Faith vs. Narcissism
User’s Guide to Sunday
By Tom and April Hoopes
Oct. 24 is the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
At 9:30am in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate the Mass concluding the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.
At noon in St. Peter’s Square, he will pray a public Angelus.
St. Narcissus lived in the 100s and was an old man when he was made bishop of Jerusalem. His name is best-known for the Greek myth about Narcissus, who was so enchanted by his own reflection that he fell into a pond while contemplating it; he was stuck in the pond, where he became a flower. What we call narcissism was named for that myth.
But St. Narcissus was no narcissist. He was made a bishop as an old man and won many admirers with his virtuous life, but then he walked away from the admiration of society to live in a desert.
He also suffered false accusations from accusers who swore vehemently that he was a terrible sinner. One said: “May I die by fire if it is not true!” Another said: “May I be wasted away by leprosy if it is not true.” A last one said: “May I be struck blind if it is not true.”
It’s a testimony to Narcissus’ way of life that the accusations were rejected out of hand: No one believed them.
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 17-19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Speaking of narcissism, today’s Gospel is a commentary on it. It recounts the story of the prayers of the Pharisee and the publican.
The Pharisee prays, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”
The publican prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Not only is the Pharisee’s prayer an error modern Catholics are likely to make: It’s practically our default mode of prayer.
Contemporary times in the West have been summed up as a “culture of narcissism.” It’s not just that we are selfish — that’s a malady as old as Adam and Eve. “Narcissism” describes our tendency to constantly see our life from a self-adulatory remove, as if we were the leading character in a heroic (or tragic) film of our life.
The Gospel shows that narcissism isn’t anything new either.
The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t “greedy, dishonest, adulterous. … I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Apart from his narcissism, he makes three critical errors.
First, in God’s house he focused not on God, but on himself. If he had contemplated God’s greatness, or the virtues of the prophets, he would have been drawn outside himself. Instead, by focusing on himself, he locked himself in a stasis.
Second, he judged others. “Judge not, lest you be judged,” Jesus said. But the Pharisee placed himself in a position of judgment over the publican and “the rest of humanity.” He put himself in God’s place. It is hard enough to progress in the spiritual life; it is even harder if you have convinced yourself that you are godlike already. And rival gods to the one God are false gods. Even when the rival god is someone as wonderful as me. The Pharisee’s judgment was both wrongheaded and just plain wrong.
His third error is that he compared himself to negative role models. Apart from his inability to judge others accurately, this is a totally unproductive way to approach any human effort. Imagine a runner who insisted on racing only against crippled opponents. He would never improve and his celebrations at the finish line would look absurd.
The prayer of the Pharisee should look absurd too — and so should our own prayers when we do a victory dance for God over our own imagined greatness.
We modern narcissists would do well to imitate the publican: Be aware that we are sinners, but focus on God’s love and mercy, which is infinitely greater than our sin.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.