Bernard on Benedict on Pride

I posted a bit on St. Benedict’s 12-step program for humility–the daunting Jacob’s Ladder in chapter seven of his rule.  For some comments on the harrowing final rungs of that ladder, see the earlier post.  Now I want to turn to how another Benedictine saint riffed on that chapter.


St. Bernard of Clairvaux is a criminally underrated spiritual author.  Or at least I criminally underrated him; reading him in college was a chore and I only came back to him in small, infrequent doses.  But again, getting inside the Rule a little bit changed me for the better.  Getting older probably helped.  When I re-read St. Bernard two years ago, he absolutely lit me on fire.  He has a profound insight into human nature similar to that for which St. Augustine is justly famous.  I was so stupid when I was nineteen!  I try to remember that when I’m teaching.

One of his works, On the Steps of Humility and Pride, takes St. Benedict’s ladder and flips it around: instead of looking at the ascent of humility, he details the corresponding descent of pride.  It sounds like a gimmick but it turns out to be quite profound.  Among other things, it helps illuminate some of those harder-to-appreciate rungs near the top of St. Benedict’s ladder.

Here’s the ladder–or scary, subterranean staircase–down to hell:

  1. Curiosity about what is not one’s concern
  2. Light-minded chatter about trivialities
  3. Laughing about nothing
  4. Boasting and talking too much
  5. Trying to be a special little snowflake
  6. Thinking oneself holier than others
  7. Presumptuous interference in the affairs of others
  8. Self-justification and excuse-making
  9. Insincere confession
  10. Rebellion against superiors
  11. Feeling free to sin
  12. Habitual sin

Let’s crack the knuckles and get down to work.  What does St. Bernard add to St. Benedict’s treatment?

For starters, he spends a lot of time talking about what we find at the top of the ladder of humility.  This introduction is a dense network of Scriptural citations which grows out of John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Humility is the way, knowledge of the truth is the reward.  And life?  That’s both!  A life of humility and the life of repose in the truth.

The entire thing from start to finish is an unfolding of the truth so he also spends some time talking about the way the truth grows in us.  He ties in a lot of features, but I note with interest a further development of St. Benedict’s interior-to-exterior transformation (flip back to my post on humility for a thought or two on that).  To reach the truth itself we must first find it in our neighbor, and to do that we must first find it in ourselves.  Here’s a neat quotation from chapter 3:

But to have a heart which is sad because of someone else’s wretchedness you must first recognize your neighbor’s mind in your own and understand from your own experience how you can help him.

You will be pleased, no doubt, to know that he pairs this self-neighbor-truth progression with the course of the beatitudes.  The “humility” stages give way to the “justice-and-mercy” stages, which finally give way to contemplation of the truth itself and repose therein.  But this is not actually St. Bernard’s primary work on the beatitudes–that would be De Conversione, more on which I shall write in future days!

His heavy emphasis on contemplation and spiritual consolation, especially his frequent return to Song of Songs, and digressions on the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union all add a strong mystical dimension to the Rule.  While St. Benedict’s Rule is clearly a work in the wisdom tradition, and takes spiritual progress toward a heavenly reward as its starting point, it it is overwhelmingly concerned with practical matters.  St. Bernard dwells much more on the reward, putting him more in the orbit of later writers.  I dislike speaking “spirituality” as a genre, but if that label has any legitimacy St. Bernard owns it.

In future posts I’ll look more directly at the ladder, match it up with St. Benedict’s version, and talk about how one illuminates the other.  In the meantime, get a hold of some St. Bernard.  He’s worth the work!

(although I think you have to shell out some $$ unless your Latin is up to snuff)


3 thoughts on “Bernard on Benedict on Pride

  1. Robalspaugh,

    Nice post–and scary.

    For my part, I’ve come to prefer looking at the life of Faith as more of a journey or pilgrimage, rather than as an ascent (or descent, if I’m giving up on the pilgrimage, in a way): It seems this approach is less anxiety-inducing – at least, I have found it such – and anxiety gives rise to all sorts of problems. What would you say to this sort of approach, and the underlying concern with the ascent-image? Does St. Bernard take it up at all?


    1. Well, keeping in mind that I’m just about the last person anyone should be consulting for spiritual advice…

      I’m with you on the anxiety thing, but I have come to wonder what exactly about the pilgrimage angle is supposed to make things less worrying. Both are meant to convey progress, and you can get lost and die on a pilgrimage. I think the concern with the ladder is that it seems like a narrow and rigid way to understand life. It also seems like you can annihilate any progress as if it had never been. Here I am, starting over again…

      But perhaps it’s not the right way to look at the ladder. It’s not describing the timeline of my life (internal or external) so much as the causal connections between vices. I’m not a Level 5 Superbus, I just need to know how pride works, and where especially I am weak in it, to root it out.

      But then again, I dislike simplifying answers here. I prefer to let the ladder scare me. Maybe we don’t think grandly enough when it comes to spiritual progress, and so we run to a counter error as we rightly avoid that anxiety and self-destruction.

      I think both St. Benedict and St. Bernard would say “That’s why you need an abbot.” I wonder if trying to put all this into a private devotional guide like the Imitatio was a huge mistake on the part of Kempis.


  2. Thanks for the response. I hadn’t bothered to think of the difficulties inherent in the pilgrimage analogy before; they are there.

    I suppose, yeah, my problem with the ladder analogy has been precisely what you say: It seems to imply that if I fall, I’m starting all over, from the bottom. I would add to this, from my experience of rock climbing–and my limited forays into the spiritual life–that looking at the spiritual life as a latter I have to climb encourages despair: When I’m rock climbing, and come down after failing to make it over a particularly difficult spot, it is incredibly difficult sometimes (if not practically impossible) to get up right then and there and go at the route again. And yet, the spiritual masters say that stopping along the way is a going backwards…

    Of course, one should probably say, it’s good to keep in mind that one can stop while top-roping and be held there to rest before attempting that crux move again; there is a difference between stopping like that to rest and recollect and demanding to be let down. One could also say, maybe, there’s a difference between going back down to the bottom and remaining somehow intent on trying things again and going away–although just stopping at the bottom like that would entail a greater risk that you would just give up altogether. And if we take the Theresian way and say that, while we can’t just slack off, God’s going to have to lift us up that route because we can’t do it, that makes the whole thing easier to swallow. The pilgrimage analogy seemed to me to allow for those times when we’ve been beaten down or turned back here or there not being an end to the journey, necessarily; it seems the same can be said for the ladder analogy.

    Oh, the Imitatio…Yes, there is need for a good spiritual director, and anyone who thinks he can make it alone (assuming he has a choice!) is a fool.


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