St. Bernard: Pride’s First Steps

Here’s a comparison of two ladders: St. Benedict’s on humility and St. Bernard’s on pride.  I’ve reversed St. Benedict’s so that the rungs line up.  If you are at the top of this chart, you are doing pretty well!  At the bottom…not so much.

Bernard’s Steps of Pride Benedict’s Ladder of Humility
1. Curiosity about what is not one’s concern Keep your head and eyes downcast
2. Light-minded chatter about trivialities If you do speak, do so quietly and soberly
3. Laughing about nothing Do not be quick to laugh
4. Boasting and talking too much Do not speak (unless spoken to)
5. Trying to be a special little snowflake Do nothing except what is commanded by the Rule and the example of the elders
6. Thinking oneself holier than others Consider oneself lower and of less account than everyone
7. Presumption to interfere in the affairs of others Be content with the poorest and worst of everything
8. Self-justification and excuse-making Hide nothing from the abbot
9.  Insincere Confession Patience in the face of accusation
10. Rebellion against superiors Submission of perfect obedience
11. Feeling Free to Sin Love doing the will of another
12. Habitual Sin Fear of the Lord

So why is curiosity such a big deal?  It is a virtue, as far as we are concerned nowadays, for we equate it with our natural inclination for knowledge.  See all that we have accomplished, throwing our minds to the task of the world!

St. Thomas sees in curiositas a vice by which our desire for knowledge is not regulated by reason, just like any other appetite.  In that sense it is a kind of gluttony or unchastity of the mind.  Even our highest powers can be misdirected, and the higher the power the greater the damage from misdirection.

St. Bernard does not clarify in this way, however.  It seems to be more about a diverting of attention from the extremely necessary task of self-mastery: “If you concentrate hard on the state you are in it will be surprising if you have time for anything else.”  That works out pretty well with St. Benedict’s starting point as well, where he has the monk keeping careful vigil over himself.  The outward look betrays an interior dissatisfaction or restlessness.

Of course it’s not just any “looking around” that betrays an interior restlessness or loss of guard.  The Psalmist raised his eyes to the hills to look for his salvation; Christ raised his eyes to regard the multitude with mercy.  So there is a laudable alertness, too: to give or seek mercy.  For St. Bernard if it’s not a look of justice and mercy, it’s curiosity.

The three Old Testament figures who raised their eyes for something other than mercy?  Dinah, Eve, and Satan.  That’s, um, quite a list.  He actually spends most of the chapter talking about Satan’s curiosity leading to his fall, which is a pretty neat topic.  Maybe for another day.

When I think of this roving eye, I think of being distracted at Holy Mass.  There’s something I’m supposed to be doing, and it should absorb my entire attention (minus the part where I have to keep my kids in line–that’s a different post!).  Watching to see how people screw up going to communion, or paying attention to people failing to sit/kneel/stand at the right times, or turning around to figure out what the kid in the back is doing…all these undermine the thing I’m supposed to be doing.

St. Bernard’s lesson here is to chop that off immediately.  Never look up.  Never turn around.  Ignore those things.  Even thinking about turning around is its own distraction.  In that light, the counsel on curiosity doesn’t seem so harsh anymore.  It also underscores how alien monastic life is from the world.  The monk in the monastery is engaged in this “liturgical focus” all the time.

One last thing that strikes me about the whole ladder structure is that we tend to conceptually set it up in the wrong place.  From our common, modern perspective, “I’m doing all right.”  Fear of the Lord seems like a bonus, an above-and-beyond kind of thing.  All of this ladder seems neat, maybe admirable, but not ultimately necessary because we are okay with where we are starting out.  I’m happy now, I’m good now, what’s the bonus round?

St. Bernard obviously would be horrified by this attitude, but it’s not quite so clear in St. Benedict’s Rule.  The emphasis in the Rule is not on our sinful condition (at least where the ladder is concerned).  Has St. Bernard altered the ladder of humility by tying it to sin?

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