The Eighth Afflictive Thought – Pride

With Pride we reach the conclusion of our series of teachings on the eighth afflictive thoughts.  Or rather, not the end, but hopefully, the beginning of the continuation of our work moving these thoughts aside – as often as these thoughts arise within me I need to apply the tools which I have learnt, so that the work becomes knitted into the fabric of my being, and reflects who I am before God.

As last week and with vainglory we gave St Bernard some column space, so also this week.  We remember that pride is the very antithesis of the life’s work of the monastic, the polar opposite to living into and out of humility (Rule of St Benedict Chapter 7).  So, the monastic who is consumed by pride, who has made the contrary journey descending the all important ladder which we must set up in our lives, is a tragic caricature of a vocation and person, one distant from God and self:

“The first steps in sin are taken apprehensively and no blow falls from the dreaded judgment of God.  Pleasure in sin has been experienced.  Sin is repeated and the pleasure grows.  Old vices revive, conscience is dulled, habit tightens its grasp.  The unfortunate man sinks into evil depths, is tangled in his vices and is swept into the whirlpool of sinful longings while his reason and fear of God are forgotten and the ‘fool says in his heart: There is no God’.  Good or evil means nothing to him now.  He is ready to serve sin, heart, hand and foot with thoughts, acts and plans unchecked.  He seeks new ways of sinning.  The plans of his heart, the ready words of his mouth, the works of his hands, are at the service of every impulse.  He has become malevolent, evil-speaking, vile.  (He has died) the death, not of the body, but of the soul”.

But St Bernard lays a duty on the brethren:

“God forbid that we should ever cease to pray for such men (the proud who have suffered this death) in our hearts even if we do not offer public prayers for them”.

Pride, in a way, needs no introduction – it is held out to us as the fundamental root of the fall of the person created by God in his image and likeness.  And yet that great sin – of disobedience – is the end of a long road, mapped out by the conversation and debate which our first parents had.  As an afflictive thought – the last in the series and the third afflictive thought of the soul – it presents itself as do the other thoughts and yet with a very significant difference – it is a thought which embraces all the other afflictions in one way or another.  And so, it is by far the most worrying and most dangerous for ourselves.  In pride, I become my thought, and I become all the other afflictive thoughts.

It would be wrong to think that pride is not present in its full form as an afflictive thought in people today.  Particularly in those to whom power and authority has been given, or who have taken such power for themselves, some modern world leaders, in politics, industry and a host of other societal-shaping occupations, can we see the affliction fully formed and presenting itself.  And perhaps this is one of the most unappealing aspects of pride – it doesn’t care who senses its presence, because it will not be contradicted.

Pride is doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.  In fact, the one who is mired in pride doesn’t need a reason to act, speak, behave as they do – they are the reason, and that is always sufficient.

Effectively, pride seems to present itself through various definite indicators, which John Cassian notes for us in The Institutes.  He tells us that pride is marked by impertinence and a manner which scorns authority.  At best it demonstrates a spiritual lukewarmness, if any spiritual sense at all, and is known chiefly by a preference for vulgarity in all things.  Any sign of gentleness or poise is replaced by a rough, uncaring demeanor, which encourages old behaviours, once moved aside, to re-emerge.  Pride shows itself in a person’s bitterness, loudness and ostentatious way of acting, and has a strutting cockiness to it.  It dtests any sign of joy or peace, and so the person lives in a permanent state of gloom.  

The person who has collapsed below the affliction of pride speaks with authority on everything, is too free with their tongue, and answers those who engage them with rancour.  There is no patience or tolerance in how they bear with others, and insults replace encouraging words.  The proud person refuses correction, and is always unforgiving and self-centred.  There is, entirely contrary to the invitation of the Gospel, a complete renunciation of the spiritual life.

Pride expresses itself in a carnal fashion, most obviously, as Cassian indicates above – it rules my behaviour.  Because the person who has given way to pride considers themselves to be the arbiter of all situations and choices, discernment is not a practice nor is it required.  All choices are made on affirming that what I want is what I need and what I should receive.  As one can easily see, the one who lives out of pride is the centre of all things.  Truly the man who is afflicted by pride fulfills that famous saying of the Sophist, Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things”.  The person living in pride makes himself the measure of all things and circumstances.

With this, all the afflicted thoughts form the basis of thought and behaviour:  I eat and drink what I want, when I want, in whatever quantity I see fit; in the same way, I am wasteful with food, since it serves only my interest and appetites.  The sex thought is given free reign and no discernment with regard to continence or chastity is encouraged – and all people become the object of my sexual desire and lust and exist for my pleasure.  So, pride brings us to degrade others, since they serve me and my satisfaction.  Things are to be used as I deem necessary – they do not become idols, of course, because they are always subservient to my use.

The person of pride is distinguished by a lack of charity and fraternal love, and so anger, which is always a self-centred way of acting, is a defining feature.  I am always angry or ready to react angrily.  One can imagine that in pride there is no forgiveness for the other, no need to ask forgiveness for oneself.  Joy, which is a defining characteristic of the disciple who has encountered the risen Jesus, is replaced by the gloom of dejection and despair – there is no sense of hope in pride, because it does not look beyond itself, and yet consumes itself in an unending quest for satisfaction.  Needless to say, one cannot speak of a spiritual life properly in pride – and so acedia is the mark that indicates that, for a person afflicted by pride, the spiritual life has no attraction, the tools of the spiritual life have no value, and there is no desire to seek God seriously.  There is only the dissatisfied satisfaction with the empty self.

Vainglory?  Yes, everything is done to attract attention, because I am the centre of attention and thus should be the focus of everyone’s senses.  Of course, since vainglory always exists under a veneer, there is no true self being sought or desired – layer upon layer of falsity advertise my presence.

The spiritual side of pride can be summed up simply – for such a one there is no need for God, since the self is the god.

Is there a way back for one who has become the afflictive thoughts so completely?  As in all things, the work of return must begin with a free choice made by the individual person, and that freedom, graced and given, is the defining aspect of the person created in the image and likeness of God.  In that sense, God always stands ready for the one who returns, but there must be, as with the Prodigal Son, a coming to one’s senses.  Perhaps this comes as the result of complete breakdown, or some experienced tragedy, or, as Bernard rightly points out, the concerted prayers of others on our behalf.  The work of return from that very far distant land where we become so unlike ourselves (a favourite theme in the Cistercian Fathers is that we are wandering in a “land of unlikeness” and so must spend this life finding our way back to our true homeland, life with God in the order of charity) means that the afflicted one has to begin again to retrieve and reclaim the tools of the spiritual life set aside in pride and degradation.  This work can never be undertaken alone – Dorotheos of Gaza, that near contemporary of St Benedict’s in the near east, reminds us frequently that no one can be his own director.  So, the first step is to place oneself in the care of a wise elder, one who will provide the sort of accompaniment that is needed for this road.

The work of recovery is one placed in the context of prayer and fasting, held out to us by Christ to go hand in hand in the tough work of challenging the evil one in our lives.  Silence reclaims our capacity to listen, refraining from much speaking.  Moving attention away from myself becomes the vehicle for a renewed service of others, as selflessly as we can, so that we see Christ in the other again and rejoice in his presence.  And as a graced backdrop to all of this, frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to experience the unending mercy of God in our own lives.

Since it is the antithesis of humility, pride needs to be corrected, ultimately, by that work which is, for St Bernard, also the first degree of truth.  So, becoming mindful of God again begins this work, since pride thrives in mindfulness of self alone.  The desire to seek out and do God’s will replaces the hegemony of my own will and self-counsel.  Suffering begins to be registered again as a means to live in communion with Christ and others, and so is accepted and offered.  Anger must be continually, gently, moved aside and replaced with service.  I place myself again in my community and allow my community to reach out to me and draw me back into its loving heart.  My demeanour and behaviour reflects who I am and who I wish to be, loved as son or daughter of the Father. 

But running through all this work, not only in pride, but in the other afflictive thoughts, is the simple but necessary discipline of watching our thoughts and guarding our heart, so that the undivided heart can be the place of real encounter with Christ.

-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-

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