Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Third Century, #59-70
In these paragraphs, St. Maximos contemplates three demons: excessive love of self (self-esteem), pride and the longing for popularity. The common denominator in all three is the belief that our authentic, God-given selves have low value in themselves. We are simply not enough as we are. What’s more, we cannot rely on God alone to confer on us the kind of importance that will impress others. Hence, we take on the task ourselves, obsessively building and presenting our own fiction about us, rather than understanding God’s will for us.
After a lifetime of practice, we believe our stories about ourselves and become self-centered and self-loving. We are now invested in our own stories and, hence, we are devastated when they are challenged or taken away. Criticism by others, the loss of a position, our child’s disappointing choices, loss of status or money, lack of praise pull the rug from under our feet and lead to loss of our sense of self and despair.
This is why St. Maximos compares pride and self-love to Absalom’s beautiful hair. While it was once a source of pride, his hair ends up causing his death by trapping him in a tree and making him easy prey for his enemies.
“He who on account of his virtue or spiritual knowledge falls victim to self-esteem grows his hair like Absalom, to no good purpose” (cf. 2 Sam. 14:26; 18:9).
Trapped by our own fiction, the way Absalom was trapped by his hair, we lead lives of spiritual exhaustion, for example, by forcing ourselves to be always “on stage”—making sure our achievements are noticed, the impressions we make on others are positive, comparisons with others are in our favor. We want to reflect the virtues and characteristics that are highly admired in our world and to be praised for them.
We thus live a double life which often makes us feel disingenuous and empty.
“Outwardly he appears to pursue a moral way of life, but it is carefully contrived and mixed (like a mule) with conceit and designed to deceive onlookers.”
Like Absalom, we engineer our own demise through a series of distortions and substitutions.
Spiritual and material achievements become sources of pride because we mistake them for our own and forget that it is through God’s grace that we received them. Caught in self-love we are deluded in believing in our own omnipotence and forget our human weakness.
“Puffed up with his vainglory, he tries to supplant the spiritual father who gave him birth through the teaching of the Logos; for in his pride he wants, like a usurper, to arrogate to himself all the splendor of-the virtue and spiritual knowledge which his spiritual father possessed as a gift from God.”
Usurping and substituting God is the ultimate distortion of our perception and tragedy for mankind.
“Self-esteem,” St. Maximos tells us, “is the replacing of a purpose which accords with God by another purpose which is contrary to the divine.”
Losing our true purpose in God, we pursue popularity with others as a substitute and judge our lives by their worldly criteria: Have we met our professional potential? Are we losers because we failed to make as much money as others or sent our children to prestigious schools? Why haven’t we been invited to the homes of popular people or given the respect we deserve by our colleagues and superiors? Has the priest noticed how many liturgies we attended during Lent? How dare the new members in the church ignore us? They must not realize that we are the pillars of this community and make the highest donations?
We are thus doomed to live on the surface with a thirst for God that is never quenched by the substitutes we choose.
“The person who likes to be popular attends solely to the outward show of morality and to the wards of the flatterer. With the first he hopes to attract the eyes and with the second the ears of those Who are charmed and impressed only by what is visible and audible, and who judge virtue only with their senses.”
The result, we are told, is that:
“By doing or speaking what is virtuous in order to be seen by men, he sets a much higher value on the approbation of men than on that of God.”
Unless we have a foundation of wisdom and a purpose in God, virtues alone will not save us.
“Neither do these demons hate self-restraint, fasting, almsgiving, hospitality, the singing of psalms, spiritual reading, stillness, the most sublime doctrines, sleeping on the ground, vigils, or any of the other things which characterize a life lived according to God, so long as the aim and purpose of a person trying to live such a life are tilted in their direction.”
Even the achievement of inner stillness and reaching the last rungs in the process to Theosis are not adequate if their end goal is not union with God. The corrective is the achievement of wisdom which engenders the fear of God and leads to pure love.