The Sin of Pride is foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said of pride: “inordinate self-love is the cause of every sin… the root of pride is found to consist in man not being, in some way, subject to God and His rule.” Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. The sin of pride is a preoccupation with self. Pride is what caused Lucifer to fall from heaven and it was the sin of pride which first led Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden.
Pride and the desire for self-glory - to “be like God” - is rebellion against God. Man was made by God in the image of God - to represent God as his image bearer. In the Fall, the image of God as seen in humanity was marred. Man became less than truly human because the intimate relationship man had with God was broken - man was hollowed out only to be filled with the very sin that had caused the rupture - the stuffing of pride and self-aggrandizement.
T.S. Eliot, in the process of turning his life towards God recognized the sin of pride and the desire for self-glory in himself. The key to faith, for Eliot, was the “negation of self” - the discipline to turn away from the worldly things which only served to distract and cause one to head in the wrong direction. For Eliot, vanity and pride were the destroyers of the soul and what served to separate each of us from God. Repentance and penitence were the solution.
For his own spiritual wholeness, Eliot sought “self-annihilation” - the discipline to die to his pride. He felt it necessary to renounce three forms of pride in himself: pride of intellect, pride in social superiority, and pride as an artist. This renunciation can be seen in his first major work after his conversion to Christianity, in his poem titled Ash Wednesday.
The title of the poem, of course, refers to the day in the church calendar called Ash Wednesday - the day which marks the beginning of Lent - a season of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ash Wednesday is a particular “turning” point in the church year. We turn away from our selfish nature and turn towards God, sincerely repenting of our sins and praying for forgiveness - through his Son, Jesus Christ the Lord, and the forgiveness of our sins that he won for us on the Cross.
The renunciation of human pride is a thread that runs all through the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The language Eliot employs in his poem, sounds almost liturgical. In the Confession and Litany Of Penitence in the Ash Wednesday service we renounce:
“- the pride, vanity, and hypocrisy of our lives… all false judgments, for prejudice and contempt of others… seeking the praise of others rather than the approval of God.
Lord have mercy upon us”.
In the Absolution which follows the confession, which is familiar to Anglicans, the priest says: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who in his great mercy has promised forgiveness of sins of all who sincerely repent and turn to him….”
In the Comfortable Words which follow the Absolution the priest says: “Hear the Word of God to all who trulyturn to him…”
The opening stanza of Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, is it’s leitmotif :
“Because I do not hope to turn again”
In The Wasteland, Eliot portrayed time and existence as a wheel of futility. In Ash Wednesday, Eliot gives a strikingly different image - not a wheel, but a spiral staircase. Unlike his view of himself as a paralyzed “hollow man” - the figure of the Poet is in now positive motion. Leaving the hollow and hopeless world behind, the Poet slowly ascends up a spiral staircase. This is his metaphor or image of walking out a life of faith in God - There is purpose and a goal in walking up a stairs - even a twisty one.
Now, ascending a regular staircase one can see the top of the stairs and the end goal. But making your way up a spiral staircase you have to watch your steps - you cannot have your arms full of stuff. In climbing a spiral staircase, you can see only a short distance before you. You cannot grasp the whole staircase or the whole picture - you can only see in part.
At the same making his way up the stairs, the poet gets a series different perspectives - he has significant spiritual moments. For Eliot, spiritual moments are really the only slight glimpses we may get of the larger picture of God’s purposes in history. For Eliot, these moments are infused with memory, emotion, and meaning.
The spiritually dead world, one opposed to God, continues to whirl noisily below as the poet ascends away from it. There are trials as the poet climbs the steps - the poet turns to experience darkness, temptation, the deceitful face of the devil, and his own doubts.
There are “ turnings” in the stairway. There is the constant temptation to turn back and rejoin the world. This verse repeats again and again in the poem:
“I do not hope to turn again”.
This is what the poet fears about himself. The Poet hopes that he will not turn away from God and turn back toward the old self and the sin of Pride. In these turnings, the poet grasps that the pilgrimage of the Christian life exists in a tension between the “already” and “the not yet”. He views the Christian life as being not in darkness but not yet in full light:
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dream crossed twilight between birth and dying
As he looks out, the Poet sees a garden - a garden in the desert of the wasteland. It is the Garden of Christian Faith and sees himself there in the company of a beautiful Lady, both lovely and good, representing Divine Love and Grace. However, there is the strange image of the poet’s flesh eaten by three white leopards - leaving only white bones. The flesh, as Paul uses the term, is the old carnal sin nature - that which needs to be crucified - the white bones stand for purity. This vison of devouring animals would seem to refer back both to Jeremiah 5:6 and to the first Canto in Dante’s The Inferno. The poet, bodily dismembered, speaks to the Lady:
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
contained in the hollow round of my skull…
All that is left is his bones and his voice. This is a vivid metaphor of the poet’s life stripped of all worldly attachments and aspirations. He is without bodily strength and means and so is made available to new life and hope.
Because of the goodness of this Lady …
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion…
The poet discovers that there is a desert and rocks even within the garden. A journey towards God is like being in a divine garden of peace but that it also contains the rocks of sufferings. In the walk of faith, a Christian makes a pilgrimage to God through the landscape and reminders of the wasteland. It takes spiritual discipline to make the ascent - it is a penitential journey.
Christ died once for us and our sins for our salvation, but the putting to death of our selfish-old self is an on-going process. As the Holy Spirit works to transform us into the likeness of Christ, we daily must die to ourselves. Paul gives us the assurance that the Spirit helps us in this, our weakness.
If the climb of faith is like a spiral stairs, we are led up the steps by the Spirit on our way and he shares our burdens - - through life’s difficulties and pain, our own doubts and moral failings, painful encounters with the enemy, repenting of our past sins.
By our cooperation with the Holy Spirit , he enables us to die to our old sinful nature - he guides us in our “turnings” so that we continue to turn towards God - to reach the hoped for summit - our adoption as sons and daughters of Christ and the redemption of our bodies. The Holy Spirit is the assurance that God is for us and not against us.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in ourselves is the assurance of our adoption as God’s children - the hope and freedom we have in Jesus Christ. And even though the world was subjected to futility and is in bondage to corruption - what T. S. Eliot felt so keenly - all creation will be set free and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8: 21).
The Spirit conveys to God our innermost weak cries and prayers - all that we wish we knew how to pray for - in intimate communication and fellowship with God that is too deep for words. The Holy Spirit knows the cries of our hearts - and God knows the mind of the Spirit.
The poem Ash Wednesday ends not in a whimper - but in psalmist prayer:
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.