The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

Pride is a sin that is so pervasive, runs so deep within us, that we often don’t even sense it is there. Not only is it a sinful drive in itself, it also plays a role in every other sin we commit. Pride is the sin we most share with Satan and the fallen angels. Satan refused to serve God or to submit to His plan; these are strong tendencies in every human person as well. Satan planned his strategy well as he tempted Eve. You will be like God, he told her. Both Eve and Adam falsely reasoned that in order to be free they should not be told what to do; they should do as they pleased. They claimed the right to determine good and evil for themselves rather than trusting God. This prideful pronouncement has gone forth from human hearts ever since: “I will not be told what to do.”

Let’s take a brief look at the primordial sin of pride.

I. The Definition of Pride – Pride is inordinate esteem for one’s own excellence. It is a habit or vice that disposes us to think more of ourselves than we ought. There is a proper esteem we should have for ourselves, but it is rooted in an appreciation for the gifts we have received from God.

Humility, the virtue that is opposed to pride, is not a hangdog disdain for ourselves; it is a reverence for the truth about who and whose we are. We do have gifts, but they are gifts, gifts that God has given us. These gifts are usually given to us through others. We should be humbly grateful for the gifts and talents that God has given us. In contrast, pride sets aside proper and grateful esteem in favor of excessive esteem that is often self-referential and unappreciative of what God and others have enabled us to become.

On the one hand, pride is one particular vice, sinful in itself. On the other hand, it is a more general vice that is involved directly or indirectly in most other sins. Pride plays an especially large role in sins of malice. Sins of malice are those in which one directly and defiantly refuses to obey God, or refuses to be told what to do, or willfully insists that one knows better than God, the Church, or those entrusted with one’s instruction and guidance. Pride plays a more indirect role in sins of weakness. Sins of weakness are those in which one acts sinfully not so much out of defiance as out of a weak inability to do what one admits is right. Pride may be more indirectly present through careless neglect of growing in virtue or failure to seek God’s help.

Pride is directed not only at God but also at our neighbor. There are times when we refuse to submit to the instruction or authority of others who rightfully have that position. There are other times when we refuse to admit that others have gifts and abilities that we do not possess and that we may in fact need in order to be completed. Further, we sometimes refuse to admit that others are just better at certain things than we are. In this way, pride is both impoverishing and isolating.

II. The Distinctions Regarding Pride – In modern English usage as well as in pagan philosophy, the word “pride” can have a positive meaning. The pagan philosophers often thought of pride as a good thing. Before it becomes sinful, pride inspires us to strive not merely for the ordinary but for loftier things. In this sense, pride pushes us to be more than we currently are; it inspires effort.

The use of the word “pride” in a positive sense is much less common in Christian moral theology, which typically speaks of pride only as a vice; it categorizes striving for the difficult but possible under the virtues of fortitude and hope.

Note that pride is not the same as vanity. Vanity actually shows some humility because in manifesting it, one shows the need for the admiration of another. For the same reason, pride is also not the same as pleasure at being praised.

St. Gregory lists four types of pride:

  1. Thinking that one’s good is from oneself
  2. Thinking that one’s good is from God but that it is as a consequence of one’s own merits
  3. Boasting of excellence that one does not possess
  4. Despising others and wishing to appear the sole possessor of what one has (this is related to the sin of envy)

III. The Dangers of Pride – The central effect of pride is to push God to the periphery of our moral, spiritual, and temporal existence. God is either shunned directly or becomes increasingly irrelevant to us. Man necessarily moves to the center and, even more egotistically, I move to the center. If God exists at all to the prideful person, it is only to gratify his pleasures and confirm his preconceived notions.

Having moved God to the periphery, the prideful person focuses more on his own power and exaggerated notions of control. Money, prestige, power, access, and possessions become his focus. It is himself on whom he relies, not God.

This of course is the height of foolishness because no human being can save himself. The relegation of God to the margins of our life is the chief danger of pride because He alone can save us. It is said that pride looks down, but no one can see God except by looking up. Pride turns us inward and downward!

Because pride involves entertaining the illusion of self-sufficiency and omits or minimizes God, it can be a serious or mortal sin. However, it is frequently not mortal, as that would require a conscious and fully willed discounting of God. Most individual acts of pride are venial by reason of this deficiency of awareness or full consent of the will.

Even though culpability may be less than mortal, the harm caused by marginalizing God cannot be overstated. The damage grows both individually and collectively until the most foolish things become daily fare. Further, a culture dominated by people who “forget” that God sees all and that they will have to render an account to Him will suffer increasingly from tyrannical, vicious, and destructive behaviors. Such a culture is dominated in growing measure by those who exercise little or no restraint on their behavior and who act imperiously — even despotically.

Pride can get very dark very quickly because it involves a direct turning away from God. In this sense pride is the first and worst of all sins.

So serious is pride that, as a remedy, God allows us to fall into other sins, especially those of the flesh. Thus, though God does not cause acts of fornication, drunkenness, or gluttony in us, He often permits their stubborn presence in order to save us from pride, which is a more serious sin. Sins of the flesh, especially those related to sexuality, often bring great shame, which is related to humility. And though it is strong medicine, God permits it in order to save us from the sin of pride, which is even more deadly.

IV. The Disease of Pride Pride is the source of many other sins. Not only is it their source, it is in those sins. Pride conquers at the root because it conquers the heart of man and disposes him to the other capital sins. St. Gregory does not even account pride as a capital sin, for it is the mother of them all!

A widespread modern form of pride, even among believers, is the reduction of God from the Holy One to a “harmless hippie” or a doting Father. Further, the awareness of final judgment and that we will one day have to render an account to God is not a significant factor in the thinking of most moderns. God is trivialized and man is exalted. To many, God exists to please and validate them on their own terms; His role is to affirm and console (but never challenge) them. In a certain sense, the ugliest and most self-serving form of pride is refashioning God in our own image. Making your own god and worshipping it used to be called “idolatry.”

Today, many assert the right to fashion their own god: the god within, the god of their own understanding. This is pride writ large and ugly. It is idolatry, somewhat veiled, but idolatry just the same; it is a violation of the First Commandment. Such pride cries out for correction and punishment. Yes, pride is ugly — a deadly disease.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

Humility is Hard – A Meditation on Some Aspects of Humility

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080915Pride is our most pervasive and serious sin. Humility is its antidote and the foundation of our spiritual life, and as the remedy to our most deep-seated pathology, it must be strong medicine. Humility is hard to swallow and has a lot of things it needs to work on.

I. The Foundation of Humility – Humility as a foundation is a good image, because by it we bow toward the earth or soil (humus in Latin) and abase ourselves before God. Foundations and holes in the earth go together.

By humility we understand that we are small and poor, barely more than dust and water. If God does not scoop us from the earth, we are nothing. Only by His command is the mysterious spark and organizational principle of life ignited. We are wholly dependent on God; our life is contingent. We do not explain ourselves at all. We are dependent not only on our parents (who cannot explain themselves either), but also on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.

We are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”

Do you think you have life figured out? Can you define it? Imagine that you have before you an acorn and a small rock of similar size. One (the acorn) has the mysterious spark of life in it; the other does not. Plant both in the earth and add water. One transforms into a mighty oak; the other remains unchanged. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me, what is that? Can you weigh it in a scale? Can you see its essence under a microscope? We see life’s effects, but we do not see it. We detect its absence, but where has it gone? What exactly departs when a human, an animal, or a plant dies?

Thus humility, like a foundation, bids us to bow low to the earth and admit that we know very little. Even the most basic thing (life) that enables everything else eludes us and taunts us by its mystery.

II. The First Humility – We must distinguish between humility toward God and humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and it is first and foremost) because our duty in that regard is clear. There is no ambiguity in comparing ourselves to Him who is perfection, glory, and purity.

Humility toward others, though, has ambiguities that can only be resolved by reference to God, for not everything in another person is superior; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.

Indeed, our first humility is toward God. By it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. Even more so, no good work of ours—not even the slightest salutary act—can happen without the grace of God.

III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that we do not have meaning, direction, or purpose apart from God. Therefore, we must look to the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture, the Word of God, to discover and obey the truth and meaning given by God in what is created and what is revealed.

Atheists and materialists boldly assert that nothing has meaning, purpose, direction, or sense.  They hold that everything that has happened is by chance; a random, meaningless crashing together of atoms (wherever they came from). Even atheists, though, cannot seem to accept or live by their own radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to live in a meaningless world—and he died insane.

For us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what He has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what He teaches us there. We do not simply project meaning; we must humbly seek it, find it, and obey the truth and meaning of things.

IV. The Frank Truth of Humility – Humility also admits the frank and obvious truth that we are sinners. We have base, selfish, narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and yet resistant to what we know is good. Our will is inconsistent, vacillating, and whimsical, yet at the same time stubborn. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Our darkened minds seem almost to prefer foolish and dubious explanations to what is clear, common-sense, and obviously true. We almost seem to want others to lie to us. We love to rationalize and daydream. Knowing a little makes us think we know it all.  Frankly, we are a mess. We are only saved with difficulty and because God is powerful, patient, and abundant in grace and mercy.

V. The Fellowship of Humility – St. Thomas Aquinas says quite poetically, “Wherefore, every man, in respect to what is his own, should subject himself to every neighbor in respect to what the neighbor has of God’s” (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 161, a 3). Indeed, our neighbors have many things from God that are to be respected. They have things that we share, but also many others that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts, and you do not have all the gifts, but together we have all the gifts. We have them all, though, only by mutual respect and humble submission. Thus, our humility toward others is really humility toward God, who wills that others should be part of His governance of us and of our completion.

Note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches regarding humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery nor is it to be rooted in worldly and servile fear. True humility has us abase ourselves before others based on what is of God in them. The humble person does not abase himself before others for what is wicked in them. Indeed, many holy and humble people have had to rebuke the wicked and have suffered as a result.

Consider our Lord, who found it necessary to rebuke the leaders of His day. Consider John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod; or the apostles, who refused the command to speak Jesus’ name no longer. These were humble men, but they also knew that the first humility belongs to God and that no humility toward human beings can ever eclipse it.

Therefore, the modern notion of “Who am I to judge?” is not proper humility. Rather, it is rooted more in a kind of sloth (cloaked in the self-congratulatory language of tolerance) that avoids humbly seeking truth and being conformed to it. The truly humble person is open to correcting others and to being corrected because humility always regards the truth.

VI. The Focus of Humility – “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.

What is the truth? Each of us is gifted but incomplete.

Humility doesn’t say, “Aw shucks, I’m nothing.” That is not true. You are God’s creation and are imbued with gifts, but they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you, most often through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to develop the skills and discover the gifts that were within you. So, you do have gifts, but they are gifts. Scripture says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7)

Although you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. This is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. Whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.

Admit it: true humility is tough. If you don’t think so, then try the test below from St. Anselm, who lists seven degrees of humility. How far along are you?

Here are St. Anselm’s degrees of humility (as quoted in the Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 161a. 6):

  1. to acknowledge oneself contemptible,
  2. to grieve on account of it,
  3. to confess it,
  4. to convince others to believe this,
  5. to bear patiently that this be said of us,
  6. to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and
  7. to love being thus treated

In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?

The Twelve Steps of Pride

If you think the idea of “Twelve Steps” is new, 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 12th century work The Steps of Humility and Pride.

In today’s post, we focus on the twelve steps of pride, and tomorrow we’ll tackle the twelve steps of humility. The list below is from St. Bernard, but the commentary is mine.

Notices how the twelve steps grow progressively more serious, leading ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps begin in the mind, move to behavior, then to a deeper attitude of presumption, and finally bring forth revolt and slavery. If one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.

Think of these steps like escalating symptoms:

(1) Curiosity – Although there is such a thing as healthy curiosity, we often delve into things we should not: other people’s affairs, private matters, sinful situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity prideful is that so thinking we have a right to know things we do not. Casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged attitude, we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not to, as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.

(2) Levity of mind – In this next step, we occupy our mind with inappropriate things; we become less serious in wider matters. There is a place for a reasonable sense of humor and some recreational diversion, but too often this is just about all we do. We 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 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 is a symptom of 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 trivial experiences or situations at the expense of more important, profound things. Silly, vapid, foolish, and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We seem to 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 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) The boaster thinks too highly of himself, either claiming to have gifts he does not or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride.

(5) Singularity – Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves as 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. As our pride grows, we too easily forget our dependence on God and others for who and what we are. There really 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. This pride swells in us as our world gets ever smaller and more focused on our own self.

(6) Self-conceit – This is an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world shrinks and our pride grows, we become increasingly self-referential. We’ve reached the point at which we believe that something is so merely because we say it is so. We are fine because we 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 tend to compare ourselves to others favorably, thinking, “Well, at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” Being better than someone else 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. We believe we are saved because we say so. This is a sin against hope wherein we 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 already possess it. It is further pride for us to set aside God’s Word, which over and over teaches us to walk in hope and seek His 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 we demand to take His place. Not only that, He must also vacate the cross because we don’t really need His sacrifice. We don’t really need a lot of saving, and if we do we can save our own self. Self-justification is the attitude that we can, by our own power, justify (that is, save) our own self. It is also the attitude that says, in effect, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide whether 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). The prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable, even to God; he 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; the prideful man is just acting when he does this. He’s merely playing a role, more for social credit than out of any real contrition or repentance. 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 pretend to be 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. It 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 his “freedom” 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). The proud man will have none of this, continuing to assert his freedom to do as he pleases even while descending deeper and deeper into addiction and slavery.

(12) The habit of sinning – This is 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 (Confessions 8.5.10).

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.

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.

Is there a way down this mountain of pride? Tune in tomorrow …

The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

Pride is a sin that is so pervasive, runs so deep within us, that we often don’t even sense it is there. Not only is it a sinful drive in itself, it also plays a role in every other sin we commit. Pride is the sin we most share with Satan and the fallen angels. Satan refused to serve God or to submit to His plan; these are strong tendencies in every human person as well. Satan planned his strategy well as he tempted Eve. You will be like God, he told her. Both Eve and Adam falsely reasoned that in order to be free they should not be told what to do; they should do as they pleased. They claimed the right to determine good and evil for themselves rather than trusting God. This prideful pronouncement has gone forth from human hearts ever since: “I will not be told what to do.”

Let’s take a brief look at the primordial sin of pride.

I.  The Definition of Pride – Pride is inordinate esteem for one’s own excellence. It is a habit or vice that disposes us to think more of ourselves than we ought. There is a proper esteem we should have for ourselves, but it is rooted in an appreciation for the gifts we have received from God.

Humility, the virtue that is opposed to pride, is not a hangdog disdain for ourselves; it is a reverence for the truth about who and whose we are. We do have gifts, but they are gifts, gifts that God has given us. These gifts are usually given to us through others. We should be humbly grateful for the gifts and talents that God has given us. In contrast, pride sets aside proper and grateful esteem in favor of excessive esteem that is often self-referential and unappreciative of what God and others have enabled us to become.

On the one hand, pride is one particular vice, sinful in itself. On the other hand, it is a more general vice that is involved directly or indirectly in most other sins. Pride plays an especially large role in sins of malice. Sins of malice are those in which one directly and defiantly refuses to obey God, or refuses to be told what to do, or willfully insists that one knows better than God, the Church, or those entrusted with one’s instruction and guidance. Pride plays a more indirect role in sins of weakness. Sins of weakness are those in which one acts sinfully not so much out of defiance as out of a weak inability to do what one admits is right. Pride may be more indirectly present through careless neglect of growing in virtue or failure to seek God’s help.

Pride is directed not only at God but also at our neighbor. There are times when we refuse to submit to the instruction or authority of others who rightfully have that position. There are other times when we refuse to admit that others have gifts and abilities that we do not possess and that we may in fact need in order to be completed. Further, we sometimes refuse to admit that others are just better at certain things than we are. In this way, pride is both impoverishing and isolating.

II.  The Distinctions Regarding Pride – In modern English usage as well as in pagan philosophy, the word “pride” can have a positive meaning. The pagan philosophers often thought of pride as a good thing. Before it becomes sinful, pride inspires us to strive not merely for the ordinary but for loftier things. In this sense, pride pushes us to be more than we currently are; it inspires effort.

The use of the word “pride” in a positive sense is much less common in Christian moral theology, which typically speaks of pride only as a vice; it categorizes striving for the difficult but possible under the virtues of fortitude and hope.

Note that pride is not the same as vanity. Vanity actually shows some humility because in manifesting it, one shows the need for the admiration of another. For the same reason, pride is also not the same as pleasure at being praised.

St. Gregory lists four types of pride: 

  1. Thinking that one’s good is from oneself
  2. Thinking that one’s good is from God but that it is as a consequence of one’s own merits
  3. Boasting of excellence that one does not possess
  4. Despising others and wishing to appear the sole possessor of what one has (this is related to the sin of envy)

III.  The Dangers of Pride – The central effect of pride is to push God to the periphery of our moral, spiritual, and temporal existence. God is either shunned directly or becomes increasingly irrelevant to us. Man necessarily moves to the center and, even more egotistically, I move to the center. If God exists at all to the prideful person, it is only to gratify his pleasures and confirm his preconceived notions.

Having moved God to the periphery, the prideful person focuses more on his own power and exaggerated notions of control. Money, prestige, power, access, and possessions become his focus. It is himself on whom he relies, not God.

This of course is the height of foolishness because no human being can save himself. The relegation of God to the margins of our life is the chief danger of pride because He alone can save us. It is said that pride looks down, but no one can see God except by looking up. Pride turns us inward and downward!

Because pride involves entertaining the illusion of self-sufficiency and omits or minimizes God, it can be a serious or mortal sin. However, it is frequently not mortal, as that would require a conscious and fully willed discounting of God. Most individual acts of pride are venial by reason of this deficiency of awareness or full consent of the will.

Even though culpability may be less than mortal, the harm caused by marginalizing God cannot be overstated. The damage grows both individually and collectively until the most foolish things become daily fare. Further, a culture dominated by people who “forget” that God sees all and that they will have to render an account to Him will suffer increasingly from tyrannical, vicious, and destructive behaviors. Such a culture is dominated in growing measure by those who exercise little or no restraint on their behavior and who act imperiously — even despotically.

Pride can get very dark very quickly because it involves a direct turning away from God. In this sense pride is the first and worst of all sins.

So serious is pride that, as a remedy, God allows us to fall into other sins, especially those of the flesh. Thus, though God does not cause acts of fornication, drunkenness, or gluttony in us, He often permits their stubborn presence in order to save us from pride, which is a more serious sin. Sins of the flesh, especially those related to sexuality, often bring great shame, which is related to humility. And though it is strong medicine, God permits it in order to save us from the sin of pride, which is even more deadly.

IV.  The Disease of Pride Pride is the source of many other sins. Not only is it their source, it is in those sins. Pride conquers at the root because it conquers the heart of man and disposes him to the other capital sins. St. Gregory does not even account pride as a capital sin, for it is the mother of them all!

A widespread modern form of pride, even among believers, is the reduction of God from the Holy One to a “harmless hippie” or a doting Father. Further, the awareness of final judgment and that we will one day have to render an account to God is not a significant factor in the thinking of most moderns. God is trivialized and man is exalted. To many, God exists to please and validate them on their own terms; His role is to affirm and console (but never challenge) them. In a certain sense, the ugliest and most self-serving form of pride is refashioning God in our own image. Making your own god and worshipping it used to be called “idolatry.”

Today, many assert the right to fashion their own god: the god within, the god of their own understanding. This is pride writ large and ugly. It is idolatry, somewhat veiled, but idolatry just the same; it is a violation of the First Commandment. Such pride cries out for correction and punishment. Yes, pride is ugly — a deadly disease.

The Need for Two Pockets

Like so many things in life, self-esteem needs to be balanced. The balance is between humility and pride. The following is attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim, one of the leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland in the late 1700s and early 1800s:

Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words, “For my sake was the world created,” and in his left pocket, “I am dust and ashes” (quoted in The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 60).

Indeed, there is something magnificent about every individual. No one will ever be exactly like you or have just your combination of gifts. To you and to us all God gave the earth, saying,

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food (Gen 1:28-29).

We have exhibited this mastery both as individuals and communally. Ours are science, learning, poetry, philosophy, art, law, technology, libraries, and great universities. We have built cities and civilizations. We’ve even been to the moon and back. No animal species—not even the highest primates—demonstrates anything even close to the qualities we have or has done anything that compares with what we have done. We have spiritual souls and rational minds. There is something glorious about the human person.

Yet we must also remember that we are but dust and ashes. We are contingent beings who depend on God for everything. Every beat of our heart, every fiber of our being, must be caused and sustained by Him. Scripture says,

As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more
(Psalm 103:13-16).

Our glory is a humble, derived, reflected one. Whatever spark of glory we have it is but a spark; it is from God, whose glory is unsurpassable.

Remember well your glory, but also your neediness and contingency. Whatever your gifts (and you do have them) remember that they are from God and are often granted through others.

Yes, two pockets: one for esteem, the other for humility.

Pondering Pride, the Most Perilous of All Sins

blog11-18Pride is a sin that is so pervasive, and that runs so deep within us, we often don’t even sense it is there. Not only is it is a sinful drive in itself, it also plays a role in every other sin we commit. It is the sin we most share with Satan and all the fallen angels. Satan refused to serve God or to submit to His plan, and these are strong tendencies in every human person as well. Satan planned his strategy well as he tempted Eve: you will be like God. Both Eve and Adam falsely reasoned that in order to be free they should not be told what to do; they should do as they pleased and should decide for themselves what was right and wrong. They pridefully claimed the right to determine good and evil for themselves rather than trusting God. This prideful pronouncement has gone forth from human hearts ever since: “I will not be told what to do.”

Let’s take a brief look at the primordial sin of pride.

I. The Definition of Pride – Pride is an inordinate esteem for our own excellence. It is a habit or vice which disposes us to think more of ourselves than we are. There is a proper esteem we should have for ourselves, rooted in an appreciation for the gifts we have received from God.

Humility, the virtue that is opposed to pride, is not a hangdog disdain for ourselves. Humility is a reverence for the truth about who and whose we are. We do have gifts, but they are gifts, which God has given us. And these gifts are usually given to us through others. We should be humbly grateful for the gifts and talents that God has given us. In contrast, pride sets aside proper and grateful esteem in favor of excessive esteem that is often self-referential and unappreciative of what God and others have enabled us to become.

On the one hand, pride is one particular vice, sinful in itself. On the other hand, it is a more general vice that is involved directly or indirectly in most other sins. Pride plays an especially large role in sins of malice. Sins of malice are those in which one directly and defiantly refuses to obey God, or refuses to be told what to do, or willfully insists that one knows better than God, the Church, or those entrusted with one’s instruction and guidance. Pride plays a more indirect role in sins of weakness. Sins of weakness are those in which one acts sinfully not so much out of defiance as out of a weak inability to do what one admits is right. Pride may be more indirectly present through careless neglect of growing in virtue or seeking God’s help.

Pride is directed not only at God but also at our neighbor. There are times when we refuse to submit to the instruction or authority of others who rightfully have that position. There are other times when we pridefully refuse to admit that others have gifts and abilities that we do not possess, and that we may in fact need in order to be completed. Further, we sometimes refuse to admit that others are just better at certain things than we are. As such pride, is both impoverishing and isolating.

II. The Distinctions Regarding Pride– The word “pride” in modern English and also in pagan philosophy can have a positive meaning. The pagan philosophers often thought of pride as a good thing. Before it becomes sinful, pride inspires us to strive not merely for the ordinary, but for loftier things. In this sense, pride pushes us to be more than we currently are; it inspires in us a kind of drive and effort.

This positive use of the word “pride” is less common in Christian moral theology, which more commonly speaks of pride only as a vice and ascribes striving for the difficult but possible things under the virtues of fortitude and hope.

Note that pride is not the same as vanity. Vanity actually shows some humility since, by manifesting it, one shows the need for the admiration of another. For the same reason, pride is also not the same as pleasure at being praised.

St. Gregory lists four species of pride: 

  1. Thinking that one’s good is from oneself
  2. Thinking that one’s good is from God but that is in consequence of one’s own merits
  3. Boasting of excellence that one does not possess
  4. Despising others and wishing to appear the sole possessor of what one has (this is related to the sin of envy)

III. The Dangers of Pride – The central effect of pride is to move God to the periphery of our moral, spiritual, and temporal existence. God is either shunned directly or becomes increasingly irrelevant to us. Man necessarily moves to the center and, even more egotistically, I move to the center. If God exists at all to the prideful person, it is only to gratify his pleasures and confirm his preconceived notions.

The prideful person, having moved God to the periphery, focuses more on his own power and exaggerated notions of control. Money, prestige, power, access, and possessions become his focus. It is himself on whom he relies, not God.

This of course is the height of foolishness since no human being can save himself. The relegation of God to the margins of our life is the chief danger of pride, because He alone can save us. It is said that pride looks down, but no one can see God except by looking up. Pride turns us inward and downward!

Because pride involves entertaining the illusion of self-sufficiency and omits or minimizes God, it can be a serious or mortal sin. However, it is frequently not mortal, since that would require a conscious and fully willed discounting of God. Most individual acts of pride are venial by reason of this deficiency of awareness or full consent of the will.

Even though culpability may be less than mortal, the harm caused by marginalizing God cannot be overstated. The damage grows both individually and collectively until the most foolish things become daily fare. Further, a culture dominated by people who “forget” that God sees all and that they will have to render an account to Him will suffer increasingly from tyrannical, vicious, and destructive behaviors.  Such a culture is dominated in growing measure by those who exercise little or no restraint on their behavior and who act imperiously—even despotically.

Pride can get very dark, very quickly because it involves a direct turning away from God. In this sense pride is the first and worst of all sins.

So serious is pride that, as a remedy, God allows us to fall into other sins, especially those of the flesh. Thus, though God does not cause acts of fornication, drunkenness, or gluttony in us, He often permits their stubborn presence in order to save us from pride, which is a more serious sin. Sins of the flesh, especially those related to sexuality, often bring great shame, which is related to humility. And though it is strong medicine, God permits it in order to save us from the sin of pride, which is even more deadly.

IV. The Disease of Pride Pride is the source of many other sins. Not only is it their source, it is in those sins. Pride conquers at the root, since it conquers the heart of man and disposes him to the other capital sins. St. Gregory does not even account pride as a capital sin, for it is the mother of them all!

A widespread modern form of pride, even among believers, is the reduction of God from the Holy One, to a “harmless hippie,” or a doting Father. Further, the awareness of final judgement and that we will one day have to render an account to God is not a significant factor in the thinking of most moderns. As such, God is trivialized and man is exalted. To many, God exists to please and actualize them on their own terms, and His role is to affirm and console (but never challenge) them. In a certain sense, the ugliest and most self-serving form of pride is refashioning God in our own image. Making your own god and worshipping it used to be called “idolatry.”

Today, many pridefully assert the right to fashion their own god: the god within, the god of their own understanding. This is pride writ large and ugly. It is idolatry, somewhat veiled, but idolatry just the same, and a violation of the First Commandment. Such pride cries out for correction and punishment. Yes, pride is ugly—a deadly disease.

Let’s Pretend We Know What We’re Talking About – As Seen in a Commercial

blog10-23In life we don’t always have answers. There are just times when the best answer is, “I don’t know.” This is especially the case with the deeper mysteries of life such as the problem of evil, the “why” of suffering, and the reason why things sometimes don’t make sense.

As a younger priest I felt a lot of pressure to “have the answers” when tragedies occurred or when people experienced persistent setbacks in their lives. In more recent years I’ve learned to say less and to be more willing to sit quietly with people in their pain. To be sure, we have some answers, but explanations are poor substitutes for understanding and acceptance. Whatever explanations I can offer still leave even more things unexplained.

In life we sometimes must make decisions even though we don’t have all the information we’d like. Sometimes we simply have to guess at what’s best. At other times we have information and lots of (often-conflicting) advice, yet still remain uncertain as to what to do. We have to decide to trust God, remaining humbly open to His providence.

All of this is hard for us, especially these days, because we’ve cultivated such a high sense of being in control. But control, in anything but a limited sense, is an illusion. While you may have plans for tomorrow, tomorrow isn’t promised; you’re not even guaranteed the next beat of your heart. Your control of little things is based on myriad other things you can’t control.

Enjoy the video below, which humorously reminds us that we aren’t always certain what the best answer is even when the whole world is waiting for us to decide. Sometimes the best we can do is to decide and then accept the consequences of that decision. Hypocrisy—in this case pretending that the decision is all wise and fully informed—has a way of bringing scorn upon us that is far worse that what simple humility offers. Sometimes it’s OK to say, “I’m not sure,” or to accept that our decisions may be flawed.

Divine revelation is certain, but human decisions are flawed and uncertain.

A remedy for Pride based on something Jesus told St. Catherine of Siena

090113We live in times collectively marked by pride. And, while pride is a problem of the human condition that has beset us from the very beginnings of paradise lost, our modern age, with the rise of atheism, rejection of God, scorn for the metaphysical, and a hyper-emphasis of the “autonomous” self, pride has taken an even more prominent place.

Largely absent from the modern psyche is any deep notion that we are contingent beings, radically dependent on things, people and factors outside our “autonomous” self. Even before we bring God into the discussion, we seem less aware today that our existence and capacity to survive is deeply rooted in thousands, if not millions of factors outside us and beyond our immediate control.

Thank God (oops, did I say that?!), that your parents met, and your great grandparents, and your great, great, great, great…grandparents met, in all the combinations necessary for you to exist. Otherwise, no you!

And let us not forget the trillions of other things necessary for all those human combinations to have happened. The earth has kept its almost perfect circular orbit at just the right distance from the Sun; the Sun and all that is necessary for its working has kept its stable burn, with no big flares or dimishments; the Van Allen belts have been up and running in the high atmosphere to deflect harmful radiation from the earth; the asteroid belt has collected asteroids and kept then from hurling on earth, Jupiter and Saturn are out there catching comets for us and keeping them away; every part of every cell of your body is functioning at a high rate of success, every molecule, and every atom too….well you get the point. We are very contingent beings.

To say that we are contingent beings is to say that our existence is not necessary, does not explain itself, and is the result of other factors and people, not us. Our existence is neither necessary, likely, nor even all that predictable.

We have discussed on the blog before that, according to the playful (but probably understated) odds of a mathematician the probability of you or I existing at all is 1 in 102,685,000. That’s a number so huge it hurts to think about it. (More on that article here: On the “Non-Probability” of your existence). There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are contingent, VERY contingent.

Our existence, is astonishingly unlikely and I would say miraculous. That you or I am here at all is almost inexplicable, given the number of things and people necessary for us to exist.

Even before one brings God into the picture, a little humility is called for here based on how remarkably contingent and dependent we are are. For all the braggadocio of modern man, and all our talk about autonomy, Nietzschean Existentialism, “uberman”, self-determination,  self-referentialism and all other anthropocentric, prideful and bold assertions, we look pretty pathetic, when we realize how dependent and contingent we really are.

In a certain sense we barely exist at all, so dependent are we on things and people outside our self. If you can read this, thank a teacher, If you exist at all thank ten trillion (I am not exaggerating) other factors, forces and people.

And how about thanking God? Frankly everything that exists in this created world is contingent and highly unlikely by itself.  At some point everything cannot exist based on nothing. There must be some one or something that is “existence itself” and does not depend on, or stand on anything, or anyone before it. And that something, that someONE we call God.

God is not some other thing in the universe, or even outside the universe. He is existence itself. To deny the existence of a non-contingent being is to deny yourself, for something cannot ultimately stand on nothing. There has to be a foundation that depends on nothing else to stand, that explains itself. For other things to subsist, there must be one who exists, who is existence itself. And that someone we call God.

All of this came to mind the other day as I was reading The Life of St Catherine of Siena by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua. In that work he relates a conversation that St. Catherine had with Jesus (which Catherine also relates in the Dialogue). In this conversation Jesus reminds Catherine of her contingency and dependance. He also gives Catherine the secret of overcoming pride so that our ancient enemy will never outwit us. Blessed Raymond recounts the dialogue of Jesus with Catherine in this way:

The holy Virgin told her confessors, of who, though unworthy, I was one, that, at the beginning of her visions, when the Lord Jesus Christ first began to appear to her, he said, “Do you know, daughter, who you are, And who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed. You are she is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in you and the enemy will never deceive you…

[Blessed Raymond continues]: A succinct doctrine… Oh, Immeasurable wisdom, wrapped in a few brief syllables…”You,” said the Lord, “are she who is not.” Indeed, all creatures are made from nothing, for “to create” means to make something from nothing. When creatures are left to themselves they tend to return to nothing, and if the creator ceased for one moment to preserve them in existence, they would rapidly be reduced to nothing again. … The Apostle says, “…for if any man think himself to be something, whereas he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3). … And Jesus says “For without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

And [Blessed Raymond continues] here is a healing remedy, for what wound of pride can enter into a soul that knows itself to be nothing? Who can glory in anything he does? And thus, all vices are driven out by the words, “You are not”.

And here too are many anxieties diminished. For, as Blessed Raymond attests, “Whenever I or any of the other friars was afraid of any danger, Catherine would say, “What have you to do with yourselves? Leave it to Divine Providence. However much afraid you are, Providence still has his eyes on you and is always aiming at your salvation.[Pages 62-65, selected verses].

And thus, a sense of our contingency, that compared to God, you and are “are not”;  is a remedy for pride. In an era of pride, of a false and excessive sense of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and that we can “craft” reality and answer to no one, a simple reminder of our contingency is essential.  And here it is given and it is put in a way that only a Saint can relate: “You are she who is not… I (the Lord) am He who IS.”

Have this knowledge in you you and you will be blessed, and the ancient enemy will never deceive you. For by this knowledge is the back of pride broken and is the basis for all humility formed.