Brian Wilcox. Androscoggin Bridge
Historic Androscoggin Bridge over Androscoggin River, connecting Topsham and Brunswick, Maine. Built 1862 for factory workers to walk from Topsham into Brunswick for work. Renovation complete 2006. View from Brunswick.
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A story from the early desert dwellers of Christianity tells of a demon visiting a monk. The devil disguised itself as an angel of the Light, saying, "I'm the archangel Gabriel, and I was sent to you." The monk replied, "Make sure you weren't sent to someone else, for I'm not worthy to see an angel." The demon instantly disappeared.
The Tao Te Ching extols the grace of humbleness. Shrewdly, Chapter 20 provides a look into how the humble are viewed by others, totally missing the beauty and power of the humble being. The humble one can be his or her natural self, stand apart from the crowd and be seen as odd, as not belonging, and remain connected to the Source of Life ("the Mother"). This poem reminds us of the saying in the Christian Scriptures, "What appears to most as God's foolishness is wiser than what they see as human wisdom" (I Corinthians 1.25).
Do away with Learning,
And there is an end to Sorrow.
"How different is Yes from No!
How Good differs from Bad!
What others fear must surely be feared."
And there is no end to them!
As if at a Great Feast,
Gaily ascending a Terrace in Spring.
I alone am forlorn,
Giving no outward sign,
Like an infant yet to smile.
I am listless,
As though I have no Home.
Others have a Superfluity,
I alone am lacking.
Mine is the Heart-and-Mind
Of the pure Fool!
The multitude are bright and lively,
I alone am dull;
The common folk are alert,
I alone am sluggish,
Restless as the ocean,
Others have Means,
I alone am a dolt,
I prize Nourishment
Of the Mother.
*John Minford. Tao Te Ching.
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Today, we look at spiritual pride; we can refer to this as spiritual inflation or self-righteousness. Likely, most of us loyal to a spiritual path have some spiritual pride, either overt or subtle. The denial of this itself probably indicates it. Self-inflation can appear in feelings of superiority and, more disguised, of self-deprecation. Having pride does not mean one is not humble; rather, one humble may be more aware of his or her pride. Also, being humble does not mean demeaning yourself or not having self-love. Pride, as noted above, can manifest in a lack of self-love. The path is for us to grow to integrate other-love and self-love; this happens through the grace of all-inclusive Love. Moving closer to Love, the Mother in the Tao Te Ching, we become more like Love, more loving, so more humble. Rather than like a mountain, we are like a valley.
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I am surprised at the omission of the word "humble" in most spiritual teaching. I wonder if this virtue is considered old-fashioned, out-of-date, or too common among religious conservatives. The self must be humiliated, or brought low, for most of us, if not all, to grow to open our hearts more to others and our Source. A spiritual path seems to be, if worthy of the word "spiritual," a back-and-forth between being humbled and being uplifted.
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I sat with friends at a weekly gathering. I had left, years prior, the fundamentalist faith of my past. Another member of the group had, also. We had been clergypersons in the same sect. He listened to me, observing something of which I was unaware. He said, "Brian, you're in counter-fundamentalism." He said that in my reactivity to fundamentalism, I was a fundamentalist. He clarified how fundamentalism is not first about what one believes-one may have liberal beliefs, for example, and be fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is about an attitude one has toward others, a critical one. I had changed my beliefs, but I had not changed my attitude. I was acting arrogantly about what I thought to be the truth and demeaning toward others who thought differently.
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A follower was suffering from spiritual pride. He savored talking about those whom he judged as religious fanatics. He liked to criticize what he saw as their naive beliefs and superstitious practices.
The Sage met him in private. The Sage said, "What you hear, that is what you need to listen to. So, hear and listen." A wise man told this story.
Two men went to a church to pray. The church people considered one holy, while it judged the other a shameful rascal. The so-called holy man stood off to himself in prayer, seeing himself too good to be near the outcast. He prayed with a solemn voice, "I thank you, God, that I'm not stingy, dishonest, or faithless to my wife, like so many others." And, thinking of the outcast, he continued, "I'm also grateful I'm not like that reprobate over there." He proceeded to reveal his good works, including fasting and giving monies to the church.
But the outcast stood at a distance off to himself and would not lift his face to heaven. Instead, he bowed his head and sobbed, "God, have mercy on me. I'm just a wretch!"
"Now," said the Sage, "what did the wise man say about these two fellows?"
"I tell you the so-called scoundrel, not the so-called holy fellow, was agreeable to God when he left the church. Those who lift themselves high, they will be brought low, while those who lower themselves down low, they will be lifted high."
The Jesus of the Gospel of Luke speaks the above parable.
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After leaving my conservative religious roots and professional ministry as a pastor in evangelical churches, I visited a progressive religious group. I had long heard of the inclusive, kind nature of this sect. I felt good to be there, free of the strictness and judgmental nature of much of my past faith experience. This mood changed suddenly.
After the worship time, mostly in silent prayerfulness, we sat for a meal. One of the members sat beside me and began talking. He began a tirade against the faith of my upbringing. He continued on and on, oblivious that I might have no interest or sympathies with his criticism. He seemed unconcerned that this might be rude to a first-time visitor.
This encounter was the start of an important lesson for me. This verity I have kept learning since: Spiritual inflation is likely as common among liberals as conservatives. Why? Especially seeing liberals are esteemed more open-minded, more socially inclusive than conservatives. Spiritual pride is a genre of human arrogance. And humbleness is first a matter of the heart, not the intelligence or ideas or social activism of inclusion. Our need is to bring together compassion and inclusivity that includes even those with whom we strongly disagree.
A good question to assess how we hold our ideals humbly, or not: "How do I feel when someone strongly disagrees with what I am passionate about?" Our feelings do not lie.
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When we begin drawing close to the Heart on our wisdom path, we start seeing our evident spiritual pride. We see how we obviously demean others that appear inferior to us and our way. Next, we start seeing our subtle spiritual pride. We understand how we not-so-obviously criticize others, how we see them not as enlightened, faithful to the faith, intelligent, up-to-date, traditional enough, pure enough, ... as our group and us. Some of this criticism may be a reaction to our past, a sign we need healing from past hurt.
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Seeing our spiritual pride is humbling. This humbling becomes a welcome humbling. We come to see the exposure of our self-inflation is from moving closer to Love. Moving closer to Love begins purging us of excessive self-love, freeing us to love others more. That is good news. As our self-inflation lessens, we rise higher into the heavens of the Heart. Meanness toward others, whether gross or subtle, thought or spoken, demeans us; kindness exalts us.
Ⓒ Brian Wilcox, 2020