During a recent conversation, a fellow Dominican who has spent many years as a preacher and teacher, revealed that he had just learned within the last few days what a “selfie” was. The result? He was horrified! That it was the “Word of the Year” for 2013 only makes it worse.
Being a younger Dominican who has a Facebook account, I, too, have slowly become repulsed by the use of selfies, especially among Christians. With increasing frequency, I see Christians from all walks and states of life (even priests and religious!) use their cameras or smartphones to take and post pictures of themselves. Often these can be taken in good fun simply with the intent of sharing something of their lives with others. However, as the world moves deeper into the information age, we should be ready to ask critical questions about our behavior on the internet. Is this a good thing? How does this affect me? What impact will this have on others?
Part of the normal, ascetic life of a Christian is to be aware of, and reflect upon, the thoughts and motives that prompt our actions. Saint Catherine of Siena writes that we must dwell “in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better know God’s goodness” (Dialogue, Prologue). Am I angry today because my pride was hurt? Am I praying out loud in order to be noticed by others? Did I say those words out of true charity? Am I friends with these persons merely for pleasure or impure motives?
The Christian begins to live the life of grace when he becomes aware of the inclinations and attachments that lead him to sin and vice, or, at least hinder him in the practice of virtue. The Christian advances in the life of grace when he applies the remedy of spiritual warfare (prayer, fasting, abstinence, almsgiving, the practice of the virtues) and the Sacraments to counter those inclinations and attachments. The Christian perfects the life of grace when he is then free to love God. But when he clings to earthly attachments, such as status, wealth, pleasure, or comfort, the Christian prevents himself from running the race of faith, like a runner whose legs are tied together by a thick and heavy rope, or like a swimmer carrying 50 lb. dumbbells. If we don’t cast off our earthly attachments, then we have not taken the first step of trusting in God, and making him the sole object of all our actions: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
The Christian who does not scrutinize his thoughts and actions, and fails to purify them in the light of God’s commands, gradually becomes more and more insensitive (unfeeling) towards the life of the soul. Saint John Climacus aptly describes such a Christian in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:
“The insensitive man is a foolish philosopher, an exegete condemned by his own words, a scholar who contradicts himself, a blind man teaching sight to others.
He talks about healing a wound and does not stop making it worse.
He complains about what has happened and does not stop eating what is harmful.
He prays against it but carries on as before, doing it and being angry with himself.
And the wretched man is in no way shamed by his own words. 'I am doing wrong,' he cries, and zealously continues to do so.
His lips pray against it and his body struggles for it.
He talks profoundly about death and acts as if he will never die.
He groans over the separation of soul and body, and yet lives in a state of somnolence as if he were eternal.
He has plenty to say about self-control and fights for a gourmet life.
He reads about the judgment and begins to smile, about vainglory and is vainglorious while he is reading.
He recites what he has learnt about keeping vigil, and at once drops off to sleep.
Prayer he extols, and runs from it as if from a plague.
Blessings he showers on obedience, and is the first to disobey” (XVIII)
So what about selfies? If we consider the action of taking a picture of oneself, and posting it online for others to see, we can recognize rather quickly that serious spiritual risks are involved. The first and greatest risk is vanity or vainglory. Vainglory seeks pleasure in considering what others think about us, or in our own self-estimation. This pernicious vice has been long considered one of the most difficult to combat. Cassian writes, "The other vices and disturbances are known to be uniform and simple, but this one [vainglory] is multifarious, multiform, and varied, and it engages the one fighting it on all sides and its conqueror from every angle. It seeks to wound the solider of Christ in dress and in appearance, in bearing, in speech, in work, in vigils, in fasts, in prayer, in reclusion, in reading, in knowledge, in silences, in obedience, in humility and in long-suffering. Like a very dangerous rock submerged under swelling waves, it threatens with unforeseen and miserable shipwreck those who sail with a favorable wind, so long as no care is taken and no foresight is exercised” (Institutes, XI).
But what is the danger in having a good self-image, or self-esteem? What is wrong with receiving affirmation? The spiritual danger is that vainglory leads, inevitably, to pride. By trusting in ourselves, in our appearances, talents, gifts, or opinions, we push God aside and, like Lucifer, we learn to say “I will not serve”, since we are sufficient of ourselves for happiness: “Though, while he lives, he counts himself happy, and though a man gets praise when he does well for himself, he will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never more see the light. Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:18-20). If our trust and delight is in our selfies, then it is not in the God who has the power to ransom our life from death (cf. Psalm 49:7-9). As Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov notes in the classic Arena, “the desire to convey to the bystanders one’s own feelings is a sign of vanity and pride” (Rule 20).
Another spiritual danger that can be both a cause and a result of selfies is despair. Despair is the lack of hope in God’s justice and mercy, his power and love. If we have fallen into vanity or pride, then ultimately our hope rests in our self. If our hope is in our self, then ultimately we are without hope. If we define ourselves by how we look, what others think of us, or what our abilities are, then we are standing on the thin, rapidly melting, ice of despair; for appearances fade, opinions change, talents diminish. Like gasping fish out of water, those with vanity-turned-to-despair gasp for any affirmation of their existence, any glimmer of recognition that reassures them of their existence, no matter how futile it has become. Selfies can be such a gasp, such a futile reaching out. However, with the way that despair works, such acts of despair only allow despair to grow all the more, in a circle of self-defeating misery.
So where does the Christian stand on selfies? We must look at our intentions, we must enter the cell of self-knowledge and purify our hearts of worldly attachments. If they are taken out of vanity, pride, or despair, then they are obviously evil, and can only hinder our progress in the spiritual life. A quick sign to see whether or not we are taking selfies for good motives is the freedom to stop. If we feel that it would be difficult to stop taking such photos, then it is a sign that we have grown attached to them, and have fallen under the sway of vanity. Again, Climacus notes that, “if a man thinks himself immune to the allurement of something and yet grieves over its loss, he is only fooling himself” (Ladder, II). The Christian making progress as a son of God is marked by increasing freedom to do good, to pray, to be in the presence of God, and to reject temptations. If we are not free, if we are attached to selfies and would find it difficult to stop posting them, then it is a sign that we are still in spiritual infancy. And if we do not recognize the harm in vanity, pride, or despair, then, even worse, our spiritual birth has become stillborn.