Part 7 in our series on the vices.
We come now to the deepest vice, pride. I said last week that envy is close to the sin that brought down Satan, who could not stand to see Jesus and Mary elevated. But in fact the heart of the spiritual life, and the heart of sin, is more directly related to God.
The first sin, the Tradition insists, was not against neighbor, but against God. Lucifer said, “I will not serve,” and Michael responded, “who is like God?” Lucifer, it is conjectured, was the highest of all the angels. Everyone else could accept being second. Lucifer wanted to be first. Michael was not the highest of angels – in fact, in the traditional scheme, archangels are way down toward the bottom, little more than messengers, while the Cherubim and Seraphim stand around the throne. But Michael triumphs because he knows that God is God; no one is like God!
Micha-el is just Hebrew for the question “who is like the Almighty?” To ask ourselves this question is the greatest battle cry of all.
On the one hand, this is about worship. The “serve” in Satan’s cry – non serviam! – is actually the Latin word for worship. I will not worship. That is the heart of pride. To which the response is: but who is like the Almighty?
On the other hand, it is about grace. Satan does not want to receive, he cannot tolerate the idea of grace. To which, again, the response is: but who is like the Almighty? Who could provide for us like God? What could be more wonderful than to receive what God has to give us?
The fall of Satan is nothing other than the corruption that comes when the most brilliant intellect suddenly becomes foolish. How foolish to think that you can stand in the place of God.
And all the more foolish when lower creatures let him convince them. “You shall be like gods!” he tells Adam and Eve. To which the response must be, “no! for who is like the Almighty?!”
This is fundamentally what it is all about. To acknowledge God as God, to worship him and to receive the gifts he offers.
From the beginning, God has given us signs of this worship. Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the tree. The point is that lower actions can symbolize our relation to God. To receive his law is to let ourselves be in a position of receiving.
The battle against pride is played out on all sorts of symbolic levels. The deepest part of the moral law is simply the acknowledgement that God is God. He created the world, he made its order. To reject nature is, above all, to reject nature’s God. To think that we are better than God. But who is like God?
(In the form of a question, it makes us think. Gosh . . . yeah, how foolish . . . .)
The great spiritual writers give us other concrete ways to practice humility. Cassian, the collector of the fourth-century Desert Fathers, suggests we offer and accept apologies; that we be kind to the people around us; that we submit to the wisdom of our elders, and the needs of our community. These are all goods in themselves. But the bigger point is that these are ways we can practice knowing that we are not God. No, mine is not the greatest wisdom. No, an offense against me is not the greatest offense. No, vengeance is not mine.
St. Benedict gives us some harsher practices. To keep our voices down; not to assert ourselves over much; even to avoid being too uproarious in our sense of humor. These ideas drive my students crazy. But the point is that self-worship is so very easy. So easy to insist that everyone look at me!
Now, humility is only ever a secondary thing – and these steps to humility are second to that second. Being boisterous or not is not the main point. But the point is to practice recognizing that God is God: he is the good, he is the healer, his is the wisdom. This is not exactly self-contempt. In fact, it is a focus on his mercy. But to focus on his mercy requires being willing to receive, not always asserting ourselves.
And finally, we look to Mary. She is the handmaid of the Lord. She is full of his grace. She receives everything from him, gives everything to him, and is nothing without him. She is simply “with the Lord.” To love Mary is to discover the heart of humility.
How do you find yourself placing yourself in the place of God? And how do you step back and let him be God?
This concludes our series on the vices. Click here for the rest of the “vices” series.