Four monks took a vow of silence. When night came, one of them said, “Fix the lamps.” The second replied, “We are not supposed to speak.” The third said, “Stupid fools! Why did you talk?” The fourth said to himself in silence, “I am now the only one who has not spoken.”
At each level of escalation, there is a greater break with the spirit of the vow; the fourth monk, who alone keeps the outward appearance of silence, is actually the worst offender because he breaks his silence in the interior recesses of himself — and breaks it in order to entertain self-congratulating pride.
Therein lies the danger of legalism. There is a tendency to think that, because we keep the commandments and obey the laws of the Church, we are superior somehow to all of those sinners out there. We stand and look at the outwardly visible sins of others in the smug conviction that we are the good, the righteous, the upright. Of course, the very moment that we think this we fall into the worst of sins: spiritual pride.
People tend to think about this matter backwards; the more obvious, socially unacceptable and clearly odious a sin is, the more grave it must be. The prostitutes and the tax collectors (or the smut peddlers and Wall Street bankers) are the “real” sinners. We are the good. We are God’s chosen ones.
Yet Christ says exactly the opposite. It is not the righteous Pharisee but the humble tax collector who goes home justified before God. The greatest sins are not those that look the worst on the outside, but those that rot the soul from within: the sins of pride, and especially of spiritual pride.
Spiritual pride is difficult to guard against. It is hard to really look at oneself and believe, rather than just pretend to believe, that one’s own sins are of the highest order. It is pleasant to imagine that the sins we never commit, and especially the ones we are never even tempted to commit, are the worst. Spiritual pride offers us comfort, self-esteem, the warm glow of self-congratulation and the pleasant conviction that all of heaven is arrayed like a bride trembling in anticipation at the thought of our arrival.
It is a pleasure to arrive before the confessional and assure ourselves, “Thank God I only have small sins to confess.” We read Scripture as a checklist of sins that we don’t commit. We hear a sermon about the evils of contraception and divorce and think, “Way to go, Father. Finally someone is telling those people what they need to hear.”
Legalistic faith always leads, sooner or later, to spiritual pride — and the greater the preponderance of rules, the greater the temptation. This is not to say that rules ought to be done away with altogether; on the contrary, they are absolutely necessary, particularly in the early years when the conscience is being formed. But when adherence to the law becomes the whole of the religious life, the interior dies.
An analogy can be drawn to the art of writing. The children who win spelling bees rarely go on to write great literature. You can have perfect adherence to the laws of grammar, style and spelling and still produce a document that no one wants to read. The rules are there for a purpose. They are necessary guidelines that make communication possible. But they are only useful when put in the service of genuine content and inspiration.
The spiritual life, like a work of art, is always an imperfect work in progress. The legalist wants a sort of paint-by-numbers spirituality, a mass-produced sanctity that he can be sure of getting right. He does not want to “work out [his] salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And, when he does fear, he manifests superstitious scrupulosity — not the fear of the Prodigal Son on the road to his father’s house, but the fear of an obsequious slave who has accidentally committed some petty infraction of the master’s rules.
The irony is: Most legalists keep a couple of cherished loopholes to wriggle through. Priests who deviate slightly from the liturgical rubrics laid out by Rome are leading their flocks down the wide road to damnation, but the Church’s condemnation of my favorite private revelation is only a temporary error brought about by prejudice and liberalism. Catholic women on the pill should be refused Communion, but it’s perfectly legitimate to use natural family planning for the first five years of my marriage in order to advance my career.
The result is a spirituality devoid of content, a whitewashed sepulcher on whose marble surface is carved the image of a saint, but whose interior contains nothing but bleached bones and corruption.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer