Tuesday, March 10, 2009

St. John Cassian on vainglory

St. John Cassian's seventh principal fault is one of the most frustrating, in that almost everything we might do to avoid it is equally susceptible to the same temptation:
For where the devil cannot create vainglory in a man by means of his well-fitting and neat dress, he tries to introduce it by means of a dirty, cheap, and uncared-for style. If he cannot drag a man down by honour, he overthrows him by humility. If he cannot make him puffed up by the grace of knowledge and eloquence, he pulls him down by the weight of silence. If a man fasts openly, he is attacked by the pride of vanity. If he conceals it for the sake of despising the glory of it, he is assailed by the same sin of pride. In order that he may not be defiled by the stains of vainglory he avoids making long prayers in the sight of the brethren; and yet because he offers them secretly and has no one who is conscious of it, he does not escape the pride of vanity.

What, then, is to be done? St. Cassian advises the following steps:
  1. Think "on that saying of David: 'The Lord hath scattered the bones of those who please men.' . . . consider that we shall not merely lose the fruits of those labours of ours which we have performed at the suggestion of vainglory, but that we shall also be guilty of a great sin, and as impious persons undergo eternal punishments, inasmuch as we have wronged God by doing for the favour of men what we ought to have done for His sake, and are convicted by Him who knows all secrets of having preferred men to God, and the praise of the world to the praise of the Lord."
  2. Do not allow yourself "to do anything at the suggestion of vanity, and for the sake of obtaining vainglory." Often this is easier said than done, and it requires that we constantly examine our motives. If we see that we are doing something for the wrong reason, this is probably a good occasion to cut off our own desires.
  3. When you have begun a thing well, "endeavour to maintain it with just the same care, for fear lest afterwards the malady of vainglory should creep in and make void all the fruits of our labours." Here's the real trick. Once you've started something, even if it was for the right motive to begin with, it's so easy to drift into doing it for the wrong reasons, or to welcome the praise that comes from others. It seems to take even more vigilance here than in starting something new, and I'm really not sure what the best strategy is to apply when we realize we've slipped. Stop doing whatever it is? Or is it enough to acknowledge and repent of the vainglory that has crept in?
  4. Avoid as leading to boasting "anything which is of very little use or value in the common life of the brethren." Again, the particular context of his remarks is a monastery, but the principle applies in other walks of life. If we're doing something that is of little use to anyone else, we're probably doing it just for the sense of accomplishment. This is a hard thing. We're used to climbing the mountain because it's there, or studying humanities for the pure intellectual challenge, or striving in athletics just to beat our own personal best. I think it is possible and appropriate to do things for sheer joy, but if that joy is not centered on God, we too easily drift into pride.
  5. Shun "whatever would render us remarkable amongst the others, and for which credit would be gained among men, as if we were the only people who could do it." This is another thing that's difficult even to pursue. If I can sing well, shouldn't I sing out? If I can fix things, shouldn't I look for ways to serve others with my ability? What about all the parables that teach us to make the best use of what we're given? Isn't it squandering God's gifts if we don't use our unique abilities? But the danger is very real, because if we're not truly using them for Christ, it's worthless--even worse than worthless.
It still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But it's a start. Somehow, I think a major part of the battle (not necessarily half) is learning to examine even the most basic things that we do and the motives for which we do them. If we get no further than weeping over our sinful addiction to vainglory, we're still better off than before. And the silver lining (if there is one) is that this all-pervasive temptation can yield an element of humility that permeates everything we do. However much I may think I have my act together, I am never more than a blink away from sin. What cause does that leave me for pride?

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