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Take the vice of vainglory, for example. This particular item of the list of vices has fallen out of our current vocabulary. But the desert fathers knew that the desire for attention and affirmation from others around us could eventually get twisted from even the best motives into self-serving narcissism. Even if you start out caring about maintaining the good—Christian sanctity or virtue, excellence in your work or ministry, faithfulness in your service to the world—once you are noticed for these good things, the publicity can go to your head. In an age of Facebook, is there anything about ourselves that isn’t on display for public approval? How do the habits of self-display form our hearts and train our loves? John Cassian, Evagrius’s disciple, told a story of a monk who so longed to be known for his eloquence and sanctity that he found himself preaching out loud to an imaginary congregation—in the solitude of his desert cell. Telling glory stories of our high school athletic feats, bragging about sexual exploits in the locker room, spending billions annually on cosmetics, fashions, hair products, and plastic surgery, driving the right cars, choosing the right careers, bragging of our life’s milestones and résumé lines, putting stickers about our children’s elite teams on the backs of our cars: like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, we have made a lifestyle out of being stroked for the self-image we carefully cultivate. It is not hard to imagine the diagnostic power of a concept like vainglory in a world of Twitter and YouTube. Even in our church lives, we want not just to be, but to be known as Good, Respectable Christians, devoted to well-approved ministries.
Harder to imagine, perhaps, is what the regular practice of spiritual disciplines such as silence or solitude would do to shake us to our senses, if not push back against the darkness. How much of our conversation is devoted to self-advertisement, self-justification, self-promotion? Are we truly encouraging others or playing a subtle game of envious one-upmanship? What would it be like to spend a day in a posture of welcoming reception and attentive listening? What would it be like to lay down our performances for all the audiences around us? Do we know what it is to stand firm in the unconditional love of God and maintain our equanimity against false flattery and even the scorn of others? Vainglory is one of those insidious habits that unconsciously shapes our lives. If we are unintentional about discipleship, it is all too easy to get sucked in and then discover that we are too far gone to find a way back. The spiritual disciplines are practices of resistance against sin, but, more important, they give us patterns of life that bring us back to spiritual health and well-being.
Thankfully, we don’t have to take advice on how to handle temptations like vainglory from some otherworldly saints we can’t relate to. Evagrius was someone who wrestled, who suffered, who made mistakes, who needed serious rehabilitation and treatment. He knew what temptation feels like—how people are seduced and slip and fall. Precisely for that reason, he can invite us to learn what his own hard-won transformation taught him.
We should also notice that Evagrius’s story is the story of a transforming community. Discernment and discipleship in the desert were the work of a worshiping, practicing Christian community, not the heroic efforts of an individual. The insights Evagrius records are the summation of a whole monastic movement’s way of life. Evagrius began his Egyptian sojourn, like his ascendancy to a position of influence in Constantinople, by joining a community, complete with spiritual directors and mentors and supporters. When it comes to matters of the heart, Christians need each other.
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