Arrogance Blocks Us From Spiritual Life
The desert hermits said: “if you see a young person climbing up to heaven by his own strength, catch him by the foot and drag him back to earth. If is not good for him.”
This story does not mean that people can climb to heaven. That is impossible. That’s not the point. But there are those who, in their arrogance, believe that it is possible. We don’t have the strength, and occasionally we need someone to grab our ankle and yank us back to reality.
There may be exceptions to the rule but as far as I know every spiritual tradition worth its salt eschews arrogance as a means to progress in the life of the Spirit. Arrogance is counter-productive because it pushes you upon your own resources, which quickly run out.
St Anthony of the Desert (251-356) was and remains the premier example of the desert monk; he was the original model and his life story is told in a book written by St Athanasius (296-373). The greatest theologian of the age wrote about the greatest monastic of the age. He who poured forth words to explain God to other people wrote about one who poured forth silence to allow God to work in other’s lives. While the sizeable community that he formed considered St Anthony to be full of the Holy Spirit, he never elaborated on his relationship with God. Fearing that he would be seen as arrogant, he was embraced a path of quiet, solitude, silence, and minimal speech as his form of communication.
I continue to be taught by the word of Tatiana Goricheva, one of the underground Christians in the last period of the Soviet empire, who learned under pressure about the faith. She was so taken by the importance of the teachings she heard and learned in that Russian pressure cooker, she said, “Every word must be a sacrifice. Otherwise it is better to keep silent.” I remind myself of this, especially in those times when I am tempted to fill the air with chatter.
Contrast the attitude of St Anthony and Tatiana Goricheva to the arrogance that surrounds us these days. People of all ages rail against beliefs they do not understand. Relative children dismiss traditions that have thousands of years of history behind them, as if none of this mattered. As if whole cultures were not build upon the lessons of those historical beliefs. If we can’t get it in a sound byte, it isn’t worth listening any further. There is so much arrogance, and it is matched by an equal amount of ignorance.
I do not refer necessarily to arrogance toward Christianity. Other traditions do not fare well, either. Many people who explore Buddhism want a pop version; they are unwilling to probe the depths of the tradition, and they don’t wish to understand the Buddha’s historical context. Years ago that great “religious entertainer,” as he called himself, Alan Watts, wrote the trenchant pamphlet Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen, in which he gently called those who wanted cheap Buddhism to drop the illusion that they could get it wholesale. Nothing worth having comes without expense or hard work. This is true in spiritual matters even as it is true economically.
Arrogance is a form of seduction that entices us to rely on our ego. This move ironically takes us farther from the very truth we seek. Verse 26 of the Tao Te Ching says, “The wise cultivate inner strength and tranquility. That is why they are not seduced by addictive temptations.” Tranquility leads us past the temptation to arrogance and entices us to enter the spiritual traditions.
published 06 Jul 2012