Last weekend, we celebrated the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (the parable found in Luke 18:9-14). It is quite the cautionary tale for us “good” Christians. It serves as a warning for us that even the most Christian-y, virtuous things we do can be ruined by pride and vainglory. In the parable, the Pharisee prays, fasts, and tithes, but he does it all for the sake of his own glory and for the purpose of being better than others. He makes God the spectator to his good deeds. The Publican, on the other hand, cries out to God, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” He lowers himself and calls upon God as his savior. We are told the Publican leaves the temple justified, but the Pharisee does not.
We also have the fortune this year of celebrating the feast of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg during this same week (January 24th). Her story, I think, is especially relevant to the lessons of this Sunday. She was considered a “fool for Christ,” and you can find her story here. As a “fool,” she dressed oddly, begged, and allowed herself to be seen as the town loon. In reality, she was a wise and holy woman, and despite her seeming foolishness, those who knew her well received great blessing from her and perceived her nearness to God. A “fool for Christ” is a role to which very few are truly called, requiring extensive maturity in the ascetic life and the guidance of a spiritual father or mother in order to actually immolate–rather than stir up–pride and vainglory.
I doubt any of us have achieved that kind of asceticism, and so I am not writing today to recommend that we all become fools for Christ in the same manner as St. Xenia. But I do think she offers an example of how to destroy the pride and vainglory that can keep us from true salvation. St. Xenia was willing to be seen as the fool in every way; I would propose that we average folk look for moments when we can let go of our desire to be seen as the best, as better, or even to be seen, period.
Prudence is of the utmost importance in choosing these moments: it would not be wise to downsell yourself in a job interview and cause your family to go hungry for lack of work. Situations of abuse or harassment are also cases where we should not be silent and allow ourselves to be belittled–this is dangerous and not befitting to our dignity as children of God. We should not risk our safety, the safety of others, or cause significant scandal, and we should always keep in mind what is charitable for those around us. We should also remember that there are times that God calls us to stand out and to share the gifts and talents we have cultivated for his glory, and we should not dismiss ourselves from such calls out of a mistaken sense of piety.
So what situations would be appropriate to let go of our pride and vainglory and to appear as “less than the best,” perhaps even a little foolish, or to be invisible entirely? As always, consulting a spiritual father or mother (the Eastern term) or a spiritual director (the Western term) is the best way to determine how you can work on pride and vainglory in your own life. For the moment, I will share a few of my own thoughts, inspired by my own tendencies and temptations. They will likely not fit your needs exactly, but I share with the sincere hope that they might be a springboard for your own discernment:
- Don’t forcefully take the last word in a fight. If you’ve said everything you really need to say–which is often a lot less than we think–then gracefully bow out.
- Reduce the number of your posts on social media. Do I really need to share every awesome/funny thing my kid did and revel in how many likes it brings? Do I really need to give my advice in this matter or will they likely find their way without seeing my two cents? Will posting this actually help others or build up relationships or is it only a cry for attention? It’s okay to participate in social media, to share some of your thoughts, and even to be happy when people like what you have to say. But consider whether something greater could be gained by not posting or even fasting from social media altogether.
- Let your kid wear the weird outfit/hair/thing they love that embarrasses you (assuming it is safe and maintains basic standard of appropriateness).
- If you’re about to tell your kid, your spouse, your friend, or anyone else, about something they did wrong for the sake of feeling better about yourself…don’t do it. Of course, we often do actually need to correct others, especially our children. In those cases, maybe a pause is necessary to re-organize our motives so that the correction becomes an effort to build the other person up rather than to assert our own importance.
- Take unsolicited advice with a smile and a thank you.
- If it doesn’t pose a risk to maintaining your job, let your coworker be the one to shine.
- Read a list such as this and think first of how it relates to yourself, rather than how it relates to someone you know.
- Write a blog article about pride and vainglory without imagining the immense prestige it will surely bring you!
Like I said, these are inspired by my own faults. They are a limited few ideas. Consider where your own tendencies toward pride and vainglory lie. Working on these evil thoughts is important because they can pervade absolutely anything and everything we do. If left unchecked, our pride and vainglory will rot our efforts, even if we follow all of the canons and the doctrines and make ourselves the perfect poster children of tradition. We need to also keep in mind that God’s mercy is infinite and can forgive even our pride and vainglory if we simply ask his forgiveness and repent. We cannot destroy pride and vainglory if we do not, like the Publican, cry out sincerely to God for mercy.
Last but not least, I think you will find, as I have, that working to destroy pride and vainglory brings some suffering but also much peace. I am far more anxious when I am constantly trying to one up the person next to me than when I take a deep breath and allow myself to be seen as less than the best or even to not be seen at all for the sake of being closer to Christ.
Glory to Jesus Christ,
This article is not intended to be or to replace professional counseling or medical advice.
Photo of an icon of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg: By Raymond Bucko, SJ from Omaha, NE, USA (Icon of Saint Xenia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Screenshot of Matins propers for The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee: Brittany Balke, taken from http://mci.archpitt.org/sheetmusic/general/PF1_Sunday_Publican_and_Pharisee_Matins.pdf