Pride: Humanity’s Paradise Lost.
by Sr Rose Rolling o.p.
Introduction Over the course of the last eight months we have journeyed through the Eight Evil Thoughts, those eight capital vices identified by the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus that wound our fallen human nature and tempt us to sin. Tonight, we have arrived at the final – and most destructive – of the evil thoughts, which is pride.
Definition So what is pride exactly? Pride can denote either a vice or a healthy ego state. Let’s take the latter view first. Pride in this sense is what we may better term ‘self-respect’. It’s an unfortunate linguistic feature that our language uses the same word to mean two such opposite traits, since it can be a source of confusion or even outrage when Christians are heard to condemn pride and the meaning of the word is interpreted to mean self-respect or self-esteem.
On the contrary, Christians do not condemn this kind of pride at all but affirm that it is a necessary part of a healthy, normal human ego which is the foundation of our spiritual life. Self-respect means standing tall in the knowledge of your God-given dignity and destiny as made in His image and likeness, a privilege only conferred on human. This kind of pride means being confident in your own self-worth which is ultimately bestowed on you simply because you are a person loved and willed by God, irrespective of any other measure. Further to that, self-respect means an accurate appraisal of one’s abilities and achievements, recognising that these are gifts given by God, nurtured through grace and personal effort, and put at the service of the human community. So, you should esteem yourself for a piece of work done well, or recognise that the ability to speak multiple languages is a talent which not everyone shares.
Our Christian understanding goes even further, saying that a lack of showing self-respect can be a sin, or certainly a wound to our personality, because it fails to bear witness to the truth of the goodness of God’s creation in human beings, and specifically, in you. It falls into what Aquinas calls pusillanimity, the ‘daughter vice’ of pride, which is false humility. This manifests through things like neglecting to use our natural and spiritual gifts, or not taking care of our body or mind: the Scriptures are full of reminders of the importance of stewardship. Pusillanimity also includes things such as avoiding our duty to deal with difficult people and situations or failing to witness to the harder teachings of Christ.
However, while recognising the need for a healthy ego, we must also acknowledge that it can become inflated and turn into the vice of pride. this brings us to the other meaning of the word. The Desert tradition defines the sin of pride as not being willing to depend upon or accept things from others (Foundations 4), while attributing any successes to ourselves and our own efforts and not to God (see Eulogios 31.33; Vices, prol.; 8 Thoughts 8.5,12; Praktikos 14,33; Monks 61-62). The later medieval tradition added to this definition that pride is a craving for excellence beyond what is reasonable. It makes a person hate being equal to others, and hate being less than God. Like the other evil thoughts, it can manifest itself internally through our thought and externally through words and actions.
Evagrius listed pride as the most destructive sin and Aquinas identified it as the mother of all other sin. Why is it that pride is identified as the root or apex of vice? It is precisely because it tends towards isolation, false autonomy and selfishness which is the diametric opposite of the nature of God – Who is Trinity, Three Persons in Onein perfect unity and harmony – and our nature as human beings, which is essentially relational. The nature of God and our nature and calling as human beings is love, and love must have an object, another, to bestow itself upon. Taken to its extreme, pride can give way to philosophical or practical atheism in a total rejection of God in a bid for self-sufficiency, or of an obstinate disobedience in the form of deliberate habitual sin. It cuts us off from our neighbour and takes us away from our true self, which can only be found in relationship.
The vice of pride has two forms – worldly and spiritual – although they cannot be easily separated. Regarding worldly pride, Evagrius says that “in his quest for esteem, a person exalts himself (through presumption, arrogance and boasting), wishes no one to be honoured above him, is ungrateful for what he or she has received, cannot confess one’s faults and weaknesses, and cannot bear contempt or being denied (see Eulogios 3.3; 24.25). Consider everyday examples such as boasting of my high salary or qualifications, or the inner seething if someone is promoted or chosen before me, or the denial that I am in the wrong when someone tells me they are hurt by my actions. These are all forms of a worldly, human pride, distorting my self-image and my relationships with others.
This is bad, but it can get worse.
Remember that Evagrius was writing his manual for hermits and ascetics, men and women who were at least consciously trying to seek a serious relationship with God. As I mentioned in the first talk of this series, the order in which Evagrius lists the “thoughts” is deliberate: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vanity and pride. The list is given in what he saw as the general pattern of development in a person’s spiritual life – we contend with our physical desires first, then with our disordered emotions and finally, with sins of a spiritual or intellectual nature – vanity and pride being the two he specifically names. The Desert Fathers and Mothers had literally left material possessions, social status and kin relationships behind and gone into the desert to seek God and the purification of their hearts. So on a worldly level, they didn’t have anything much to show off. However, this did not mean that they automatically avoided the snares of pride. In fact, if anything their intense lifestyle carried the possibility of a more subtle and insidious form of pride, spiritual pride, for this is the condition which attacks those who are zealous for God and want to advance in the spiritual life.
Spiritual pride can be understood as a basic attitude of self-righteousness and self-will. It was this attitude which was the sin of the Pharisees, the one sin Jesus’ railed against. The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were bad men – they were righteous, but self-righteous. As St Augustine recognised in his Rule, “while all vices manifest themselves in wrongdoing, pride lurks also in our good works, seeking to destroy even them. What good does it do to distribute one’s possessions to the poor and to become poor oneself, if giving up riches makes a person prouder than he was when he had a fortune?”1 Spiritual pride is accompanied by the self-satisfaction we feel when we consider our spiritual achievements in the light of our own agenda, especially in placing our spiritual status as
superior to others, or it occurs when we think we have God and the Christian life figured out – it’s an attitude which says that there’s nothing more to learn, nothing left in us that needs to be converted, we’re all ok inside.
What makes spiritual pride so subtle yet destructive is that it takes a grain of truth and inverts it. So, a person may be genuinely moved by spiritual desire, they may have religious experiences, they may occupy themselves with spiritual matters, and manage to avoid grave sin, so much so that they may say in the secret of their hearts that they are better than most people, most Christians. There is a degree of truth to this – their level of zeal and commitment to God is probably greater than for many other people. The temptation to smugness comes, and the fall starts, when we begin to take credit, compare ourselves and criticise others who are not at the same place in their walk with God. It is this attitude which is the very antithesis of the spiritual life and is sabotaging the whole search for God. Alongside self-righteousness, spiritual pride is characterised by self-will. Since the aim of the Christian life is union with God and transformation in Christ, one of the hazards for sincere
Christians is trying to force our own metamorphosis. This is where the attitude of willfulness comes in. “In the attitude of willfulness, the person uses his willpower to stay in control of the change process, to chart his own course to holiness. We have our plans, our devotions, our pious and ascetic practises and we cling onto them for dear life, despising others who do not appear to be as good as us. This attitude is essentially saying ‘yes’ to God on a superficial level, but ‘no’ on a deeper level, as we block the work of the Holy Spirit in us by imposing our own agenda.
Transformation is the opposite of self-will or self-righteousness. Rather, it is about detachment, letting go, our surrender and receptivity to grace. This is the only safe path, for
spiritual wilfulness is ineffective – eventually, despite all our best efforts and intentions, the self-willed process will stagnate and growth will not happen. Genuine progress can occur only if one’s willpower is used in the process of integrating its energy into the spiritual True Self, which is essentially an Other-directed relationship – with God and with our neighbour.
If the relational aspect is in place, we may move from self-will to willingness. In the attitude of willingness the person’s willpower ‘moves easily with the natural flow of the spirit’. Willpower is not extinguished or suppressed – indeed we may be very resolute people – but willpower is surrendered, reconciled, sanctified. The basic attitude of the person is not of giving up willpower, but of giving up self-centredness.
The Secret Deception
So those are the basic characteristics of pride. However, part of what makes pride so destructive is how it blinds us to the truth about ourselves. If pride is a person having too high an opinion of himself, then it is no wonder that he is unaware of it. One of the most important spiritual practises for us is a frequent – daily if possible – examination of conscience and regular reception of the sacrament of confession. A well-formed conscience and a thorough examination may illuminate the other seven evil thoughts we have explored. Pride, however, can slip undetected; it is the most secret of all sins. How, then, can we start to recognise it and root it out?
In Mathew 7:26, Jesus says that ‘by their fruit you will recognize them”. We learn to discern the work of the bad spirit or the Holy Spirit by the fruits we bear. One of the ways we can discern whether pride is active is through its fruits. The following are a common list of symptoms of pride given by the American theologian Jonathan Edwards in his essay on undiscerned pride. These symptoms are: excessive fault-finding, harshness, pretence, defence and superficiality, taking offence easily, presumption, the need for attention and self-centeredness.
Let’s explore these individually.
Pride is the great fault-finder. Pride is quick to find fault, to notice deficiencies and to speak of other person’s sins or weaknesses, especially to other people. When this happens, pride is accompanied by the sins of detraction (which is damaging another’s reputation), gossip and backbiting – these sins of speech. While pride causes us to filter out the evil we see in ourselves, it also causes us to filter out God’s goodness in others. We sift people through, letting only their faults fall into our perception of them.
Humility on the other hand, causes a person to take notice of everything that is good in others, to make the best of it and to diminish their failings. A humble person turns his eye chiefly on those things that are bad in himself and is too preoccupied with the plank in his own eye to see the splinter in his neighbour’s eye.
Pride causes us to speak to others or of others with contempt, irritation, frustration, judgment, or levity, on the other end of the spectrum. All of these are part of the spirit of
harshness which is so common in the presence of pride. In contrast, Christ the Divine Physician, heals his brothers and sisters through his mercy and gentleness. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin but never condemns us, always leaving us with hope.
Pretence, defence and superficiality
Pride often causes a person to try and set himself up to be viewed as one distinguished, desiring as he does to be accounted better than others — despising their company or
conformity to them. For example, he may act differently in external appearance, voice, or behaviour in order to give himself a distinguishing mark and thereby delight in his
‘specialness’, in difference for difference’s sake. This is pretence, a persona, a false self. The urge to pretence means that we fight the sins that have an impact on how others view us and make peace with the ones that no one sees. We have great success in the areas of holiness that have highly visible accountability, but little concern for the disciplines that happen in secret. Our life becomes divided into two halves – a public and private persona. In order to keep up appearances, we can be led into chronic defensiveness. Psychologists point out the presence of all kinds of defence mechanisms inbuilt in our psyche. Defence mechanisms are strategies that help us to cope with an unsavoury reality – about ourselves, or a situation. For example, we may deny, repress or project onto someone else an unpleasant truth we do not want to confront. Defence mechanisms are there for good reason, they have a role in our well-being, but part of growing in the spiritual life is allowing God’s grace to penetrate ever more deeply into our psyche and transform it. This includes the gradual eroding our of defences as we open ourselves to greater vulnerability to God’s penetrating light.
Takes offence easily
Pride causes a person to quickly take offence through assuming or implying the ill-will of others. It is the consequence of placing oneself at the centre, and referencing everything according to our own understanding and feelings. Taking offence means paying close attention to any sense of opposition and injuries that are received to the self, and from a spirit of outrage, is prone to speak about them to others either with an air of bitterness or contempt.
In Proverbs 9:10, we hear that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. A holy fear of the Almighty God is natural and necessary from us His creatures. Yet pride gives way to an improper boldness or irreverence – we forget God is God. Not only that, but pride can also lead us to presume our salvation. Presumption – alongside
despair – is one of the sins against hope. There are two manifestations of spiritual presumption. Either a person presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save
himself without help from on high – this is the self-willed spirituality I mentioned earlier), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or His mercy (hoping to obtain His forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit) (Catechism 2092).
Need for attention
Pride is hungry for attention and adoration, thinking it is a natural right. The proud person tends to act in a special manner as though others ought to take great notice and regard of him. The need for attention can manifest either in putting on an air of weakness – for example, I need everyone to give way to me, to give me special privileges, because I am different, vulnerable in some way. Alternatively, attention can be sought through activity and control – it’s an attitude which says, ‘look at me doing all these good works’, or let me be the boss and take command here – all done for the sake of receiving adulation.
Self-centredness / neglecting others as others
The ultimate manifestation of pride is selfishness. Selfishness brings us full circle since it is selfishness that Evagrius diagnosed as the common root of all the eight vices. Selfishness is the diametric opposite of Christian love which is God-centred and others-minded. Pride causes us to see others as obstacles to our own will, objects to be used or insignificant creatures to be ignored. Everything is judged only in accordance with myself at the centre.
So what are the remedies for pride, and can we even talk about remedies at all? I ask this because the way that we as Catholics frequently talk about the moral life has been blotted to a great extent by an emphasis on our own effort. We must do or not do this or that, we must root out and make up for our sins. To be sure, the Christian life does require our cooperation, but we can misunderstand that it is not our effort but God’s grace that is the primary agent of the whole spiritual life. This is where a proper understanding of humility comes in.
The psychologist Everitt Worthington says that
“being humble is like trying to catch air in our hands. The faster we close our fingers around it, the faster the air spurts away. But if we hold our hands, palms up, arms outstretched, then air will come to rest in our hands. To experience humility, then, is not to grasp or strive towards it, but to rest as we seek to bless
others. When we are moved from within, a humble spirit can descend upon us like that air resting in the open hand.”2
So growth in humility does not come through a sanctified self-help programme, but from the realisation that in the deepest, most important and most fundamental matters we do not have the capacity to sort ourselves out. Growth in humility happens through a process not of instruction or education as such, but through openness and vulnerability to God and to others.3
Openness and vulnerability are the products of truth. Indeed, humility has often been understood as truth, the truth of who you are in God which is both a beloved child and a sinner in need of salvation. Living truthfully – or with integrity – makes us vulnerable, it is difficult and demanding. One of the ways we can enact truth in our life is through going regularly to confession. Here we come face to face with the truth about ourselves and our failings, but also the truth of God’s love and ability to redeem us.
Fear of the Lord
Coming to know the truth about who God is should bring us into a holy fear, which means reverencing God as the Almighty. It is not in opposition to authentic love but its expression. It is to stand before the mystery of Someone wholly Other with awe. We can nurture a proper reverence for God by referring to His Word in Scripture. Here we
receive His word, deeds, and His Spirit speaking to us today. Evagrius’ compilation of Scripture was written as a manual of spiritual combat primarily using Scripture which
grounds us in truth and the holy fear of God.
An increased reverence for God should lead us to an increased awareness that we are not the centre of the universe, and further, that God has made millions of other human
beings in His own image. This is where the practice of charity comes in. The heart of pride is self-centredness, and pride seeks autonomy, isolation. It runs on the basis that I know best and I’m better off alone. Charity, on the other hand, is always focused on others. It means getting off our high horse to get down and help our neighbour in His need and cherish Him as a fellow spark of divinity.
Charity challenges us to put others before ourselves, which is a great act of self-denial. This challenges the self-will and self-centredness which is so much a part of pride.
We can practise self-denial for example, by joining a longer queue in the shop, or doing the house job we really dislike. Self-denial reminds us of our dependency and mortality on all kinds of props – things I only realise when they are taken away. While it is true that ascetical practices can be the result, or cause, of spiritual pride, it is also true
that they can help remedy it; St Paul lists self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, as we learn to rein in our ego with all its clamouring needs, wants and impulses and to take the focus off our immediate selves.
So this concludes the last of the eight evil thoughts, but it hopefully sets you at the beginning of a more intense spiritual combat. The soul’s path of purification and union is a lifelong journey, one which goes ever deeper into the caverns of our being. The road it is rarely linear, or clear and it involves trials of all kinds but it is the narrow way we must take if we are to be transformed in Christ.
1. Rule of St Augustine 1.7 (https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/ruleaug.html)
2. Barefoot Disciple, Cherry S. 2011, Bloomsbury pg. 14
3. cf. Barefoot Disciple pg. 15