Sunday, August 10, 2014

Success in the City

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.  
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – This will be my last desert father posting for the time being. I have more stories yet, and people have been giving me lots of positive feedback on them, but that’s enough for now; time to move on to another angle next week.

This one is a good place to end the series for now. One of the themes that comes up in the collections of desert father literature, and it’s very disarming and refreshingly honest that it does so, is the frank acknowledgment that the fathers were prone to one particular line of temptation above all, that there was one pitfall awaiting the monks of the desert that many fell into.

That pitfall, that trap, was the trap of vainglory. That is, comparing themselves to other men, and seeing themselves as superior because of the extreme austerity of life they had adopted. The movement into the desert was spurred to a great degree by a perception of the corrupt and godless way of life of the great cities of late antiquity, many of the fathers did in fact attain great levels of self-mastery and virtue and depth of prayer, and so vainglory—the temptation to consider oneself in relation to others and place oneself above them in rank—was an obvious danger to them.

It is a mark of the greatness of the fathers that they did not try to conceal this struggle from their followers and those chronicling their exploits, but took pains to point out that this was one of the more protracted and difficult struggles in the spiritual life. Later on, when much that is given in pithy stories and sayings in the desert father corpus was explicated at greater length in treatises on the spiritual life, it would be explained that vainglory is especially hard to eradicate because unlike the other sins which accompany our human weakness (gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sloth) vainglory attends our success and our strength.

Right at the moment when we’ve actually managed to do something worthwhile, the little worm of vainglory start whispering in our ear, “Well, aren’t you something special! You really made it! And of course you’re way better than those jerks over there…” Very insidious, very persistent, and something most of us have to contend with at least a little bit.

As soon as we are comparing ourselves to others and placing ourselves on the plus side of the ledger, vainglory is upon us to rob us of the merit of whatever good we are doing. And of course it has a trajectory—sin never stands still. From the interior conviction of our own superiority comes the expectation that others will acknowledge that superiority (it’s only right!), the effort to make sure our virtues and achievements are known and recognized, preferably in public, and the shock, hurt, and rage when others do not come across with the praise and honor we think we are owed.

From this hurt and anger then, we descend if unchecked into despairing of our efforts to be good, since it didn’t get us the result we somehow decided we wanted (the praise and honor of our neighbor). And from that, all the passions and appetites of the flesh come roaring back and the next thing we know we’re back at the bottom of the ladder struggling with basic virtue and obedience to the commandments. Such is the pitfall of vainglory and it is a formidable one, one that has claimed many a soul that was on its way to sainthood.

The remedy is found in stories such as this one. Anthony is told there is a man in the city (!) who is his equal, not by prodigious fasting and long prayers, but by generosity to the poor and a simple prayer life taken from Scripture. Another story similar to this has one of the fathers being told that two sisters living together in the city (!) were his equal because they had lived together many years and never exchanged a harsh word between them.

In other words, the best remedy of vainglory is to know that there are many people doing as well or better than us, morally and spiritually, under much more difficult circumstances and with far fewer advantages and helps. To continually look with marvel and awe at the good lives of other people, and look very little indeed at whatever good we might manage to achieve on a good day.

Vainglory besets us, and the fathers are clear that it is one of the longest and most protracted spiritual struggles there is. The desire to see ourselves as superior to ‘those people over there’, or worse yet ‘this person who is right next to me, with whom I live’ is a deep one in us, a terrible distortion in us of a godly desire for the true spiritual greatness we are indeed called to, our royal dignity, our sharing in the divine life.

But the more we can train ourselves to rejoice in the dignity, beauty, and divine grace we see in our brothers and sisters, and the more eagerly we desire to see all these goods in all men and women, and especially in those who do not seem to us to be on that path, the more we are constantly choosing to reject vainglory and live in the true spirit of Christ, of humility and abundant charity and mercy towards all.