In your opinion, what is the most difficult obstacle on the spiritual path?
I think it may be vanity. But this is not obvious at first because it is surprisingly subtle and most of its manifestations seem like such small matters, not worthy of our attention.
I was surprised to find that the experts do not agree with me. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists 41 ‘grave’ sins which it considers to be mortal. Vanity is not one of them. By the way, to sin means ‘to miss the mark’. This contains a useful understanding. It suggests that a sin is not so much the action itself but rather its aim.
What’s the significance of vanity?
Vanity turns virtue into vice. I love the elegance and precision of a good Swiss watch. There is no obstacle in this. I love owning the Swiss watch because it makes me feel special, it enhances my self-esteem? That’s an obstacle on the path.
Essentially, the greatest enemy of any spiritual path is always self-importance. Vanity is using something — anything — to enhance self-importance. That something can be the quality of generosity, beauty of movement, precision of speech, the perfect earrings, a new friend. Any good thing, good in itself, is spoiled when it is appropriated by the self.
Consider doing a vanity audit. What are the things that make you feel good about yourself? Perhaps they are innocent gestures of delight. Perhaps they are subtle marks of distinction that set you apart. The sensation of them tells the tale. That little thrill of enhanced self-importance will advise you without fail.
If you are able to perform this audit impartially, you may come to see how almost all human behavior can be explained in terms of vanity.
Vanity can spoil any other thing. Dressing modestly may be vain. Dressing extravagantly may not. Unlike many other so-called sins, vanity is defined not by the action but by your inner relationship to it. That’s what makes it so subtle yet pernicious, pervasive yet unobserved.