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Vanity – Beauty’s Ugly Step-Sister

By Sr Ann Cathereine Swailes o.p

We are coming close to the end of our series of talks on the Eight Evil Thoughts, and this is the second of these sessions I’ve been privileged to lead. In both cases, I jumped at the chance to tackle the particular evil thought in question, though for rather different reasons. Back in the Autumn, I spoke about sadness, and I was particularly keen to do so because that topic chimed with a lot of thinking I’d been doing in connection with my research as a (very) mature postgraduate student writing a thesis on the theology of suffering. Tonight’s theme was, by contrast, something I’m not sure I’ve ever thought very much about, and so I looked forward to the challenge, on the other side of finishing my studies, of getting to grips

with something completely different. And – as with sadness, in fact - the first part of this challenge proved to be working out what vanity actually is, because this turns out to be a lot more complicated than I’d assumed at first. In particular, despite the intriguing title I’ve been given for this evening’s
presentation, although there is a relationship between vanity and beauty – and we’ll come back to that a little later – and although perhaps many of us do tend to think of the sin of vanity as being above all a question of how we value, or specifically how we over-value, our physical appearance, it turns out that this is far from being the whole story.    And that’s worth saying at the outset because I hope it flags up the way this particular evil thought is relevant to all of us. Because, whilst probably many of us can say quite honestly that vanity is far from being our besetting sin, if being vain is simply about thinking that we look beautiful and spending an inordinate amount of time, money and attention on making sure that it stays that way, this doesn’t mean that vanity hasn’t played a part in our lives. Certainly, as I began to reflect on the nature of vanity as I prepared for this talk, I became somewhat disconcertingly more and more aware of the part it has played in mine. But I also became consolingly conscious of the rather beautiful resources our tradition gives us for dealing with this obstacle to our growth towards friendship with God, and therefore to the happiness he longs to give
us. And sharing something of that consolation, above all, is the purpose of tonight’s session.

One of the things that I suspect may have been hovering somewhere at the back of at least some minds over the last few months, as we’ve been on our tour of the eight evil thoughts is how, when discussing them, our ancestors in the faith typically speak of them less as transgressions to be penalised than as sickness to be healed: we’ll return to that idea, too, but for now let’s just agree that describing vanity as something that tends to stalk all our hearts and minds at least from time to time is not a way of finding yet one more stick to beat ourselves with, but an invitation to learn to know ourselves better and thus be open in a new way to God’s mercy.

What then, to begin with, is vanity? Well, the first thing to say here is that if we find this struggling to answer this question, we’re actually in rather good company. Some of the greatest figures in the tradition of Christian spirituality and theology seem equally perplexed, and that, I think, should be neither surprising nor discouraging. The long history of reflection on the eight evil thoughts, with its wellspring in the Egyptian desert in the early centuries of the Church’s history, is in many ways far from being a neat and tidy one, with different authors, sometimes the same author on different occasions, carving up the territory in more or less subtly different ways. That too is what we should expect, given how complicated human nature is, and given too how, as the Desert Fathers and their first commentators suggest, the thoughts relate to each other, feed each other, build on each other in order to tear us down. So, for instance, John Cassian, the fourth century monk who brought the teaching of the desert fathers to the attention of the Church in western Europe, points out how sadness is sometimes the consequence of our desire for material wealth being frustrated: in such cases, if we had not succumbed to the thought of avarice we would not have been afflicted with the thought of sadness and so if we take steps to become less avaricious we might also find ourselves less prone to despondency. There is also a strong insistence in the tradition of the Desert Fathers on the close connection between disordered appetites for food and drink on the one hand and for sexual gratification on the other; thoughts of lust and gluttony, in other words, are often bound up together, and so fasting is held out as a powerful weapon in the struggle against both. Most relevant for our purposes right now, though, is the relationship between our evil thought of the evening, vanity, and one that we will be considering in our grand finale session in the New Year, pride.

Many modern dictionary definitions of vanity, in fact, simply assume that vanity is a kind of pride, a matter, largely, of being proud, precisely, of how we look. And though, as we’ll see, the earliest commentators in our tradition on vanity do not limit it to that question of physical attractiveness, they do often speak of it in terms that are very reminiscent of things that they, or their contemporaries, also want to say about pride, making it hard, sometimes, to see what distinguishes
one from the other.

For one thing, both vanity and pride seem to be significantly harder to avoid than the other evil thoughts, and for a similar reason. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s in any sense easy to refrain from being wrathful, lustful, greedy or miserly. But at least in the case of our relationship with these evil thoughts it’s relatively straightforward to see what constitutes progress, namely, doing good stuff and refraining from doing bad. If, in a couple of weeks time we do succeed in pouring oil on troubled water rather than giving free rein to our bad temper in the course of some dispute around the Christmas dinner table, if we do manage to give away something we’ve been hoarding for ourselves because we know how much it would mean to the recipient, we have done, straightforwardly, a good thing and in so doing have countered our temptations to anger and avarice. For some of the great figures in the early Church’s reflection on both vanity and pride,
however, it seems, at least sometimes, to be precisely the good things that are the problem.

John Cassian, for example, says of vanity that “this disease strikes precisely where a man’s virtues lie, inflicting deadly wounds in the very areas where the prizes of life are won” . And this is very reminiscent of what his contemporary St Augustine, for instance, says about pride. Speaking in the Rule he wrote for his own religious community, and which, as it happens Dominicans also follow, Augustine says that pride alone of the vices, “lurks even in our good works to destroy them”. We can, in other words, find ourselves becoming proud, or vain, about our virtue and, while this can encourage us to carry on doing virtuous things, it is also likely to feed our vice, making us more proud, more vain. For example, Cassian gives as an example of vanity not only the one who prays long prayers in public (presumably hoping to “be seen by men” like those Jesus criticizes in the gospel for making long prayers on the street corner and wanting the best, most conspicuous, seats in the synagogue) but also those who avoid being seen at their devotions and pray in secret instead – in precisely the way approved by the Lord - and then congratulate themselves for their being sovirtuous. We’re perhaps reminded of the story of the First Communion Catechist who, after telling her class the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, ends by exclaiming “now, children, aren’t
we glad that we’re not like that nasty Pharisee”? It seems that we can’t win.

It also seems particularly hard to avoid vanity because we can be vain about all the different kinds of good things that we see manifested in our lives. We can, in fact, according to Cassian be vain about pretty much anything: indeed, while “other vices and temptations can be described as having but one simple form”, he says, “this one has many styles, forms and variations, assaulting the warrior on all sides, and pressing around the victor”. Vanity can be evoked by one’s appearance, but also by one’s musical or academic prowess, or by one’s social background, for instance. And –writing as a monk himself– Cassian is under no illusion that religious communities are in any sense immune from such things: a monk might be “puffed up”, he says because he “sings the psalms exquisitely”, because his “family is rich and noble”, or indeed, because he is “slim and good looking”. In severe cases, as Cassian rather entertainingly reports, this can lead to what could perhaps best be described as a rich and compelling fantasy life, especially in the case of monks living as hermits and therefore away from the checks and balances to self-centredness that living in community inevitably provides.  He mentions the case of one who, alone in his cave in the Egyptian wilderness, takes to preaching aloud to vast imaginary congregations who are spellbound by the power of his oratory: a fellow monk who has travelled to visit him stands a little way off and tactfully refrains from making his presence known until the preacher has brought his homily to a triumphant conclusion and dismissed the crowds who have been hanging on his every word.

Vanity, then, is clearly a formidable opponent to progress in the spiritual life, and, it seems, can even, in extreme cases, pose a significant threat to one’s psychological equilibrium. So it would seem particularly important to be able to identify just what it is that constitutes vanity specifically, in order to be able to apply the most appropriate possible remedies, and that brings us back to the question of the distinction between vanity and pride.

One way into beginning to think about the difference is also provided by Cassian. He is not entirely consistent about this, but he at least sometimes stresses that what is key to vanity in particular, is that it involves a desire for human praise. For one who is enthralled to the evil thought of vanity, it is not enough - say – to have a talent for music and to employ it for one’s own refreshment and to the glory of God; the vain musician craves applause and adulation. And Cassian backs up this characterisation of vanity with three scriptural texts : an uncompromising one from the psalms: “the Holy David...says threateningly, “God has scattered the bones of those who set out to please men”,
and two from the New Testament: Christ’s words to the Pharisees in John 5:44 “how could you believe, you who accept praise from each other and do not seek the glory which comes from God alone” and St Paul addressing the Galatians “do not be eager for praise”.

In drawing attention to this distinctive quality of vanity, Cassian makes explicit something that is implicit in the very language that slightly earlier writers use to describe this particular evil thought.  Cassian is writing in Latin, and the word he uses here is vanitas (from a root which most basically means emptiness or futility and from which, fairly obviously we get the English vanity) but the Greek-speaking spiritual masters whose thought he is disseminating call this kenodoxia, literally empty glory (from which the now rather archaic and mysterious sounding “vainglory” comes). Vanity, vainglory, is a matter, then, of paying too much attention to the acclaim and esteem of others, valuing our actions not because of their intrinsic worthwhile-ness, but because they provoke others to glorify us, to give us praise, which may well be empty praise, vainglory, depending on who it is who is doing the praising.

In a certain sense, therefore, vanity and pride, if not precisely opposites, are certainly very clearly distinguished: the proud person, after all, doesn’t really care what others think: at the most extreme, he or she is unlikely to think their opinions are worth very much, because compared with him or herself, these others are not worth very much. Vanity on the other hand, is about caring all too much what others think or feel about our gifts, our endowments, or our perceived lack therof.  One could say that if pride is about a distorted kind of independence, then vanity is a distorted formof dependence, and it can have the most devastating consequences, not only for the person afflicted
with vanity, but for others too. Some of you may know the wonderful play and movie A Man for All Seasons, on the life and death of St Thomas More, martyred for his refusal to accept the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. One of More’s protégés in the days when he is still in the King’s good books is an ambitious young man named Richard Rich, who wants More to use his influence as Lord Chancellor to get him a position at court. More refuses, knowing that this would be bad for Rich’s spiritual health, and offers instead to have a word on his behalf with a friend who is a headmaster, so that Rich can have a worthwhile career that will both play to his considerable strengths and benefit the common good: “you’d be a good teacher” More tells him, “perhaps a great one”. Rich, of course, is bitterly disappointed and bursts out “and if I was, who would know it?”, to which More responds calmly “yourself, your pupils, God. Not a bad audience, that”. But of course, it’s not the audience Richard Rich craves, not enough to feed his vanity, and so he goes on to play his part in More’s fall from political grace and eventual execution on Tower Hill.

Few of us, obviously, thank God, are in situations where the stakes are quite so high as that. But vainglory can still distort our motivations, damage our relationships and chip away horribly at our peace of mind.. This is so not least because of the way in which the various evil thoughts are so frequently entangled with each other. My frustrated desire for acclaim and popularity makes me prey to envy of others whose face seems to fit better than mine, and to rage that they should apparently so easily have what I struggle for in vain. Once one has recognised in oneself this kind of addiction to the affirmation of others, things can appear pretty dark. What can be done?

One possible way in to finding a salve for the wounds vainglory can inflict on us lies, I think, oddly enough, in going back to that question of the relationship between vanity and physical beauty. It’s worth, I think, to begin with here, pressing a little deeper into the difference between vanity and pride.

I’ve suggested that, while pride is rooted in an excessive kind of self-assurance, vanity flourishes in the soil of self-doubt. It is, fundamentally, because we cannot hear ourselves saying that we are good and acceptable that we are so reliant, excessively reliant, on hearing it from elsewhere. And physical beauty is perhaps so often closely associated with vanity precisely because it is so often here, if we are honest, that we are most unsure of our own worth, our own acceptability and therefore most dependent on the approval of others, and most vulnerable therefore, to their disapproval and rejection. Self-hatred based on body image can, of course, be truly pathological, but even in milder cases the pain it causes is real, and horribly prevalent in our society. This, incidentally, is why vanity, or at any rate the exploitation of vanity by the beauty industry is indeed the ugly step sister of beauty. The suffering caused by the failure to conform to cynically marketed, and often entirely unrealistic ideals of “beauty” in our culture is quite literally incalculable, and it is suffering that is inflicted disproportionately on those who lack the strength to combat it.

We can, of course, as we’ve seen, be vain about many things other than physical beauty. But it is perhaps here that the connection between vanity and insecurity is most vividly apparent, and I think it is necessary to recognise that connection in order that we might be able to deal most effectively with the damage that vanity can do.

And it is perhaps here, in turn, that seeing the evil thoughts through what we might call a medical lens rather than a legalistic one might be most helpful. It’s important to be clear about this: it’s not a matter of going for the easy option, letting ourselves or others off the hook, and certainly not some wishy-washy refusal to name sin for what it is. The Lord himself speaks of sin in precisely these terms, after all, - it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick, he says, and then, in the next breath: I have come to call not the righteous but sinners – so there cannot possibly be any objection to our using similar terminology here. And, if we are tempted nonetheless to think that to regard sinful behaviour as sickness in need of cure is necessarily to embrace self-indulgently a less arduous alternative to seeing it as a series of crimes in need of expiation and punishment, we should perhaps think again. Spiritual authors of the era that gave birth to the tradition we’ve been exploring in this series quite naturally use medical language to describe the effects of the eight evil thoughts: they are diseases that need to be cured, they inflict wounds that need to be healed and soon. But we mustn’t forget that this is an era in which medical procedures were carried out without anaesthesia or painkillers. When, for instance, to quote again from his Rule, St Augustine encourages his brethren not to refrain from calling out other members of the community for their bad behaviour, he draws a telling analogy. If you really cared about your brother who had a physical ailment which would respond well to an operation, he says, it would be cruelty not kindness to fail to point this out to him, even though this would mean encouraging him to face the prospect of terrifying suffering at the hands of the surgeon. He knew, as Cassian knew, that healing comes at the cost of pain, sometimes unbearable pain. For that matter, anyone today who has undergone psychotherapeutic work will have a similar awareness. To speak, then, of the struggle against the
evil thoughts in terms of undergoing a course of treatment is not to minimize the seriousness of what we undertake in the Christian life, to suggest that it will always be easy, or to deny that sometimes it will hurt. But it is perhaps to remind ourselves – and others – that God is on our side in the struggle, willing our recovery rather than seeking our condemnation. It is also, maybe a reminder that, though the struggle is indeed real, and we are actors in it, ultimately freedom from the tyranny of the evil thoughts is a gift of God the divine physician, not something we earn by our unaided efforts. And that might in itself help to undermine the anxiety that drives vanity, as well as the misplaced self-confidence that lies at the root of pride. Not only can we not save ourselves – even if, as Augustine says, God does not will to save us without us: nor do we have to try.

What remedies might we seek, then, for the insecurity that leaves us vulnerable to vainglory?  Ultimately, anything that will help us to see that in God we have more than we could ever hope for or imagine in terms of affirmation. God loves us with an infinite love; we are infinitely precious in his eyes, whatever other people, or for that matter, we ourselves might think, and, most fundamentally, it is for this reason that we do not need to be dependent on the praise and recognition of others. For most people, unfortunately, coming to accept this is a life’s work, since it so often means undoing much of what we have learned about our own unacceptability and unloveableness, and what will help us remove the obstacles to acceptance is very individual, precisely because what makes it difficult for us to recognise God as our loving Father will vary according to the experiences that have shaped and damaged us.

But there are some obvious general tactics. In the first place, we would do well to heed the advice of the great spiritual masters and mistresses of the desert, in their emphasis on countering the murmuring voices of the evil thoughts with the words of scripture. Which words, precisely, will help us here will again depend on us, on our temperament and the particular shape that vanity takes in our lives. As Sr Rose mentioned last month, Evagrius of Pontus, one of the most widely renowned and respected of the desert fathers, produced a compilation, called in Greek the Antirhetikos – literally talking back or against, in which he lists over 500 bible verses with which to counter the evil thoughts in specific circumstances and, no less than 43 of these are related to vanity. They are certainly highly diverse; what we would expect perhaps, since, as we’ve seen, vanity can take a huge number of different of forms. Not only can we be vain about almost anything, but how we manifest vanity, what vanity can make us do, is also extremely various. So Evagrius has verses which can deter us both from being conceited when we do achieve popular acclaim, and from acting in ways inappropriate to our station in life in order to win the plaudits of the crowds – and perhaps make ourselves look ridiculous in the process. He notes that vanity can issue in envy towards those who succeed where we fail, and provides scripture texts which pull us up short when we fall prey to this temptation. He notes that vanity can make us nervously verbose, prattling on in an attempt to gain a reputation for wisdom in areas in which we are not really competent, and suggests a verse or two to make us think twice about this, too. The Antirhetikos is a stimulating and challenging and sometimes bracing read, and certainly worth dipping into when one becomes conscious of particular vain

But I also think it might be worth taking Evagrius’ notion of talking back to vanity as an invitation to find scriptural texts that can be gifts to each one of us in that perhaps rather more radical work of healing whatever wounds lie beneath our temptation to this particular evil thought. Again, this will be a very personal matter, but I suppose one criterion for making a choice here for texts to spend time on and with would be that we should be looking for passages that encourage us to see ourselves both as fundamentally good, and as good because we are the work of a good creator. Two that immediately spring to mind for me would be psalm 139, with its repeated assurance that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and, particularly to the fore in our thoughts at this time of year, but surely a song for all seasons, Mary’s Magnificat, in which she tells us that all generations will call her blessed, but that her spirit rejoices, not in her own achievements or accomplishments but in God her Saviour, who has done great things in and for her. Texts such as these may help to hush the voice that tells us either that we are not good – and sends us out on a desperate bid to court popularity and acclaim in order to prove the voice wrong – or that our goodness is of our own making – and leads us, therefore to expect the praise of others as our right.
Let the one who boasts, St Paul suggests, boast in the Lord. Fundamentally that, and nothing else, is the way to deal with vanity, the way to ensure that our glory is not vain.