The Seventh Afflictive Thought – Vainglory

We have almost lost and forgotten the significance of this difficult affliction, although it is ever more evident in our lives.  In one way, it hides behind pride, because it has something of the nature of pride and is close to it.  And yet, it is distinct and needs to be attended to.  

St Bernard, in his treatise on The Steps of Humility and Pride, gives the reader a ‘fly on the wall’ experience as we watch a monk upending the teaching of St Benedict’s Rule on humility (RB 7) and plunge headlong into pride.  In the passage entitled “The Fifth Step: Singularity”, Bernard presents us with what might very well pass for a vainglorious monk:

“When a man has been bragging that he is better than others he would feel ashamed of himself if he did not live up to his boast and show how much better than others he is.  The common rule of the monastery and the example of his seniors (Humility, Step 8) are no longer enough for him.  He does not so much want to be better as to be seen to be better.  He is not so much concerned about leading a better life as appearing to do so.  He can then say ‘I am not like the rest of men’.  He is more complacent about fasting for one day when others are feasting than about fasting seven days with all the rest.  He prefers some petty private devotion to the whole night office of psalms.  While he is at his meals he casts his eyes around the tables and if he sees anyone eating less than himself he is mortified at being outdone and promptly and cruelly deprives himself of even necessary food.  He would rather starve his body than his pride.  If he sees anyone more thin, anyone more pallid, he despises himself.  He is never at rest.  He wonders what others think about the appearance of his face and as he cannot see it he must only guess whether it is rosy or wan by looking at his hands and arms, poking at his ribs, and feeling his shoulders and loins to see how skinny or fleshy they are.  He is very exact about his own particular doings and slack about common exercises.  He will stay awake in bed and sleep in choir.  After sleeping through the night office while the others were singing the psalms, he stays to pray alone in the oratory while they are resting in the cloister.  He makes sure that those sitting outside know he is there modestly sitting in a corner, clearing his throat and coughing and groaning and sighing.  Some of the more simpleminded are misled by his worthless singularities and, judging by his actions which they see and not the hidden intentions, they canonize the unfortunate man and confirm him in his self-delusion.”

St Bernard is deft in his touch – he adds a little humour to sweeten the sourness of this particular condition and affliction.  But it should be plain to see that vainglory centres very much around doing things – and often things which are praiseworthy – for entirely the wrong reasons and frequently to garner the attention of others.  Indeed, vainglory does just that – its aim is to focus attention on me, and, by what I do and say, to win praise and glory for myself.  Hence its Latin name: vana gloria, empty glory.

But we know that glory belongs to God alone, as Psalm 113 reminds us:

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory!”

John Cassian, whose teaching we have been following throughout this examination of the afflictive thoughts, notes that vainglory attacks the ‘soldier of Christ’ in every aspect of his demeanour: in his manner, his walk, his voice, his work, his keeping vigils, his fasting, his prayers, when he withdraws, when he reads, in his knowledge, in his silence, his obedience, his humility, his patience….  So, this affliction cuts to the very centre of the serious seeking disciple, and is rightly an affliction of the soul.  Every aspect of the one who is practiced in the spiritual life becomes a target for vainglory – perhaps because we have become a specialist, well-grounded, and are known for this high degree of expertise.  As such, the entire hard-won edifice of the spiritual life is at danger of tumbling down – Cassian compares it to a shipwreck – if vainglory becomes the outer garment of our intentions and our actions.

Cassian, as did Bernard, likes to paint this affliction with image, and so he can say in another place:

“Our elders admirably describe the nature of this malady as like that of an onion, and of those bulbs which when stripped of one covering you find to be sheathed in another; and as often as you strip them, you find them still protected”.

It is therefore a fascinating but dangerous affliction – because all can, on the face of it, seem well, while much below the surface is rotten.  For this reason it has been said that vainglory is like “papering over the cracks” – an attempt to give the impression that things are under control, even very beautiful, while below the contrary is true – things are crumbling.

So, vainglory is an affliction which tilts at motivation.  The question of “why am I behaving in this way?” should be lurking in the background if we wish to unmask this affliction.  Purity of intention in how I act and speak governs both our discernment of the presence of vainglory and also begins to suggest the tools which we can employ to, little by little, challenge it and dissolve its influence.  We bear in mind that, with vainglory, we are just a step away from the final affliction, pride, and so, while we might laugh off some of its more obvious presentation, for the most part, it is an insidious attacker.

Vainglory always hinges on what I think the opinion of others about me is – and so it always centres attention on me, and consequently, away from God and others.  Appearance is important for the vainglorious – how I dress, walk, pray, eat, fast, sing, be silent, correct or be corrected.  In this way we might even say that vainglory finds ample fuel in the one who constantly compares himself or herself to others: indeed, it is very much about how I measure up to – or am perceived as measuring up to – standards.  Now we can see how dangerous and subtle an affliction this is – it can be at work even when we are doing what is good and is expected of us!

Vainglory is, in many ways, related to the search for self and the need – which we all have – of affirmation by others.  It may also be deeply rooted in a lack of one’s own self-worth.  The vainglorious person, far from being content with who they are, thankful for how they live their lives, aware that they need the support and encouragement of others and so grateful when this comes their way, or indeed, truly humble when they have to seek it, like to give the impression that all is well, nothing need change.  On the flip side, the vainglorious one can also be the person whose suffering, pain, grief, hardship, knows no comparison with that of others – “No one knows the misery I’ve seen…” might very well describe this sadder side of vainglory: even my suffering is perfect!

In another place we have described the search for the true self as part of that stripping back of layers – like an onion – which Cassian offers above.  Vainglory allows us to build up layers which divert us and others away from our true selves and happily advances false personae, depending on the situation.  The search for our own identity – Who am I? – and the hard work of accepting that “I” and integrating all the diverse parts which go to making it up is a constant call to integrity – literally “wholeness” of life.  Perhaps Thurber’s famous Walter Mitty was quintessentially vainglorious – he existed through the prism of imagined selves, and one found it difficult to see where fantasy ended and reality began.  In vainglory that sort of day-dreaming can be a frequent experience – I see myself, in my perfection, at the centre of the action.  Unfortunately this can also be backed up by the facility that I have gained in the tools and practices of the spiritual life.  

It shouldn’t take too great a leap of the imagination to recognise that vainglory is one of those afflictions which has come to characterise our modern age and way of living, particularly in the subtle, often hidden, criteria which demand, even without our consciously acknowledging it, that we compare ourselves to one another.  Social media is awash with this – how I look, how many friends or followers I have, how quickly I can post the next image of myself and what’s happening in my life….  Indeed, the fact that image-based social media are squeezing out the priority of text might just sum this up – while an image can be worth a thousand words, it can do exactly what it is meant to do as well – present an image.  And often that image – ever more perfect so that we can conform to the group to which we want to belong, stay on the right side of ‘friends’ and not risk being ‘unfriended’, and which, when failure sneaks in, can so often, cruelly and even fatally, lead to online bullying and abuse – becomes damage.  The suffocating desire to know what others think about us, and sometimes the more perilous path of thinking that we know what others think about us, ultimately breaks our hearts – and, from the ancient monastic and desert tradition, this flies in the face of the goal that we should set ourselves – purity of an undivided heart.  The all too real problem of perfectionism  – that I must achieve the perfect or near perfect at all costs – especially among our young and seen with distressing regularity now among our students at university level condemns any sort of failure as anathema, and so anathematizes the very thing which is most human in us – to have to fail from time to time and so to be able to be consoled and carried by another person.

This affliction is not, of course, a modern phenomenon – Christ himself slated the Pharisees for their vainglory in fairly biting terms (see Matthew 23:13-32):

“Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption.  In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”.

Is there a way back?  One would hope so!  Vainglory is a tough one to overcome, because it feels right, and it looks right, and others, indeed, even very wise others, may be fooled into thinking everything is ok.  To begin to back this affliction away we need always to examine our motivation for living in the way that we do.  Our goal is to retrieve and reclaim our purity of intention so that our purity of heart can be made the determining motivation for our actions.  Purity of heart is always aligned to love of God and love of neighbor, and these flow from right love of self.  These three loves – which are, of course, only one if they are truly an imitation of Christ – cannot be established except that they go hand in hand, leading from one to another.  This is the heart of St Bernard’s teaching on the three truths which underpin the journey into humility – the work of humility itself (coming to know myself and love myself); the compassion for others which arises out of this (the love of neighbour); and the outpouring of contemplation which is God’s gracious gift to us when all else has been gently moved aside (effectively, the love of God).  The desire for God here is the single governing motivation – used as a criterion for discerning action it is incontrovertible.

The journey into self-realisation and integrity requires accompaniment.  No teacher of the spiritual life in the Christian tradition has ever advocated a self-help method of coming to perfection – all recognise the need for the accompaniment provided by a wise elder who sees with eyes other than my own, hears with ears other than my own, and has a heart which has been moulded by their own deep experience and prayer and the awareness of God’s presence in their own lives.  No one can be their own director.

Since vainglory can actually use the tools of the spiritual life by turning them and their intended ends on their heads the one who is afflicted by this vice needs to go back and begin much of that work again, retrieving the work of the earlier afflictions, reclaiming the tools which move those afflictions aside, and putting them into their new context.  In this sense, the work against vainglory is the opportunity to learn again, to begin again, which, in a monastic setting, should be a daily experience, recognising that God only gives me grace for the work that I must undertake today, and indeed in every moment.  Grace is the moment by moment gift of God’s abiding presence, and my response to that is to learn the moment by moment turning to his grace-filled Presence.  The French Benedictine Georges Lefebvre, in his exquisite little book God Present, teaches us:

“Every genuine turning toward God, however poorly it is expressed, brings us into the mystery of his presence and opens us to its grace.  A simple gaze towards God, an attitude that is all that it is simply because we are in his presence: living it by a simple assent we open ourselves to the grace always deepening this presence within us.  We know we can trust everything to the Lord, above all this attitude by which we express our faith in him”.

To begin to attend to the Presence of the Other, as fully as possible, and not simply be consumed by my own presence!

Above all, we apply that rule and discipline which begins all the work on the thoughts – I watch the thoughts as they arise, and gently move aside those which, demanding my attention,incline to lead me toward damaging and vicious self-dialogue.  Watching those thoughts and moving them aside, I guard my heart, desiring it’s purity and holding it undivided for Christ.  This is both the journey that I undertake and its goal – to direct the glory to God, through Christ, who walks with me and comforts me with his Spirit. 

-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-

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