March 14, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Pride may really be ‘only’ vanity in some cases

Cynthia DewesThe Ides of March arrives tomorrow, on March 15.

Those unfortunate persons who have never studied Latin should know that this date is connected to sinister ideas of hubris, of overweening pride, of Julius Caesar and his ambitious buddy, Brutus.

It’s a metaphor for the ominous failure throughout history of humans trying to usurp God’s job.

Now, Julius was not an unprincipled man. He was a great military strategist in pursuit of world domination, but he was also a person dedicated to the original virtues claimed by the Roman Empire. He was ambitious, but also cognizant of the bigger picture even as he held on to supreme, sometimes cruel, power.

Now, Brutus was apparently another kind of person. He chafed under his boss, Julius, even while serving as his friend and right-hand man. Ambition and certainty that his cause was right led him to kill Julius as a necessary step toward personal and national success.

“Et tu, Brute!” (You, too, Brutus!) exclaimed the stricken man, overwhelmed by the realization that even his noble friend wished to eliminate him and his goals. As the proverb says, pride wenteth (wenteth?) before a fall, as it did later with Brutus himself.

The word “pride” may be misused in some cases. Certainly, pride involves a reckless confidence in one’s own human abilities, i.e. hubris. But when we look at the scriptural meaning of pride, perhaps we can give ourselves a break. Perhaps we’re not prideful, but just vain.

Since it’s my own sin I’m revealing here, I think it’s OK to say that pride was one of the sins I confessed to a priest many times over the years. But not lately, because of one confessor who finally told me, “You’re not guilty of pride, you’re guilty of vanity.”

He said pride is a desire to play God, to put oneself on the same level with God as Satan did before his banishment. It’s the sin we hope to avoid when we pray, “… and lead us not into temptation.”

Pride is a much greater sin than vanity, which is thinking we’re pretty darn good at something. So, while vanity is still in my confessional lexicon, I’m happy to say that pride is not. There’s no imagining me trying to do God’s job.

Unfortunately, vanity is one of those dirty little sins that sneaks into our lives too easily, and going along without a regular examination of conscience can lead to many occasions for committing it. We may mistake our God-given talents for products of our own intelligence, skill or physical prowess, believing ourselves like Superman without the modesty.

Another insidious way is by comparing ourselves with others. We think, surely that fellow next to us is not as good-looking, clever, rich or talented as we are. Or certainly our ideas are more reasonable and intelligent than the next guy’s. Never mind that the next guy is no doubt thinking the same about us.

It’s easy to relax into a rut of self-congratulation and moral nearsightedness. That’s one reason why Scripture is so helpful. At least once a year during Lent, we hear of the example of Jesus being tempted in the desert. We’re encouraged to examine ourselves as he does, remembering to follow the will of God, our father.

Finally, if we’re as smart as we think we are, we’ll see our vanity for what it is.

It may not be pride, but it ain’t good.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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