Last night, I had the opportunity to share a meal with some family to honor a friend, a beautiful 90 year old person, who was visiting for the weekend. It was only the second time I had met this person, but I really enjoyed the chance to get to know her a little bit better while she visited.
As we were about to have dinner, my wife and I had begun to say grace, and we marked ourselves with the sign of the Cross. As we were doing this, I noticed that our friend was marking herself, too. When we started saying the traditional Catholic mealtime prayer, "Bless us O Lord...," I realized that she was saying it along with us. After the prayer, my wife asked her, "are you Catholic?" She quickly replied, "Oh yes." I was immediately elated; I was overcome with a sense of pride.
Later, I was thinking about the wonderful visit, and I remembered how excited, how proud, I was to have discovered her Catholic faith. I thought about what pride was all about, and I thought about the distinctly different sides that pride can take.
When she told us she was Catholic, I was quite literally overcome with pride. I was proud of her faith, I was proud of her Catholic identity, and, I was proud that we have this sense of community in which we can identify each other by our actions and our words. There's nothing else quite like it.
Sometimes, however, we hear about another kind of pride. A pride that Sacred Scripture tells us is vile, dangerous and vain. Consider Proverbs:
"When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble" (Proverbs 11:2).
The Sacred Scriptures are very clear on the dangers of pride, but what sort of pride is it referring to? Certainly it's not pride across the board, is it? Not at all. Sacred Scripture refers to this evil kind of pride with the same disdain as vanity, greed, impiety, and overall selfishness. When pride is shown in a negative light, it almost always has to do with an inward cockiness, a love of self that supersedes Christ. There are plenty of examples of this:
"Thus saith the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his strength, and let not the rich man glory in his riches" (Jeremiah 9:23)
"Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked" (2 Timothy 3:2)
"But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" (James 4:6)
During the Lenten season, we are reminded of two things with regard to pride. First, that we ought to show our affection and love for God through prayer, fasting and almsgiving in secret when possible. The idea here is that we love God for the sake of loving God and seeking out his favor, rather than seeking the love of others by our apparent piety. In other words, we shouldn't brag about how holy we seem to be. It seems obvious, but it's not all that easy sometimes.
I remember when I was a younger boy, I would fast at school. Unfortunately, I didn't heed the warning of Sacred Scripture; something about "when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for the disfigure their faces so as to show others they are fasting" (Matthew 6:16). I was sure that everyone knew I was fasting. I sought sympathy because of my "heroic" sacrifice. Not exactly the definition of piety to say the least.
So, in that way, taking pride in your outward appearances for your own good is a pride that we shouldn't be embracing. Not only because God deserves better, but because people tend to see though it.
Instead, there is a sense of pride that is healthy, and is profitable. In fact, it's the other side of pride that Sacred Scripture supports:
"I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:31)
"Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (2 Corinthians 10:17)
When we receive our ashes, we are practicing a healthy pride, a penitential act that involves pride in our faith. Instead of boasting in one's own greatness, we are boasting in our love of God, and our love of self inasmuch as we belong to Him. If we embrace the fact that we are created to know, love and serve God, we can feel that pride in a very different way.
So, when I saw that wonderful friend making the sign of the Cross, I was proud of, excited for, and affirmed in my faith. It is in this Lenten season that we can more effectively learn to live a penitential life by way of these principals; to love God and to boast in Him about His goodness.