We live in a world of unprecedented comfort: electricity, indoor plumbing, heating and air-conditioning, medicine, healthcare, abundant food, myriad consumer products, and entertainment available with the click of a button. Despite this we do not seem more grateful or at ease than our forebears. If anything, we aremoreanxious. For example, though people have never lived so long nor been so healthy, we have never been more worried about our health.
One would think that such abundance and comfort would lead us to be exceedingly grateful and to overlook small setbacks, remembering how much more difficult life was for our ancestors—but the opposite seems more often to be the case. We seem to be easily frustrated and to have little tolerance for enduring even the most minor suffering. Our comfortable couches have made us soft and our countless options have made us overly particular and easily annoyed. There is an old saying that “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” We certainly have a lot of expectations these days, many of them unrealistic in the long run. The insistence on everything being perfect seems to rob us of the happiness we should enjoy. Everyone wants the ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a newdeal.
We seem to have lost the idea the idea that life is a time of testing for us. We live in paradise lost, and there are going to be difficulties. St. Augustine reminds us that trials have their purpose:
Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations. [From a commentary on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (Ps. 60, 2-3: CCL 39, 766)].
Yes, trials and tests help us to gain self-knowledge and self-mastery. Trials also have purifying and humbling effects. So good is God to us that He allows His graces to become our merits. For, having engaged the battle of life and undergone its trials, the crown of victory will be granted to us. St. Augustine surely has in mind St. Paul’s confident hope:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but to all who crave His appearing(2 Tim 4:7-8).
Where would you and I be today without the trials of the past? We do not seek out suffering, but the suffering that inevitably comes in both small and large doses helps to form our character, make us stronger, and give us wisdom.
We who live in the developed world today have, for the most part, “First World problems,” and we do well to remember the inevitability of trials in this life. We don’t have to like them, but when they come, we should accept and endure them graciously. Resentment and anger at such trials do not bespeak spiritual maturity. Enjoy the good things and comforts of this life but beware the tendency to become soft and overly fussy. Remember, too, that this world is passing away.
The song “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” has these appropriate lyrics:
Trials dark on every hand
And we cannot understand,
All the ways that God will lead us
To that blessed Promised Land.
But He guides us with His eye,
And we follow till we die,
And we’ll understand it better by and by.
None of us likes to think we are prideful. It’s always someone else; that guy over there is the arrogant one. One way of gauging is to ponder how well we accept being corrected. Consider the following verses from Proverbs:
He who corrects an arrogant man earns insult; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs opprobrium. Reprove not an arrogant man, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning (Proverbs 9:7-12).
Which one are you?Do you bristle when someone corrects you or do you grow wiser from the input you receive?
It’s not easy to accept criticism or correction without feeling some degree of humiliation, particularly when it is public in some manner.
Of course, there are different kinds of correction.There is the sort that involves facts about which we are mistaken. At other times need to be set straight on the proper procedures to be followed in some situation. Finally, there are times when we have failed in a moral sense and need to be summoned back to what is right. Whatever the case, being corrected can be difficult, and how we handle it is a good indicator of pride or humility in our soul.
There are, to be sure, times when people do not correct us in the best way possible.Perhaps they are smug or seek to embarrass us. Even in those cases, though, if we are wrong, we should view correction as beneficial, regardless of how poorly it is delivered.
Note also that the passage from Proverbs above links humility to wisdom and learning.Thus, something we call docility is related to humility. The word docility comes from the Latin word for being teachable. Too often, we can be stubbornly opinionated and resist being taught. It is important to ask the Lord for greater docility.
In preparation for Lent, take this short self-test for pridefulness: How do you take correction? How teachable are you?
In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.
St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider today. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, while my meager commentary is shown in plain, black text. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing the book Steps of Humility and Pride.
(1) Fear of God– To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe. It is to be filled with wonder at all God has done, and at who He is. Cringing, servile fear is not recommended. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride. It is looking to God and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies that begins to break our pride.
Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside oneself and upward to God.
Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.
(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to His father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). This is what abnegation of the will means: to surrender one’s will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to override one’s own.
Pride demands to do what it pleases, to determine what is right or wrong. In this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.
The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “Why can’t I have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”
On the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to Him and to submit to His vision for us.
(3) Obedience – Having attained a humbler disposition of heart, we are now more willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying His holy will, to surrendering our stubborn will to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to put it into action.
(4) Patient endurance – Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride, and striving to hear and understand God’s will and obey, we can surely expect to fact both external and internal obstacles.
Our flesh—that is, our sinful nature—does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. It resists prayer, resists being subject to anything other than its own wishes and desires. Thus, we suffer internal resistance from our sinful nature.
Little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.
We also often encounter external resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps friends seek to draw us back into our former ways. Perhaps the structures of our pride remain: willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intention to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.
Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. It often takes years—even decades—of patient and persistent action for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.
(5) Disclosure of the heart – As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).
Recognizing our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities requires a lot of humility. We must often resurrect unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. In our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.
We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a humbling but necessary part of the journey down the mountain of pride.
(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance; it is a great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:
External contentedness is rooted in the ability to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that are not to our liking. Acceptance does not imply approval of everything. There are many things in the world that we ought not to approve of, but acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully in accordance with our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. Even with those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them as quickly as we would like. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus cautioned us not to act hastily to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.
Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. Pride demands that our agenda be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”
(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.
Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, but remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.
With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). As we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be; our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do and of how we interact with God and others, but we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.
(8) Submission to the common rule – The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.
As our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others. We must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches us that the world does not revolve around us and what we want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than our own. Humility helps us to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws typically exist to protect the common good. Humility also makes us more willing to submit our personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.
(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say or that what he has to say is more important. As our humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.
(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened, for fear begets anger.
As we discussed yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered. As we grow deeper in humility, though, we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.
Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, and rumor. We are less stirred up by the machinations of marketers, less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the media. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us. The humble person trusts God and is thus not easily unsettled by these things—and it is thoughts that generate feelings.
As our thought life becomes more measured, our conclusions are drawn more carefully and humbly, our emotions are less volatile, and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.
(11) Restraint in speech – As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, that serenity is reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are satisfied with staying in the conversation, with just sowing seeds to be harvested later, perhaps even by others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking; we are more content to speak the truth in love, with both clarity and charity.
(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word hypocritas refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role rather than being who they are.
The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. As humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.
This is because the gift of humility opens us to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.
By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.
Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. As we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.
So you think the idea of the “Twelve Steps” is new? Well, if you think you’ve got a new idea, go back and see how the Greeks put it, or in this case how the Medieval Latins put it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux identified twelve steps up the mountain of pride in his work Steps of Humility and Pride.
In today’s post, we focus on the Twelve Steps of Pride. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the Twelve Steps of Humility (from St. Benedict’s rule). Below, I list the Twelve Steps of Pride briefly and then provide some commentary (it’s my commentary, so don’t blame St. Bernard :-)). Again, the list is his; the inferior comments are mine.
Note how the twelve steps grow progressively more serious and lead ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps tend to build on one another, beginning in the mind, moving to behavior, then to deepening attitudes of presumption, and ultimately bringing forth revolt and slavery. For if one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.
There are twelve steps up the mountain of pride. Think of these like escalating symptoms:
(1) Curiosity – Although there is such a thing as healthy curiosity, we often delve into things we ought not: other peoples affairs, private matters, sinful situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity to be annexed to pride is that so often we think we have a right to know things we do not. And hence we pridefully and indiscreetly look into things that we ought not: things that are not for us to know, or that are inexpedient and distracting for us, or perhaps that are beyond our ability to handle well. But casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged sense, we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not, as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.
(2) Levity of mind – Occupying our mind with inappropriate things grows, and we tend to become playful in wider matters. Here, too, a reasonable sense of humor and some recreational diversion have their place. A little light banter about sports or pop culture may provide momentary diversions that are relaxing. But too often, this is just about all we do, and we pridefully cast aside matters about which we should be serious, instead pursuing only light and passing things. In ignoring or making light of serious things pertaining to eternity and delving only into entertaining and passing things, we pridefully ignore things to which we ought to attend. Watching sitcoms and “reality” TV for hours with no time for prayer, study, instruction of children in the faith, caring for the poor, and so forth, shows a lack of seriousness that manifests pride. We lightly brush aside what is important to God and substitute our own foolish priorities. This is pride.
(3) Giddiness – Here, we move from levity of mind to the frivolous behaviors it produces, behaviors in which we overemphasize lightweight experiences or situations at the expense of more important things having to do with profundities. Silly, vapid, foolish, and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We pridefully maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We find plenty of time for frivolity but no time for prayer or study of Holy Truth.
(4) Boasting – Increasingly locked into our own little world of darkened intellect and foolish behavior, we begin to exult in baser, carnal activities and consider them a sign of greatness; we begin to boast of foolish things. To boast is to speak and think of oneself more highly than is true or reasonable. While we should learn to appreciate the gifts we have, we ought to recall that they ARE gifts given to us by God and often developed through the help of others. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) But the boaster thinks too highly of himself, either asserting gifts he does not have, or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride. In addition, as we have seen, our boasting tends to be about foolish and passing things.
(5) Singularity– Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves even greater. We are king, all right, king of an ant hill, rulers of a tiny speck of dust sweeping through the immensity of space. But as our pride grows, we too easily forget our dependence on God and others for who and what we are. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are all contingent beings, dependent on God and others. Further, we also too easily withdraw into our own little mind and world, tending to think that something is so just because we think it to be so. Withdrawing only to our own counsel, we discount the evidence of reality and stop seeking information and advice from others. The man who seeks only his own counsel has a fool for an adviser, and a prideful one at that! Singularity is pride. Yet this pride swells in us as our world gets ever smaller and more singular, focused increasingly only on our own self.
(6) Self-conceit – Here is described an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world gets ever smaller and our pride ever greater, our self-focus and delusion grows ever stronger and we become increasingly self-referential. Now, something is so merely because I say so. I am fine because I say so. Never mind that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, sanctity and sinfulness. Too easily we grow blind to just how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we find faults in others but fail to see them in ourselves. Further, we too easily seek to compare ourselves to others favorably, thinking, “Well, at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” But being better than a prostitute or a drug dealer is not the standard we must meet. Jesus is the standard we must meet. Rather than comparing ourselves to Jesus and seeking mercy, we compare ourselves to others on whom we look down, and give way to pride.
(7) Presumption – At this stage, even God’s judgements must cede to ours. I am fine and will be saved because I say so. This is a sin against hope, wherein we simply take salvation as granted and due to us no matter what we do. In effect, we already claim to possess what we do not. It is right for us to confidently hope for God’s help in attaining eternal life; this is the theological virtue of hope. But it is pride that makes us think we have already accomplished and possess what we in fact do not already have. It is further pride for us to set aside God’s Word, which over and over teaches us to walk in hope and seek God’s help as beggars rather than as possessors or as ones legally entitled to glory in Heaven. Presumption is pride.
(8) Self-justification – Jesus must now vacate the judgment seat because I demand His place. Not only that, He must also vacate the Cross because I don’t really need His sacrifice. I can save myself, and, frankly, I don’t need a lot of saving. Self-justification is the attitude that says I am able, by my own power, to justify (that is, save) myself. It is also an attitude that says, in effect, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” St. Paul says, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:3-4). But the prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable, even to God. The prideful person forgets that no one is a judge in his own case.
(9) Hypocritical confession – In Greek, the word hypocrite means “actor.” In certain settings, some degree of humility and acknowledgement of one’s faults is “profitable.” One can get “credit” for acknowledging certain faults humbly and calling oneself a “sinner.” But the prideful man is just acting. He’s merely playing a role and doing his part, more for social credit than out of real contrition or repentance. After all, he’s really not that bad off. But if posturing and playing the role of the humble and contrite sinner will get him somewhere, he’ll say his lines, play the part, and look holy. But only if the applause from the audience is forthcoming …
(10) Revolt – Pride really begins to get out of control when one revolts outright against God and His lawful representatives. To revolt means to renounce allegiance to or any sense of accountability or obedience to God, his Word, or His Church. To revolt is to attempt to overthrow the authority of others, in this case God and His Church. It is prideful to refuse to be under any authority and to act in ways that are directly contrary to what lawful authority rightly asserts.
(11) Freedom to sin – Here, pride reaches its near conclusion, as it arrogantly asserts and celebrates that it is utterly free to do what it pleases. The prideful man increasingly rejects any restraints or limits. But the freedom of the proud man is not really freedom at all. Jesus says, Whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). The Catechism echoes, The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin (Catechism 1733). But the proud man will have none of this, arrogantly asserting his freedom to do as he pleases, even while descending deeper and deeper into addiction and slavery.
(12) The habit of sinning – Here we see pride’s full and ugly flower: habitual sin and slavery to it. As St. Augustine says, For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity (Conf 8.5.10).
And thus we have climbed the twelve steps of the mountain of pride. It begins in the mind with a lack of sobriety, rooted in sinful curiosity and frivolous preoccupation. Next come frivolous behavior and excusing, presumptive, dismissive attitudes. Last come outright revolt and slavery to sin. The slavery results because if one refuses to serve God out of pride, he will serve Satan. Pride is now in full flower.
We have seen an escalation in these steps that is not far from an old admonition: sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.
At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.
Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:
Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.
When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?
Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.
What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.
Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.
Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.
Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!
Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.
It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.
This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.
The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.
This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.
One of the great mysteries of our life in this world is that we can endure more pain than pleasure. Indeed, we can endure only a little pleasure at a time. In fact, too much pleasure actually brings pain: sickness, hangovers, obesity, addiction, laziness, and even boredom. Yet we seem to be able to endure a lot of pain. Some of our pain, whether physical or emotional, can be very intense and go on for years.
Why is it that we can endure more pain than pleasure?
Physiologists and anthropologists might focus their answer on the fact that we are wired for survival and being able to endure pain helps us more than being able to enjoy pleasure. Fair enough. But I would like to offer an additional answer from a spiritual point of view.
The spiritual answer is that pain is for now while pleasure is for the hereafter. In this world, this exile, this valley of tears, we are being tested; we are meant to fill up our quotient of pain. And while we do enjoy some pleasures here, they are only a foretaste of what will be fully ours only in Heaven. In this world the foretaste seems limited to bite-sized morsels. Otherwise (as noted) we are overwhelmed by pleasure, distracted by it, and even sickened and enslaved by it. Until pain has had its proper effect within us, we are not disciplined or pure enough to properly enjoy large amounts of pleasure.
Pain is thus our first assignment here in this world, this paradise lost. Pain both purifies and teaches.
We should recall that God offered us the paradise of Eden with the proviso that we trust Him to teach us what is best. But we insisted on the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves and the right to decide what was right and wrong. We wanted a better deal than Eden. Here we are now in that “better deal.” Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even knowing that God had said it would usher in suffering and death. And we have all ratified their choice on countless occasions.
God, respecting our freedom, did not undo our choice. Rather, He said, in effect, “Fine, I will meet you at the cross of suffering and death, and allow that very suffering and death to be the way back to me.” And thus the way back to paradise, and to an even higher and heavenly glory, is through the cross.
This is why our tolerance for pain is greater now than is our capacity for pleasure. God has equipped us in this way because pain is for now; pleasure is for later.
Frankly, we need a high tolerance for pain, because it is a needed remedy for a very serious malady. Our condition is grave and requires strong medicine. The cross and its pain is the strong medicine needed. And thus our tolerance for pain must be certainly be greater than our capacity for pleasure.
Pain, despite its unpleasant qualities, has many salutary effects. It teaches us limits and helps conquer our pride. It purifies us. It reminds us that this world is passing and cannot ultimately be our answer. It intensifies our longing for Heaven and the shalom of God. If we endure pain with faith, it draws us to seek help and to trust God more. Pain endured with faith is like being under the surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel inflicts pain but only to cut away what is harmful. It is a strong but healing medicine.
For now, our assignment is clear. Pain has the upper hand and is the strong medicine we need. When in pain, seek relief from God. But if he says no, remember that God promises that His grace will be sufficient for us (see 2 Cor 12:9), and that pain has a healing place for now. It is indeed a gift in a strange package.
Yes, it is a mysterious truth that we have a higher tolerance for pain than for pleasure. But given our current location in paradise lost, it makes sense. One day when suffering, pain, and death have had their full effect, we will enter into the Heaven of God, where pain will be no more and where our capacity for pleasure will blossom like a rose. Having been purified by our pain, our capacity for pleasure will now be full and there will be joys unspeakable and glories untold.
Here is pathos set to music. It is William Byrd’s treatment of a text from Isaiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC
The term “busybody” usually refers to one who is intent on the matters of others but looks little to his own issues. Busybodies also tend to focus especially on the faults, foibles, and troubles of other folks. Seldom are they chattering away about good news related to other people; more often it is the scurrilous and scandalous that occupy their minds.
Merriam-Webster online defines a busybody as “a person who is too interested in the private lives of other people.” It is a form of sinful curiosity.
Now personally I have never been a busybody, but I have known many of them 😉 But of course, this is a human problem. Many of us are far too interested in things that are really none of our business. That alone is problem enough. But the problem is compounded in that the busybody is almost always too little concerned about his own ”issues” (we used to call them sins). When our attention to, fascination with, or scorn about sin is directed outward, we lose the proper introspection that properly examines our own need for repentance. The pointed index finger too easily ignores the three folded fingers pointing back at oneself, and those three fingers symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit urging us to look to our own vineyard.
Indeed, Scripture says,They made me keeper of the vineyards; but, my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song 1:6) For we who would be prophets too easily ignore the word of God as directed to our own souls.
Further, it is a common trap of the devil that he keeps us focused on what we cannot change so that we do not focus on what we can change. In other words, it is more difficult to change others and less difficult to change ourselves. Thus the devil would have us focus on others, who are hard to change, so that we will not focus on our very self, whom we can more easily change.
Thus, being a busybody is not only obnoxious, it is a trap the devil enjoys laying for us.
Pope St. Gregory the Great has a meditation near the end of his Pastoral Rule wherein he ponders the problem of the busybody. He uses the story of Dinah from the Bible. He does not use the term “busybody,” but the related concept of “self-flattery.” Let’s review some of his observations.
Frequently the crafty enemy … seduces [the mind] by flattery in a false security that leads to destruction. And this is expressed figuratively in the person of Dinah. For it is written:
Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the pagan women of the land; and when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her. And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the maiden and spoke tenderly to her (Gen 34:1-3).
For [pertaining to us] Dinah “goes down to see the women of that region.” But whenever a soul neglects to consider itself and concerns itself with the actions of others and wonders beyond its own proper condition and order, then Shechem takes her soul by force, inasmuch as the Devil corrupts the mind that is occupied by external matters. “And [Shechem’s] soul was drawn to her” because the devil considers us conjoined to him through iniquity. And … the devil calls before our minds a false sense of hope and security … Thus it is written that Shechem “spoke tenderly to her” when she was sad [humbled]. For to us the devil speaks to us of the greater offenses committed by others … [Pastoral Rule III.29].
In effect, Gregory uses the story of Dinah as an allegory of the trouble we get into when we focus too much on the lives of others and look not enough to our own souls. For Dinah gets into trouble when she tours the land to see the pagan women (the Hivites) and inquires, with a sort of fascination, into what they do. And one of the men of that land seduces her, taking advantage of the vulnerability caused by her sinful curiosity. But even after being humbled and sinned against, she still lets him speak tenderly to her. She is far too fascinated with the Hivites. And thus her rapist, Shechem, was able to speak tenderly to her and win her heart, a thing no rapist should be able to do.
But so it is with us. We are far too fascinated with the sins and struggles of others. Like busybodies we go out to consort with the people of the sinful world. And being focused on and fascinated by them, rather than looking to our own selves, we open ourselves up to being taken advantage of by both the devil and a sinful world. We are an easy target when we do not look to our own soul but rather are preoccupied with the scurrilous details of the lives of others.
And then the devil seizes us and has consort with our soul. He speaks “tenderly” to us telling us how, compared to others, we are not really so bad. Here is a false security indeed. We have been sinfully curious as to the sins and struggles of others, and now we are in the devil’s clutches being reassured by him.
We should be angry with him for raping our vulnerable soul in the first place! But instead, we let him sweet-talk and reassure us.
And thus we are prey two times over. First, we indulged our sinful curiosity into the struggles of others, and then having done so, allowed ourselves to be falsely reassured by the devil of our relative innocence.
The bottom line is that busybodies are easy prey for the devil. By looking not to their own lives, but instead prying with sinful fascination into the lives of others, they wander into sin easily. And all the while, since they look not to themselves, they are easily deluded by the thought that at least they are not as bad as so-and so.
Then only problem is, “being better than so-and-so” is not the standard for eternal life. Jesus is the standard. Only grace and mercy can help us meet that standard.
The busybody is busy about all things except the one thing necessary. As St. Paul says, If we would judge ourselves truly, we would not be judged (1 Cor 11:31).
I want to give two thumbs up for good old-fashioned experience—just experiencing life to the fullest. Too often in today’s hurried age, in these times of 24×7 news, we rush past experience right to analysis. We insist on knowing immediately what something “means” and what we should think about it. This rush to analyze often happens before the experience is even over. And, of course, analyzing something before all the facts are in can lead to incorrect conclusions. Two sayings come to mind:
Don’t think, look! We miss so much of life when we retreat into our brains to begin immediate analysis. I recently went to an art exhibit called “The Sacred Made Real.” Upon entry, I was handed a thick pamphlet describing each of the works. Instead of diving into the pamphlet, I chose to wander through and gazed upon each marvelous work. Some of them were mysterious to me, but the mystery was part of the experience. Only later did I go back and read about each work. I noticed many people buried in their pamphlets, barely giving the actual artwork a glance. Most of their time was spent reading. Others had headphones on, listening to descriptions of the art, which allows a better look but still fills the mind with information too soon. Another variant on this saying is “Don’t think, listen!” So often when listening to others, we pick up the first few words or sentences and then stop listening so we can start thinking about what we’re going to say next.
Don’t just do something, stand there! With all of our activism, we seldom savor life. Few people rest on the Sabbath anymore. Few eat dinner with their families. Few even know how to relax. Vacations are often packed so full of activities that there is little time to actually experience what one is doing. I live near the U.S. Capitol and often see people so busy taking pictures that I wonder if they ever really see or experience the Capitol.
Even within the sacred liturgy we often get things wrong today. Consider the following:
It’s a First Holy Communion or perhaps a wedding. As the children or the bride come down the aisle, dozens of cameras and cell phones are held aloft. Flashes go off, creating an annoying strobe effect. People scramble to get into better positions for a picture. In recent years, I have had to forbid the use of cameras. For a wedding, the bride and groom are permitted to hire a professional photographer. For First Holy Communion and Confirmation, we permit one professional photographer to take pictures for the entire group. I instruct the assembly that the point of the liturgy is to worship God, to pray, and to experience the Lord’s ministry to us. I insist that they put away their cameras and experience the sacrament being celebrated and the mysteries unfolding before them.
A few years ago, I was privileged to be among the chief clergy for a Solemn High Pontifical Mass in the Old Latin Form at the Basilica here in D.C. It was my first experience with this liturgy, and it was quite complicated. We rehearsed the day before, and as the rehearsal drew to a close, I said to whole crew of clergy and servers, “OK, tomorrow during the Mass, don’t forget to worship God!” We all laughed because we know easy it is to get so wrapped up in thinking about what is coming next or in what we need to do next that we forget to pray! The next day, I told God that no matter what, I was here to worship Him. I am grateful that He gave me a true spirit of recollection at that Mass. I did mix up a minor detail, but I experienced God and did not forget to worship Him. Success! Thank you, Lord!
The Mass is underway in a typical Catholic parish. Something remarkable is about to happen: the Lord Jesus is going to speak through the deacon, who ascends the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Yes, that’s right; Jesus Himself will announce the Gospel to us. As the deacon introduces the Gospel, all are standing out of respect. Five hundred pairs of eyes are riveted … on the deacon? No! In fact, many eyes are riveted on the missalette. Halfway through the Gospel, the Church is filled with the sound of hundreds of people turning the pages of their missalettes (with one or two dropping them in the process). Sadly, most lose the experience of the proclamation of God’s Word with their heads buried in a missalette. They may as well have read it on their own. I know that some will argue that this helps them understand the reading better, but the liturgy is meant to be experienced as a communal hearing of the Word proclaimed.
I celebrate a good number of Wedding Masses in the Old Latin Form. Some years ago, a couple prepared a very elaborate booklet so that people could follow along and understand every detail of the Old Latin Mass. Of itself, it was a valuable resource. They asked me if, prior to Mass, I would briefly describe the booklet and how to use it. I went ahead and did so but concluded my brief tour of the book by saying, “This is a very nice book and will surely make a great memento of today’s wedding, but if you want my advice, put it aside now and just experience a beautiful Mass with all its mystery. If you have your head in a book you may miss it and forget to pray. Later on you can read it and study what you have experienced.” In other words, “Don’t think, look!”
In the ancient Church, the catechumens were initiated into the “Mysteries” (the Sacraments of Initiation) with very little prior instruction as to what would happen. They had surely been catechized in the fundamental teachings of the faith, but the actual details of the celebration of the sacraments were not disclosed. They were sacred mysteries and the disciplina arcanis (the discipline of the secret) was observed. They simply experienced these things and were instructed as to their deeper meaning in the weeks that followed (in a process known as mystagogia). Hence, experience preceded analysis, understanding, and learning. The very grace of the experience and the sacraments provided the foundation for that understanding.
I realize that this post will not be without some controversy. Let me be clear about one point: catechesis is important, but so is experience. If we rush to analyze and decode everything, we risk missing a lot. I have taught on the liturgy extensively in this blog (http://blog.adw.org/tag/mass-in-slow-motion/) and will continue to do so. There is a time to study and learn, but there is also a time to be still and experience what God is doing in every liturgy—indeed in every moment of our lives.