VAINGLORY: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pride

VAINGLORY: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pride April 3, 2022





The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pride

James Ishmael Ford

First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.

Proverbs 16:18-19

When I saw this was going to be the Sunday closest to April 1st, I found myself thinking of foolish things. Quickly, it became thinking about foolish things that happen when one is on the spiritual path.

I know many of us don’t really think of ourselves as being on a path, spiritual or otherwise. But this is the whole of what I am about. And I believe it is very much a part of what it means to choose to be a Unitarian Universalist rather than, oh, say, joining the Democratic Socialists of America, or the Rotary Club. You can join all of them, but each has a different purpose.

I’ve ganged up with Unitarian Universalism for so many years because I think this community offers some very interesting ways to be on a spiritual path. For me the UU bias toward a naturalistic spirituality that calls one into a life in the world has been very important. I think our weakness is often mistaking roots and fruits. The fruits are the ways we engage the world, our call to social engagement. The roots, well, that’s the spiritual life. As I see it. And something that needs tending.

The heart of the spiritual life as I’ve found it is the discovery of my, of our radical interdependence. Not as a philosophical assertion, but as a visceral truth to be known. It comes as glimmers and intimations. It matures as a deconstruction of my sense of isolation and a reconstruction of my sense of connection. It is not one and done, but an ongoing process, mainly following rhythms of reflection and action. It’s all a path of intimacy.

However, there are dangers. Lots of ways to lose sight of the ongoing goals.  One is how a kind of pride can arise on the path of reflection and insight. And this is what I want to focus on today.

An example. I was living in a Zen monastery in Oakland, California. During a retreat I had a powerful spiritual encounter, where I touched that sense of intimacy. But how important it really was, was not at all clear. For me, in the moment, I thought is this enlightenment? And, I thought, well, maybe, yes.

A few days later I was walking in the neighborhood. I was still in the glamour of that experience. Everything felt numinous, alive as if each thing was illuminated from some inner light. The monastery was in a very large old house, and the area had a number of mature trees, shading a bright and hot day. Even now I remember the speckled light, bird calls, the smells of cut grass, and passing cars where each thing was distinct and everything some kind of wonderful. I felt called into some conspiracy of life.

And, well, I felt kind of special.

Then, there she was. A small girl, I don’t know, nine? Ten? A skinny kid, in shorts and a t-shirt. She was standing in a driveway, where she had been skipping rope. As I approached, she held tightly on to her rope and eyed me suspiciously. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the large mala I was wearing like a necklace. My small show of my being part of a Buddhist practice.

“A mala,” I responded. “It’s a Buddhist rosary.” She didn’t seem to understand. “Prayer beads,” I said.

She said, “Looks stupid.” Turned away and began skipping rope again.

I mentioned April fool’s. When I think of April and fool I think of that Tarot card, the Zero card. It’s called the Fool. It usually pictures a young man walking along with a bindlestick, that stick which holds a large napkin or piece of cloth wrapping up one’s few possessions. There’s usually a dog nipping at his heels, I think he’s almost always a “he.” Although we all own foolishness. He’s looking up. And, and he’s about to step off a cliff.

I looked it up for this reflection and I find it interesting that those who use the cards take this one as a good omen. Maybe. But I see someone not paying attention, and about to take a tumble.

Well, that was me. And “looks stupid,” was when I stepped off the cliff.

I realized that the world was no longer quite as bright and clear as it seemed a heartbeat before. I felt embarrassed. I could feel the heat from my blushing face. I tried to think of what I should have said to her, to explain. To… Well to claim my place. But I was at a complete loss for words.

All for the best no doubt. What had happened before, my moment of insight at the monastery, was that I’d had a small grace on the intimate way. It would prove important as a start. But that was all. It was just noticing the world is not as I’d thought. And with that it pointed toward deeper insights of intimacy to come.

But I rather quickly made it something quite special. I would like to say the little girl was an agent of the great intimate, pointing me on to the deeper way. However, that grand language is itself another mistake cut from the same cloth.

I’d actually stumbled into one of the most insidious of spiritual traps.

Pope Gregory the Great, gave Western culture a list of the seven deadly sins, behaviors or habits that can poison the spiritual life. He based his list largely on the work of a fourth century mystical theologian Evagrius Ponticus. Evagrius’ list had two terms, vainglory and pride, which Gregory saw more as nuances than distinctive spiritual traps. And so, in his list, Gregory combined them together into one word. In English “pride.” In Latin that’s “superbia,” When written in Greek, “hubris.”

I find hubris a very helpful word. For Greeks in antiquity hubris was the stuff of tragedy, that flaw that would eventually destroy the hero. Gregory saw all other sins rising from this “poisonous root.” So, an invitation into tragedy, for sure. Less poetically, but straight to the point, that other great thinker of Christian antiquity, Augustine of Hippo declared “pride is the beginning of all sin.” The source, the root.

Unfortunately, pride is a messy word. Especially in our contemporary English. After all, there absolutely are healthy forms of pride. At the personal level this is simple self-confidence. It is the feeling we can do something. We’ve prepared, we’ve worked hard, and we know we can do it. We use the word pride for that.

Another sense of pride is a healthy sense of self-worth. I am worthy just for being here. This is something people struggle to feel in their hearts. And is a good thing.

Pride is also a term claimed by minorities and the oppressed asserting a place for themselves in a world that doesn’t always notice them. And with that being seen, as we say today, is important.

We are passing like that wisp of fire and smoke from a burning match. But within that passing we are beautiful, precious. A light. Something to be seen.

And there are several snakes in the garden. There is also a negative pride. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’m not, well, a lot of things. Sort of the shadow of the good pride. A great deal of the work of therapy is finding and cultivating a sense of self-worth in the face of this very common human experience.

And, the pride Gregory and Evagrius warns of, is not that sense of self-worth which, frankly, we need to function as healthy people in the world. What followed my intimation in the monastery was a kind of inflation. Inflation is a term with applications for both the psychological project and the spiritual quest.

So, hubris might be a better word for that trap on our way I want to particularly parse out and hold up. It also has that theatrical and mythic parts, which often is an element of this unhealthy direction in our spiritual lives.

Carl Jung used inflation to mean an exaggerated sense of self-importance. And I believe he understood it both in a psychological and in a spiritual sense. More to the point Professor Jung said, inflation “is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with.”

I find Vainglory the most useful word for this specific kind of inflation, the spiritual mistake. Vainglory literally means “empty glory.” If our hearts have called us into the contemplative life, or even to simple self-awareness, it’s important to notice how easily we’re seduced by vainglory.

Examples are easy to find. I recall a story from a Japanese Zen priest who went to sit in a particularly strict American monastery. Zen monastic life circles around meditation. The normal meditation rhythm is a set period of sitting. Half an hour is common, maybe forty-five minutes.  Different communities follow slightly different rhythms. But always there is a pause in the sitting with a period of walking meditation. In Japanese derived Zen communities these are normally relatively brief, five or perhaps ten minutes.

She, the priest, then observed that there were some participants who did not get up to do the walking meditation, and instead simply sat through the walking period. Their particular diligence on view for everyone else. She smiled slyly, “very special people.” The tradition of the practice of a monastery is to bow into the rhythm. To need to be special is to fall into vainglory.

And it really is a problem. It’s enormously seductive. Evagrius noted, “It is only with considerable difficulty that one can escape the thought of vainglory. For what you do to destroy it becomes the principle of some other form of vainglory.” My wanting to make my encounter with the little girl more than a popping of a bubble is a small example.

The traps of vainglory are numerous. Gregory notes four. One, thinking my experiences are unique. Two, thinking that my experiences are the direct product of my effort. Or, three, as a slight nuance, thinking it came by grace but because I’d properly prepared myself. Or, four, exaggerating my attainment, boasting of something I’d not actually experienced.

In the traditional Buddhist monastic order there are four reasons one can be expelled, sexual intercourse, theft, murder, and that claiming spiritual experiences one has not had. Whether regretted and confessed, or simply exposed, it leads directly to expulsion. The sole exception to this harsh and irrevocable rule is when one overestimates one’s experiences. And the perpetrator is not the person who gets to decide what side of the line those assertions fell on.

These claims are considered poisonous. For the person, and for the community.

Let’s look at why this would be treated so harshly.

Our spiritual journey and the disciplines we embrace all are about seeing through the illusion of a permanent, isolated self. This sense is what blocks us from seeing the deeper truths of our radical interdependence, who we really are. And we need that ego. After all it drives the ship. The problem is only that it doesn’t want to be captain, the ego wants to be the lord admiral of the high seas. Perhaps we can say the ego wants to be God. Although it will, if need be, settle for being the devil. It just wants to be in charge. That’s its job.

We all have moments when we see through our egos. They are by nature fragile, the products of a moment within the play of causes and conditions. So, whether through association with a spiritual discipline, or just in the ordinary course of life, the ego, our sense of an isolated and separate self, occasionally falls apart.

It’s what comes out of those moments that becomes so dangerous. If we’re fortunate, if we pay attention, the reconstruction of our sense of self becomes more balanced, deeper, intimate with the way things are.

But the ego always wants more. Which is why sometimes people use warfare as the language of the spiritual quest. Fighting the battle. More healthy, I believe, is the language of athletics. Running the race. Each are, of course, metaphors. The one I find most useful is the language of depth. We are on a path into the deep places of our hearts, on a way of discovery, and integration.

A most dangerous moment is what follows the small or great grace where the masks of our egos fall away. Rather than integration we can easily fall into inflation, into vainglory. Fortunately, vainglory manifests in several observable ways.

Vanity, for instance. How we find our worth in how we’re perceived by others. Our desire for approval, for admiration, or for popularity are all the rich soil of vainglory. Actually, the possibilities for vainglory to take over our sense of our selves, are nearly endless. The end goal is always to make my ego, your ego, the center of the universe, the monarch of all it surveys. God. But, heaven help us, it always turns out to be a petty tin-foil God.

So, what to do about it? If we’re on the path to depth, if we care about an inner life that leads to the wise heart, what to do?

Pretty much all the religions have suggestions. The Gospel of Matthew offers a list of things one might do. I think three are particularly useful. One is that part about doing the spiritual thing in secret. I believe we want to be careful about being categorical. I’ve certainly seen secret carried to unhealthy extremes and simply ending up inviting another form of Vainglory. But not making a show of our lives and our experiences seems important.

I find exercising a consistent watchfulness critical. Watching, noticing ourselves. Being aware of what we’re doing when we do it. Or, at the very least in the wake of our actions. A bit late really is still better than not at all. And that often invites a certain humility, which on balance is probably a wise thing. Certainly a life-time practice that. And, last in Matthew’s list, having a spiritual confidant, if not a full-on spiritual director. Someone we open our hearts to. Holding our lives up to another can be an amazing antidote to many foolishnesses. It is part of the play of genuine intimacy.

To put it all together, the Chinese oracle the I Ching has a hexagram I’ve found helpful. Number nine. In the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, the “taming power of the small.” We don’t need to analyze it, just notice, just witness. Take the power of stepping back, of not needing to be in charge all the time, of not needing always to be right. Or, if our preferences go that way, always needing to be wrong. Here the spiritual and the psychological return to being one thing. Integration of the inner and the outer.

So, back to the Fool card. Those who follow the tarot way, see it as something positive. It is the figure of transformation. The image also reminds me of the jester, the only one who is said to be able to tell truth to the king. If they’re careful.

And here we are. The path of the real is one of finding our place in this world. And every moment of insight is followed by an invitation to reject it, to seduce us into stories of separateness. Most often through specialness, the good kinds, or the bad kinds.

If we accept the hard truths, often on the spiritual way not given with a dose of sugar like with the jester and the king, but if we accept them, these truths as they present; then we are well on our way to finding who we really are in this world.

Here our spiritual and our engaged lives become one thing

Discernment arises.

And our actions become healing.

For ourselves on our way. And for this whole blessed and broken world.


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