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Fawcett: Get in spiritual shape by resolving to check your pride

08 January 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

It’s now more than a week into the new year, which means that, by now, the surge in gym memberships has plateaued. In a few days, it will start to steadily drop. This happens consistently every year, as well-intentioned resolutions slam against the stern reality of how punishing it can be to exercise and diet.

But do people only give up on their resolutions because they’re hard? I might be projecting, but I think something else is going on. I think it has less to do with difficulty and more to do with wounded pride.

When I was a kid, I wanted to learn the piano. But when I got a keyboard for Christmas, it didn’t fit in my room, so it sat in our living room. The problem (for me) was that this meant I had to practise in front of everyone else; while my drumming, guitar-strumming brothers could hone their skills in the privacy of their bedrooms, my poor performance would be on display for everyone.

I was too prideful for this. If everyone was going to see me do something, it would be something I was already great at. To this day, I still can’t play piano.  At the time, I would have reluctantly called this “shyness”. Today, I recognize it as thinly-disguised pride.

I don’t think it’s just me. As a teacher, I see this among students. Their penmanship is often beautiful, and they often have great ideas for stories. However, if they aren’t sure how to spell a word, they’ll freeze up, leaving their papers blank, full of unfulfilled promise. This can happen to college students who stop going to classes in shame because they’ve fallen behind in their readings and don’t want their professors and peers to see how badly they’re doing.

I think something similar is going on with the gym denizens: a lot of them just don’t want anyone to see how huffy and out-of-shape they are. This might not be the normal way we think of pride; it is not open arrogance or braggadocio. But it is just as self-destructive.

In light of all that, I want to look to an unexpected place: The liturgical history of Jan. 1, the day when so many of these disappointed resolutions were made. It wasn’t always the Solemnity of Mary; until 1960, it was known as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, since it was eight days after Christmas and babies in the Bible were circumcised eight days after their birth. (The Gospel reading for that day still includes the circumcision story from Luke.)

There are a lot of reasons we should think about switching back. There is a lot of theological significance to Jesus’ circumcision: It is when He receives His name, it is when He first submits to the Law for our salvation, and it is the first time He sheds blood. Further, with the recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks across the world, an annual remembrance of how Our Lord was Jewish might be in order.

British author Peter de Rosa once suggested that medieval artists depicted Jesus on the cross as wearing a loincloth, not so much out of a sense of propriety, but because seeing that He was circumcised would be an uncomfortable reminder of His Jewishness in the midst of all the oppression of Jewish people. It’s exactly the sort of reminder we still need today.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

But, in the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux found another meaning in the circumcision. It was a rebuke against pride. We don’t always recognize how dangerous pride is. In his homily for the Feast of the Circumcision, Bernard identified three great sins that we can fall into: Unchastity (a sin against ourselves), injustice (a sin against others), and pride (a sin against God).

Today, “conservatives” often denounce unchastity but neglect injustice, while “liberals” cry out against injustice but are not as troubled by unchastity. The Christian is called to fight against both. Yet worse than either of these is pride, and pride is probably the reason why it is so hard for these groups to co-operate with each other. (There is a kind of smug satisfaction in announcing how tolerant and open-minded you are about sexual ethics, or, conversely, in announcing that left-wing people lack your sophisticated understanding of the laws of economics.)

Pride often seems less dangerous than either unchastity or immorality; we can see how harmful they are, but we don’t always realize how harmful pride is to our relationship to God—and thus to our own salvation. No wonder it is probably the devil’s favourite sin.

Pride, Bernard reminds us, is so great an evil that even the great angel Lucifer fell into it. He even suggests that this is what the angels were thinking about when they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Maybe this is why they stressed the humility of the newborn king by pointing out that He was wearing dirty clothes and sleeping in a filthy feeding trough. In His Infancy, God models for us how to be humble.

And this, for Bernard, is most obvious in the circumcision of Jesus. “Though He stood in no need of circumcision,” Bernard explains, “He willed to submit to that humiliating ceremony.” (A week after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, another ritual He had no need of but underwent for us.) What a contrast this is to us! “We, on the contrary, though shameless in sins, blush to do penance for them … It is a misery to be prone to sins ; it is a greater one to be ashamed of their remedy.”

The Sacrament of Reconciliation used to involve the penitent standing before the congregation and publicly admitting their sins. This was probably so embarrassing that some people in desperate need of absolution couldn’t bring themselves to come to it, and since then the Church has compassionately thrown a veil of secrecy over confession so that shame does not get in the way of our salvation. But Bernard is right: it is “folly” for us to so ashamed of our failures that we don’t go about fixing them.

But I want to be clear here: My point is not that you should stick to your new years’ resolutions because that’s the only way you’ll improve yourself. You might be in an even worse state than you were when you started, because all that would accomplish would be to feed your own pride even further. How many of those initial resolutions were themselves made in a spirit of pride? Even resolutions to pray more consistently can come from a satanic, prideful attitude (“I will pray more and therefore I will make myself more holy”).

Instead, now might be the time to go back and reflect on those week-old resolutions, asking the question: How can I glorify God by doing this? Do I want to be more fit so I have better self-esteem, or so that I can better honour God by taking care of the body He has given me, the body which is the home of His Son every time I take communion? Do I want to be healthier so that I can feel better, or so that I have more energy to serve others? (Remember, you are bought with a price. You are not your own.) And, once all your resolutions are re-oriented to God, ask Him for the grace to carry them out in a way that is pleasing to Him. This might mean I will have to do things that make me feel incompetent in front of other people. “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). If God could submit to circumcision for me, I can submit to humiliation for Him.

May all our resolutions for the new year be like those of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory … Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again … Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.”

Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.