You’ve cast aside the brethren and overthrown the superior. Who is left to pour contempt on? God, of course.
The last two steps of pride are the hard case stages, served up with a healthy dose of irony. Throughout the previous ten, one of the emergent properties has been lack of authenticity. The exterior self in no way corresponds with the interior; the life of social interaction is completely conducted by a facade; there is no unity between perception and reality.
The abbot, or any superior, pierces that veil and confronts the deception of pride in steps nine and ten. Assuming grace does not win out and the ladder of humility finally sees some use, the reaction is predictable:
You’re Not the Boss of Me!
You can’t tell me what to do! The monk departs the monastery and finally embraces a certain authenticity that has been lacking all along…just of the wrong sort. The rotten core becomes manifest and at the eleventh step we simply sin openly.
Remember, this entire business in the last few steps has been an enormous waste of energy. There’s a grim logic to taking the next step down: why bother? Why waste the energy?
This stage is the defiant pride that we (I, at least) most associate with Satan: a Miltonian fist-shaking at the heavens and a delight in disobedience. I used to think of this as the rock bottom for sin, but really, how many people do you know like this? This is a stage destined to be short-lived, I think. Because the sins we love…
Sin? Me? Don’t Be Ridiculous!
…stop being sins to us. The last reversal of the genuine comes at the twelfth stage. St. Bernard calls it habitual sin, but we have lost the sense of how dreadful that is I think. What’s really at stake is that we move from a defiant embrace of our sins to no longer believing that they are sins.
At the bottom of the ladder we rush about, unburdened by interior resistance or conflict. Sinners here are the mirror opposite of those at the top of the ladder, who run unburdened in the way of life. Free! Free at last! It is the broken and defective counterfeit freedom that the world loves so much. There is no more fear, for perfect malice drives out fear. There is no more distraction, for distraction has become the last end.
In St. Bernard’s words, “he cannot tell good from evil now.”
How do you come back from that? It can only be grace. St. Bernard is drawing echoes from the Rule’s chapters on excommunication, wherein St. Benedict repeatedly emphasizes the role of prayer. Prayer is the greatest medicine for the monk of grave faults. Prayer is the divine remedy beyond any human punishments. To jump traditions for a moment, St. Monica did more for her son than St. Ambrose ever did.
Now. Would you ever try to convince someone to stop their habitual sin by laying out St. Bernard’s ladder for them? The unburdened sinner who can no longer tell good from evil isn’t going to read, much less feel the impact of, a treatise like the Ladder.
The most important thing to understand about the Ladder is that the people reading it have already lived out this most fearsome stage. It’s what they left behind when they entered the monastery or, more broadly, took up their conversion to the Gospel.
The monastery is a voluntary association of the well-intentioned, assembled by grace, trying to achieve spiritual perfection. The very act of joining the monastery is the act of a sinner who has begun to change, who wants to climb, who wants to leave behind the evils that once sickened the soul.
When St. Bernard writes not to look back at Sodom and Gomorrah, he’s inspiring fear of God, sin, and self. To indulge pride even in small ways is to slither back toward that life that you never, ever want to see again. The fleshpots of Egypt, the wide fields of Sodom, that’s the old life.
On the ladder, between the top and the bottom, where interior resistance is strong and progress difficult, St. Bernard gives us the stick and the carrot, the whip and the bridle, reinforcement positive and negative. Ahead there is Christ whom we love, to whom we rush headlong. Behind there is our old life which we fear ever to see again.
“I have set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”
Get moving up that ladder.