Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mirrors, Television, and MP3 Players

Remember: I'm writing this post with the full authority of some guy with a blog. I've mentioned this before.


I've read that some medieval monk didn't like mirrors. And that he thought they encouraged vanity.

That could be true. Even if it's not: it's plausible. Folks have a way of associating technology with things they don't like in other people. I'll get back to that.
Vanity is a Sin, Right?
Vanity isn't the sort of thing that's encouraged by the Catholic Church. There's that whole Ecclesiastes 1:2 thing that was in the readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 1, 2010).

On the other hand, vanity doesn't show up in the list of capital sins:
  • Pride
  • Avarice
  • Envy
  • Wrath
  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Sloth or acedia
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1866)
Which reminds me:
  • "Sloth" isn't, in this context, quite the same as being lazy or unproductive in the American sense.
    • The Catechism has a little more to say about acedia. (2733, 2755, 2094)
  • "Lust?" Well, that's pretty obvious, sort of.
Maybe I'd better look up what "vanity" means in American English:
"Key: "S:" = Show Synset (semantic) relations, "W:" = Show Word (lexical) relations
Somewhere, among the billion or so Catholics living today, there may be someone who thinks that a low table with a "mirror or mirrors where one sits while dressing or applying makeup" is evil. I'd be surprised to learn that the Church denounces dressers, though.

So, what does the Church mean when using the word "vanity?"

I took a quick look around the Holy See's website (where the "secret documents of the Vatican" are available - and that's another topic), to see how the word's used. Here's part of what I found:
"...But the vanity and emptiness of earthly things are more manifest today than perhaps at any other period, when Kingdoms and States are crumbling, when enormous quantities of goods and all kinds of wealth are being sunk in the depths of the sea, and cities, towns and fertile fields are strewn with massive ruins and defiled with the blood of brothers...."

"...There never was a time, Venerable Brethren, when the salvation of souls did not impose on all the duty of associating their sufferings with the torments of our Divine Redeemer. But today that duty is more clear than ever, when a gigantic conflict has set almost the whole world on fire and leaves in its wake so much death, so much misery, so much hardship; in the same way today, in a special manner, it is the duty of all to fly from vice, the attraction of the world, the unrestrained pleasures of the body, and also from worldly frivolity and vanity which contribute nothing to the Christian training of the soul nor to the gaining of Heaven...."
(Mystici Corporis Christi," Rome, St. Peter's, the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (June 29, 1943)
As I've mentioned before, official documents of the Catholic Church aren't written with sound bites in mind. They're not "vague:" but they don't try to over-simplify the ideas they're communicating, either.

Looks like Pope Pius XII used "vanity" to mean "the quality of being valueless or futile," as in " 'he rejected the vanities of the world' ." Which is what Ecclesiastes 1:2 seems to be driving at.

That was back in 1943 - just simply ages and ages ago. (You mean, there were people then?!) Here's something more recent:
"...Now, for our meditation, we will reflect initially on the profession of humility made by the Psalmist, and entrust ourselves to the words of Origen, whose commentary on our text has come down to us in St Jerome's Latin version.

" 'The Psalmist speaks of the frailty of the body and of the human condition', because 'with regard to the human condition, the human person is nothing. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity", said Ecclesiastes'. ..."
("General Audience," Benedict XVI (January 11, 2006 )
Okay: looks like a pope used "vanity" in the Ecclesiastes sense in 1943 and 2006. Not the same pope, of course. Still looking:
"...He condemned vanity, the desire to be noticed, and could be severe when he saw attitudes of hypocrisy and superficiality...."
(Luigi Scrosoppi (1804 - 1884)" biography

"...Next is the Gospel passage in which Jesus warns us against the canker of vanity that leads to ostentation and hypocrisy, to superficiality and self-satisfaction, and reasserts the need to foster uprightness of heart. At the same time he shows us the means to grow in this purity of intention: by cultivating intimacy with the heavenly Father...."
(Homily 'Statio' and Penitential Procession From the Church of St. Anselm to the Basilica of St. Sabina on the Aventine Hill
His Holiness Benedict XVI, Basilica of St Sabina, Ash Wednesday (February 25, 2009)
What I was running into most was "vanity" in the sense of "the quality of being valueless or futile." Less frequently, it looked to me like the idea was "the trait of being unduly vain and conceited; false pride." Either way, not something that seems very worthwhile.
Back to That Monk
The monk in the story probably had "the quality of being valueless or futile" and "the trait of being unduly vain and conceited; false pride" in mind with the 'mirrors are bad' thing. Assuming that a monk really wrote that. Which is possible.

As I said, folks have a way of associating technology with things they don't like in other people.


Take mirrors, for example. The monk in that story seems to have assumed that a mirror was at least partly responsible for the vanity exhibited by somebody else. And vanity - focusing on the transient things of this world to the exclusion of more permanent things, in this case - isn't a good idea.

So, does that make mirrors bad?

Actually, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does mention mirrors a few times. As a metaphor for faith (163), wisdom (2500), Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture (97), the Psalms (2588), and the Creed (1064). Nothing about mirrors being a no-no.

My take on the matter is that mirrors are like any other technology.

We can use them for something comparatively silly, like admiring the way we combed our hair. Or we can use them for something practical, like shaving. I haven't shaved in decades - and that's yet another topic.

We could use mirrors for something bad: like setting fire to an orphanage. But that wouldn't make the mirror evil.

It isn't the mirror that's silly, or practical, or evil: it's what the person using the mirror is doing.


I was born during the Truman administration, so I remember when television was a new technology for many or most Americans. 'Experts,' concerned parents, and the occasional crackpot (not always different people) proclaimed that television was rotting the brains of American children and youth, dulling our minds, and generally bringing about the end of civilization as they knew it.

They were right, sort of. Television changed the way most people spent their leisure time. It distracted people from trivial board games: drawing their attention to trivial game shows.

Maybe television ended some sort of Golden Age when bright-eyed children eagerly gathered around their parents every evening and delighted in uplifting activities.

Or, maybe not.

I'll acknowledge that having a television in the living room could change what a family did in the evening - and quite possibly expose existing problems in the family structure. That's about as far as I'll come to denouncing television.

Of course, I would say that. I remember the first television set my parents got - but much of my childhood and all of my youth were spent in a household with a television set. So I've been, according to some of the 'experts' of the day, tainted.

Come to think of it: I was recently diagnosed as having ADD of the inattentive variety. On the other hand, I knew my father quite well - and I'm a lot like him. Yet again another topic.

MP3 Players

Not very long ago I heard someone express concern about the younger generation. Specifically a young relative who had an MP3 player. The thing was plugged into her ears nearly every waking moment, I gather, playing that stuff kids these days call music.


What made it a little funny, for me, was that the person who was expressing this concern is about half my age.

And I like rock and roll. Good grief, another topic. Sort of.

About that (teen, I gathered) with the MP3 implanted in her ears? Yeah: that sounded a little extreme. I had the local rock stations tuned in quite a bit during my youth: but not 'every waking moment.' I might have wanted to, but there was homework and parental authority to deal with.

Which gets me back to technology and people. I don't think MP3 players are the problem in any given family situation today. I don't think that television was the problem in any given family situation back in the fifties and sixties. I don't think mirrors were the problem when knighthood was in flower.

It's easy to associate mirrors with vanity, television with vacant stares, and MP3 players with self-absorbed teens. Particularly if we don't use those technologies. But I think it's imprudent to assume that those technologies make people focus on worldly things, or dull their minds, or cause someone to break contact with the rest of the world.

I do think this was an accurate assessment of what happens when you're dealing with human beings:
"For mischief comes not out of the earth, nor does trouble spring out of the ground; 2But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward."
(Job 5:6,7)
Thousands of years later, we're still human beings: creatures with a free will, who were good at making - and getting into - trouble. (February 14, 2010)

I don't think technology has - or can - change that. All it does is change some of our options. And, maybe, make problems that we already had a little more obvious.

Related posts:
1 Actually, if you don't mind reading something that's just simply covered with Catholic cooties, there's a whole section of the Catechism that discusses human sexuality. (2331-2400) I should warn you, though, that it's not the sort of Hugh Hefner philosophy that Americans are supposed to take as gospel.

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