The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XII:
On Avoiding the Praise of Men

THAT is a fine saying in which vainglory is compared to an onion or other bulbous root. In the region of spiritual asceticism there is no struggle more difficult than that against the spirit of vainglory. The desire of being praised -- and this is what the hermits meant by vainglory -- is natural to every man, Christian or pagan, good or bad. In whatever sphere of human activity a man may elect to spend his energies, the praise of some men will wait for him. One man may desire and work for the praise of the crowd, another may find a subtler measure in the congratulations of the few. To one it is enough that the multitude should reckon him to be a good man and throng to listen to his teaching. To another the recognition of his merits by the multitude seems in itself a kind of condemnation. He desires the less audible approbation of the one or two whose own righteousness constitutes them fit judges of what is good. Some men are found openly exulting in being praised. No flattery is too coarse or obvious for them. When it is withheld they demand it blatantly. Others shrink from the sound of open praise, and yet go through life, cautiously feeling about for signs of the esteem in which their neighbours hold them. The hermit who compared the love of praise to an onion had probed far down into human weakness. His sight was keen when he saw that to escape the desire of praise for one kind of virtue is to find oneself seeking it all the more earnestly for another, until the soul is caught in the paradox of desiring to be known as one who does not wish for praise at all.

Vainglory must not be confused with pride. It is the strong man who is proud. In proportion as he grows stronger he feels less and less need for the approbation of others. Milton's heroic Satan may stand as a type of strength and pride. We do not think of him as troubled much about any judgment passed on him. He neither seeks praise nor dreads blame. It is our weakness which makes us long for approbation. We are not sure enough of ourselves to stand alone or persevere without someone to tell us we are doing well. Thus pride and vainglory are opposed to each other. They are the besetting sins of opposite types of character. A man may even be cured of overmuch desire of praise by teaching him to be proud enough to disregard the opinions of the crowd about his acts. Yet it was not because vainglory was an indication of weakness that the hermits strove so hard against it, nor was it along the way of pride and strength that they sought to escape. They thought of virtue as such a tender plant that the breath of praise withered it. Goodness, in their opinion, actually ceased to be the highest kind of goodness when it was recognised. The ideal was to live and die unknown. I do not remember that the hermits ever appealed directly to the example of the Lord in their shrinking from vainglory, but I am sure that their teaching was entirely in accordance with the spirit of His life. For far the greater part of the time of His dwelling among us He chose to remain unknown. Even when the fulfilment of His mission involved His doing works which some men were sure to praise, He strove by all means to avoid publicity. The very manner of His great sacrifice of Himself was so devoid of all obvious heroism that it was only after its consummation that His lifting up began to draw all men unto Him.

Just as it was not because the desire of praise is a sign of weakness that the hermits condemned it, so it was not by trying to be strong and independent that they avoided it. The story of the abbot Nisteros' flight from the serpent is so quaint that at first the reader is moved only to smile. Yet in it we find a man avoiding the peril of being praised by a display of weakness and even cowardice. So, too, the abbot Sisois does not try to attain that position of haughty isolation which would have made him indifferent to the judge's praise or blame. He, like Nisteros, in order to avoid vainglory, deliberately courts contempt. He aims at being despised, lest the Lord's "woe" should fall upon him, and men learn to speak well of him.


A saying concerning virtue, how it should be hidden.

A certain one said, "As treasure when it is discovered speedily becomes less, so virtue made known unto man vanishes. As wax melteth at the fire, so the virtue of the soul is thawed and runs away when it is praised."


A warning against the danger of being praised.

A brother once asked the abbot Mathoes: "If I go to dwell in any place, what shall I do there?" The old man answered him, "If you dwell in any place, do not make a name for yourself there for anything. Do not say that you will not join the meetings of the brethren, or that you will not eat this or that. So doing, you will make a name for yourself. Afterwards you will perhaps be praised and become famous. Then others will come to inquire of you concerning the way of life, and your own soul will be injured by their frequent comings."


"Love to be unknown."

The abbot Zeno, the disciple of Silvanus, said, "Never dwell in a famous place, or make a friend of a famous man."


The advice of the abbot Macarius to those who desire eminence.

St. Macarius once said, "Do not desire, nor, if you can help it, permit yourself to be made the head of a congregation, lest perhaps you lay the weight of other men's sins upon your neck."


A story of the abbot Nisteros, how he escaped the temptation of vainglory.

The abbot Nisteros the elder was one day walking in the desert with one of his disciples. Seeing a serpent in their path, they both turned and fled from it. Then the disciple said, "My father, were you afraid?" The old man answered him, "I was not afraid, my son, but it was better for me that I should flee before the serpent. If I had not at once fled from it, I should afterwards have had to flee before the spirit of vainglory."


A story of the abbot Sisois, how he avoided being praised by one who wished to admire his way of life.

On one occasion a certain judge wished to pay a visit to the abbot Sisois. Some of the clergy went beforehand, and said to him, "Father, prepare yourself, for the judge has heard of your works and your piety, and is coming to visit you. He desires also to receive your benediction." Sisois said, "I shall do as you desire. I shall prepare myself for his visit." Then he clad himself in his best garments, took bread and cheese in his hands, and seating himself with outstretched feet at the door of his cell, began to eat. When the judge with his retinue arrived and saw him, he said, "Is this the famous anchorite of whom I heard so much?" So, despising Sisois, he departed.


A comparison which shows the nature of vainglory.

The elders admirably describe the nature of this malady as like that of an onion, and of those bulbs which when stripped of one covering you find to be sheathed in another; and as often as you strip them you find them still protected. All other vices when overcome grow feeble, and when beaten are rendered day by day weaker. But vainglory, which is the desire of praise, when it is beaten rises again keener than ever for the struggle. When we think it is destroyed it revives again, and is stronger than ever on account of its death. The other kinds of vices only attack those whom they have overcome in the conflict. This one pursues those who are victorious over it all the more keenly. The more thoroughly it has been resisted, so much the more vigorously does it attack the man who is elated by his victory over it.


A word of St. Antony, teaching that he who suffers himself to be counted foolish, alone is wise.

Some of the elders once visited St. Antony, and with them came the abbot Joseph. St. Antony, wishing to prove what manner of men they were, started a question about the meaning of a passage of Scripture. One by one they gave their opinions about the meaning of it. To each of them he said, "You have not hit it." At last it came to the turn of the abbot Joseph, and the saint said to him, "In what way do you understand this passage?" He replied, "I do not know." Then said St. Antony, "Truly, the abbot Joseph has discovered the way in which Scripture is to be interpreted, for he acknowledges his own ignorance."


Of the subtlety of the temptation of vainglory, which is the pleasure of being praised by men.

Our other faults and passions are simpler, and have each of them but one form. This one takes many forms and shapes, and changes about and assails the man who stands up against it from every quarter, and assaults even him who conquers it on every side. It tries to find occasion for injuring the servant of Christ in his dress, in his manner, his walk, his voice, his work, his vigils, his fasts, his prayers. It lies in wait for him when he withdraws to solitude, when he reads, in his knowledge, his silence, his obedience, his humility, his patience. It is like some most dangerous rock hidden by the waves. It causes miserable shipwreck to those who are sailing with a fair breeze, while they are not on the look out or guarding against it.


A rebuke of ostentation.

There was a certain brother who practised abstinence from various kinds of food, and especially refused to eat bread. He went once to visit a renowned elder. As it happened, while he was there, some strangers arrived, and the old man prepared a scanty meal for them. When they sat down to eat the brother who practised abstinence would eat nothing except a single bean. When they rose from the table the elder took him apart privately, and said to him, "Brother, when you are in the company of others do not be anxious to display your own way of living. If you really wish to keep your rule of life unbroken, sit in your own cell and never leave it." When he heard these words he felt that the elder was right. Therefore ever afterwards he conformed his ways to those of the brethren among whom he found himself.

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