The face of the princess lay stonily calm, the eyelids closed as over dead eyes; and for some minutes nothing followed. At length, on the dry, parchment-like skin, began to appear drops as of the finest dew: in a moment they were as large as seed-pearls, ran together, and began to pour down in streams…
"She is seeing herself!" said Mara…
Of a sudden the princess bent her body upward in an arch, then sprang to the floor, and stood erect. The horror in her face made me tremble lest her eyes should open, and the sight of them overwhelm me. Her bosom heaved and sank, but no breath issued. Her hair hung and dripped; then it stood out from her head and emitted sparks; again hung down, and poured the sweat of her torture on the floor.
I would have thrown my arms about her, but Mara stopped me.
"You cannot go near her," she said. "She is far away from us, afar in the hell of her self-consciousness. The central fire of the universe is radiating into her the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of what she is. She sees at last the good she is not, the evil she is. She knows that she is herself the fire in which she is burning, but she does not know that the Light of Life is the heart of that fire. Her torment is that she is what she is. Do not fear for her; she is not forsaken. No gentler way to help her was left. Wait and watch."
It may have been five minutes or five years that she stood thus—I cannot tell; but at last she flung herself on her face.
Mara went to her, and stood looking down upon her. Large tears fell from her eyes on the woman who had never wept, and would not weep.
"Will you change your way?" she said at length.
The woman Mara is talking to is Lilith. The mythical first wife of Adam and the central character in a fantasy novel by George MacDonald. MacDonald’s masterpiece is an allegory, meant to help us better understand Christian truths about sin, death and the grace of God. If you are looking for something spiritually rewarding to read this Lent I commend this book, Lilith, to you. The narrator in the story is a man called Mr. Vane, and he enters a magical world where he meets Adam and Eve, and a very beautiful and seductive woman named Lilith who in the novel was Adam’s first wife. Lilith symbolizes pride, often considered the chief of the seven deadly sins. A great stumbling block to faith.
To understand pride in scripture we must go all the way back to the beginning, the story of creation in Genesis. The biblical account of the first human beings makes clear that life is a gift from God. Along with life come other gifts. Freedom and limits, work, community and pleasure. As time goes on the humans discover that the gift of freedom with limits presents them with choices. They are tempted to press beyond the limits God has set. But the very act of going against God’s will leads to estrangement. Adam and Eve are estranged from one another, blaming each other for their woes. They are estranged from the world which becomes dangerous and hard. And worst of all they are estranged from God.
William Stafford has written another great book I recommend for your Lenten reading, Disordered Loves: Healing the Seven Deadly Sins. In it he explains
“Human beings are created. They exist contingently, derivative from God and dependent upon him. In the language of the psalms, people stand on the created earth, between the heavens and the pit of Sheol. They are poised between the abyss of God’s infinite, invisible Being and the abyss of not being at all. God invites human beings to know and love him, and thus to share his life – to trust one abyss and only thus to transcend the other.” (Stafford p. 108)
Stafford goes on, saying “Pride turns to self, away from God. Pride insists on being its own light. It rejects the status of creature. On the brink of the abyss of God and the abyss of non-being, pride asserts divine absoluteness for itself.” (Stafford p. 120)
Stafford notes many forms of pride
· Vanity – body builders, priests, perfectionists, cosmetic surgeons
· Narcissism – clipped tight-wired like a bonsai tree or flaming out in extravagance.
· You can be anything you want to be.
· Ambition that makes the people around us into building blocks – my goals, my vision,
· Social pride – gangs, cliques, culture – imposed on immigrants
· Domination – pride does not need neighbors except as mirrors or as slaves
· The self is god – atheists – assuming they can judge the question of God justly.
· Faith – assuming one has the truth – creeds make great weapons
· Spiritual pride
Impenitence – denying guilt – or too proud to come to God for forgiveness
Presumption – making one’s way without seeking help from God
Hypocrisy – setting high moral standards for others, substituting self for God
Sacrilege – using holy things and holy words for own purposes.
o Blasphemy – overtly assaulting God
In his letter to the Romans Paul shows us that even following the law plays into pridefulness. Verse 20 “The law came in and the trespass multiplied.” As Eugene Peterson puts it, “All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers.
Christ is presented today as a counter example of pride. When tempted by three very prideful acts, Jesus refuses. Because he was one with the creator Jesus could have ended his fast immediately by turning the stones into bread. He could have performed death defying feats of magic by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, letting the angels bear him up in safety. That would have had the people who witnessed it eating out of the palm of his hand. Jesus could have become king of the world right away with no suffering or pain, if he would only worship Satan. But he refuted each temptation and finally the devil left him alone. This is how Christ, who is fully human and fully divine, defeats pride.
But what about the rest of us, mere mortals? Pride made it to the top of the charts of sin because it is so pervasive. And for most of us it a chronic condition and cannot be completely cured in this lifetime. As an obstacle in the path of faith it’s like the rocks of New England gardens, coming up again, and again and again. Saints are those who have built miles of fence out of all the stones of pride they have unearthed and set aside. But the chronic condition of pride can be treated by keeping the good news of the gospel before us at all times and through prayer and praise.
The passage we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans asserts that the sin and death which entered the world through the first human beings finally met their match in the free gift of grace offered by Jesus Christ. “Sin didn’t and does not have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace.”
But to receive this gift of grace, we need to empty ourselves through honest confession. Psalm 32 presents us with this first step – looking in the mirror to see what we really are. In our pride we shrink from confession, even as it causes great pain. “When I did not declare my sin, my body was wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
George MacDonald shows how painful it is for pride to confess through Lilith. At this point in the tale she and Mr. Vane end up in Eve’s cottage, where Mara, who is the daughter of Adam and Lilith, ministers to her mother. Mr. Vane says,
I looked, and saw: before Lilith, cast from unseen heavenly mirror, stood the reflection of herself, and beside it a form of splendent beauty, She trembled, and sank again on the floor helpless. She knew the one what God had intended her to be, the other what she had made herself.
The rest of the night she lay motionless altogether.
With the gray dawn growing in the room, she rose, turned to Mara, and said, in prideful humility, "You have conquered. Let me go into the wilderness and bewail myself."
Mara saw that her submission was not feigned, neither was it real. She looked at her a moment, and returned:
"Begin, then, and set right in the place of wrong."
"I know not how," she replied—with the look of one who foresaw and feared the answer.
"Open thy hand, and let that which is in it go."
A fierce refusal seemed to struggle for passage, but she kept it prisoned.
"I cannot," she said. "I have no longer the power. Open it for me."
She held out the offending hand. It was more a paw than a hand. It seemed to me plain that she could not open it.
Mara did not even look at it.
"You must open it yourself," she said quietly.
"I have told you I cannot!"
"You can if you will—not indeed at once, but by persistent effort. What you have done, you do not yet wish undone—do not yet intend to undo!"
"You think so, I dare say," rejoined the princess with a flash of insolence, "but I KNOW that I cannot open my hand!"
"I know you better than you know yourself, and I know you can. You have often opened it a little way. Without trouble and pain you cannot open it quite, but you CAN open it. At worst you could beat it open! I pray you, gather your strength, and open it wide."
Defiance reappeared on the face of the princess. She turned her back on Mara, saying, "I know what you have been tormenting me for! You have not succeeded, nor shall you succeed! You shall yet find me stronger than you think! I will yet be mistress of myself! I am still what I have always known myself—queen of Hell, and mistress of the worlds!"
Then came the most fearful thing of all. I did not know what it was; I knew myself unable to imagine it; I knew only that if it came near me I should die of terror! I now know that it was LIFE IN DEATH—life dead, yet existent; and I knew that Lilith had had glimpses, but only glimpses of it before: it had never been with her until now.
She stood rigid. Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free! Her bodily eyes stood wide open, as if gazing into the heart of horror essential—her own indestructible evil. Her right hand also was now clenched—upon existent Nothing—her inheritance!
But with God all things are possible: He can save even the rich!
Without change of look, without sign of purpose, Lilith walked toward Mara. She felt her coming, and rose to meet her.
"I yield," said the princess. "I cannot hold out. I am defeated.—Not the less, I cannot open my hand."
"Have you tried?"
"I am trying now with all my might."
"I will take you to my father, Adam. You have wronged him worst of the created, therefore he best of the created can help you."
"How can HE help me?"
"He will forgive you."
After true confession and turning to God for the free gift of grace, our treatment of pride continues through prayers of praise. Regularly and deliberately acknowledging who and what God is helps keep our focus off of ourselves. Another discipline that can help is silence of heart and mind, to calm the racket of self-fascination. Singing hymns about God’s grace can lift our attention away from ourselves. Prayers of intercession, when we turn our love toward other people can also help. Life in community can also help a great deal. William Stafford notes, “When an old deaf lady needs a ride to church I have to set aside my great insights… Making sandwiches for hungry people does not bring much glory, nor does tending the gardens, or reading to children, or signing prayer letters. These humble acts of serving one another help to keep our pride at bay, and our hands open, ready to receive the abundant grace offered to us in Jesus Christ.