Today, let’s talk about vanity, specifically the way we worry about and focus too much on our appearance. Have you ever realized how much we look in the mirror? We sometimes even do it when there’s no reason, such as before going to bed. Sometimes we do it over and over, as when we pass by car windows. It’s not malicious. But it’s superficial, right? It’s connected to our insecurity, our need to feel accepted and loved. To understand our vanity, and how it’s hurting us, instead of looking at our own faces, we need to look at Jesus’ face, the face of God.
The Gospel today says, “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Lk 9:29). St. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun” (17:2), that is, it’s bright, beautiful, and glorious. There are a few points on which to reflect here:
1) Jesus is God. He possesses perfect glory, and, for a moment on the mountain, it’s revealed! And because we’re made in the image of Jesus, we’re meant to be glorious, too. Our desire to look good, and in a unique way, for women to be beautiful, is a good desire. The human person is made to be like Jesus, Who is perfectly beautiful. And so we should take care of our appearance, and, when we look in the mirror, it can become a prayer, “Thank You, Jesus.” Deacon Andrew told me that, when he looks in the mirror, he prays, “Jesus, You’ve done a great job!” But, there’s something deeper, that is, the beauty of the soul.
2) During His earthly life, Jesus’ glory was hidden beneath His humanity. In a similar way, the beauty of our souls is hidden. What is a beautiful soul? It’s one that’s full of virtue and merits: charity, self-sacrifice, courage, humility, justice, wisdom, etc. A beautiful soul is one who reflects Christ. Have you ever had the experience where you met someone who’s physically beautiful, maybe we’re even attracted to them, and then we see that person act badly so much so that they no longer are attractive in our eyes? That’s when we perceive true beauty or the lack of it.
3) We’ve mentioned many times that Sts. Peter, James, and John were the only ones to see Jesus’ Transfiguration because they were the same ones who would see Jesus in His most human state, fearful in the garden of Gethsemane. They saw the future glory of Jesus in order to strengthen them when He would suffer. That’s why the Transfiguration is always proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Lent, to look forward to the Resurrection so that we can get through Lent. We should try to accept peacefully that, during our time on earth, and because of original sin, our bodies will probably never be as perfect as we want them; all of us will lose some of our physical beauty as we age, and some of us may even get ailments that strip us of our beauty.
To get through the trial of life, we should look at Jesus’ Resurrected body, of which there are four qualities: Impassibilitas, Subtilitas, Agilitas, Claritas. Impassibility means that His body can no longer suffer; subtility means that He can pass through objects; agility means His body goes wherever the mind wants it to go; and clarity means His body was as beautiful as His soul.
God willing, if we are faithful to Jesus and go to heaven, at the end of time, when we get our resurrected bodies back, our bodies will be as beautiful as our souls (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 491-492). The more virtue, the more beauty. In heaven, Jesus and our Mother are the most beautiful, and then the saints. And so, this motivates us to work more on our soul than on our body.
St. John Paul II once asked the entire Church to contemplate the face of Christ, which means contemplating a face of sorrow, and the face of One Who is Risen (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 16-28). We have to look at this face first, in order to be healed of our vanity:
In the face of Christ, we see perfect love and goodness. No one’s ever told us, but if we look at ourselves too much in the mirror, then we can’t see real beauty. We can’t see it in Jesus, because our hearts are superficial. We also can’t see it in ourselves, the way Jesus sees us. We see our imperfections and wish our bodies looked different. It goes back to a question we asked in October: Can we love the imperfection we see in our bodies? Can we love ourselves the way Jesus does?
This is why vanity is a sin: Because it blinds us from what is truly beautiful. Let’s say we’ve suffered some painful wounds during life (Someone made fun of our appearance, we were embarrassed or ignored), and, to compensate, we focus too much on our appearance. However, by focusing on our appearance, we don’t focus on the beautiful in Jesus, ourselves, and others. Again, the desire to be beautiful is not a sin. But looking too much in the mirror isn’t helping our healing, and that’s why it’s a venial sin.
What about staying fit to be beautiful—is that a sin? Trying to be beautiful is good; vanity is not. I admit: It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. It takes purity of heart to discern. Here are two guidelines: Your daily prayer should be at least as long as your workouts; if we watch YouTube videos about fitness, then we should watch just as many about virtue.
When we say that we should love our imperfections, there’s a grey area between what is good and what is vain. For example, most people admit that being dangerously overweight is not only unhealthy, but also not as beautiful as we could be—for many people, we should not love this, but want to improve this. At the other extreme, should someone undergo multiple facial plastic surgeries because that would make them more beautiful? Most friends would say, “I think you need to accept the way God made you.” In between these examples are people trying to be healthier and more beautiful, but tempted by vanity. It’s hard to know where that line is. As we said last week about gluttony, there are individual variations and needs. Each of us should therefore recognize where our line of vanity is and not cross it.
Think about the words ‘ordered’ and ‘disordered.’ If we feel depressed that we got a bad haircut—does that sound healthy and mature? It’s normal, but not good; it’s not ordered, that is, directed to what’s truly important.
Here’s a suggestion based on the Gospel: “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed” (9:28-29). Of the three accounts of the Transfiguration, only St. Luke tells us that they went to pray, and that Jesus’ face changed while He was praying. Prayer is a solution to vanity.
So, see if you can limit the number of times you look in the mirror. Only look when you need to, such as before meeting people, taking pictures, etc. (Teenage men might need to check a bit more often, to be kempt.) But I can’t think of a reason to look at ourselves once we’re done for the day; can you? If we consciously choose to be vain in front of the mirror, then it’s a venial sin. Obviously, it’s no sin when we do it involuntarily.
And don’t do what I’ve done, where I’ve avoided looking in the mirror so much that sometimes I’ve looked completely unkempt before a meeting and then asked afterwards, “What was I thinking!?” Instead, before you go to bed, do your examination of conscience and check the beauty of your soul. We’ve put the examinations in the pews, in case you want to take them home. St. James writes, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror… and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (1:23-24). What does our soul look like? The examination is a kind of mirror. It shows if our soul has some blemishes for which we want to ask forgiveness, or perhaps some big cuts for which we need Confession.
How many people know of Sargent Shriver (That’s his name, not his rank)? He was a naval officer, business man, politician, and a devout Catholic, who often went to daily Mass and prayed the Rosary. He was the first director of the Peace Corps, and launched social programs like Head Start and Job Corps.
His daughter, Maria, married Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, despite his life revolving much around vanity, many times repeated this quote of his father-in-law: “Break your mirrors!!! In our society that is so self-absorbed… learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own”. It would seem that even Arnie saw the true beauty in Shriver’s soul.
Sargent’s wife, Eunice, started the Special Olympics in 1968, to give people with intellectual and physical disabilities an opportunity to compete in athletics. Sargent said about people with developmental disabilities, “When I was younger, I thought I knew a lot more than [them]… I began to see that they had some attributes I didn’t have. What I learned most from them was the meaning of the word ‘love.’ When you see someone who is developmentally disabled express love, it is genuine love; there is no guile. It is pure, as God intended.”
Prayer transfigured Sargent’s soul. Look less in the mirror, and more at Christ. And then we’ll see true beauty wherever it is.