St. Bernard on Pride: Next Steps

I’ve hemmed and hawed for weeks on how to handle the next few chapters of St. Bernard’s ladder of humility and pride.  I’ve decided to try a larger, more structured post, something close to an article.  A bit outside my these-days comfort zone, but here goes.

First, for review, the two ladders:

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

Here we began our initial descent down the ladder of pride with a consideration of curiosity (not the good kind!).  The next three steps all go together along with the first: levitas animi, foolish merriment, and boasting.  What they have in common is the wind: the person becomes less grounded, less substantial, less real.

These stages, like the corresponding claims in St. Benedict’s original ladder, pose a lot of challenges to us who view levity and merriment as goods.  As ever, to explain the Benedictine way always seems to involve backing up a bit and guarding against neurosis and scruple.  Let’s start by getting clear on levity and its true opposite, stability.

Satan

It may help to back up to look at a passage I skipped over in previous posts.  When St. Bernard talks about Satan, he does not consider him deep under the earth or burning with the fire of hell.  In an arresting passage, he has him trapped between earth and heaven, spinning in the wind:

“Heaven is my throne,” says God.  “Earth is my footstool”…Therefore, Satan, you cannot set up your throne in any part of heaven, for he has claimed it all for himself.  You cannot set it up on earth, for the earth is his footstool.  Indeed it is on the solid earth that the Church sits, founded on solid rock.  What are you going to do?  Cast out of heaven, you cannot stay on the earth.  Choose for yourself a place in the air, not to sit but to hang there, so that you who have tried to shake the stability of eternity may feel the punishment of your own instability.  You must wander about between earth and heaven while the Lord sits on a throne high and lifted up, and the whole earth is filled with his glory.  You have no place but the air.

Wow.  I felt like I was reading a tome of ancient magic when I read this a few years ago.  What an image, and a well-threaded connection of biblical texts!  I love this passage and the idea that Satan is trapped between elements.  It’s a bit of a challenge, since we tend to think of the heavens as even more ethereal than our lower atmosphere, and the angels as winged creatures of the air.  But this image reorients us.  Heaven and Earth are points of stability, fixity, foundation.  These are the places that give us something to push off of in order to move, to cause.

Satan, by contrast, is stuck like someone in outer space with nothing to push off of.  He’s lost all dominion over himself–helpless before whatever currents will drive him about.  He’s a lost grocery bag dancing around the quad outside your dorm room at uni.  Even the possibility of flight from God and His providence is now gone.  He is completely inert and subject to the forces of nature.  He’s also completely displaced and repelled by the Church, founded on the Rock.  Don’t get me started on all the fun we can have going in that direction.

This same airiness begins to fill us as we descend the ladder of pride in imitation of the Curious One.  The big challenge for us in all these stages is that they seem like harmless or even good things.  Curiosity?  Light-mindedness?  Merriment?  Is there no good thing on earth the Benedictine way doesn’t destroy?!

Before we get into the specifics on how each of these stages is not in fact a good thing but rather a perversion of a good thing, another general point is in order.  We tend to associate levity with joy and make its opposite sad-face.  St. Bernard’s reliance on levity as his motif derives from one of the three monastic promises: stability.

Stability

The monastic promise of stability is, in its origin, a largely practical one.  It is the promise that the monk will remain at his monastery for as long as he is a monk, neither hopping from monastery to monastery nor treating the cloister as a residence while he carries on  in the world much as before his promises.  The monastic enterprise is easily manipulated or taken advantage of (looking at you, gyrovagues!).  This is the promise that you won’t do that.

But as with all of the practical elements of the rule, the promise of stability also corresponds with a key interior reality.  The monastic life is hard, extremely hard, as hard as anyone with half a brain would expect.  Men and women swear their lives to change, to the uprooting of vice on a daily basis, to running the path of spiritual perfection.  And unlike laity like me, who can make that promise to themselves and then break it at will, the monk submits himself to someone who will make him do it.  In this sense, the promise of stability corresponds with commitment.

More than mere commitment even, stability becomes an aspect of Benedictine spirituality, and now we get close to St. Bernard’s line of thinking.  In our modern language we would call this stability groundedness.  We romanticize it in many ways–consider the untroubled calm of the kung fu master or the grizzled old log cabin man who has figured out life and is finally at peace.  Silly as they may seem, they are a reflection of what I mean here.

Stability is that interior intensity of soul by which we remain focused.  It is strength against temptation and distraction, not rigid but resilient.  It is endurance in our work and inner peace that flows from knowing what we are about.  It is hard for me to say more than this–at best I think of the enormous boulders of granite I scramble over along the Potomac River–but I think this interior stability is the sum and goal of the wisdom tradition that is the way of St. Benedict.

Like everything else in the realm of virtue, Satan lacks it entirely (ecce, we come full circle to the text!).  As we make our way down the ladder of pride, we imitate that Curious One and lose touch with it as well.  For the monk, there is no greater peril.  The loss of liturgical focus in the first step, curiosity, cuts free our anchor (Psst!  Anyone ever seen the Cross or Christ Himself referred to as an Anchor?  Eh? eh? eh?) and sets us adrift.  We become interested in what our position in the world is–or more correctly, interested in what it is not.  Of this we have already spoken.

Now let’s turn to the next three steps and try to make some sense out of them for ourselves.

Light-mindedness

From curiosity flows levitas animi.  Levity or lightness of soul is no virtue of “staying positive”: it is to become passive to the forces of the world and the flesh, tossed up and down on the currents of the air like leaves on the wind.  We are drawn, or pushed, to envy those above us and mock those below us.  We begin to see ourselves in the negative, in what we are not, or in the relative, as either better or worse than others.  Moods and emotions begin to follow a similar path–we swing between being pleased with ourselves and being sad that we are not what we see in others.

The connection to curiosity is clear.  The aimless, restless eye for others eventually engages the will and we come to think more of what we are not than what we are about.  We are all familiar with people who care too much about what others are doing.  How often do we tell our own children to stop worrying about what a sibling had for snack, what chore they did or didn’t do, or who was the last one to choose the TV show?  Don’t we also know people who lack the ability to focus on a task and are much too easily discouraged?  Sure, it may be a biological or character disposition.  But I think we all know people for whom it is a vice.

Levitas animi is the counterfeit of resilience and adaptability.  It is part of the outer shell that remains when stability is draining away.  We admire people who have an interest in many things–Renaissance Man!–or who evince a consistent concern for others–Altruistic!  But for the light of soul, this is all appearance.  There is no true regard for justice and mercy…even if we who are on this step of the ladder do not yet realize it ourselves.

Foolish merriment

This bobbing series of passive reversals leads to inepta laetitia–foolish merriment.  We seek happiness, and find it for a time when we feel ourselves superior to others, but find it repeatedly disturbed by our envy of others.  To avoid this, in our increasing pride we turn to a revelry intended to make us insensate to this envy.  We become even less substantial, driven by a fear of sorrow, craving an empty happiness, and paradoxically present a constantly-laughing exterior.

This is the really tough one for us now.  Don’t we all crave the life we see in those commercials where friends gather round the table or the bar and drink and talk and love life?  How many songs?  How many commercials?  It’s practically our version of Norman Rockwell Americana!  I myself have been known to spend a happy weekend with my siblings doing little more than being stupid over drinks and a certain table-top game that shall not be named.

Foolish merriment is the perversion of conviviality and brotherhood.  If, pace Billy Joel, you are drinking to forget about life for a while, something is wrong.  We can draw real strength from friends and family–can and should–but St. Bernard is warning against the fake stuff.  Real koinonia does not breed forgetfulness but strength.  Don’t we all know people who put up a strong front, who want to seem strong?  It doesn’t take much to see through the cracks in that facade if you know what to look for.

Boasting

Now our airiness reaches its limit, and we become a balloon zipping around making obnoxious noises: boasting.  The air inside us has to get out, tears its way out.  Our speech is out of control now; we cannot help but interject our opinions and reorient all conversations around ourselves.  The others that we so crave to best fade and become potential listeners to I.

The sad irony of the ladder of pride is that it begins by looking around at others but quickly becomes entirely enclosed in self.  At this stage, in all our dealings with others we see ourselves standing in the center.  Every topic is a like or dislike of ours, but especially the light and trivial ones.

St. Bernard’s description here is extremely disconcerting because I am conscious of all these inclinations in myself.  Consider yourself in a meeting–not a giant, worthless gathering where things best said in e-mail are repeated, but a committee of any sort where things can and should and do get done.  Now think of how you or others act in those meetings while you read this:

His opinions fly about.  His words tumble over one another.  He butts in before he is asked.  He does not answer other people’s questions.  He asks the questions himself and he answers them, and he cuts off anyone who tries to speak.  When the bell rings for the end of the discussion, even though it has been a long one, he asks for a little more time.  He asks permission to come back to the stories later, not so as to edify anyone, but so that he can show off his knowledge.  He may say something edifying, but that is not his intention.  He does not care for you to teach, or to learn from you what he himself does not know, but that others should know how much he knows.

Ouch.  It’s alarming to think how much of a drive we have to share this really really important point so that everyone agrees when we meet.  Or at least I do.  I have the rare opportunity to sit on a small committee with several monks, and it’s incredible how reticent they are to speak up in that bang-bang free flowing exchange of ideas that I am familiar with.  Or, reading the above, perhaps not so incredible at all.

Call it implicit boasting–not that your words are explicitly about yourself, or even slyly meant to be about yourself.  It’s that the entire conversation is, in a way, yours.  How often do we think that way, or act that way without even realizing it?

Seeds Before Flowers

I think one thing that can be lost in reading and thinking through these challenges is that we are not talking about hard case, end-of-the-line sinners.  Boasting is not just the insane braggadocio of the deliberately self-aggrandizing.  Foolish merriment is not simply college kids gone wild with Bacchanals or sad old drunks dying in a smoky bar.

There is a self-justifying defense against St. Bernard and the Rule that says, “Hey, I’m not one of those cases.  And it’s pretty weird, and definitely psychologically unhealthy, to tell me not to laugh too much or I might end up that way!”

These are the early stages of pride, and it’s important to see how easily we can slip into them.  The onset of any of these stages is subtle.  We’ve all had the experience of suddenly realizing, while driving, that we have not been paying attention.  It’s alarming to snap back to the present moment like that.  The loss of focus, of stability, is much like that as well.

What the Rule counsels, as I so often say, is slow down.  It doesn’t say “STOP!”  It doesn’t say “Fun is bad!  Don’t talk to people!”

The Rule, and here St. Bernard’s explication of it, simply calls us back to the center of ourselves where we find the Anchor (and the Rock was Christ).  Before you jump into that conversation, think for a second.  Why are you going to the fridge for that drink right now?  Are you taking things in striding or is this avoidance?  Do you really need to be up and looking around at others right now?  Are you tricking yourself?

Faulty steps at this point in the ladder are indeed small at first.  The problem, as with all sin, is when we convince ourselves it’s not sin.  Because the next steps of the ladder go from these altered inner perceptions to action, and things pick up speed (and F=MA) very quickly.  Don’t find yourself at step twelve wondering how you got there, since everything was going soooo well all along.

Attend to these things–attitudes, dispositions, words–and don’t worry.  When stability fails, there’s always conversatio morum.

Rursus incipiemus nunc et semper.

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