Some have requested that I make the opening and closing comments to our conversations available as well as our programs. Bear in mind that the conversation is a conversation, so the middle part is just questions that may or may not have been asked on Sunday. I hope they are questions readers will find fruitful to consider.
It’s getting to be that time in Lent when we’re just sick of it all. Any commitments that didn’t fall in the first couple of days probably had a rough go this week. I know mine did. After 9 PM, I might want to just sit in a chair and watch TV. Play some Sudoku. Have a couple of drinks. But I can’t. Well, maybe just once. Or twice. Then it’s a Food Network binge until five in the morning and it’s hard to get up the next day. And if I’ve already broken some commitments, why not break some more? Or at least fudge a little. It turns out there are more ways to waste time than the ones I thought of before Lent. One can be very creative when self-awareness is looming. And one thing Evagrius is very clear about: it never stops. In fact, it only gets worse as we get closer to God. In Evagrius’ view, once we have dispatched the demons of the passions, we have only left an opening for the demons of reason, vainglory and vanity, that tempt us to unrealistic confidence in our own virtue.
Vainglory tells us that the whole world depends on us, that everything is our responsibility. It turns our own desire for goodness against us. We should help others and think of others before ourselves. However, Vainglory twists it around so that we help in order to win praise. We might even overestimate our involvement in things, thinking that someone’s relationship or prosperity is because of what we have said or done. And maybe someone’s failure is our fault, too. In the need to care for others, we can disappear completely.
But God and the image of God always call out to one another, always seek harmony with one another. When we allow ourselves to disappear, even for noble reasons, we break that connection; we hide that image and ignore the call. Without its counterpart, the image becomes distorted. We become bitter and angry and sad that no one knows what we need. No one even knows who we are, really. We don’t know, either.
Vanity tells us that we are solely responsible for our good fortune. This is the myth of the “job creator,” the ones who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Malcolm Gladwell makes the common sense claim in his book Outliers that success seems to depend on more than intelligence or ability. He notices, for example, that the most successful people in the technology field were born in 1954 or 1955. They were born into the affluence and hope of the Post-War era. They were entering college when computer programming was more accessible. They were relatively affluent to start. Certainly, they were smart and capable, but they walked through a maze of coincidences to achieve the fortunes they now hold. It is common sense. We all are who we are in part because of how we are connected to everything else. Whether it’s a family that nurtured us, a society that educated us, or a planet that sustains us, we all depend on something or someone. Some might say that web of connections in which we exist is God. Process-relational theologians say it this way: God is that which is related to all things and to which all things are related. Exodus says: “I will be with you.”
But there is a tragedy in the evolution of the ideas Evagrius pioneered. When the Eight Evil Thoughts were compressed into the Seven Deadly Sins, vainglory and vanity were squished together as pride. We lost some of the nuance there. Even then the virtue opposite pride was humility. But morality is as much about labeling and dividing as it is about good and evil. The powerful demanded humility and sacrifice from the powerless until it became shame. You’re not white enough, not male enough, not straight enough, and not rich enough. You’re not young or able-bodied enough. So your dignity gets crucified on the cross you are told you must bear. Pride and shame cannot coexist; you see-saw up and down, never at rest. But you can be proud and humble at the same time because they both consist of knowing who God made you to be. When we know who we are as the image of God, we can be bold as lions and gentle as lambs.
Was this a rough week for Lenten commitments?
Who is Moses? Who is God?
Do you feel pride? Do you feel shame?
Should some people be ashamed of themselves who aren’t? Should some people be proud of themselves who aren’t?
Vanity and vainglory tell us we are important only because others say we are important. Vainglory deceives us into thinking we don’t matter unless. Vanity deceives us by presenting the image of success instead of the image of God. This external validation dissipates into the ether and we need more. It temporarily distracts us from the deeper work of self-awareness, of finding out who God made us to be. We’ve never taken the time to find out because we are certain that love must be earned and not freely given. We fear that deep down inside is something unlovable. But God says we are lovable and we are loved. Western theology has made us question whether we are acceptable to God. I can’t think of anything more demonic than God’s beloved children living in fear and begging for mercy. For God, there is no question. We have always been acceptable to God. Our struggle is to make us acceptable to ourselves. We are loved and we are capable of loving if we just see ourselves as God sees us. We have to ask: Who am I?
In the mystery of the Christian year, we will repeatedly confront suffering and death on the way to new life. Vainglory tells us we need not even start the journey because we don’t count. Vanity tells us we can skip to the end, get on with the new life without going through the pain because we are just that good. But we can’t have the resurrection without the death. Without the suffering of the journey and the death of the shadow self, we can never fully have new life. Evagrius is right, too, that it never ends. We will always be set upon by temptation and we will always have to suffer and die and begin again. Each time we take up that pilgrimage we become more aware of who God made us to be and what we are here to do. In the resurrection, we become who we have always been: the image of God. But first we must die.