The Twelve Steps up the Mountain of Pride According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux



So you think the idea of the 12 Steps is new. Well, if you think you’ve got a new idea, go back and see how the Greeks put it, or in this case how the Medieval Latins put it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux identified twelve steps up the mountain of pride. These are detailed in a work by him entitled Steps of Humility and Pride.

In today’s post we focus on the Twelve Steps of Pride. Tomorrow, on the Twelve Steps of Humility (from St Benedict’s rule).  Here I list the 12 Steps of Pride only briefly and give a brief commentary on each which is mine, so don’t blame St. Bernard. Again, the list is his. The inferior comments are mine.

One will note how the 12 steps grow far more serious as we go along and and lead ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps tend to build on one another, beginning in the mind, moving to behavior, and then to deepening attitudes of presumption and ultimately bringing forth revolt and slavery. For if one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.

Twelve steps up the mountain of pride. Think of these like escalating symptoms:

(1) Curiosity – There is such a thing as healthy curiosity but often we also delve into things we ought not: other peoples affairs, private matters, sinful things and situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity to be annexed to pride is that so often we think we have a right to know things we do not. And hence we pridefully and indiscreetly look into things that we ought not, things that are not for us to know, or which are inexpedient and distracting for us, or perhaps the knowledge which we seek is beyond our ability to handle well. But casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged sense we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.

(2) Levity of mind – Occupying our mind with things not appropriate grows and we tend to become playful in wider matters. Here too, there is a valid sense of humor and a kind of recreational diversion that has a place. A little light banter about sports or pop culture may provide momentary diversions that are relaxing. But too often this just about all we do and we pridefully cast aside matters about which we should be serious and pursue only light and passing things. In ignoring or making light of serious things pertaining to eternity and delving only into entertaining and passing things, we pridefully ignore things to which we ought to attend. Hours watching sitcoms and “reality” TV but no time for prayer, study, instruction of children in the faith, caring for the poor, and so forth is a lack of seriousness that manifests pride. We lightly brush aside what is important to God and substitute our own foolish priorities. This is pride.

(3) Giddiness – Here we move from a levity of mind to the frivolous behaviors they produce, behaviors in which we over-emphasize lightweight experiences or situations, at the expense of more serious and important things having to do with profundities. Silly, vapid, foolish and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We pridefully maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We find all the time for frivolities but no time for prayer or study of Holy Truth.

(4) Boasting – Increasingly locked into our little world of a darkened intellect and foolish behavior we begin to exult in lower behaviors and consider such carnal behaviors to be a sign of greatness. And thus we begin to boast of foolish things. To boast is to speak and think of oneself more highly than is true or reasonable. While we should learn to appreciate the gifts we have, we ought to recall that they ARE gifts give us by God and often through others who helped us develop them. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) But the boaster thinks too highly of himself either asserting gifts he does not have or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride. And, as we have seen our boasting tends to be about foolish and passing things.

(5) Singularity – Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves even greater. We are king alright, king of an ant hill, rulers of a tiny speck of dust sweeping through the immensity of space. But as our pride grows we too easily we forget our dependance on God and others for who and what we are. There is no such thing as a self made man. We are all contingent beings, very dependent on God and others. Further, we also too easily draw into our own little mind and world and tend to think that something is so just because we think so. Withdrawing only to our own counsel we discount the evidence of reality and stop seeking information and counsel from others. The man who seeks only his own counsel has a fool for and adviser, and a prideful adviser at that. Singularity is pride. Yet this pride swells as our world gets ever smaller and more singular, focused increasingly only on our self.

(6) Self-conceit –  Here is described an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world gets ever smaller and our pride ever greater our self focus and delusion grows ever stronger and we become increasingly self-referential. Something is now so merely because I say so. I am fine because I say so. Never mind that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, sanctity and sinfulness. Too easily we grow blind to just how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we find faults in others but fail to see them in our very self. Further, we too easily seek for others to favorably compare our self, thinking, “Well at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” But being better than a prostitute or drug dealer is not the standard we must meet. Jesus is the standard we must meet. But rather than refer our self to Jesus and seek mercy, we refer our self to others we look down on and give way to pride.

(7) Presumption – Now even God’s judgements must cede to ours. I am fine and will be saved because I say so. This is a sin against hope wherein we simply take salvation as granted and due to us no matter what we do. In effect we already claim to possess what we do not. It is right for us to confidently hope for God’s help in attaining eternal life. This is the Theological virtue of Hope. But it is pride to think we have already accomplished and possess what we do not already have or possess. It is a further pride to set aside God’s Word which over and over teaches us walk in hope and seek God’s help as a beggar, not as a possessor or as one legally entitled to glory in heaven. Presumption is pride.

(8) Self-justification – Jesus must now vacate the Judgment seat because I demand his place. Not only that, but he must also vacate the cross because I don’t really need his sacrifice. I can save myself, and frankly I don’t need a lot of saving. Self-justification is the attitude that says I am able, by my own power to justify, that is save myself. It is also an attitude that says, in effect: “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” St. Paul says, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor 4:3-4). But the prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable ultimately even to God. The prideful person forgets that no one is a judge in his own case.

(9) Hypocritical confession – The word hypocrite in Greek means “actor.” Now we will observe that in certain settings some degree of humility and acknowledgement of ones fault is “profitable.” One can get “credit” for humbly acknowledging certain faults and calling himself a “sinner.” But, the prideful man is just acting. Just playing a role and doing his part more for social credit than out of real contrition or repentance. After all, I’m really not that bad off. But if posturing and playing the role of the humble and contrite sinner will get me somewhere, I’ll say my lines, play the part and look holy. But only if the applause from the audience is forthcoming.

(10) Revolt – Pride really begins to go off the rails when one outright revolts against God and his lawful representatives. To revolt means to renounce allegiance to or any sense of accountability or obedience to God, to his Word or to His Church. To revolt is to attempt to overthrow the authority of others, in this God and his Church. It is prideful to refuse to be under any authority and act in ways that are directly contrary to what lawful authority rightly asserts.

(11) Freedom to sin – Here pride reaches its near conclusion as it arrogantly asserts and celebrates that it is utterly free to do what it pleases. The prideful man is increasingly rejecting of any restraints or limits. But the freedom of the proud man is not really freedom at all. Jesus says, Whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and the Catechism echoes: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin. (Catechism 1733) But the proud man will have none of this and arrogantly goes on asserting his freedom to do what he pleases even as he descends deeper and deeper into addiction and every form of slavery.

(12) The habit of sinning – and thus we see Pride’s full and ugly flower: habitual sin and slavery to sin. As St. Augustine says, For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity.(Conf 8.5.10)

And thus we have climbed in twelve steps the mountain of pride. It begins in the mind with a lack of sobriety rooted in sinful curiosity and frivolous preoccupation. Next come frivolous behavior and excusing, presumptive and dismissive attitudes. Last comes out right revolt and slavery to sin. Pride is now in full flower. The slavery comes for if one refuses in pride to serve God he will serve Satan.

We have seen an escalation in these steps which is not far from an old admonition: sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap an habit; sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character, reap a destiny.