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‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’: Narcissism and spiritual worldliness

José Luis Narvaja, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Sep 15th 2019

The end of the seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans contains an exclamation in which Saint Paul gives voice to a deep pain that permeates his entire existence: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

At first glance, it seems that the apostle is making a very severe judgment about his own body, as if he almost preferred to do away with it so as to live serenely the spiritual life. But this is not so. In reality, if we pay attention to the preceding verses, we see that he is not rejecting his body but rather lamenting the tension between the body and the spirit: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom 7:22-23).

This tension manifests itself in a logic of contrast deriving from the complex composition of the human person, that is, from the fact that we are both body and spirit: “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other” (Gal 5:17).


Two laws and two logics

The lament of Paul regarding this interior struggle reflects the same experience to which the Lord refers in the garden of Gethsemane when he says to his disciples, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” This is why he recommends that they “stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Matt 26:41).

The Lord invites them to pray and stay alert because the law (or the logic) of the flesh can impose itself on us. How is this possible? Let us look at how Jesus explains it.

When he relates the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus speaks about prayer and outlines – in regard to these characters – two modes of praying. Let us set aside for the time being the fact that one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Let us focus, rather, on what the parable says about the manner in which each one prays.

The parable tells us that the first “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself.” He spoke of himself and he was pleased with his life. The second, on the other hand, “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven.” He knew he was standing before God and was able only “to beat his breast” and beg for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Elsewhere, examining different forms of theological memory, I have noted the importance of the play on visions encountered in an icon. At the point when a person praying feels embraced by the gaze of God, he or she feels that this gaze lifts us up and places us within a process of transformation and conversion.[1] This is the case of the second person in our parable: feeling himself in the presence of the Lord’s gaze, due to his own sins he feels unworthy and so asks for mercy. On the other hand, the first of our two characters looks at himself and does not feel himself to be seen by God; there is no room in his spiritual life for transformation because his lifestyle receives affirmation from his malformed conscience. He believes himself to be better than others and therefore says, “I thank you that you have not made me like the others.” It is obvious that there is no room for transformation in people who consider themselves perfect.

If the Lord invites us to pray, he also lets us know that we cannot pray in just any manner we choose.[2] Either the logic of the flesh or that of the spirit can take possession of the spiritual life. For this reason, Jesus invites us to be attentive and vigilant.

Let us now consider what we set aside earlier: the characters in the parable are a Pharisee and a tax collector, two men who live in what are apparently opposing manners. They are both public figures. The tax collector is a man devoted to the things of this world and his job makes him a “public sinner,” corrupt, a thief in the eyes of his fellow Jews. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is publicly recognized as a man who has devoted his life to doing the will of God, as expressed in the Law (cf. Rom 7:12).

But if we pay closer attention, we can discover that, in reality, four different types of people are depicted: two who are concerned with worldly things and two who are devoted to spiritual matters. In both pairs, one person does so using worldly logic and the other using spiritual logic. Indeed, there are men and women who dedicate themselves to the things of this world and do so following worldly logic (this is the case with the tax collector in the parable). But there are also men and women who dedicate themselves to worldly things without being of the world because they follow the advice of St. Paul: “From now on, … let those who deal with the world live as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29-31). On the other hand, there are those men and women who dedicate themselves to spiritual matters but do so following worldly logic (like the Pharisee in the parable). There are also men and women who dedicate themselves to spiritual things and do so according to the logic of the spirit, as Jesus says: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:14).

So, the parable offers us two characters who have something in common: both follow worldly logic. Both have need of conversion. It would benefit both if they allowed the transformative gaze of God to embrace them with his merciful love.

The temptation is not in the object but in the logic. It does not matter with what we occupy ourselves; what matters is the law we allow to govern our actions, the logic according to which we act. Nevertheless, the object to which one applies worldly logic makes the temptation subtler. 

Spiritual worldliness

The law, or logic, that Saint Paul recognizes in himself which he calls the “body of death” is, in the language of St. John, “the logic of the world.” One conquers this world through faith in Christ. John affirms this when he writes: “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5).

When he was a formator of young Jesuits, Jorge Mario Bergoglio reminded them that corruptio optimi pessima; that is to say, the corruption of those who profess to live a perfect life is the worst kind of corruption because they hide behind the image of a spiritual and perfect life.

On different occasions, Bergoglio, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, spoke of the subtle temptation of applying worldly logic to the spiritual life.[3] In a homily, he addressed the topic of spiritual worldliness, taking as a starting point the Letter of James: “The end of the letter of James struck me: keep yourselves unstained by the world (Jas 1:27). If it is true that being a Pharisee, this “clericalism,” hurts us, worldliness is also one of the ills that corrupts our Christian conscience. James says this: do not let yourselves be contaminated by the world. Jesus, in his farewell, after the last supper, asks the Father to save him from the spirit of the world. This is spiritual worldliness. The worst thing that can happen to the Church is to fall into a spiritual worldliness. Here, I am following Cardinal de Lubac…”[4]

As a matter of fact, Bergoglio does pick up this idea from the French Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac,[5] and he adds some traits that characterize the life of someone who follows a worldly logic in spiritual matters.

From a pastoral perspective, he asserts that “the faithful people of God … has a particular sense of smell, rooted in the sensus fidei, that helps it recognize when a shepherd of the people starts to transform into a cleric of the civil state, a functionary. … The worldly priest enters into a different kind of process, a process – if you will allow me – of spiritual corruption that attacks his nature as shepherd, it corrupts his nature, and gives him a different status in respect to the holy people of God. Both the prophet Ezekiel and Saint Augustine, in his work De Pastoribus, describe the figure of the one who profits from his flock: they drink the milk and wear the wool.”[6]

Since he became bishop of Rome in 2013, Francis has often taken up the theme of worldliness and he works hard to indicate its manifestations, to unmask the subtlety of deceit and temptation. Worldliness can be briefly described as a manifestation of love for oneself with two variations: individualism and self-centeredness. It is concretely manifested in a faith placed more in one’s own strength than in the Lord, whom we are called to serve. From this self-affirmation, the following are born: the notion of being indispensable, not servants (cf. Luke 17:10); a lack of attention to the life and problems of common people (cf. Phil 2:5); indifference toward others and the hardening of the heart (cf. Acts 7:51); excessive work like Martha, ignoring the better part (cf. Luke 10:38-42) and forgetting the place that God has in our personal history and vocation (cf. Rev 2:4); the loss of true joy and the need to fill the void by accumulating material goods; rivalry and vainglory; a double life; murmuring and gossiping; creating closed circles; adulation of superiors in order to obtain benefits; careerism.

These are all illnesses that Francis has diagnosed in the Roman Curia but can also be found in the body of the entire Church: “…these diseases and these temptations are naturally a danger for each Christian and for every curia, community, congregation, parish and ecclesial movement; and they can strike at the individual and the community levels.”[7]

The root of spiritual worldliness

It is worth remembering that what we have pointed out are only visible signs, symptoms, if you will. For Pope Francis, the root of the illness itself is the loss of communion with Christ, a cooling of the heart in one’s relationship with the Lord. When the heart cools off – because it has forgotten the love that it had experienced in its personal relationship with God – it loses its defenses and is predisposed to manifest all of the symptoms that stem from the logic of the worldly spirit.[8]

Henri de Lubac for his part offered a more intellectual analysis of the roots of spiritual worldliness. But before that, he had founded his reflection on the tradition of the great spiritual teachers, applying to “worldliness” what they had preached about pride: it is the hardest sin to conquer because it feeds itself on victory.[9]

Every success on the road to growth in the spiritual life conceals a root of temptation: self-satisfaction, as in the case of the Pharisee in the parable. In fact, fulfilling religious prescriptions is a good thing. But forgetting the spirit that was behind the letter of the law is not a good thing. Paul taught us as much, reminding us that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

Starting from this point – from this new expression of the tension between the flesh and the spirit – de Lubac showed what is the intellectual root and the logic of such a thought: “a subtle humanism, an adversary of the living God” that gives rise to a radically anthropocentric attitude. It is “an attitude that presents itself practically as a separation from the other worldliness. But its moral ideal, and also its spirituality, is not the glory of the Lord but the perfection of the human person. A radically anthropocentric attitude: here is the worldliness of the spirit.”[10]

This subtle humanism proposes an image of the person that is presented as a protest – in the manner Goethe’s Faust, that is, like a recriminatory raised fist (Faust in German means “fist”) – against a God who became human to teach us the authentic way to become like God.[11] It is an image of the person who considers the self to be an autonomous knower of good and evil, a Promethean image of a human being who by an infinite progress would be able to transform into God, with no need for the incarnation and the cross.

It is a refined humanism that has assumed and continues to take on diverse forms, which are always a one-sided absolutizing of a single element of human existence: such as the humanism of pure reason that is disinterested in the flesh – like the good Gnosticism that it is – in order to accentuate “clear and distinct ideas.” It appeared and still appears as the humanism of critical thought, which ends in the isolation of people within their natural limits of time and space.

On the one hand, this thought leads to the point of closing ourselves spatially within our own “egos,” from which we cannot exit, just like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who “believes in God, but does not accept His creation.”[12]

The temporal limit corresponds to this accentuation of the spatial limits, closing us off in the “moment” in which we claim to find our own fullness, like Goethe’s Faust and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. This is and has been the humanism that absolutizes our human existential tensions between holiness and sin, blessing and cursing, life and death, paradise and hell, God and Satan, in a dialectic tragedy, as seen both in classic Greek tragedies and in their modern expressions.

They are all forms of a refined humanism that render us one-dimensional, absolutizing a single aspect of our humanity, embodied in a rational creature, limited and in tension, as seen in the cry for help in Saint Paul that we cited at the beginning: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” To this cry, Paul himself immediately responds, in the interpretation of Saint Augustine: “the grace of God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Rom 7:25).[13]

This is why Pope Francis recalls that the image of God who becomes man and is born in a manger is “the reversal of worldly logic, of the mentality of power and might, the thinking of the Pharisees and those who see things merely in terms of causality or determinism.”[14]

Some literary examples

Finally, we bring in two literary texts that show us the end result to which worldly logic leads. One is a myth and the other a fable, typical forms used to express primordial archetypes.

The myth of Narcissus tells the story of a young man who falls in love with his own image reflected in the water. This is fruit of a punishment and a vendetta. In fact, the young hunter had rejected a goddess who had fallen in love with him. Ovid and Pausanias tell the story.[15] The tale concludes in a woeful manner because by endeavoring to embrace his own image Narcissus pines away and dies.

But the death of Narcissus is not the only possible outcome of the story. In fact, in literature we find a character who takes a different path. In Snow White, the tale recorded by the Grimm Brothers, the stepmother repeats in a refrain: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” The superior beauty of Snow White reawakens another aspect of narcissism: the homicidal side, aimed at destroying whoever is in a better position.

The story of Narcissus presents him as enamored with his own image; he does not interact with the rest of humanity, as happens in the case of the stepmother of Snow White. In the refrain of the stepmother, the key expression to which we must pay attention is the “most” – who is the most beautiful? – which transforms into an obsession that excludes any other beauty, which is perceived as a threat.

These two stories, therefore, help us see the final result of narcissism, which is the foundation of worldly logic: suicide and homicide.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 2, article 7, Jan. 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1902.7

[1] Cf. J. L. Narvaja, “Leer y escribir en el campo de la teología. El problema de la ‘recepción’ en el campo teológico,” in Stromata 71 (2015) 322-324.

[2] Cf. Francis, Apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, No. 172.

[3] Cf. J. M. Bergoglio, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, 670; 702; 933f.

[4] Ibid., 933f.

[5] Cf. H. de Lubac, Meditazione sulla Chiesa, Milan, Jaca Book, 2017, 268f.

[6] J. M. Bergoglio, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola, op. cit., 670.

[7] Cf. Francis, Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2014.

[8] Cf. Ibid.

[9] It is sufficient to consider what John Cassian said about pride: “But the two remaining faults, vainglory and pride, are connected together in a somewhat similar way as the others of which we have spoken, so that the growth of the one makes a starting point for the other (for superfluity of vainglory produces an incentive to pride); but they are altogether different from the six former faults, and are not joined in the same category with them, since not only is there no opportunity given for them to spring up from these, but they are actually aroused in an entirely different way and manner. For when these others have been eradicated, these latter flourish the more vigorously, and from the death of the others they shoot forth and grow up all the stronger: and therefore, we are attacked by these two faults in quite a different way. For we fall into each one of those six faults at the moment when we have been overcome by the ones that went before them; but into these two we are in danger of falling when we have proved victorious” (John Cassian, Spiritual Conferences, V 10).

[10] H. de Lubac, Meditazione sulla Chiesa, op. cit., 269.

[11] Cf. E. Przywara, Che ‘cosa’ è Dio? Eccesso e paradosso dell’amore di Dio: una teologia, Trapani, Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2017, 132-136.

[12] R. Guardini, Dostoevskij. Il mondo religioso, Brescia, Morcelliana, 2000, 178.

[13] Augustine, Questioni sulla Lettera ai Romani, 38.

[14] Francis, Presentation of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2016.

[15] Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, III 339-510; Pausanias, Description of Greece, III 31, 8

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