Amma Theodora: Only Humility is Victorious
Spiritual practices do not produce humility, but they prepare us for it.
Amma Theodora1 said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that.
There was an anchorite2 who was able to banish the demons; and asked them,
"What makes you go away? Is it fasting?" They replied, "We do not eat or drink."
"Is it vigils?" They replied, "We do not sleep."
"Is it separation from the world?" "We live in the deserts."
"What power sends you away then?" They said, "Nothing can overcome us, but only humility."
"Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?"3
Amma Theodora, also known as Theodora of Alexandria, was a Christian ascetic and desert mother who lived in the fourth century AD. She is one of the most revered female monastics of the early church, and here she warns of a perennial temptation, one that I stumble over again and again:
Power does not reside in practices.
Practices cannot save us; only humility can. It's as I cooperate with God, through the practices, that he develops humility within me, and it's that developing humility that saves.
What do I mean by saves?
Don’t think forensic salvation, the juridical kind that simply secures my eternal destiny, but rather think being progressively delivered from self-fixation in all areas of my life.
This is the kind of liberation Theodora has in mind.
It's easy to understand why I slip into the trap of overemphasizing ascetic practices from time to time. Usually, I'm hoping for quick results. Or I'm operating from subtle, inflated-ego motivations. Or I'm trying to conform too quickly to someone else's virtues, imagining I can receive in days what took them decades to acquire.
When it comes to training with spiritual practices, I’m always stumbling.
But I’m learning not to feel guilty about that, because stumbling over this trap is not so much a deviation from a path, as it is a rite of passage.
That is, humility is something we learn through repeated failure.
There is no other way, just as a child can only learn to ride a bike by falling down many times, we can only gain humility by experiencing failure again and again.
Knowing this takes the pressure off. I don't need to worry about perfection (or anything close to it), but rather I can focus on making progress little by little. My job is is to engage in asceticism gently, lightly – almost delicately – and allow God to do the heavy lifting.
The practices themselves do not produce humility, but they prepare us for it.
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Amma Theodora was a renowned Christian ascetic and spiritual leader who lived in the 6th century. She was known for her wisdom and compassion, and many people sought her guidance and advice. Amma Theodora spent much of her life in the Egyptian desert, where she lived as a recluse and dedicated herself to prayer and contemplation. Despite her solitary lifestyle, she had a profound impact on the early Christian church and is still remembered and revered today.
An anchorite is a person who withdraws from the world and lives a solitary life of extreme religious devotion. The term originates from the Greek word "anachoreo," which means "to withdraw or retire." In medieval times, anchorites were often enclosed in small cells attached to churches or monasteries, where they spent the rest of their lives in prayer and contemplation, with limited contact with the outside world. They were highly respected for their spiritual dedication and were often sought out for their counsel and advice.
Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers. United States: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2014.