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St Bernard’s Vision of Humility and Pride

March 7, 2016 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Humility, Lent, Pride

 St Bernard’s Vision of Humility and Pride

We waste a lot of time thinking something is owed us. We brood over injury. We are not self-contained. Lent helps us remember the real truth about ourselves and our situation. The wisdom of the saints, like St. Bernard, helps us see our actual situation. His teachings suggest we can be free of brooding and find a new kind of self-possession when we allow the Lord to preoccupy us with his immeasurable love. We are, in fact, loved so much more than we deserve, but we can only see this as God leads us out of ourselves and into Him.

For St. Bernard, conversion happens when we allow God’s love for us to cause a constantly expanding desire for Him in our hearts. We allow God to stir this growing desire whenever we act on what God’s love prompts us to do in our hearts. Growing in love in this way is infallible because God’s desire for our conversion never changes.  The result is, as we desire God more, our freedom to act and to love grows ever stronger.

This next statement is a little paradoxical. Our freedom reaches its fullness in mature humility. The paradox resolves itself, at least partially, if we bear in mind the only kind of freedom Bernard believes in – the freedom to love. Mature humility is like a LippiApparizioneDellaVergineASanBernardoLondra2mountain top of self-possession or self-containment for St. Bernard. Love demands this kind of self-containment because to really love freely takes the full force of our being. In mature humility, the heart rests content in God’s bountiful love. It is a strange contentment because it demands constant vigilance, ongoing conversion. Bernard calls this spiritual warfare. It involves a constant struggle against our former way of life, against the gravitational pull of our big fat egos. Another way he looks at it is that this kind of contentment, to be sustained in the Lord, must keep vigil against the movements of pride.

For those who want to climb to union with God, Bernard teaches that there is one great truth of which we must come to complete acceptance. In his Ladder of Pride, he explains how we constantly work to fully accept God’s love for us. This love is not commensurate with anything we think we have done to earn it. The moment we start thinking we are owed something is the exact instant we climb the ladder of pride and fall out of the heights of humility.

There are probably a lot of people who think that this is psychologically unhealthy to think about. They would probably conjecture that any awareness one has of being loved more than he deserves is really just poor self-esteem. But humility is the virtue that regulates self-esteem. It is singularly unhealthy to esteem one’s self more or less than the truth about who one is.

St. Bernard would say that in truth, each of us is uncommonly loved by God, even though we have done nothing to deserve such love. We do not know why we are loved in this way. But we are, in all our unworthiness. It is humility to accept this. Paradoxically, progress is made in the spiritual life through the growing awareness of our own unworthiness in the face of God’s incalculable love.

In the heights of humility, however, we must fight against one uncharitable preoccupation which, while not seeming to be vicious, can utterly destroy our ability to learn to love. He calls it curiosity, but what he means seems to be closer to ambition. Biblically, it is the pursuit of “making a name” for oneself. Think of Babel or the history of Israel. The ambition to lord it over others and to draw attention to oneself always leads away from God. For St. Bernard, pride begins with the way that we look at our brothers and sisters, and it ends in a total rejection of God. His bottom line is that the heights of humility are a protected place as long as we are humble in our dealings with one another. But the gravity of pride constantly pulls at us and, he explains, this pull can only be resisted through prayer, fasting, and humble acceptance of those trials which come our way.

Prayer, fasting and the acceptance of trial helps us realize that our true value is in God’s love for us and in his love for those he has entrusted us. Real self-esteem is rooted in this realization. Our lives are meant to co-inhere: to co-inhere in God and to co-inhere in one another. This means the joys and sorrows of God, and my brothers and sisters, belong to me and are the proper place for my heart to dwell. Preoccupation with making a name for myself takes my heart out of this kind of self-possession. For Bernard, the self does not fully exist isolated from God or from others. The self, the human “I,” ought to be in communion with God and others, or it is less than itself. Thus, to be self-contained, means for Bernard, that our only concern has become communion with one another in Christ.

TheBlessedLudovicaAlbertoniDistributingAlmsAn interesting application with the observance of Lent presents itself:  Traditionally, Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving…. Here, just a word on almsgiving which is not unconnected with the importance of bearing the trials that come our way: In giving alms to those in desperate need what we are really doing, according to Bernard’s perspective, is containing ourselves in a very small way. Our gift is a kind of sharing in the struggles of our brothers and sisters. Think of the poor plight of those in Chile or Haiti or even the homeless mentally ill on our own streets. Their sufferings are always connected to us because of who they are. And humility, knowing the truth about ourselves and how we are connected to them, does not afford us the luxury of ignoring their plight. Their plight is ours. For St. Bernard, to see it any other way is just pride.


Art: The Virgin Appears to St Bernard, Filippo Lippi, 1447; The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, circa 1670-71; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • nancyveronica

    Thank you. Former image of spiritual warfare was sword in hand against the devil. After this article, I see shield in hand against the devil and sword against my self – figuratively speaking of course.

  • Patricia

    from today’s posting: “We are, in fact, loved so much more than we deserve, but we can only see this as God leads us out of ourselves and into Him.
    For St. Bernard, conversion happens when we allow God’s love for us to cause a constantly expanding desire for Him in our hearts. We allow God to stir this growing desire whenever we act on what God’s love prompts us to do in our hearts.”

    So true! God loves us because of who He is …God IS love! And He loves us because of who we ARE- HIs own creation made in His image and likeness- we were made by Him and for Him and to love Him. Therefore, our motivation to act will be prompted by the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our heart to act and do as He desires. As this posting states, it is only when we attribute the source of our actions to ourselves, OUR “goodness and deservedness” and allow that to take over that we fall into pride. One can have a burning desire to do something, not out of pride and a desire to “make a name for oneself” BUT because God has put that desire in their heart and they have a very strong sense that God is prompting them to do this action. We have to be careful that we ourselves are not acting from our own pride that we know better than another person by misjudging the motivation of others and attributing their actions to be from pride rather that a genuine and great desire to serve and give and do from the heart as one can. Our perception does not always equal reality!

  • Judy Silhan

    Because some of my readings for reflection and meditation have been making me aware of how guilty I am of pride, especially Fr. Gabriel’s thoughts from Divine Intimacy, your reflection, today, Dr. Lilles, helps clarify even more it’s ramifications in hindering my desire to grow closer to Him. I appreciated the idea of our climbing to union with God versus climbing the ladder of pride. Thanks for these most helpful thoughts.


  • DianeVa

    I heard something said this weekend which helps me keep my focus off myself. The Ten Commandments of the OT were narrowed down to two by Jesus in the NT, love of God and love of neighbor. These two are further simplified into one, to do the will of the Father, which of course is what Jesus did. I think this enables us in this complex world filled with distractions and individualism to avoid pride and hit the bullseye of humility more often. Waking up each morning and asking “What can I do for you today Father?” and repeating the question throughout the day keeps us one with God.

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