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“Ask a Priest: How Can Vanity Be Overcome?”
Q: I’ve been praying hard recently about the sin of vanity. I’m 37 and not really where I want to be in life, so the little signs of aging in my mirror are upsetting. I’ve prayed the novena to Mary, Untier of Knots and have also been reading The Sinner’s Guide by Louis de Granada about the sin of pride vs. the virtue of humility. Yet, I still find myself struggling whenever I look in the mirror. I’ve prayed fervently and tearfully about the situation, asking for God to remove my prideful disposition, and I have felt him answer my plea. But I was wondering if you could provide some additional guidance on conquering the sin of pride with the virtue of humility, not just in how I regard my appearance but in all aspects of life. I cry often about opportunities that I feel I wasted now. Rather than acting like this, I want to embrace whatever simple blessings God has for me. – M.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Vanity is often distinguished from pride. It can be defined as an inordinate desire to manifest one’s own excellence. A vain person seeks praise from others and might go to great lengths to get it. Vanity is commonly associated with an exaggerated importance attached to multiple details, especially external appearances.
Pride, on the other hand, “is undue self-esteem or self-love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God,” according to the glossary of the Catechism.
So it seems as though vanity is your key problem, not pride. A few ways to fight vanity follow.
Cultivate a spirit of great charity toward everyone. Look out for the good of others, and be universal in your charity. Whether a person is attractive or unattractive, rich or poor — treat them all as you would Christ himself.
Also, look for ways to do hidden acts of charity. This helps you to detach from what others think of you and to purify your intentions. Ideally, you do things for the glory of God and not to draw a spotlight to yourself.
You might want to come up with a program for charity. Perhaps you could get involved in volunteer work in the parish — visiting shut-ins, teaching CCD to youngsters, etc. (This related posting on vanity might help too.)
What would also help is to go deeper in prayer, that is, Christian meditation. This could help you learn to see yourself more and more as God sees you, freeing you from some of the insecurity usually associated with vanity. To that end, my colleague Father John Bartunek’s short video on Christian meditation could be useful, as well as his book The Better Part, which could help you form the habit of prayer.
You seem down about not achieving more by this time in life. Let that be a motivation to make the most of the rest of your life.
The last thing you want to do is spend your time bemoaning what you haven’t done. It’s better to devote your time to things you can do.
None of this means you have to go around looking disheveled. It’s OK to take care of your physical appearance. But don’t let it become an obsession.
By focusing on the needs of others, you forget about yourself. And that in turn brings out a deeper beauty in you.
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