Whenever we pit ourselves against Church teaching and act as our own Magisterium, we reveal that we are in the grip of deadly pride.
WICHITA, Kansas (Catholic Online) - "I will not serve." Satan proudly declares in Milton's Paradise Lost. "It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven." Milton's Satan might appear to be a hero, but Dante offers another picture of the wretchedness of hell's miserable ruler. In the Inferno, Satan is frozen from the waist down, his ruined wings beating in place, as he weeps tears of pus and blood, still spurning the God he refuses to serve, yet still powerful to do great harm to others.
Few of us oppose God openly as Satan did, but whenever we pit ourselves against Church teaching and act as our own Magisterium, we reveal that we are in the grip of deadly pride. "I did it my way" is the anthem of the proud.
Pride hits us in our strengths, leading us to take full credit for our achievements without gratitude to God or others. Boasting seeks the adulation of others, while pride judges the weaknesses of others by criticizing them openly or interiorly.
Vanity about one's intelligence or achievements, the superiority of one's social circumstances or the "higher moral ground" one thinks he holds on social issues has contributed greatly to our inability to engage in civil discourse on many important questions. The lack of manners and respect rampant on TV talk shows are only one example of pride at work.
Closer to home, many common courtesies have been abandoned. Have we taught our children, for example, to greet people when they enter a room and say "Good bye" when they leave? Are we gracious in our conversations around the dinner table? Rudeness, sarcasm, ridicule, or belittling shows the narcissism and individualism that reigns in many hearts.
The proud person feels he has the right to seize and secure his place in the world and that others owe him respect and reward. When these are not forthcoming, he might erupt with verbal or physical anger or seethe with envy and malice.
The Catechism defines pride as "an inordinate self-esteem or self-love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God (#1866). Webster's dictionary adds vanity, vainglory, conceit, arrogance, egotism, boastfulness, self-glorification, and selfishness to the definition of pride.
Does this mean that self-esteem is always wrong? There is confusion about the similarities and differences between genuine self-esteem and pride. Obsession with intensive "self-care" as presented in many popular articles or a focus on feeling good about ourselves in spite of what we actually do all develop the deadly vice of pride.
Healthy self-esteem, on the other hand, might be better expressed by Aristotle's term "magnanimity." Magnanimity is a lofty or courageous spirit, nobility or generosity of mind that, as St Thomas says, confirms the mind and helps the person stand firm in seeking to achieve the greatest goods. Magnanimity brings us up to our full stature in God, not in pride.
A proper self-respect rests on knowing we are made in the image of God and that every soul has infinite value. God intended for us to be born, has a place for us in the world and has given us true gifts to be used in loving and obedient service of others. Our self-worth rests unassailably on God Himself, so it is not necessary to climb above others for our place in the world. It is given.
We have only to accept this gift, but that requires humility, the antidote to pride. Many of us mistakenly think humility buries our gifts and talents, but humility is based on truth -- a true assessment of the abilities, gifts, and talents God has given. These gifts are not given to puff us up but to be used in loving and obedient service.
Humility empowers and energizes us to great works of magnanimity, because, as St. Francis de Sales says in the Introduction to the Devout Life, "the proud man who trusts in himself has good reason not to attempt anything. The humble man is all the more courageous because he recognizes his own impotence. The less he esteems himself, the more daring he becomes because he places his whole trust in God."
St. Paul tells us to have Christ's attitude, "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, coming in human likeness and . . . humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name. . ." (Phil 2:4-11)
If the Lord Himself was humble, who are we to stand firm in pride and arrogance? If the Lord Himself was obedient, who are we to set ourselves in defiance against God? Instead, as we move into the Holy Triduum and prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery, let us take our towels and wash the feet of others, hoping to be raised up with Him in the Resurrection.
Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas, where she has been Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita, Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department and founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University. She teaches moral theology and church history and is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.
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