The Greater Sin

The Greater Sin February 1, 2024

e Pieter van der Heyden: Pride / Wikimedia Commons

Pride is a greater sin, indeed, a greater threat to the soul, than many, if not most, of those sins more routinely discussed in sermons, especially “sins of the flesh.” Anyone who is prideful of their own “purity,” that is, in their chastity, and look down upon others who have not been so “pure,” fail to see the greater impurity such pride has produced in their soul. Pride has people becoming judgmental, deeming their superiority means they have the right to judge others, not realizing that when they act in such a way, they prove they are not superior at all.  They are self-assured, but know no love. They believe themselves to be perfect, or near perfection, and so risk turning themselves away from grace. Their purity is only skin deep, but their malice towards others resides in their heart, as can be seen in the way they treat and abuse those who falter in fleshly matters. Their purity gives them no reward, because it is artificial, not real; it is not virtuous, but rather, it only imitates virtue, which is why Abba Daniel said:

That the pride attached to this purity is more pernicious than any other crime and shameful deed and that on its account we would acquire no reward for our chastity, however integral, those powers that we mentioned before are the witnesses. Since they are believed to have no fleshly tinglings of this kind, they were cause down into perpetual ruin from that sublime and heavenly position on account of a prideful heart alone. [1]

This can be seen in a story related by Abba Moses concerning a monk, the spiritual elder the monk went to when he felt disturbed by lust, and Abba Apollos. When the monk, who was not named, went to the elder, who also was not named, he hoped the elder would understand the inner conflict he had and give him a word which would help him deal with his inner turmoil. Instead, all the elder did was scold him:

This person, then, who was a diligent young man, had for the sake of his progress and well-being come to a certain old man whom we know very well and had confessed in simplicity that he was disturbed by carnal impulse and by the spirit of fornication. He believed that in the words of the old man he would find encouragement for his efforts and healing for the wounds that he had suffered. Instead the old man reprimanded him in the harshest language and declared that anyone who could be titillated by this kind of sin and desire was a wretched person and unworthy of bearing the name of monk, and so he so wounded him with his reproaches that he dismissed him from his call in a state of terrible hopelessness, disconsolate to the point of deadly sadness. [2]

Judging and condemning others for their temptations and desires, for what they are fighting against, can only hurt them, as it makes them think the temptation itself is the same thing as the sin. It is not. But when they think it is, they easily fall into despair because they find they cannot escape temptation, and so they feel they are constantly sinning, and so worthy of eternal condemnation. Such judgment and condemnation often comes from those who view themselves as pure because they do not face the same temptations they do; they think because they are beyond those temptations, everyone else could and should be, and if they are not, that proves there is something wrong with them. Their assessment is wrong because it relies upon the false premises that temptation itself is a sin. Instead of being judgmental, they should be compassionate, showing mercy and grace to those who come seeking help. If they do not understand why someone would be tempted in a certain way, they should not judge the temptation, nor the person, but just understand and accept everyone has their own particular temptations and desires which they have to deal with in their lives, indeed, that it is those who battle such temptations and overcome them who show real spiritual strength and character. Those who do not understand this, and so deride anyone who comes to them asking for help, might end up having the person who comes to them give up on the struggle, and so find themselves culpable for leading someone to sin, which is what happened to this unnamed monk:

Now the Abba Apollos, the most upright of the elders, came upon him as he was sunk in a deep depression and preoccupied no longer with remedying his passion but with gratifying the desire that he had conceived. And from the look of dejection on his face he guessed the consuming and violent struggle that was going on wordlessly in his heart, and he asked him what the cause of such consternation might be. When he was unable to make any response to the old man’s gentle urgings, the old man gradually understood that it was not without reasons that he wanted to conceal in silence the cause of a sadness so great that he could not keep it from his face, and he began to ask him still more insistently about the cause of his sorrow. [3]

Apollos showed us the way. He showed mercy and compassion to the monk, helping him out of his despair. Then, it is said, he confronted the elder who derided the monk, and have that elder come to realize what he did was wrong and that spiritual direction always needs to be done with compassion. Those coming for such help already understand they have a problem, which is why they do not need such a stern reprimand.

To overcome pride, we must embrace humility, which means, we need to acknowledge what good we accomplish, what virtue we achieve, is something which we could not have done without the help of others. Those who came before us and taught us how to live, certainly, are to be acknowledged. Those who are our friends and companions in life influence us and make us better: they must similarly be recognized. Finally, the role God and God’s grace must not be forgotten:

Therefore we should be certain from experience and having learned from innumerable scriptural texts that we cannot conquer such great enemies by our own strength but only with the support of God’s help, and that every day we must attribute to him the sum of our victory. [4]

If we don’t do this, we easily can become prideful, and in that pride, begin to think everyone should be just like us. Since they will not be, we will begin to think there is something so wrong with them, until at last, we think they are worthy only of our contempt, not of our love. Such contempt, such hate, should show us that we have succumbed to temptation ourselves, that we have lost the way, indeed, we have lost the way in a greater way than those we judge and condemn. When we become like that, we should not despair, but repent, realizing, just as with all other temptations, the temptation to pride can be difficult to resist, and will take time for us to overcome it and all its influences in our lives.

[1] John Cassian, The Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP (New York: Newman Press, 1997), 165. [Fourth Conference; Abba Daniel].

[2] John Cassian, The Conferences, 95. [Second Conference; Abba Moses].

[3] John Cassian, The Conferences, 95-6. [Second Conference; Abba Moses].

[4] John Cassian, The Conferences, 196 [Fifth Conference; Abba Serapion].


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