Friday, March 5, 2010

Radicality -- Avoiding Vanities

"Vanity" a great word, loaded with connotations.

Father Dubay uses it in the sense of men and women spending a great deal of money and time to look good, worrying more about their outer appearance than about their interior. He says that true good looks come from simplicity -- integrity -- unity of focus.

I do have a vanity problem but it's not so much concerned with buying expensive things to look good. It's almost more concerned with looking like I DIDN'T buy anything expensive. But I do tend to have a habit of having too many clothes around. I think this is a kind of vanity but I'm not sure what kind. Anyway, as I said before, I have been trying to be content with a simpler wardrobe -- not so many choices every day. I gave away a lot and still have more to get rid of.

The older meaning of vanity is "futile, worthless" or "emptiness, foolish pride". Thomas a Kempis puts it very directly:

For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

This is the greatest wisdom -- to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
(When he talks about "contempt of the world" of course, he is not suggesting we walk around with a sneer on our face despising God's gifts and the friendliness and care of people around us). Perhaps St Philip Neri is a good example of "contempt for the world" that was joyous and interactive. He ate little, prayed for hours, listened to many, many confessions but he was also a wonderful friend to many and loved jokes and poetry. It was said of him:

"He was all things to all men.... When he was called upon to be merry, he was so; if there was a demand upon his sympathy, he was equally ready.... In consequence of his being so accessible and willing to receive all comers, many went to him every day, and some continued for the space of thirty, nay, forty years, to visit him very often both morning and evening, so that his room went by the agreeable nickname of the "Home of Christian mirth."
Father Dubay's point is that spending lots of money to make ourselves look better (whether by jewelry, or "keeping up with the Joneses" or living in the right neighborhood) is wasted money. It's futile, foolish pride. It won't really make us look any better in any way that counts.

Yet personally I rather admire someone who takes immaculate care of their person and tries to dress well. I don't think it's the only way to go, but there seems to be a kind of charity in it if the object is to make the sight of you pleasant to other people, not to try to be impressive. I think it can actually be a bit of a penance to dress nicely because the jeans and sweaters I usually wear are much more comfortable than the types of clothes people wear when they are well dressed. Chesterton writes:

Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.
At our local churches it has gotten very difficult to get people to realize that they really shouldn't wear grungy T-shirts or low-slung jeans or shorts and thongs to Mass. So you can see that vanity can take a form of self-indulgence even when the clothes aren't expensive or "good"; Aquinas says that modesty is about suiting the apparel to the occasion AND to the interior truth of the person so there is humility and charity in recognizing that particular occasions may call for particular types of clothing and appearance.

I guess that brings us to the end of Level One of Radicality!

1 comment:

  1. I never thought of it this way exactly , but when I dress for the occasion, it is out of respect and actually a sign of humbleness to those at the occasion.


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