As I frequently do for conscience examination, I was recently re-reading St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night, especially his detailed exploration of how the seven deadly sins masquerade as virtues and take on new vigor in spiritually serious, but still immature, people. These good willed spiritual adolescents, John says, continue to “seek themselves in God and not (yet) God in themselves.” In other words, their main goals are still clustered around self-satisfaction and not the doing of God’s will. In the Dark Night John tells us that once we have made progress in the life of faith, established some good and consistent virtuous habits, overcome habitual serious sins, cultivated a solid commitment to prayer, then we are ready to go deeper and allow God’s grace to begin a new excavation project: opening and cleaning out those hidden closets of the soul we have filled with all the junk we don’t want anyone (including God) to notice. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
These beginners feel so fervent and diligent in their spiritual exercises and undertakings that a certain kind of secret pride is generated in them … in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have, and sometimes they give expression to this criticism like the pharisee who despised the publican while he boasted and praised God for the good deeds he himself accomplished. The devil, desiring the growth of pride and presumption in these beginners, often increases their fervor and readiness to perform such works, and other ones, too. For he is quite aware that all these works and virtues are not only worthless for them, but even become vices. Some of these persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy; and so by both word and deed they condemn and detract others whenever the occasion arises…
As I read his words, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a retreat master many years ago about what he called “unholy competition.” Here’s some of what I wrote in my journal after our conversation (trying to quote him):
…especially among zealous converts to the faith, there’s this tragic need to judge one’s sense of spiritual success by constant comparison with others. Like the Publican and the Pharisee parable (Luke 18:9-14). Sometimes it takes the form of self-criticism: they’re far better than me, I’m a failure. Other times it takes the form of self-righteousness: I’m better than them, they fall short. This unhealthy competitive spirit is really a sophisticated form of attention getting.
It can span things strange and diverse. Sometimes we can use suffering, i.e. the need to feel special about our crosses, noting our suffering is more impressive than others; and if others seem to suffer more, we feel we somehow lost this strange competition. Or there’s piety, i.e. whose novenas are more frequent, whose tears more copious, whose tongues more numerous or who prayed longer into the night. Other times it’s about orthodoxy, i.e. who’s more faithful to the Magisterium. Other times it’s about spiritual experiences or service to the poor or even how the number of children I’ve had makes me a more impressive Catholic. Or who’s read more books, whose liturgical sensibility is purest of all. Or — and this is to me the worst — there are the besting stories of my greatest pre-conversion sins or atheism or paganism, just to prove I was once normal; or that my conversion was more impressive and dramatic.
People of faith can get into bizarre competitions, though most of it happens un-admitted, quietly seething within.
The problem with these is not with suffering or piety or one’s sinful past, but with the underlying attitude. These are all parts of a healthy Christian life. What’s wrong is the twisted attitude toward these things; that we use the things of God as a way to beat up on others or puff ourselves up or as a way to alleviate guilt or pain that is plaguing our over- or under-inflated ego.
St. Paul dealt with this in his letters, and he was clear that the only real solution was to make the mind of Christ our own.
This is why St. John says we need the purgative power of divine grace to enter into those dark and moldy corners of our soul where our un-redeemed ego tries to preserve at least a few remaining holdouts. Grace wants us to take on Christ’s mind: “…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves which was in Christ Jesus…” — Philippians 2:2-5