What do I, Dorian Gray, *“the passenger woman on the bus,” and Narcissus have in common?
Yesterday, I gassed up my school bus after my afternoon run. As I was leaving, I noticed a county gas card on top of the pump which someone had left there by mistake, so I took the card and radioed the office. They asked me to hang on to it and when the person who left called in, they would send them to me. Now, here is the part where the story gets tricky: As I was packing up, I realized that I only had one gas card, and laughing, I realized that I must be the person who left it!
Or so I thought. When the Transportation office followed up this morning to track down the card, I was flooded with dread, afraid of looking like a fool and appearing like an alarmist by reporting a found card when it was really just my absent-mindedness at play. Silly me! Out of my mouth came words that have made me ashamed because they carried the truth, but not very well. I said I didn’t have the card, that it was picked up by the one who left it. Oh, if only I had admitted my error and let us all kick me in that moment of humble truth!
If you go to Google and search for “vanity,” you will find over ninety options for it: bathroom counters, salons, boutiques, bands, make-up products, match-maker services, social media platforms, magazines, kitchen counters, license plates, dime novels, songs list, and more, before you get to the first generic web definition of “vanity.” If you decide to search on, you find one more generic web definition as you pass 230 listings, but I stopped there. In our century it would seem there is very little concern over the “Deadly Sin” of Vain Glory, or vanity.
This is not so in the past centuries or in perhaps more biblical cultures. There are over one hundred references to vanity in Scripture; more if you read by inference than direct reference. Perhaps the most recognized passages are from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind,” and “vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (4:4 and 1:2). Theology, myth, and popular literature have also been concerned with vanity, from Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century (who articulated the Eight Deadly Sins) to the Greeks in 8 A.D. (Narcissus), to Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray 1890), and C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce 1945).
The story of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, is the account of a man who sells his soul to the devil to remain young and beautiful. Dorian finds that there is unexpected power in this ability, as others glom to be with him, thereby offering themselves up to his growing abuses. In the end, Dorian dies trying to hide or erase his evil ways rather than amend his life. This is a ‘modern’ twist on the Greek myth of Narcissus, who is so in love with his own reflection that he wounds others and disregards the world in devotion to it. In the end, Narcissus is so consumed by his obsession that out of pity, he is transformed by the gods into a daffodil, from which we derive the name for the plant genus narcissus. C. S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce of a dead woman, a wraith, who is offered passage to heaven from the hell of half-nothingness she is currently experiencing. The woman, filled with dread, in an almost panicked state, refuses to go, exclaiming, “I’d rather die…No, I can’t. I tell you I can’t!” Her embarrassment at her ethereal condition prevents her from being exposed to the very power that will free her from her hell.
In all accounts, vanity is shown to be an affliction not only of the mind, but of the soul. It is an inordinate fixation or concern for self, beauty, reputation, power, authority, which colors everything and justifies all. I wish I could say Christians are immune to such trivialities; after all, we are saved by Christ, God’s own people; but it is obviously not so. In fact, if anything, we are under greater attack to succumb to selfish, self-centered thoughts and actions than are non-believers.
I’ve learned a humbling lesson with my discovery of the lost property at the county gas pump. Feeling badly about not coming forward with my discovery that it was my card on the top of that pump, I called the lead Driver at the office to fess up. Imagine my surprise and further dismay to learn that another driver had indeed called in her lost card from the day before. Now the Transportation office was going to have to launch an inquiry to locate the “person” who took the card from me and—well, you can imagine what a mess this was going to be. Out of a fear of looking foolish, out of vanity, I was about to cause a major upheaval in the Transportation office two days before the end of school! That’s my take-home, here, my faithful friends—that my side-stepping the truth of the matter (which unbeknownst to me wasn’t even the truth, for my own card was subsequently found safely tucked where it had fallen, in storage bin below the dashboard where I normally keep it, making the found card just that, someone else’s lost and very important property) has so complicated and exacerbated the situation that I am very aware of the ripple effects of sin. For when we give into vain glory, it never simply stays with us. But as history and myth show, it consumes the world around us. Good Lord, forgive me!
Now, there is one more bit, the part we feel but don’t want to face: fear. It all comes down to fear. Fear of being thought of as (insert here) or of losing what we have or, or, or—this is what drives obsession, pride, vain glory, vanity, self-righteousness, and on and on. There are many good books and articles written about Vain Glory, vanity, and the Deadly Sins, and simply too much truth to cover here. This morning I was smothered by the oppressive company of Dorian, Narcissus, and the woman on Lewis’ Great Divorce; now I am freed by the companionship of Christ. This same attack will no doubt come out of nowhere and seek to seize you. Prayer and the immediate relinquishment to God is the only answer, and regular concerted seeking through the Holy Spirit is the only defense.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†