7th Thought – Vanity
In our Finding Happiness series we’ve been learning that true happiness comes through purity of heart – when our hearts are completely free from the power of negative and damaging thoughts.
But there’s always something trying to get in the way and ruin purity of heart. The desert-dwelling monks and nuns of the early church identified a pattern of eight negative thoughts, which to varying degrees afflict all of us.
This week the thought is vanity, next week it’s pride.
These final two thoughts are quite different from the previous six.
- With gluttony, lust and greed, it’s a person’s body which is under attack
- while anger, sadness and acedia/spiritual apathy operate in a person’s mind and heart.
- Vanity and pride are far more subtle and hard to detect, because they operate in the spiritual dimension – in a person’s soul.
Vanity (or ‘vainglory’), literally means ‘empty reputation’.
It’s all about admiring yourself – your achievements and skills; your looks and your qualities.
- John Cassian taught this was the most subtle of all the demons because it’s always lurking wherever there’s virtue.
- Meaning what?
- Meaning, when we think we’ve done something well in our spiritual life, or progressed in some virtue, that’s when vanity is ready to strike.
- It reminds me of a talk on leadership I once heard, where we were warned about our ‘shadow mission’.
- Mission: to offer beautiful worship to God,
- The shadow mission: to get known and famous as one who offers beautiful worship to God.
- It’s the dark side of a good mission: the focus and glory all go to you rather than to God.
Abbot Christopher compares this thought of vanity to the phenomenon of celebrity.
- He asks: Maybe celebrity is the modern version of vanity and pride?
- People used to be famous for their achievements. Nowadays people are often famous simply for being famous! Some celebrities are famous for great sporting achievements or entertainment.
- Others are famous for appearing in Big Brother(e.g. One Celebrity Big Brother included Jade Goody who was famous because she’d been in a previous Big Brother).
The abbot also cites the example of a young girl who said she wanted to be famous when she grows up. “Famous for what?” she was asked. “Just famous,” she replied.
Fame without substance: ‘vain-glory.’
There’s a difference between vanity and celebrity however.
- Celebrity is a status conferred on people by the public, not something people choose for themselves.
- But vanity is something which goes on inside – it’s an attitude held by the vain person. So ‘each of us is responsible for our own vanity’ (p183).
Why is there such a desire for empty reputation?
Perhaps, suggests the Abbot, because so many experience life as empty of meaning, they/we search for things to avoid facing that personal emptiness.
In a society that has seen the crumbling of so many previously-held certainties, one of the main things people seek is to feel good, and the need to keep feeling good then becomes the driving force of this empty experience of life.
In fact, an unconscious fear of meeting our emptiness may drive people to seek out all the excitement that the other demons offer – they all seem to offer something that fills the void:
- Gluttony, lust, and greed are obvious. They all fill us in some way.
- But the thoughts of the heart also keep us from facing our emptiness:
- (i) anger – if I’m busy being angry at everyone else, it takes the focus off myself;
- (ii) sadness/dark depression: it fills my empty space taking the place of loss;
- (iii) acedia/apathy: where I refuse to be spiritually still and face the inner emptiness.’ (p185).
- Finally, vanity: if I my life is filled with fake self-admiration, that’s another way to mask my emptiness.
At this point, Abbot Christopher recommends the opening section of Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount – the beatitudes (Matthew 5).
Here are the first three:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…
Poverty, meekness and grief: these describe people without vanity. On the face of it, they are people who have lost something (wealth, assertiveness, a loved one), but in the beatitudes, Jesus teaches that ‘out of this absence God draws another invisible reality, the kingdom of God.’ (p188).
When people are able to show vulnerability, to admit something is missing, lost, or broken, the power of God is able to shine through all the more powerfully.
- Vanity leads us to do all we can to look secure, able, sorted.
- But vulnerability enables us to accept the gift of other people’s love and help.
- The most profound picture of vulnerability is at the very core of our faith: our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, hanging upon a cross.
- He has gone to utmost place of vulnerability and shares that experience with us.
- And it’s from that very dark place, gently and soon after, that resurrection comes.
- See Philippians 2:1-11
Vanity was not something we ever see in Jesus, and it is a positive hindrance to the kingdom of God.
Deceit of Vanity
A final, and important observation about vanity which sets it apart from the other seven demons/thoughts: when you try to resist vanity, it comes back to get you twice as hard.
- If you manage to control your gluttony, the thought of gluttony (should) dwindle and leave you alone for a while.
- Not so with vanity. Why? Because it jumps on the back of the virtues – the good things you do.
- If you stand up for justice, vanity will make you think, “Hmm, how impressive am I!”
Matthew 6:1-18 – today’s Gospel, Jesus critiques those who practice their piety and prayers to be noticed by others.
Think also, of Jesus’ story about the Pharisee an the tax-collector (Luke 18). The pharisee lists all his (genuine) virtues before God, then ends by saying, “so, thank you I’m not like that tax-collector over there!” Oh dear – vanity! The tax-collector simply says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Magnanimity: the Remedy
The virtue which replaces vanity is magnanimity: big-heartedness. A vain person will love in order to be loved back; they give a gift in order to be thanked. They are rarely truly generous.
A generous heart is the antidote to vanity/vain-glory. ‘A magnanimous soul is one that can affirm the true worth of self and of other people without needing to make special claims for oneself.’ (p195).
Abbot Chrisopher ends his chapter by pointing us to a great role model for this in the New Testament is Mary. In her song we call the ‘Magnificat’ she said people will ever congratulate her, for what God had done in her life, and the focus was on God’s work in her life, not on her own ego.
Sermon by James Pettit on Sunday 31st October 2016