he was really humble he would have submitted to god’s will by using a method that did not involve self harm.

  • teo

    Yes to your essay. Very helpful. thank you. prayers for you on this Triduum.

  • DKowalsky2

    This is excellent, Jason. Thanks for writing. If I may add one spiritual practice that will aid greatly in humility, and, thus, the overcoming of lust —

    Rosary, Rosary, and more Rosary.

    Be well and a blessed Triduum, all.

  • Bob Ewald

    After years of spiritual journeying, my final step to controlling these passions (in all/any of their forms) was this: first, a direct & firm question to God about my inability to succeed despite prayer; second, being open to His answer; third, which came in two parts. The first part was a reflection about Peter’s denials of Christ. The priest posited that Our Lord looked at Peter and thought: why did you turn inward in your hour of anxiety? Turn outward and look to me. The second part was a reflection on the prodigal son. We’ve all seen the beautiful Rembrandt painting of the son’s return. But there is also a sketch by Rembrandt of the son as he knelt with the swine at the trough. It was then that he made his choice – return to the Father or elbow into the trough with the pigs. That’s all I needed to see/visualize.

  • Martin Culpepper

    Jason, you have my vote for this Lent’s best post. Last night was another night on the road, another city, another hotel room . . . then, the Lord in His Infinite Mercy, had your post for me. Thank you.

  • Ioannes

    Wow thank you for the very powerful humility check. I shall remember to pray the litany of humility more: https://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/prayers/humility.htm