Avoiding the Spiritual Pride Trap

Isn't it amazing how you can think you know so much, and be so confident about what you think you know . . . and then one day realize that you don't know what you think you do? At that point you learn, with wounded pride, that humility is probably the best policy going forward.

That was something like what I experienced when I discovered, much to my awe and astonishment, that Catholicism was true. All of the Catholic doctrines that I thought were clearly false (that Mary is Our Blessed Mother interceding for us in heaven, along with the saints; that there is a chair of Peter where the Pope sits with authority; and how we act and what we do really does matter to our eternal security; etc.) were all quite true, and delightfully true at that.

Becoming Catholic now gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I was like before I knew that Catholicism was true. What was my attitude towards those I differed with, or those who I thought knew less than I did? Was I charitable towards them, or towards their views? It was so easy to be judgmental, condescending, and self-righteous towards the views of others when they didn't line up with my obviously right ones.  Looking back, I'm afraid I had fallen into the spiritual pride trap; that subtle form of pridefulness that is so tempting to those who pursue the Christian life. The humbling lesson discovering Catholicism taught me is that I'm not always right; but when I am, it's never okay to be prideful about it. I must always resist the temptation to esteem myself above another whenever it presents itself, especially in spiritual matters.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, pride is the disordered love of personal excellence, and is chief of all the vices. While reflecting on spiritual pride a little more seriously, and on how to avoid this temptation I succumbed to in the past, I came across this insightful list of spiritual pride characteristics.

You might be caught in the spiritual pride trap, if:

  1. “You believe that you are very holy with few virtues that need improvement.”
  2. “You believe that your rash judgments are actually spiritual discernment.”
  3. “You believe that any idea you have is inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
  4. “You won't consider another's opinions on spiritual matters, but hold fast to your own.”
  5. “You see much error in the hearts and motives of others, but not your own.”
  6. “You take pride in your prayer life and your sacrifices, leading to the point of self-righteousness.”
  7. “You are not open to spiritual correction.”

And I'll add an 8th :

  1. You just hit the 'share' button while thinking, “None of this describes me, but I sure know someone who really needs to read this . . .”

The good news is that spiritual pride can be healed.  For every vice there is an opposite virtue that overcomes it. For the vice of pride the opposite virtue is humility.  Practicing the virtue of humility trains you to actually become humble; as you do humble things, the opposing vice of pride will diminish necessarily. And so it is with all the virtues. This seems simple enough in principle, but in practice it is very difficult . . .  we need major help!

To avoid the spiritual pride trap, here are a few simple ways to start practicing the virtue of humility right now. First, start by taking the above list and try to become more aware of any prideful attitudes that inspire your words and actions. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you to see in what areas He is inviting you to greater virtue.

Next, ask Mary for help. Mary is the perfect example of humility and stands ready to help us grow in virtue. It was through her humility that Christ came into the world, and she will help us to imitate her as she imitates Christ. Praying the rosary is a huge help in developing humility as you meditate on the life of Christ.

Lastly, we know that many of the saints in their earthly lives considered themselves the worst of sinners, and in this way not only possessed humility, but also understood that humility is the gateway to the other virtues. In their heavenly lives, saints are not only a great cloud of witnesses; they are also a great crowd of coaches and cheerleaders to assist us as we strive to live a life of virtue. Read about the lives and wisdom of the saints with Catholic saint books, or pray with the saints using saint prayer books.

Have you fallen into the spiritual pride trap in the past?  How have you learned from it?  What helps you practice the virtue of humility?

Copyright 2012 Gretchen Filz