In the last post, on presumption and self-justification, I mentioned that the second contempt would reach its culmination in step ten. Here we are! It’s contempt for the superior.
The arrogant come to believe they are due all goods and deny the evils they do. But denial gets old and arrogant doesn’t mean stupid. In order to maintain the aura of perfection and their control over the people around them, the arrogant resort to a more deceptive form of denial: false self-accusation.
This is the lie of last resort as the facade crumbles. St. Bernard speaks of it as sowing doubt in the minds of doubters–“I thought he was proud, but look at him accuse himself of such sins!” But those sins are not real; the arrogant make them up to distract from real sins.
Consider the amount of wasted energy here. With the end of pride in sight, it has never seemed so stupid. False confession, stage magic of the soul, involves displays of contrition and mortification that take real work. The emotional toll of faking a weakness so that others will sympathize and raise their esteem leaves no room for actual self-awareness. The counterfeit life, trapped between heaven and earth, has grown to encompass everything since that first, seemingly small, first step.
No one can live this life forever. Every facade crumbles, and in the monastery there is one for whom the primary task is to see through such things: the abbot. The whole life of the monks is built around being accountable to a superior–obedience! And so, assuming the monastery is a healthy one, this game can’t possibly last. Wisdom declares herself in the marketplace, which brings us to…
Well that’s odd. Bit of a problem, actually. The next chapter after false confession is step eleven. What happened to ten?
Structurally interesting point: there is no chapter devoted to the tenth step and St. Bernard does not single it out. That’s because it is fundamentally different than all the other stages. When the superior pierces or tears down the facade of false confession–when the facade comes into conflict with the wise man who knows the devil’s tricks–a moment of truth arrives. We either accept the destruction of all that we have built and repent, or we double down and reject the truth. The first option is the beginning of climbing back up the ladder of humility. The second is outright rebellion and departure from the monastery.
What we have here is more of an inflection point than a stage. Rebellion–the tenth step–is both the pinnacle of contempt for one’s superior as well as no longer having a superior at all. The only question left is whether the former monk will leave on his own or get kicked out. There is no incremental medicine at this point: it’s do or die time.
Any third path from this moment is unhealthy for everyone: enabling the sin of the arrogant, disturbing the peace of the community, undermining the authority of the abbot. If it gets this far, St. Bernard is clear, we need grace or separation. The Rule of St. Benedict spends a fair amount of time talking about this final medicine: excommunication.
If it gets this far. There comes a point of no return with all problems, which is why it’s crucial for the superior, and the brethren, not to let it get that far. Everything about the way of life in the Rule is designed to check our progress down the ladder of pride. Interventions must be done early, not at the
eleventh tenth hour, which means the superior must be far-sighted and a true guide for the soul.
This is another interesting feature of St. Bernard’s “chapter ten” on pride: it’s aimed at least as much at the abbot as it is at the monk. And of course, this whole thing is written for people who care, people who have begun to run the race and are seeking instruction in this way of life. So it’s a cautionary tale to any beginner as well: ware, lest you end up here.
So that’s it for stages nine and ten. The first six stages of pride had us in conflict with the brethren. In the next four, the arrogant enter into a direct conflict with the superior. As contempt grows and overthrows the superior, there is only one target left. Next time: the last two steps of pride.