There are certain kinds of trees which never bear any fruit as long as their branches stay up straight, but if stones are hung on the branches to bend them down they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul. When it is humbled it begins to bear fruit, and the more fruit it bears the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints; the nearer they get to God, the more they see themselves as sinners. … Do you see the humility of the saints and how their hearts were set on it? Even when messengers straight from God were sent to them to help them they were not turned away from humility but fled from self-glorification. As men clad all in silk flee if a filthy rag is thrown at them, so that their noble robes will not be stained, so the saints, clad in virtue, take flight from human glory lest they be stained by it. Those who desire that sort of glory are like the naked man who always wishes to find a few rags, anything at all, to cover his shame. So too one who is naked of virtue desires to be praised by men. Therefore the holy men who are sent from God to help men, do not let go of humility. Hence on one occasion Moses said, ‘I beseech thee, Lord, send another more eloquent than me for I am hard-voiced and a stammerer.’ Jeremiah said on another occasion, ‘I am a child!’ So every single one of the saints, as I have said, acquired this humility from the fulfilment of the Commandments. No one can explain how this comes about, how humility is generated in the soul. Unless a man learns this by experience, he cannot learn it by verbal teaching.
One day Zosimos was talking about humility. There was a certain sophist present who, hearing what he said, wanted to enquire more deeply into it and he said, ‘Tell me how you can reckon yourself a sinner. Do you not see that you are a holy man? Do you not see that you have already acquired virtue? Do you not see that you are fulfilling the Commandments? How can it be that doing all these things you still reckon yourself a sinner?’ The old gentlemen did not quite know how to answer, and he said, ‘I do not know how to explain it to you, but it is quite true.’ The sophist then brushed this aside and repeated his request to know how this could be true. But the old gentleman still could not find a way of explaining it and began to say with his usual holy simplicity, ‘Do not try and confuse me. I tell you this is exactly how I feel.’ Since I saw the old gentleman hesitating over how to reply, I said to him, ‘Is this not rather like sophistics or medicine? When a man is studying it carefully and is practising it little by little, by doing the work he acquires the state of mind proper to a sophist or a doctor, and he is unable to say and does not know how to explain how little by little he was led into that state of mind, for the soul absorbed it imperceptibly. The same sort of thing is found as regards humility; the work of fulfilling the Commandments generates a state of humility and the process cannot be explained in words.’ When he heard this Abbot Zosimos was glad and embraced me and said, ‘You have found the answer; it is as you say.’ The sophist, hearing this, had his difficulty laid to rest and accepted the explanation. For the elders used to say that by doing certain things we intend to cultivate humility; when the state of true humility is generated, no one can find an adequate description of it.