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Spiritual Pride


Now we will examine some of the common effects of the seven capital sins in spiritual persons according to St. John of the Cross.  He begins with spiritual pride.  Beginners in the spiritual life feel great devotion and pleasure in their spiritual exercises and good works.  Because of this, they often have a kind of “secret pride” or spiritual vanity as they flatter themselves in the mirror of self-love. (DN, Bk. I, Ch. 2, No. 1)  Consequently, they look down on others who do not seem to be as holy or fervent as they are.  They show off their new found spirituality and experience of God around others and try to teach them rather than be taught.  Striving to strain out the gnat from their brother’s eye, they do not see the beam in their own, and thereby swallow a camel of pride. (cf. Matt. 23:24, 7:3-5)  Furthermore, the devil will try to puff them up with pride in their sensible fervor and zeal, as if they deserved it for being so good.  Thus, to some degree, he spoils their good works with self-esteem and self-satisfaction.  “They have received their reward. (Matt. 6:2)  The enemy will also seek to deceive them with vain thoughts and “high” feelings that lead to self-complacency and presumption.  From there, having lost the humble holy fear of God, they become too bold and self-confident, incautious and unwise in their actions, and following their own imagination or the suggestion of the evil one fall into some obvious sin.  “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)  God allows this to humble them.  Still, wanting others to have the same high opinion of themselves as they do, they may try to hide this sin from their spiritual director, if they have one, or even worse in Confession.  It would hurt their ego and pride and be embarrassing to admit it.  “They (may) approach the confessional to excuse themselves rather than accuse themselves,” accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, notes the Mystical Doctor. (DN, Bk. I, Ch. 2, No. 4) (St. John of the Cross is known as the “Mystical Doctor”—a Master Teacher of the Mystical/Contemplative Life.)

Some spiritual beginners “love to receive praise, and sometimes they even seek it.” (Ibid., No. 5)  They cannot bear to be thought of or spoken of as less good or less spiritual than others, so they put others down in their own mind and imagination, and sometimes even go so far as to openly disparage them in word.  This is the rotten fruit of spiritual pride.  St. John of the Cross writes, “This is quite evident from the displeasure and aversion these individuals feel toward anyone who does not laud their spirit (spiritual life) nor value their communications (spiritual experiences), and from the affliction they experience upon thinking or being told that others receive the same favors or even better ones.  All this is born of hidden self-esteem and pride.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, Ch. 9, No. 2)  He goes on to say, “These persons are not fully aware that they are steeped in pride.  They think that a certain degree of knowledge of one’s own misery is sufficient.  Yet at the same time they are full of hidden self-esteem and (self-)satisfaction, more pleased with their own spirit and spiritual goods than with those of their neighbor.” (Ibid.)

In general, spiritual persons can become more attached to the gift than the Giver, more concerned about receiving and enjoying spiritual gifts than fulfilling the will of God and being united with Him.  As a result, they may become proud of their spiritual experiences, secretly taking credit for them as if they deserved it, instead of feeling unworthy, though not uneasy, in a spirit of peaceful and loving gratitude and thanksgiving to God who is so merciful to sinners.  St. John of the Cross comments, “All the visions, revelations, and feelings from heaven, or whatever else one might desire to think upon, are not worth as much as the least act of humility.  Humility has the effects of charity:  it neither esteems nor seeks its own, it thinks no evil save of self, it thinks no good of self but of others.” (Ascent, Bk. III, Ch. 9, No. 4)(cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-7)  Humility leads to love.  If we think others are less important than ourselves we will not treat them very well or respect them.  If, on the other hand, we think others are just as important as ourselves, perhaps more, we will treat them better and respect them more—we will love them.  This applies even more to God.  The more important God becomes to us the more we will love and respect Him.  “He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

That is the problem with pride.  It is contrary to true love.  The prideful are in love with themselves.  They are full of themselves.  They are important, not God or others.  This “self-love” is selfish and self-centered, the fruit of pride.  That is the traditional meaning of the term “self-love” in Catholic spiritual literature.  In a symbolic way, it is the difference between a black hole and the sun in the universe.  True love, which is the fruit of humility, is like the sun.  It shines on others and fills them with the light of truth and the warmth of spiritual love.  It helps them grow and develop in every way, humanly and spiritually.  It heals, frees, saves and fulfills.  True love comes from God and unites us to God.  Self-love, like a black hole, sucks everything into its own center.  It holds on to others and uses them for its own pleasure.  It robs them of their dignity, value and worth, and leeches the life right out of them.  While the outer shell may appear good and helpful, the undertow is selfish and sinful.  Self-love separates us from God.  It leads to darkness and death, and destroys true love.  True love and self-love are the difference between Heaven and Hell.  Every converted Christian has a mixture of true love and self-love in their heart and soul until their love has been cleaned up, purified, put in order, elevated and fully united to God by the Living Flame of Love, God’s Holy Spirit.  “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit.(Psalms 51:10)  When the whole desire of their heart and soul is only, “Nothing for self, everything for God,” their love will be perfect, as St. John of the Cross teaches:  “It is the property of perfect love to be unwilling to take anything for self, nor does it attribute anything to self, but all to the Beloved (Jesus Christ).” (The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 32, No. 2)  At the same time, when they have come down to the ground of perfect humility, and have reached the bottom of their being through a complete spiritual purification and healing, they will know, by experience, that they are the creature and that God is the Creator, that compared to Him we are nothing and less than nothing, and that compared to us He is everything and more than everything.  This experience will be for them complete freedom, perfect joy and spiritual resurrection, insofar as life in this mortal body will allow.  “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.(John 12:24)(cf. John 15:1-5)

Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts; and yet I will show you the most excellent way.(1 Cor. 12:31)  The most excellent way, the highest way, is the way of the cross, which is the way of humility and charity (supernatural spiritual love, divine love).  Spiritual gifts are good.  After all, they come from God.  But we are to go through them to God.  Our goal is to go above and beyond all that is natural and human, above and beyond all that is supernatural and spiritual, to union with God.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.(Matt. 5:3)  A spirit of possessiveness is spiritual selfishness and self-centeredness, trying to hold on to and take pride in our spiritual gifts, graces or blessings.  Rather, we should offer everything back to God who gave them, and praise and thank Him.  Do not hold on to anything except the will of God, union with God, which should always be our one and only goal and desire. (cf. Matt. 7:21-23)  To do the will of God is to love Him which unites us to Him, as St. John of the Cross makes clear, “God communicates (unites) Himself more to the soul more advanced in love, that is, more conformed to His will.” (Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 5, No. 4)  Thus, by doing God’s will we love Him above all else, including ourself, and are increasingly united to Him.  This is the first and greatest commandment containing all others. (cf. Matt. 22:37-38)  “Love of our neighbor is included in the love of God.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)  Charity, together with humility, is the one thing necessary.  Mary “sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speak. (Luke 10:39)  To sit at the Lord’s feet is humility.  To listen to Him speak is charity.  “Therefore, everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.(Matt. 7:24)

Furthermore, our spiritual experiences are finite, but God is infinite.  Therefore, however great may be our experience of God, God is greater, and so we should always use our experience to grow closer to God and be more united with Him, never stopping or stalling out with the present experience but, ever seeking to fulfill God's will, go forward in the flow of the Holy Spirit and Divine Providence.  In this way, we receive more graces, gifts and spiritual blessings from God because we love Him (His will) more than the gifts He gives.  Holy detachment and union with God, together, comprise the secret of love.

Here are a few more of the countless effects of spiritual pride in the souls of those advancing in the spiritual life.  Since they thought they were already holy, practically saints, they become bitterly angry and discouraged over their faults and failings, anxious and impatient for God to remove them.  They do not realize that God allows faults and failings, even serious sins sometimes, to keep souls humble and purify them of pride and presumption.  If God were to remove their faults and imperfections quickly they may well “become more proud and presumptuous” and be in danger of losing their souls to the devil, lost in their own spiritual vanity. (DN, Bk. I, Ch. 2, No. 5)  “And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.(Luke 11:26)  The remedy is patience and humility as we shall see.  On the other hand, some souls are too “patient” with themselves and need to strive harder for spiritual advancement.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.(Luke 11:9)  Christian souls should walk gracefully with grace according to God’s divine providence and pace, not trying to run ahead, and not holding back when the opportunity and grace is given.

Finally, some people who are spiritual want to be seen as more spiritual or holy than they really are, so they seek attention through “movements, sighs, and other little ceremonies.” (DN, Bk. I, Ch. 2, No. 3)  This is contrary to the teaching of Christ in the Gospel, “Pray to your Father in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:6)  Or, as expressed in The Imitation of Christ, “Love to be unknown and esteemed as nothing.” (Book I, Chap. 2)

God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6)  Here is why we must die to our pride as well as pray for and practice humility:  to receive the grace of God.  St. John of the Cross teaches us that, contrary to spiritual pride, humble souls do not think much of their good deeds when compared to the good that God has given them.  They feel unworthy of Heaven and deserving of Hell because of their sins.  They believe all others to be more advanced in the spiritual life than they are, and so seek to imitate them out of holy “envy” or admiration.  When God blesses them for doing His will, they become all the more humble, grateful and thankful because they know they do not deserve it.  They take the attitude of humility that Christ taught us to have, “When you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)  Or, as the Mystical Doctor describes it, “Their charity and love makes them want to do so much for God that what they actually do accomplish seems as nothing.” (DN, Bk. I, Ch. 2, No. 6)  They are so preoccupied with loving and serving God that they hardly notice the doings of others, but if they do notice, they think others do more and are better than themselves.  Even if others should praise and honor them for their works, “they are unable to believe them; such praises seem strange to them.” (Ibid.)  They are happy to hear others praised, “their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do.” (Ibid., No. 7)

Contrary to the proud, “these souls humbly and tranquilly long to be taught by anyone who might be a help to them” in the spiritual life. (Ibid.)  “Far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher,” they follow the advice of others who know better and are better. (Ibid.)  “Because they consider their deeds insignificant,” they are more ready and willing to tell of their sins than speak of their virtues or good works. (Ibid.)  Furthermore, when humble souls fall into sins they suffer this with a “loving fear of God,” humility, and hope in His mercy. (Ibid., No. 8)  To conclude, St. John of the Cross declares, “Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, He moves them to keep these (spiritual) treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults.  God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as He denies it to the proud.” (Ibid., No. 7)


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