Dear Father Edward, I just came to realize through spiritual direction, prayer and many graces that my root sin in vanity!!! And I am having a very hard time knowing this fact. I feel like God is now leaving me alone (not feeling His presence) to test me and I am struggling with this fact. How do I continue to keep my faith strong and deal with the everyday insecurities in myself that I face? People have said to me that this “is where the rubber meets the road” and “I, too, use to see the world with “rose colored glasses,” but I really don’t understand what they mean! Thanks for your post and information. I am sure this journey is ongoing and I do thank God for all his gifts.
It is good to hear that God has given you the grace to understand yourself better. Even if you feel more humbled, remember that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Let’s recall that vanity is an offshoot of pride. Whereas pride prompts us to put ourselves ahead of God and others, vanity makes us value the esteem of others more than the will of the Almighty. Admitting that vanity is our root sin can be a little embarrassing, especially if we perceive it as a defect of the immature or thin-skinned. In fact, vanity is more common than we think. And if we are not careful, it can worm its way into every pore of daily life.
Vanity has its obvious manifestations. We might be fastidious about our clothes, for instance, so as to attract attention. This helps keep the fashion industry solvent, but the downside is that it fuels the fires of egotism. Vanity has its subtle forms too. Let’s take the case of a neighbor who prepares a nice tray of lasagna for the bedridden mom down the street who can’t cook for her family at the moment. On the surface this seems a charitable deed. But deep down the person really might be doing it: 1) to show off her cooking skills, and 2) to ingratiate herself with this mom who happens to be the socialite beauty of the neighborhood. Or maybe a person works hard to carry out a project at the parish. The task took a lot of time and, by golly, he won’t pass up an opportunity to remind folks of his great sacrifice. In these two cases the good deeds done might not seem so good in the eyes of God. Vanity thus loses the graces that would otherwise flow from laudable deeds.
It can be a rude awakening, to say the least, to learn that we are vain. Suddenly all those “good deeds” we thought we were doing now appear as they really are: ego-feeders. That might be what the comment about the “rose colored glasses” meant. When we uncover vanity in our life, it sheds a different light on things. It can leave us feeling like a phony, a bit dejected.
Like other root sins, vanity is a response to a person’s insecurity. Maybe the person felt rejected as a child. Maybe he felt that he was never good enough for mom or dad. Maybe he felt overshadowed by a star sibling with an IQ of 173. Whatever the case might be, he felt insecure, and he has been looking for security in the esteem of others ever since. This isn’t the solution, however. The solution is for a person to put his security in Christ alone, to value Our Lord’s judgment above everyone else’s. And why not? Christ loves us more than anyone else does. He died on a cross for our salvation. His love continues to this day, which is why he allows certain challenges and dry periods in our life.
God might be leaving you in just such a state right now. Now that you understand your root sin (a grace in itself!), God wants to lead you further along. He does it by taking off the training wheels, so to speak. Not only does he want you to detach from your reliance on the opinions of others. He also wants you to detach from your expectations of how he shows his love to you. It is not that God has abandoned you; rather, he has probably just taken away the consolations you might be expecting to receive in prayer. Why does he do this? He does it to purify your intentions. He wants you to pray and work solely for love of him. He doesn’t want your devoutness to be based on good feelings or, heaven forbid, to allow it to feed any kind of egotism. In a sense, God wants his followers to break with vanity completely, especially since it can creep into the prayer life. “Oh, I was so fervent today at prayer/Mass/adoration … I’m really a great person.” Enough! says Christ. Do things for love of me alone. So God is testing you right now. He has led you into the desert and taken away consolations, all for the purpose of your drawing closer to him. Perseverance is the key now. Stick with your prayer life, no matter how dry it might seem. Have frequent recourse to the sacraments. Practice charity especially with those who are difficult to deal with. In this way Our Lord will forge in you a purer heart. For his glory, not yours.
Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC
Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.
Art for this post on the root sin of vanity: Young Girl Singing in a Mirror, Jean-Ètienne Liotard, 18th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.