I am sure that each one of us can easily relate to what St. John is describing in this step. Vainglory is the beginning of pride; it is the congratulation of self for work well done. It is the desire to be recognized by others; the love of praise. St. John writes: "The spirit of despair exults at the sight of mounting vice, the spirit of vainglory at the sight of the growing treasures of virtue."
What are the signs that we have succumbed to this passion and been overwhelmed by this demon? St. John list several. Vainglory enters our lives when we grow concerned about what other people think about us. It puts down its roots into our hearts when we begin to worry about their disapproval and to be pleased by their approval. It captures our hearts when we enjoy their words of praise. It takes over our hearts when we begin to work for these words of praise that bring us joy.
How can we conquer vainglory? St. John is very clear in his instructions. "The first step is overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and accept dishonor gladly. The middle step is to check every act of vainglory while it is still in thought. The end (insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss) is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it." These words are so easy to type and to read - - but not so easy to put into practice.
John knows that we must work to gradually change our intentions. His advice as always is very practical. "If ever we seek glory, if it comes our way uninvited, or if we plan some course of action because of vainglory, we should think of our mourning and of the blessed fear on us as we stood alone in prayer before God. If we do this we will assuredly outflank shameless vainglory, that is, if our wish for true prayer is genuine. This may be insufficient. In which case let us briefly remember that we must die. Should this also prove ineffective, let us at least go in fear of the shame that always comes after honor, for assuredly he who exalts himself will be humbled not only there but here also. When those who praise us, or rather, those who lead us astray begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor."
It is very interesting that St. John insists that the battle against pride is either won or lost here. "A worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high. Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil." What a valuable insight for the spiritual life. What a great source of hope it is to know that we can deal a fatal blow to our pride by working on our attachment to the praise of others. Each day we can take small steps; asking ourselves difficult but honest questions: "Does my behavior change when no one can see me and when no one is around?" "Do I find myself telling others about all my spiritual efforts and blessings?" "Do I find myself replaying what others have said to me or what I have said to them over and over again in my mind?" "Do I act and talk as if I have experiential knowledge of spiritual truths that I have only read about?" "Do I become discouraged and quit when no one notices what I do or when I do not receive the praise and thanksgiving I think I deserve?" "Do I hide my sins and failings from others, even to the point of lying or shading the truth so that my true faults are not discovered by others?" "Do I become defensive when I am criticized? Do I feel the need to always make sure that everyone knows why I did something?"
Again, this is not easy. But the promise St. John holds out should be enough to make us keep trying: "Anyone free from this sickness is close to salvation."
1-6 Vainglory defined and its qualities described. It is a vice that touches every occupation and work and is a form of idolatry - self worship.
From the point of view of form, vainglory is a change of nature, a perversion of character, a taking note of criticism. As for its quality, it is a waste of work and sweat, a betrayal of treasure, an offspring of unbelief, a harbinger of pride, shipwreck in port, the ant on the threshing floor, small and yet with designs on all the fruit of one's labor. The ant waits until the wheat is in, vainglory until the riches of excellence are gathered; the one a thief, the other a wastrel.
The spirit of despair exults at the sight of mounting vice, the spirit of vainglory at the sight of the growing treasures of virtue. The door for the one is a mass of wounds, while the gateway for the other is the wealth of hard work done.
A vainglorious man is a believer - and an idolator. Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men. To be a showoff is to be vainglorious, and the fast of such a man is unrewarded and his prayer futile, since he is practicing both to win praise. A vainglorious ascetic doubly cheats himself, wearying his body and getting no reward.
7-9 Flattery often opens to the door to vainglory and therefore should be avoided.
The Lord frequently hides from us even the perfections we have obtained. But the man who praises us, or, rather, who misleads us, opens our eyes with his words and once our eyes are opened our treasures vanish.
The flatterer is a servant of the devils, a teacher of pride, the destroyer of contrition, a vandal of excellence, a perverse guide. The prophet says this: "Those who honor you deceive you" (Isaiah 3:12).
Men of high spirit endure offense nobly and willingly. But only the holy and the saintly can pass unscathed through praise.
"No one knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit within him" (1 Cor. 2:11). Hence those who want to praise us to our face should be ashamed and silent.
10-16 St. John describes how to respond when praised or denounced by men or when tempted by demons to think more of ourselves than we should.
When you hear that your neighbor or your friend has denounced you behind your back or indeed in your presence, show him love and try to compliment him.
It is a great achievement to shrug the praise of men off one's soul. Greater still is to reject the praise of demons.
It is not the self-critical who reveals his humility (for does not everyone have somehow to put up with himself?). Rather it is the man who continues to love the person who has criticized him.
Ignore him [a demon] when he tells you to accept the office of bishop or abbot or teacher. It hard to drive a dog from a butcher's counter.
When he notices that someone has achieved a measure of interior calm, he immediately suggest to him the need to return from the desert to the world, in order to save those who are perishing.
17-22 What vainglory induces in a soul. How it seeks to cause honor or dishonor depending upon one's vulnerability and how it encourages one to lead a double life.
Vainglory induces pride in the favored and resentment in those who are slighted. Often it causes dishonor instead of honor, because it brings great shame to its angry disciples. It makes the quick-tempered look mild before men. It thrives amid talent and frequently brings catastrophe on those enslaved to it.
The servant of vainglory leads a double life. To outward appearance, he lives with monks; but in his heart of hearts he is in the world.
23-25 St. John teaches that we must in humility see ourselves as debtors before God, who in His mercy has bestowed gifts upon his unworthy servants. We must never yield to the temptation to show off our virtues.
A man who takes pride in natural abilities - I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them - this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much. And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things. The man who seeks a quid pro quo from God builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches.
When the winnower tells you to show off your virtues for the benefit of an audience, do not yield to him. "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and destroy himself?" (Matt. 16:26).
26-28 How the demon works on us.
A man of insight told me this: "I was once sitting at an assembly," he said. "The demon of vainglory and the demon of pride came to sit on either side of me. One poked me with the finger of vainglory and encouraged me to talk publicly about some vision or labor of mine in the desert. I shook him off with the words: `Let those who wish me harm be driven back and let them blush' (Ps. 39:15). Then the demon on my left at once said in my ear: `Well done! Well done! You have become great by conquering my shameless mother.' Turning to him I answered appropriately, making use of the rest of the verse: `Defeat and shame on all who say, "Well done! Well done!"'" And how is it, I asked him, that vainglory is the mother of pride. His answer was this: "Praise exalts and puffs me up, and when the soul is exalted, pride lifts it up as high as heaven - and then throws it down into the abyss."
29-32 St. John then describes how vainglory is overcome through accepting dishonor and humiliation, checking one's thoughts, mourning and the blessed fear of God, remembrance of death, fear of shame, and the remembrance of the multitude of one's sins.
The Lord often humbles the vainglorious by causing some dishonor to befall them. And indeed the first step in overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and to accept dishonor gladly. The middle stage is to check every act of vainglory while it is still in thought. The end - insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss - is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it.
If ever we seek glory, if it comes our way uninvited, or if we plan some course of action because of our vainglory, we should think of our mourning and of the blessed fear on us as we stood alone in prayer before God. If we do this we will assuredly outflank shameless vainglory, that is if our wish for true prayer is genuine. This may be insufficient. In which case let us briefly remember that we must die. Should this also prove ineffective, let us at least go in fear of the shame that always comes after honor, for assuredly he who exalts himself will be humbled not only there but here also.
When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor.
33-37 In conclusion, St. John tells us that the battle with pride is either lost or won by how we address vainglory.
A worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high. Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil.
Anyone free of this sickness is close to salvation. Anyone affected by it is far removed from the glory of the saints.
Such, then, is the twenty-second step. The man untouched by vainglory will not tumble into that senseless pride which is so detestable to God.