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Thomas Howard on Male Vanity
I awoke this morning, that is to say, 45 minutes ago, from a dream. Scarcely a Bunyanesque dream, let us hurry to assure everyone. I was at the Hicksite Quaker Meeting at Friends’ School in Moorestown, New Jersey, where I had grown up and gone to school. The time was the present, and I had been gone for 50 years (I left home for boarding school in 1950).
The meeting had been updated, however—like these churches that use movie screens instead of hymnals. There was a brisk conviviality in the ethos not traditional at Quaker Meetings. People nattered away the whole time, even when someone stood up to speak. George Fox, readers will remember, had had the idea that the paradigm for church order, and for the order of public gatherings, was best found by leaving everyone free, upon being “moved by the Spirit,” to stand up and share something. It is to be noted here that “share” was not a seventeenth-century word.
Actually, by Samuel Hicks’s time, the Holy Ghost had himself been jettisoned and this “spirit” might be any impulse in my bosom that prompted me to stand up and descant upon some improving sentiments (what Flannery O’Connor called “uplift”). The sentiments need not imply any theism, God help us all (this is why the Orthodox Quakers had split in the nineteenth century from the Hicksites: It looked as though the latter were heading pell-mell towards Modernism).
But my dream. We sang (the Hicksites do not sing) “For the Beauty of the Earth,” which is safely non-Christological, and “I Love to Tell the Story,” which would be as likely to be sung in a Quaker Meeting as “Rule, Britannia,” and Ubi Caritas, which again, deriving as it does from one of the church fathers (Augustine? Hilary? Theodore of Mopsuestia? I can’t remember), forsooth would not be to Hicksite taste at all.
I noticed that a man several pews in front of me had a copy of the first edition of a book I once wrote. It had (in real life, and in the dream) a canary yellow cover with great craggy lettering dominating the entire dust jacket. “Aha!” thinks I. “They remember me, and I shall be introduced.” And presently the man stood up. I preened myself surreptitiously, ready to respond graciously to the ooh’s and ah’s of the congregation finding their eminent townsman back amongst them.
This part of the dream was a bit skewed: The only common denominator between me and these folks was Moorestown. I had grown up in a fundamentalist conventicle a mile along Main Street from the meeting house at the school, so they would scarcely have felt flattered by this Rip Van Winkle in their midst, even though I had indeed been a small schoolboy in their school.
But the man turned out to have something else to say, and that was the end of that.
A Biting Question
At this point I woke up. The Quakers had no notion as to who I might be, nor much interest in finding out. Which brings us to the topic of the essay: What about oblivion?
This is a question that has more bite in it for a man than for most women. Oh, to be sure, both sexes struggle with various forms of vanity. God knows there are a thousand such forms, ranging from Mme. Pompadour at her toilette to Napoleon and other popinjays strutting the battlements—not to mention the thousandfold daily mutterings of my own heart, e.g., wishing to be frosty to this person, or nursing umbrage over not having been placed at the rear of the line at Baccalaureate with the tenured full professors, which they jolly well ought to know I am.
That latter case would be, I think, archetypical for us men. We hunt among footnotes and indices to see if our work appears there, and if not? Umbrage. We snap up journals to see if our article has elicited any letters. If not? Umbrage. (I finally gave up writing a column for the New Oxford Review many decades ago, since nothing I wrote ever moved a single reader to write in.) They float a symposium on C. S. Lewis and don’t ask me to speak. Great Scott! What’s the matter with them? Don’t they know? . . .
Or (this one really stung) they organize an Olympian colloquy on Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism and pay each major speaker $l0,000 (this is true), and who doesn’t get asked to give a major paper? A pox on the lot of them. Nobody in Christendom knows as much about the topic as old Uncle here. Are they snubbing me? Well then, to h—. . . .
What is to be done (to pick up a most apposite question from Lenin)? The trouble is that a Christian, who is supposed to be en route to sanctity, cannot quite settle for this sort of thing. No doubt many people go to their graves blithely practicing all sorts of refinements on the theme of vanity, but Christians don’t have that luxury. If we do not grow up to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (I did my Scripture memory work from the King James), then we are in the greatest peril.
Will “I never knew you” be spoken over my case when it comes up at the Last Trump? It is a somberly possible turn of events, if we are to credit the Gospels. We are supposed to be altogether and blissfully happy to be anonymous, obscure, uncelebrated, unrecognized, unimportant. The caritas of 1 Corinthians 13 would seem to disbar all of our busy efforts to keep our names somehow in the sweepstakes (“seeketh not her own”).
Not to mention the Beatitudes, (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) and a hundred other texts. The Psalms also, in which I as a Catholic am obliged to immerse myself daily, adjure us all to be content solely with being known by the Most High and “to inquire in his temple.” Quemadmodum cervus, says Psalm 42. Where is my febrile campaign for recognition in these precincts?
Where is the man among us who finds this set of marching orders easy? One’s ego seems indestructible, and one’s cunning in looking after the interests thereof unremitting.
But, not to put it too baldly, it is all Satanic. What was Lucifer’s sin? What Adam’s? What (in this day of Tolkien) Sauron’s? Pride. Vanity. Ego. All of which thrashes us unmercifully along into the precincts of hell.
I do not wish to be found among the fire-eaters and thunderers. There are grave sins that put our souls in danger (cf. 1 John 5:16,17), and there are the sins with which our fallen natures seem tinctured. I think I am speaking in this essay of the latter. We do battle with vanity daily, or at least men like me do. What is the price to be paid in renunciation, penitentiality, discipline, prayer, vigil, and denouncing in oneself all of this stubborn vaingloriousness? It is very high for most of us.
Many years ago I wrote a book that made a brief splash in the Evangelical wing of Protestantism. Aha! I thought: I’m an author! And maybe I’ll be a speaker! Travel! Royalties! Honoraria! Adulation! Thousands of letters! VIP treatment!
But somehow it didn’t happen. Nobody big (Wheaton, Fuller, Trinity, Dallas, Gordon-Conwell) asked me to speak. Somehow the Booksellers’ yearly bash had other business. No conventions. Even though I had been on the InterVarsity staff, and a brother of mine was a figure of immeasurable dignity in that metier, somehow Urbana never wanted me. No name in lights. I found myself trekking about the country giving speeches at East Cupcake Tech, and North Overshoe Bible Institute and South Band-aid Junior College. I was on the list of an outfit called The Staley Lectureship, but that never came to much. My royalties? Oh, we could have a few fancy dinners out in New York. My honoraria? $100 a shot.
In this connection I have a theory I could illustrate by putting forward a great number of highly specific names whom all readers would recognize, that if you bill yourself as a celebrity, everyone will go along with the enterprise. A good friend of mine wrote one book, and she now lives a splendid, high-rolling life. Her feet never touch any material other than red carpeting. Klieg lights. Glamour. (Her book was jolly good, by the way: I can’t carp here.) Her status has endured for, I think, thirty-some years now.
Damned for Jealousy
I have found myself obliged, if I weren’t to run the risk of being damned for jealousy, to pray for five specific men of my age, or younger, who, on the strength of one starter-book, found themselves able to move into Rock Creek Park, Bryn Mawr, or Greenwich. (I will let readers amuse themselves by guessing. You know them all.)
But why do I pray for them? Because otherwise I’d be sulking and pouting and muttering between my teeth about how unfair life is. These men (and the woman I mentioned) were able to start out with $1,000 honoraria when that was worth something, and now I would guess that the figure must be $20,000 per lecture. Some of them will agree to speak to no audience smaller than 5,000.
This is sounding querulous. But on the other side of the ledger I would urge, first, that every single one of these people is my ally in the Faith (they are Evangelical, but as an orthodox Catholic, I share the biggest things with them). Second, it just might be that my stuff wasn’t worth very much and theirs was. What makes me think that some baleful Fate has given me—I who am ever so important—the back of its hand? And third, God probably knows what each of us can cope with, and my strong guess is that I’d be well on the way to hell if I were buzzing about to the big spas of religion.
I have written eleven or twelve books, I think—I can’t keep track—and I am offering $100,000 (Monopoly money) to any reader who can name a single title other than the first of my books. I threw in the sponge on writing books many years ago, not solely in a fit of pique, but also because I realized I had nothing more to say, and, further, that there is no rubric that says that if you have written a book you are thereby an author and must keep writing until you die.
Shall I follow the lead of all the wretched momentary Hollywood stars who must make shift somehow to prolong, at least in their sad reveries, their celebrity, what with face-lifts, walls covered with black-and-white framed photos of themselves in the days of their glamour, and resentment at life gnawing their viscera away? Alas. All failures have some stark options. Shrivel up like Gollum, hissing away about “My Preciousss!” (read here “The renown that was due me, and that was denied me”) or grip oneself by the jugular, gird up one’s loins, and embrace with songs of thanksgiving the life of ordinary, anonymous, meat-and-potatoes Reality that 99.9 percent of the race must live with.
Two parting remarks: First, I work in the ER at Massachusetts General Hospital. The scene is bleak, quite apart from the hair-raising suffering and daily death that hails one. By that I mean that the mortals who come in, either on stretchers, or those who must wait in silence in the waiting room, seem, almost to a man, to be those whom life has passed by altogether. They are sad, blank, poor, and patient. What about them? Do I suppose that there is some elegant exemption from all of this which is due me? Kyrie, eleison!
Second, to my chagrin, I have to admit (sotto voce, to be sure) that God has vouchsafed me a life that, if I were given my druthers, I would choose, alas; so I can’t pretend that there is much virtue at work here. To me, airports are hell, or purgatory at best, and the sardine-can scene in the “equipment” (why don’t they call airplanes airplanes?) is worse. Delays are worse yet; and being diverted to Wheeling or Dubuque or Pierre the worst of all.
I have enough money for groceries. What would I do with all the lovely royalties? Well, let us start with a Bentley, then a flat in Mayfair, and take it from there—all of which, of course, would obstruct most inconveniently my efforts to climb the heavenly steeps.
Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).