St. Bernard on Pride: Stage 5-6

Back to climbing down St. Bernard’s ladder of pride.  Through the first four steps, the soul has lost its anchor and preferred appearances to reality.  Fundamentally these have been interior disturbances–a loss of focus on the good, a loss of agency and self-governance, a sorrow that craves pleasures to drown itself, a re-orientation that focuses the surrounding world on the self.

Now the proud person transitions to external realities.  We left off with boasting, both implicit and explicit.  This leads, in the fifth stage, to making those boasts reality.  It is no longer enough simply to think of ourselves as superior: we have to be seen such by others.  We devote considerable effort to constructing a life that others will admire without actually being admirable.

This is the fault of being a “precious little snowflake.”  Rather than fast with everyone else, we choose times to fast while the others feast.  Rather than pray the office with the brothers we compose and love our own prayers.  The rather than is the key: we would rather seem good than be good (nec tamen melior esse studet, sed videri).  This is a mockery of the excellence which could also manifest such actions in addition to all the rest…though that is just as susceptible to fakery as well.

How about outside the monastery?  Rather than work hard all day I spend my office time in dissolution and then “work late,” departing with a weary slump.  Sound familiar?  What teenager has not spent a day making himself stupid with video games only to throw himself into a pretense of homework minutes before parents arrive home?  “You should have seen how much I had to do just to get this far!  The research was impossible!”

As the inner self is hollowed out by pride, all that remain are the outward appearances.  To these do we cling, desperate for the triumph without actually winning anything.  Pride at this stage is the craving to declare victory without having fought, to skip the cultivation of virtues and pretend we have them so as to glory in praise.  This is Ahimaaz rushing to declare victory to David and lying about the death of Absalom (II Samuel 18–a passage crying out for a good spiritual interpretation if ever one was).

In this love of reputation we regain a counterfeit of what we lost in our first fall to pride: dominion.  The first steps of pride have all been about a loss of agency, becoming passive to the forces of the world and the opinion of men.  But here, with the elaborate and perhaps even exhausting labors of outward appearance, we gain a kind of control: over the people we are duping.

The sixth stage is the deadly feedback loop: we begin to believe the praise we have manipulated others into giving.  St. Bernard calls this, simply, arrogance.  The self-deception is complete, but so is the irony: that warm feeling of happiness we receive, and that satisfied belief that we are pious because someone has said so, is the epitome of the passivity of pride.  Our agency is utterly nullified; we are good only because someone says so.

At the head of the post I called this the first phase of descent.  St. Bernard sees in the twelve stages three kinds of contempt.  Here, in the first six, we have contempt for our brothers.  Two interesting observations:

That contempt begins in something so small, so hidden, that we would scarcely give it notice: curiosity.  But even there we find contempt as a seed: curiosity as an implicit judgment, as a setting self apart from the communal life.  It doesn’t have to be a sneer and a cold shoulder to be contempt.

The full flowering of this contempt comes in steps five and six, but notice its final form: it’s not hostile or violent.  We might more readily see the fifth stage as contempt, as we strive to deceive and manipulate.  But in the sixth stage, we have false peace: we are at peace as long as you acknowledge my supposed greatness.  It is a more insidious and fearful contempt, the more so since we cease to realize that we even possess it.  And this total self-deception will show itself again in the other forms of contempt at stages ten and twelve: contempt such that we don’t even realize we have it.

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