Beware the Pit of Pride (1/19/20)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by William Deatherage, Executive Director

Readings for Today:
IS 49:3, 5-6
PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
1 COR 1:1-3
JN 1:29-34

A belated Happy New Year to all! It’s an exciting (and busy) time for our website, as I am proud to announce that we will be posting five times a week (an increase from last semester’s three times a week)! I must apologize for the lack of Sunday reflections recently, though I have made their production a New Years Resolution of mine. Let’s hope I can keep it!

“The queen of vices.” This was the term that Pope St. Gregory the Great used to describe pride. After all, it was pride that inspired Lucifer, the greatest angel, to rebel against God, forfeiting his status as the most beautiful angel ever created in exchange for eternal fire. But what exactly is pride, and how can it be avoided?

God explicitly commands that we orient ourselves to His Holy Will, and a cooperation with God’s graces yields a life that is worthy of His eternal love. Everything we do must be for the sake of an external end, which is achieving unity with God. People are, therefore, meant to be external-oriented. The same God commands, as a primary directive, that we love our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to love God. In this respect, man is created with a tangible way to practice this outward orientation. If we aren’t always thinking about God, it is intended that we think about God by thinking about our neighbors.

In its most basic sense, pride can be understood as a mindset, or a way of life. To be prideful is to reject our focus on God and others. When we are prideful, we are selfish, acting for our own sakes, thus adapting an inward orientation. We stop doing things for God and for our neighbors, only thinking about our own desires. The scariest thing about pride is that it infects us when we are at our highest points. Again, Lucifer was the most beautiful and magnificent of God’s angels, and it was at his peak of power when he pridefully stood against God and was cast into Hell.

Upon reflecting on pride, I noticed something striking about today’s readings. Notice the parts I highlight in bold:

  • “You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.”
  • “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”
  • “In the written scroll it is prescribed for me, to do your will, O my God, is my delight,”
  • “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,”

The commonality between these verses can be observed in their word choice. The remarkable thing about the Bible is that every single word is diligently packed with meaning. There are no accidental words or phrases that slip in there. In the case of today’s readings, it appears that the various charges that God’s prophets command ring of an outward-orientation. It is not by man’s own ability, or for man’s own glory, that we are called to serve God and others. It is only through God and for God that we are commanded to act: not for our glorification, but for God’s alone.

The culmination of this theme occurs in the Gospel, in which John the Baptist proclaims “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’”

I find this passage particularly inspiring. Here, we see that John the Baptist, an astounding prophet for his time, humbly deflects any semblance of pride by giving glory to Christ, Himself. John was a figure of such great importance that he was visited (in other verses) by some of the highest religious authorities in the land. He was ultimately arrested and executed by high-profile political leaders. Yet, did he boast? Did he accept the glory that was given to him by his followers? Did he Baptize in his own name? No, he did not, and neither should we.

It might seem like quite an easy task to avoid the pride of Satan. After all, what God-fearing Catholic would ever Baptize in their own name or lead rebellions against God? But doesn’t that happen sometimes?

I have personally interacted with many young Catholics who are involved in various ministries. One of the challenges that comes with dedication to the work of God includes falling into the fires of pride. Think about it. Many of the most charismatic religious leaders in the world are treated like celebrities by their supporters, and many of them are eventually defeated by their own hubris. But does that not also occur on a parish or university level, as well? Think of the more arrogant Catholics out there. I know they exist. After all, there’s a reason that many associate the Church with qualities like judgment and wrath. And while judgment and wrath are indeed important aspects of the faith, they MUST be appropriately oriented.

As a student who is preparing to graduate in May, I understand first-hand that there are immense challenges in applying Catholic teaching to the world. It seems that the more I study, the less patience I have with others, and I can attest that a great many other students feel the same way. When we are blessed with the knowledge of God, it must also be accompanied with a renewed devotion to humility. It is quite easy to start acting by ourselves and for ourselves, and then we fall from the pillar of knowledge into the pit of pride. It is when we transform from the humble wild-man of John the Baptist into the very Pharisees who challenged him.

There is an extraordinary difficulty in growing in faith and knowledge while retaining the humility that God calls us to have, but it is a challenge we are all required to undertake. That’s not to say that there is no need for asserting ourselves over others, there is plenty of need for mentorship. But mentorship is also outward-oriented, focused on the needs of the other.

On a final note, I would like to leave you all with a fundamental question, presented within the context of our good friend and mentor, Aristotle. The ancient Greek philosopher outlined three types of friendship. The first two, of utility and pleasure, are inward-oriented; these friendships serve selfish purposes. The final friendship is that of virtue, which he describes: “Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends.” Virtuous friends, therefore, care about each other before themselves. It is worth mentioning that God seeks to enter this virtuous friendship with us, but in order to enter such a friendship we must ask this: are we using God to get into Heaven, are we using God to feel better than others, or do we truly love God simply because He is God? If we go around using God for our own utility or self-righteousness to lord over others, as the Pharisees did, then we have already fallen into the pit of pride. If, however, we orient all actions to God with a humility towards Him and our neighbors, we will, by the grace of God, live in the footsteps of the prophets that God sent to us as exemplars of His goodness.

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