Today is Ash Wednesday, of course, and the beginning of Lent. Happy Lent to you all, and may it help us all grow closer to the Lord, to repent of our sins, and to renew and deepen our baptismal commitment.
It seems appropriate on this day of sober self-reflection to continue the Wednesday series I’ve engaged in, reflecting on the pope’s examination of conscience to the Roman curia and applying it to our own lives. We have come to the seventh of fifteen spiritual ailments, and this one is:
The disease of rivalry and vainglory. When appearances, the colour of our clothes and our titles of honour become the primary object in life, we forget the words of Saint Paul: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). This is a disease which leads us to be men and woman of deceit, and to live a false “mysticism” and a false “quietism”. Saint Paul himself defines such persons as “enemies of the cross of Christ” because “they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19).
Now of course the reference to ‘the colour of clothes’ would seem to have a specific reference to ecclesial careerism, where different ranks of church office are indicated by various shades of purple and red (don’t ask me to explain this, as it is something I have precisely zero interest in). And of course titles of honour also come into play in curial circles, perhaps more than in the general run of secular life for most people.
That being said, let no one think themselves free of vainglory and rivalry. The Eastern fathers of the desert are unanimous that it is a scourge of the interior life that can last long after many of the more gross and carnal vices have been conquered.
What is it, exactly? It is finding our value, not in the just and merciful judgment of God towards us, but in the good opinion of others. It is when what matters is not what you do or who you are, but what people think of what you do and are. And vainglory in its essence is a powerful damaging force in our lives.
Our whole being is to be so utterly God-centred—I think we can have a hard time grasping that and staying true to that. We really are meant to have God as our life and to care for nothing else very much but our life in Him and His in us. Of course when we are faithful to that we become exceedingly compassionate and concerned for our neighbours, since that is the nature of the God who we serve.
Vainglory persistently and corrosively erodes that God-centricity in favour of human respect. When we do good, not because it is what God asks of us, but for the sake of being liked or appreciated or noticed. When we pray and fast and live a dramatic spiritual life, not so as to become the saints of God He made us to be but to put on some kind of a holy show.
And of course vainglory is the great driver of compromise, of capitulating to the spirit of the age or of sacrificing one’s moral convictions so that ‘the people who matter’ will approve of us, or of that deadly silence when we really should speak out against some evil that is being done before us.
I admit that I don’t always follow Pope Francis’ thoughts entirely, and of course this is a very concise and brief treatment of vainglory he offers, so I’m not exactly sure what he means by false mysticism and quietism in this matter. I would like to hear him explain that further, to be honest—I’m sure he has something very particular in mind.
Meanwhile, it is Lent, and when we all go to church today to get our ashes we will hear much about praying, fasting, and doing alms in secret (meanwhile getting soot smeared on our foreheads, because we’re Catholics, and that’s just the way we roll!). It is this whole business of God seeing us, God knowing us, and God being the one to reward us—God, God, and God again, as the point of reference of our lives. So we can go unrewarded—unthanked, unnoticed, unappreciated, disrespected—with a peaceful spirit, if vainglory is not ruling our hearts.
The fathers are clear that it takes a long time to eradicate this vice, so we can be patient with ourselves in this matter as in all matters. And as we enter Lent let’s strive to put our minds, hearts, and eyes where they belong—on the Lord and his merciful love—and care for little but being a servant of that love and its recipient in this life and in the next.