Some years ago, I read an article in a car magazine (not the sort of thing I read often) written by a race car driver. He was writing about instruction he had received in how to become a better race car driver. One of the first things he was told was that to learn to drive faster, he needed to slow down. A lot. Because only by slowing down could he develop the precision that he needed if he was going to learn to drive faster well.
So it is, too, that St. Teresa of Avila wrote that before we can be Mary (the more contemplative sister), we must learn to be Martha (the more active sister). She speaks in her Life (22:13) of "a little failure in humility, in that the soul desires to rise of itself before our Lord raises it, and is not satisfied with meditation on so excellent a subject,—seeking to be Mary before it has laboured with Martha. If our Lord will have a soul to be Mary, even on the first day, there is nothing to be afraid of; but we must not be self-invited guests, as I think I said on another occasion. This little mote of want of humility, though in appearance a mere nothing, does a great deal of harm to those who wish to advance in contemplation."
Humility is what these two examples have in common -- a humility that is necessary to growth in the spiritual life. It is a humility that resists trying to be what we want to be before we have really become it. Or, rather, it is a way of working toward becoming the people we want to be by paying more attention to the every day details of who we are in the present moment.
The idea of writing about the opposite of pride, and meditating on what that might be, was given to me by a priest who had spent more than 25 years in the priesthood before the first time anyone confessed pride to him in the confessional. Yet pride is a root cause of sin in its various forms. Pride was the root sin of Sodom, according to Ezekial 16:49-50 ("Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them, when I saw it."). Pride is associated with the love of the world in I John 2:15-17 ("Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.") It is no wonder, then, that St. Teresa would have seen it as an impediment to contemplation.
To say that humility is the opposite of pride is perhaps to state the obvious, but it becomes tricky unless we define the terms. That is so because someone can be proud of their humility (false humility) and because it is possible to confuse pride with self-confidence or courage. The pride that is a sin is not true self-confidence, and the humility that is a virtue is not false humility.
The Hebrew word for "pride" used in Ezekial 16 above means to be high, exalted, or lofty. The word is a good thing when it describes God, and a bad thing when it describes people. For a person to be high, exalted, or lofty (or to think himself so) is arrogance. In a way, it means that a human being sees himself or herself as exalted, when that is how he or she should see God. The Greek word for pride used in I John 2 above means, according to Strong's, "empty braggart talk" or "an insolent and empty assurance, which trusts in its own power and resources and shamefully despises and violates divine laws and human rights." Both words then describe a false pride, particularly that seen in people who lift themselves up to a level that belongs to God and not to themselves.
It is a difficult thing to describe in others because so much has to do with motivation. We are supposed to be trying to become more like the saints. Yet the person who is trying to act saintly may well be thought prideful by someone else watching. It is probably best, then, to think only about our own pride and how we might correct it, and not about what we think to be pride in another person. ("Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." I Samuel 16:7)
St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Looking for examples in the lives of the other Carmelite saints, and wisdom in their writings, there is more to add to the words of St. Teresa about labouring with Martha. The humility of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is seen in her examples of living everyday life, in the day-to-day difficulties of living with others and working with others, writing more about the mundane everyday actions that often involved covering up her true feelings toward others and acting in charity when she didn't feel like it. In the words of Bernard Bro (St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Family, Her God, Her Message), "in everyday life, to do the truth, but in the name of a love that comes from above and that then transcends strictures, petty details, or a settling of scores." Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of such humility and its role in making progress in the spiritual life in The Little Way, quoting St. Thérèse at the end:
"Progress does not come through acquisitions but through losing everything; it does not mean climbing, it means descending. A novice sighs: 'When I think of everything I still have to acquire!' 'You mean, to lose! Jesus takes it upon Himself to fill your soul, in the measure that you rid it of its imperfections. I see that you have taken the wrong road; you will never arrive at the end of your journey. You are wanting to climb a great mountain, and the good God is trying to make you descend it; He is waiting for you at the bottom in the fertile valley of humility.'"
St. Edith Stein
It would be a mistake to misinterpret the little way of St. Thérèse to mean that everyone must become as simple as she was in her early 20's or else be found guilty of pride. At the other extreme of the scale of sophistication might be found another Carmelite saint, St. Edith Stein, and yet there we find another example of such slowing down in order to become faster. Even as a nun, her everyday life was much different from that of St. Thérèse, particularly during the writing of her sophisticated books, Finite and Eternal Being and The Science of the Cross.
While the other nuns knew nothing of Edith's work as a lecturer before entering Carmel, and she took care to avoid being condescending, her intellectual sophistication eventually became a part of her everyday life at Carmel, as she began to write again. She was nearly 20 years older than the two novices when she entered, and could not have been perceived the same way as Thérèse, who entered Carmel at an exceptionally young age and lived only to the age of 24. It could not have been said of Edith near her death, as one of the Lisieux nuns said of Thérèse, that she "has certainly done nothing worth the trouble of being recounted."
Still, in a letter written soon after she entered Carmel, Edith told her colleague Dr. Hans Brunnengräber, "Carmel is a high mountain that one must climb from its very base." Teresa Renatta Posselt, O.C.D., who was Edith's novice mistress, wrote, "In all actuality, for Edith Stein entrance into Carmel was a descent from the height of a distinguished career to the depth of insignificance." (Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite).
St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross, writing as a superior who had guided both students and teachers of prayer, wrote separately about the effects of pride on a beginner and the effects of pride on a director. It manifests itself differently in different people, in their different responsibilities.
In The Dark Night of the Soul Book One, Chapter 2, he wrote about pride in beginners. They seek to speak of spiritual things in the presence of others, and even to instruct rather than be instructed. Some "become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy" and thus "strain at the other's gnat and swallow their own camel [Mt. 23:24]". When their spiritual directors, confessors or superiors disapprove of their method of procedure, they think their directors do not understand, and seek one they like better. Many want to be their confessor's favorite, and they become consumed by envies.
In contrast, those who are advancing benefit from their humility, placing little importance on their own deeds, and thinking that everyone else is better than they are. They become more aware of their debt to God. Their charity and love make them want to do so much for God that what they actually accomplish seems like nothing. They long to be taught by anyone who might be a help to them. They are ready to take a different road from the one they are following if told to do so. "These souls would give their life's blood to anyone who serves God, and they will do whatever they can to help others serve him."
In The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 3, he wrote about pride in spiritual directors. When some directors react with jealousy when a directee consults with someone else or or leaves for another director, John called it "a jealousy motivated by your own pride and presumption or some other imperfection, for you should not assume that in turning from you this person turned from God." (3:59) "God leads each one along different paths so that hardly one spirit will be found like another in even half its method or procedure." Even when a director acts out of ignorance rather than egoism or jealousy, he said, they still are not excused for giving counsels without understanding "the road and spirit a person may be following." When a directee is dissatisfied, it is a sign that the director is not helping him or her, either because God is making that person advance by a different road from the one along which the director is leading, or because the director has changed style. In that event, John said, the directors themselves should counsel a change of director; "all the rest stems from foolish pride and presumption, or some other ambition."
The Remedies for Pride Described by Two Popes
The humility of Jesus, and our recognition of our lack of self-sufficiency, is seen as the remedy for pride in the meditation on the third station of the cross in the Via Crucis 2005 (written by then Cardinal Ratzinger):
"In Jesus’s fall beneath the weight of the Cross, the meaning of his whole life is seen: his voluntary abasement, which lifts us up from the depths of our pride. The nature of our pride is also revealed: it is that arrogance which makes us want to be liberated from God and left alone to ourselves, the arrogance which makes us think that we do not need his eternal love, but can be the masters of our own lives. In this rebellion against truth, in this attempt to be our own god, creator and judge, we fall headlong and plunge into self-destruction. The humility of Jesus is the surmounting of our pride; by his abasement he lifts us up. Let us allow him to lift us up. Let us strip away our sense of self-sufficiency, our false illusions of independence, and learn from him, the One who humbled himself, to discover our true greatness by bending low before God and before our downtrodden brothers and sisters."
A humble and spontaneous trust in the One Lord is contrasted with pride in the August 10, 2005 General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI on Psalm 131 ("LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so is my soul within me."):
"The Psalm begins by describing an attitude quite the opposite of infancy, which, well aware of its own frailty, trusts in the help of others. In the foreground of this Psalm, instead, are pride of heart, haughty eyes and 'great things' that are 'too sublime for me' (cf. Ps 131: 1). This is an illustration of the proud person who is described by Hebrew words that suggest "pride" and "haughtiness", the arrogant attitude of those who look down on others, considering them inferior.
"The great temptation of the proud, who want to be like God, the arbiter of good and evil (cf. Gn 3: 5), is decisively rejected by the person of prayer who chooses humble and spontaneous trust in the One Lord."
Pope Paul VI pointed to charity as the remedy for pride in his Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram (On Truth, Unity and Peace in a Spirit of Charity):
"But all will come out well if the social teaching of the Catholic Church is applied as it should be to the problem. Everyone then must strive to preserve in himself and to arouse in others, be they of high or low degree, the queen and mistress of all the virtues, charity. The salvation we hope for is to be expected primarily from a great outpouring of charity. We refer to that Christian charity which is a principle synthesizing the entire gospel. That charity is always ready to spend itself in the interest of others and is the surest remedy against worldly pride and immoderate self-esteem. St. Paul the Apostle described the characteristics of this virtue when he said: 'Charity is patient, is kind; is not selfseeking; bears with all things, endures all things' (1 Cor. 13.4-7)."
The remedies that they propose are a humble trust in the Lord and the virtue of charity that bears and endures all things from others. Returning to the example offered by St. Teresa of Avila, it is surely such charity, "always ready to spend itself in the interest of others" that describes a true Martha, rather than busy herself "with great matters, with things too sublime" for her. In learning from Jesus, who humbled himself, by "bending low before God and before our downtrodden brothers and sisters", we would be neither the proud beginners nor the proud directors described by St. John of the Cross. The "person of prayer who chooses humble and spontaneous trust in the One Lord" rather than things too sublime for him or her is surely the "Martha" who will slow down in prayer to learn to pray well.