Don’t be a Peacock: Vainglory

Desire goodness—do not be a spiritual toad. Desire more than just goodness—do not move forward at the pace of a hen. Desire holiness—dare to soar like an eagle. In three previous articles, I pointed out the importance St. Teresa gives to a sincere desire for holiness and a willingness to respond to the Lord with generosity for all of those who wish to grow in love for the Lord and become saints. There’s a virtue for that: magnanimity. We already have an article on magnanimity itself, so let’s talk about the a vice contrary to this virtue. 

Most virtues can be understood as the “mean” between two extremes. In order to be courageous, I have to avoid both cowardice (defect) and foolhardiness (excess). To acquire the virtue of temperance, I must be sure not to fall into intemperance (defect) or insensitivity (excess). In the case of magnanimity, on the side of the “defect,” we have pusillanimity, a passive lack of desire for greatness, which we have already discussed. On the side of “excess,” there are three vices: vainglory, ambition, and presumption. Let’s take a look at what vainglory is. 

When he considers the vice of vainglory (Summa Theologiae II II, q. 132), St. Thomas begins by pointing out that it is not sinful to desire glory. We might find this surprising, because he also states that having glory means that others recognize and approve something good in you. Isn’t being recognized bad? Shouldn’t you do always make sure to do good secretly so no one finds out, and do it purely for God’s glory with no interest whatsoever in what others may think? Believe it or not, thinking you must have “absolute purity” of intentions in everything you do is a rather modern idea. St. Thomas is has a much more balanced approach.  

When giving alms, Jesus asks us not to let our right hand know what our left hand is doing (Matt 6:3). That is, we should not go around proclaiming how much money we’ve given to the poor. Yes, but can we conclude that Jesus means that all good must be done secretly? He also says: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works,” making it clear that He does not demand that all good be done in secret and without recognition. Now, keep in mind that we may be praised for your good works, but we may also be ridiculed. Just as fear of ridicule should not deter us from doing the good, neither should the possibility of receiving praise. In reality, a desire for the recognition and approval of good and holy people can often be helpful in taking steps in the spiritual life. St. Teresa encourages us to share with others our desire to love God and grow in holiness without worrying about falling into vainglory. “It seems to me that this scruple [of vainglory] is an invention of the devil, who finds it extremely valuable. He uses it to persuade those who are anxious to try to love and please God to hide their good desires, while inciting others, whose wills are evilly inclined, to reveal their wrong intentions” (St. Teresa, Autobiography, Ch. 7). If one is tempted to do good purely seeking to receive glory from others, not even in this case should the good be left undone, rather “as soon as the first motion of vainglory attacks him, he [should] repel it, and, in doing so, gain merit” (ibid).

Receiving glory or recognition for good works is never sinful. Desiring glory or recognition is not in itself sinful, and we should not be excessively worried if we discover a mixture of desire for recognition in our intentions. Seeking vain glory is sinful. How to know the difference? St. Thomas comes to the rescue, explaining that there are three things that make glory vain. I’ll explain his response through some examples. 

Take a young man who seeks glory for drinking large amounts of alcohol without passing out. What is wrong with him seeking approval and recognition for this? Simply the fact drinking large amounts of alcohol is in itself unworthy of glory. If having glory is about others recognizing a good in me, and what I am doing is not good, this is not glory but vainglory.

Or take a young woman who studies hard to impress a very smart guy she is in love with but who happens to be a jerk. The glory she seeks is vain not because of what she does, because studiousness is a good quality. What makes it vain is whom she is seeking to impress. If we desire recognition from people who do not seek our true good, we are not going down a good path, and any glory we may receive is vain. 

And the third case: take a recently married young man who works hard for his family and wants to be a good father. However, he lives all of this only on a natural level, without any reference to God or the spiritual good of his family. The action itself is good. The people from whom he seeks recognition are good: his wife and children. The problem is that he does not elevate this desire to God, who must be the motivating force behind all our actions. He is so caught up in the “here and now” that he will soon begin to neglect not only his own relationship with God but also the spiritual good of his family. 

As we grow spiritually, desiring a certain recognition from others is not sinful. St. Thomas helps us to be on the lookout for what could make us stray from the right path. Our actions must be truly good, the people from whom we seek recognition must be truly good, and we must elevate this desire for recognition to God, the only one who can see our hearts. Now we can add one more step. Not only can we elevate our desires or motivations towards God; we can also elevate any glory or recognition we may receive to God. On one occasion, when Sr. Clare was praised for her good works, rather than saying, “No, no, I’m not that good,” she simply smiled and said, “All for the glory of God!” The phrase cited above about letting our light shine goes on to say: “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6:3). He is the one who inspires us interiorly to do the good and gives us the strength to carry it out, so it is only right that we direct towards Him any glory that we may receive for our good works!