The creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly,
but by reason of Him who has subjected the same in hope.
We have a desire for greatness built into our souls by God. Vainglory, is a confusion about how to satisfy our desire for greatness.
The desire for greatness is seen plainly in our society in its fascination with celebrities, with people in positions of power, or with other people of note – great philosophers, scientists, artists, historical figures, the saints. We enjoy reading about them, about their background – what is it that made them great? And you can see people emulating their favourites – acting like them, thinking like them, sometimes even trying to look like them – whether consciously or unconsciously. This interest in celebrity, fuelled by our own desire for greatness, has undoubtedly in some way affected our personality and our interests.
And this desire to emulate greatness is a positive thing – it is one of the ways we learn. Often children want to be like their parents when they grow up, because at the start of their lives, their parents are their gods. (In our teen years we are sometimes angry at our parents because it turns out they are not perfect, not gods at all, and we have to readjust our relation, coming to love them despite their faults.) Who is it though that we try to emulate as we become adults?
We also have an inner sense of our worth. It is perhaps the appeal for children of certain stories: the frog who is really a hidden prince waiting to be awakened to his true princely nature by the kiss of a princess (by love); or Cinderella who is really meant for so much more, to be discovered by a prince and taken away from her nasty step-sisters to life in the palace; or the story of the ugly duckling that becomes in time a swan.
Well actually, Paul says, we are meant for so much more! – to be brothers and sisters of Jesus the Son of God – to be mystically united with the Son of God and so ourselves, sons and daughters of the living God.
Vainglory is a confusion about how to attain this desire for glory.
It is a very subtle spirit – it reveals itself and then hides itself… One of the greatest writers on the soul in the Christian tradition, John Cassian, in his Institutes, begins his description of vainglory by saying this: “Our seventh struggle is agains the spirit of kenodoxia (vainglory), which we can refer to as vain or empty glory. It is multiform, varied, and subtle, such that it can hardly be seen or noticed by the sharpest eyes, to say nothing of being guarded against.” (You can read his chapter on vainglory by clicking here.)
It is taking pride in our achievements or changing our motivation and suddenly undoing the good that was done:
e.g. Being a waiter – we might begin by a sense of doing it to serve others or then changing our motivation to doing it well only to get a good tip!
e.g. Doing a good work, volunteering – then patting oneself on the back as a good person and maybe even looking down on the very people we are helping as if we are somehow better than them.
e.g. Being a preacher – doing it well, then thinking so, and falling away – people can sense pride and it is off-putting, however clear and true the message might be, it will be clouded by the vanity of the preacher.
What can we do, since this vanity seems to creep up on us whenever we try to do what is right? Well it should not hinder us from doing good, but we must simply keep moving forward. And we learn that whether doing well or being humiliated – it is all the same – and we return the glory, when things go well, to God.
Some of the outward signs of vainglory affecting our lives? – endlessly comparing ourselves with others, or putting others down (it is an attempt to put ourselves above them), or finding ourselves unfulfilled in our work, because our motivation is vain.
How do we avoid vainglory?
- God’s providence works for us even if we fall asleep
Difficult situations, illnesses, deaths of loved ones, tragedies – wake us up to what is most important. I see this as priest – it happens all the time…there can be a cleansing aspect of suffering and tragedy if it is borne in faith – it recalls us to the reality of our mortality and to the greatness of God.
But surely there is a better way to be battling vainglory than being forced by external circumstances…
- Self Reflection
Most people aren’t yet aware either of what lies behind their frenetic activity or of the vanity of their hopes and dreams. The inward turn, the looking at ourselves, is crucial so that we don’t waste our time here on earth in much vanity and vexation of spirit, in trying to fulfill vain dreams. When we look within, we come to see what is truly motivating us, why we do the things we do.
Tonight we’ve heard read Ecclesiastes (chapter 2). It is a very difficult book and one which can only be taken in small doses, especially if one is feeling low. But it helps by making us reflect deeply on what would happen if we had all that the world offered. Supposing I had great physical pleasure and comfort, supposing I built myself a great palace, supposing I had great power and authority over others, would I really be satisfied? King Solomon who had it all, says no. So we look higher – the careful inward gaze at our lives frees us from the suffering that comes from striving after the wind – or from keeping our minds fixed on the dust rather than on the things that do not perish. [Ps 119:25]
Rich merchants in the Dutch Golden era (17th century) often purchased Vanitas still life paintings to hang on their wall to remind them not to be confused by their wealth, to recall that our time is limited and not to waste it on vain ends.
For us this giving up of vain dreams is harder than we might think at first. We are confronted more and more by advertising images and in TV shows and films and through ever greater means of communication. These reminders of the worldly ways we are trying to leave behind are ever more present. As we pass through this world, we are continually being tugged in another direction, and we must resist. It is real suffering to go against the stream. We turn inwardly continually and ask ourselves – vainglory or true glory, what am I seeking? What am I following after?
- Looking at ourselves in the light of Jesus Christ
It helps us to reflect continually on what true glory really is. What is it that will satisfy? What will bring us the life of freedom and adventure that we all desire? How will we come to that state where we feel ourselves to be flourishing and using our gifts to God’s glory?
Greatness comes as we conform our lives to the greatest celebrity who ever lived, Jesus Christ – God incarnate – who was not rich as the world understands that, and who showed power in another way – by loving with all that he is. Jesus is what greatness looks like in the flesh, and we will never be disappointed in him or in striving to be like him.
We fill our minds with the example of Jesus – by reading the gospels over and over.
Jesus keeps saying things that have a cleansing effect such as…
- If you lose your life for my sake you will find it.
- Seek first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness and these things shall be added unto you.
- What good is it to gain the whole world if you lose your soul.
There is the story of the disciples at the Last Supper, imagine being at this most holy feast and yet arguing with each other who will be greatest! Jesus’ response to them was not to tell them it is wrong to want to be great, but rather he tells us how to be great – He says, if you would be great, you must be the servant of all. [e.g. St Luke 22:24-27; see also St Mark 10:35-45, and St Matthew 20:20-28 and 23:1-12]
And in this experience of service to others something else happens also. We find our hearts merging, being infused with the love of Christ. And our sense of dignity and self worth as a son or daughter of God is something we come to know. We find ourselves caring less and less about how we are viewed by other people, and we come to see their dignity and self worth. It is both humbling and exalting at the same time.
We can avoid vainglory by drawing close to Christ through all the means he has given us – His Word written, through prayer, through the Sacraments and through loving service to our neighbour.
To Him be all honour and glory and thanksgiving!