To live in the eyes and minds of men

September 9, 2009 | 38 comments

Three-Minute Book Club

When the idea of posting short excerpts from books first occurred to me yesterday, I knew exactly which one I wanted to start with: the part in The Seven Storey Mountain where Thomas Merton describes his desire to get published when he was a young writer. After chronicling the many rejection letters he received, he writes:

The more I failed, the more I was convinced that it was important for me to have my work printed in magazines like the Southern Review or Partisan Review or the New Yorker. My chief concern was now to see myself in print. It was as if I could not quite be satisfied that I was real until I could feed my ambition with these trivial glories, and my ancient selfishness was now matured and concentrated in this desire to see myself externalized in a public and printed and official self which I could admire at my ease. This was what I really believed in: reputation, success. I wanted to live in the eyes and the mouths and the minds of men.

I was not so crude that I wanted to be known and admired by the whole world: there was a certain naive satisfaction in the idea of being only appreciated by a particular minority, which gave a special fascination to this urge within me. But when my mind was absorbed in all that, how could I lead a supernatural life, the life to which I was called? How could I love God, when everything I did was done not for Him but for myself, and not trusting in His aid, but relying on my own wisdom and talents? [emphasis mine]

Needless to say, this hit close to home for me. Obviously I want to see my writing in print…but for what reasons? Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be published, but it is possible to make it more about receiving the praise of men than humbly putting your talents to the service of God.

I’d be interested to hear from you:

  • Anyone else have one of those “oof!” moments when reading this quote, or was that just me?
  • If you’ve ever felt called to do something that would also put you in the public eye, even on a small level (e.g. blogging, singing in the church choir, teaching, acting, etc.), how did you balance the desire to humbly serve God with the temptation to chase the attention and acclaim of the world?
  • Any other thoughts are welcome as well!

38 Comments

  1. Anne

    Oh Jen! Yes! I saw myself here very clearly, many times. I have had many conversations with my spiritual director about this. I worry so much that the reason everything I have ever sent in for publication has been rejected is because I am doing it for the wrong reason, for my glory and not for God's. He assures me that my words do give glory to God and there is nothing wrong with finding joy in the benefits of writing as well.

    Last year I went to confession to a very old and wise priest. I shared my same worries with him. I had never met him before. He first wanted to know how my husband felt about my writing. I told him that Paul doesn't love the fact that I am always at the computer writing, but he does support me in it. Then he looked good and hard at me. He said "This is right for you. Your words will draw people close to God. You should continue."

    I imagine he would say the same thing to you, it is so obvious from this blog that your words draw people close to God and hold them close as well.

    One last word of advice from my SD. He reminded me to always start and end with a prayer when I sit down to write, in that way, my words are wrapped in prayer.

    God bless you in your efforts and thank you for this post!

  2. Jane D.

    I have a job that puts me in the 'public' eye is our area and I constantly feel the struggle of 'who am I doing this for'. I was once told by a very wise Christian that when you are constantly thinking this, the chances are you are doing it for God (obviously not if you KNOW you are doing it for yourself!).

  3. Jeff Miller

    Lots of oof moments for me in that book since I was able to identify with so much of what Thomas Merton was writing. The same goes for his diaries.

    The balance about being in the public eye and humility is realizing that humility is simply knowing the truth about yourself. The great saints could be given spiritual gifts that humbled them since they knew all they had was from God in the first place. So this does not mean we should deny whatever gifts that God has given us or to downplay them in false humility like Uriah Heep in Dicken's David Copperfield. The parable of the talents comes to mind. But we should never lose place in recognizing the source of our gifts and and praise we receive to let it pass through to God.

    Mother Angelica when praised by a caller would always say "Thanks be to God", a good practice for us all.

  4. Amy

    I started to write a blog post about this yesterday (blogging–am I doing it for the "right" reasons, etc.), but decided against it, because I was in a pretty negative frame of mind. But I do think about this quite often. Words are powerful and I think it's important to use them carefully, while at the same time being true to ourselves and being honest.

    That said, my hope is that God can use me even with my possibly primarily selfish motives and sometimes careless use of words, and bring something positive out of my little corner of the internet. I think writing is something I always will be driven to do, whether I choose to share it with others or not.

    But when my mind was absorbed in all that, how could I lead a supernatural life, the life to which I was called? How could I love God, when everything I did was done not for Him but for myself, and not trusting in His aid, but relying on my own wisdom and talents?

    This is the part of that quote that spoke to me the most. I think it kind of goes with your previous post, the one about finding ourselves by losing ourselves. It's funny but in the last three days I've come across that theme here, in a book I was reading, and at another blog. Obviously there is a message there for me!

  5. Agnes Regina

    Well; I'm a pianist and singer, and often I have to catch myself and think, "Okay… God gave you this gift; you play because He gave you the talent to express yourself through music. So don't go performing to show off something that you didn't do by yourself; do it to give glory to the One who gave it!" And then I smile, say "Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam" and keep playing, better than ever now that I have my priorities straight.

  6. That Married Couple

    This is actually one of my reasons (excuses?) for not yet trying to write a book. I know that this is a super-big temptation for me, and until I get a handle on it, I don't want to be tempted by acclaim for myself instead of acclaim for God. That's one of the reasons I blog, actually, to try to get me to a point where I can balance those competing desires.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic – I can't wait to read everyone's comments!

  7. jp

    I've had these "oof" moments many a time.

    In terms of writing, being a lector, or other times I have had to appear in public, as it were, I have had learn to ask:

    1.) Does it glorify God alone and lead others to Him?
    2.) Is it to be done in charity and humility? Or am I seeking just to make noise?
    3.) Does it improve upon silence?

    Taking a few moments in prayer and thought to reflect on these questions, and to pray for God's grace helps, I find, even though the allure of and temptation to pride remain.

  8. MB

    Right between the eyes.

    We have a very liberal newspaper here, and I am currently working on a column proposal for them. I would be writing on contract, and I am trying to counteract the propoganda they spew..but I will admit to picturing myself in print and hearing affirmation from like-minded friends. This stops me cold.

    On the other hand-if they accept the proposal, I realize that the paper will make it a token response, and will probably even use it for ridicule and jabs elsewhere in the paper (and for sure in the newsroom!).

    And then, as one of your readers poted, there is the thing where my husband says he supports my writing, but is really jealous of my time on the computer. I find myself wanting to prove legitimacy…in a newspaper I do not respect or admire?

    Wow.

    More feedback than you bargained for.

    Your blog is a blessing to me as I pray for all of my siblings (6 of them) who have left the Catholic faith and, in some cases, abandoned God. I am praying for the Holy Spirit to use your book to heal hearts and minds for His glory. To me, your motives seem pure-as I long for the publication of your book.

    Mary Beth, mom of nine.

  9. Sandy

    The temptation to want the acclaim of people seems to sneak up on me when I least expect it. I can start out only thinking of doing what God called me to do and before I know it I'm thinking 'but wouldn't it be nice if so-and-so liked it to'. Of course, there is a strain of pride in that and for some people it may be the main problem. But, for many, I think this temptation stems from a basic need to be loved. We all want to be loved and applause (or comments or readers) equals, in our minds, love. Spending time meditating on God's love for us and the sacriifice of sending His Son is what will get us past this particular temptation and is, in fact, a good antidote to most temptations. When I am reminded that ulimately only God can meet my need to be loved, I am not tempted to have that need met somewhere else.

  10. Sandy

    Oh how I've struggled with pride in my life! Years ago I sang in the church choir and sang a few solos and my head grew so big. I haven't sung in public for years because of the pride issue.

    For me the most dangerous area recently has been in serving. Am I serving for the right reason or am I serving so others will think I am selfless and generous? I sometimes catch myself talking about something I've done (like staying with my elderly dad for ten days so my stepmom can visit her grandchildren) and wonder if I am talking about it so others will recognize how dedicated I am? Ugh.

    My recent prayer, particularly when I struggling with something or someone, is "Lord, make me truly humble."

    I really enjoyed Seven Storey Mountain. I think the book is primarily responsible for my 21 year old son's move toward the Catholic Church (he starts RCIA this month), which in turn has led our family toward the Catholic Church.

    Thanks for the post and for your continued thoughtfulness in your spiritual journey. Your writing blesses me.

  11. Laura

    I just went through that with my own blog. I had to leave it, and the entire internet thing, alone for 1 1/2 months so that I could get a better perspective on why I was becoming consumed with it. It started out for the Lord, but then got away from me and became more about me than anything or anyone else. It was a scary moment when I really realized that.

    Being away for that amount of time did help to put things into perspective and now, at least, I have a better handle on it again. Hopefully, this time, I can keep my eye on what God wants and not let my own whims and desires take over. Good Luck keeping it all in the proper order!
    God Bless.

  12. Cassandra Frear

    It becomes confusing and perplexing when we are required to build a platform,to network,to market our own work. For there, the focus is on numbers.

    For me personally, I just need to remember the mission — why I am doing this. I am a servant. Period.

    That's what helps the most.

  13. Brother Juniper

    Dear Jen,

    The only way that I keep my balance is reminding myself that what I am doing is for God's glory and not my own.

    My blog is nothing, but poorly punctuated sentences and pictures when you really think about it, but at its very core it is something else. It is an instrument that God, in His Providence, has given me to reach and touch souls.

    As I have said time and again when they compliment me on the blog, "It's not my work, but God's. To Him belongs all the glory."

    God bless,

    Brother Juniper

  14. steadymom

    This resonates with me as well, since my first book is coming out before the end of the year. As I think about its "success" or lack of success, I find myself wondering what God has in store.

    I know I've been obedient by writing it, but I don't know what the results will be – and that is both thrilling and absolutely terrifying.

    Trusting in His plan,

    Jamie

  15. Bethany Hudson

    As a writer, I definitely connected with this passage the first time I read Seven Storey Mountain. Good stuff. Very convicting.

  16. Meredith

    One of the refrains that kept running through my mind as I wrestled with closing my blog was a similar thought of Thomas Merton's. I realized that my blog was perpetuating what he calls the "false self."

    Even though my writing was true in every way, the pride I felt and even the comments served to add more layers between me and God instead of the other way around.

    Not all writers have this problem, of course, but for public journalers it is a delicate balance.

  17. jrbaab

    I work with Direct Mail. Lately at work I have noticed that I write better than others. It's not that I'm boasting in this fact but it seems clear. That being said, it's difficult to control my pride. It's also difficult to resist judging. Part of me wants all the assignments and all the credit. part of me believes I am SO great and they are SO not. I am constantly realizing what I am doing, how I am thinking and trying to control myself. Then I feel such shame.

    How do you handle when someone you work with makes mistakes, or maybe they really can't perform a function as well as you? I mean, you want to do the best for your company. If you see a mistake, it's your duty to correct it. But how do your refrain from judging, becoming prideful? How do you handle your relationship with your co-worker if you constantly need to correct them and they're not learning?

  18. Anonymous

    Hi Jen, I think about it like this: our gifts(talents) should not be put under a bushel. They are meant to be shared. They are our power source and the means in which we love other people. For instance, people who are good cooks want to cook for others b/c that's how they love others. They are giving them the "best" part of themselves-the gift from God.When others neither want or need your gifts it's like Superman living around Kryptonite. Our gifts are a channel thru which we share the light of the Creator with others. I think the problem comes when we see them as an end in themselves-a closed system that returns to us rather than going outward. Thanks for all this food for thought!

  19. Angela Williams Duea

    I do struggle with humility when writing for churches or singing in a worship band. I think it's easy to slip into thinking it's all about you even though you're trying to be pleasing to God.

    Ugh, this quote was a little painful.

  20. SimpleDad

    This quote does hit very much close to home! I feel that I often have to stop and take a look what I am doing and why I am doing it. Do I want to do a good job so that I get recognition or because it's God's Will. Then I need to learn the next step and discern what God is truly asking me to do not just padding my resume. This is great quote…

  21. Anonymous

    Thanks for the question, Jen. I can't tell you how much I have gained from reading the comments.

  22. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    In terms of writing…I am deeply pondering this:

    http://www.jordoncooper.com/2009/08/20/bill-kinnon-on-writing/

    And Meredith?
    My.
    Thank you. For everthing.

    And JP: "Does it improve upon silence?"
    I will carry this with me.

    Jen?
    I pray.

    All's grace,
    Ann

  23. Anna

    I think one of my favorite vainglory things to imagine is that every scrap that I write will someday be gathered into a big collection and published, because I will be such a great saint that everyone will want to read everything about me they can get their hands on. 🙂 There's that, and there's so, so many other ways that I find myself imagining someone recognizing how much better than others I am.

    Here's the thing. The problem is all in my head. It isn't about whether or not I join the choir or whether or not I write the book – I have to do that or not as God leads. But the important thing is that I let God lead. Every time I find myself imagining other people thinking well of me, I have to stop and let go of those images (no matter how difficult that is) and remind myself of my complete and utter dependence on God, and my total inability to do anything worthwhile without his grace. (Which I generally find is an easier thing to say than it is to actually believe about myself). And only once I've banished those imaginings can I take an honest look at what God is really asking of me and act on it.

    (And the imaginings keep coming back.. and back… and back. So I just have to keep letting go, and letting go, and letting go, every time I rediscover that that's what I'm doing at the moment. Like now, with this blog comment. Sigh.)

  24. Lana

    When I write, I don't usually struggle with pride. Usually, I look at what I am writing and think either: "if that's the sum total of my wisdom i guess I have a long way to go," or, "there are so many people who could do a much better job than me!"
    And then the thought of having to do anything remotely public with what I have written (such as deal with an agent and publishers, promote my book, talk about it) just makes me want to crawl into bed and stay there! That has more to do with shyness than anything, so I guess that's a little off-topic…
    Back to the pride issue: I ran across some wise words from the late Cardinal Van Thuan. He writes somewhere in "Testimony of Hope" that the devil keeps us from doing good by trying to convince us that we are just being prideful. Instead of sharing the "good that we have received," we shy away out of our fear that we are being prideful or in some way trying to draw attention to ourselves.
    He reminds us that if we have received anything, it was always a gift and so it was never "ours" to begin with, but meant to be shared.
    He is much more eloquent than I am, but there it is.

  25. Barbara

    I have been struggling with this issue for a long time. From the time I was a teenager, writing was a way to get positive attention from people, when it seemed like the only attention I ever got was negative, then as I started to get some success with it in my 20's the desire for recognition became such a keen obsession that it turned my writing in on itself to the point where nothing ever felt good enough and I was constantly comparing myself to others and feeling like I was either superior or inferior to them.

    Nowadays I have been trying to get back into writing again and I started a blog to do so, but these same feelings remain. I even find myself checking my blog-stats every day to see if anyone has visited. I don't want to waste the talent that God gave me, but I don't want to make an idol to my ego with it either. I just want to be at peace with it, finding pride and satisfaction in the act of serving God through my writing the way a carpenter might in his buildings.

  26. Cheryl

    I think for me I can become too obsessed with my own pride/humility issues, to the point where it becomes very prideful, to write and think and talk all the time about my own need for humility. I agree with that simple sentence in the last post: "All's grace." Part of growing up in Jesus, for me, has been to release all this unhealthy obsessing and relax into my Father's love, and to simply be what He's made me to be.
    I am going to have to soon put this into practice as I have been asked to replace our choir director for one or two rehearsals while she will be away. I have sat in rehearsals thinking about how I would direct the choir if ever I were in her place. So when my husband asked me the question, I didn't immediately say yes. But then I did, with fear and trembling. I am happy to serve where I am needed. The rest I will give up to God.

  27. Amy Bergeron

    I definitely feel that this is a temptation for me, but as I rarely have much to say, and don't generally know how to say it well, I find I rarely have to struggle with it. A couple of times I have thought of starting a blog only to realize – oh, I would have to think of things to say! I'm more of a reader than a writer, perhaps because God knows I need a more hidden life.

  28. Patricia Killen

    I have also struggled with this question. Am I doing this for my own pleasure or for the glory of God? I know that where the spirit of the Lord is expect the devil to be working overtime. He tries to do everything he can to convince me that I am like him.
    I work in the bearevement ministry of my church. I get together with family`s that have lost a loved one. I help to plan
    funeral litergy with them. This work is so important to my church.
    And more important The Lord led
    me here. This was not my choice but
    His. I stepped down from being a soloist to do this work,after my
    husband died. I feel that I have something to offer people who are
    hurting. Pat

  29. Blog O' Beth

    I'm a teacher at a public university and I think part of the reason why I stay there is to keep me focused on serving God and not myself. I could make more money and have an easier job at a private Christian school but when I look at the students I serve now (often difficult, frequently lazy) I think I can do MORE here.

    Think of all the people you have touched, inspired and shared your belief in God through your writing? How is that NOT serving God? It is important to remind ourselves, but from where I'm sitting, well, I think you are doing just fine.

  30. Enbrethiliel

    +JMJ+

    Jen, Merton seems to be describing my own fledgling attempts at a freelance writing career. Even though I have been 'blogging for years and have a loyal online following, self-publishing isn't as "real" as being published by others.

    It's not so much about reputation or success. When I get praise from someone who isn't a "fan" of my online writing, I'm honestly always surprised. I never think I'm good unless someone tells me that I am. In this respect, I guess it's still about vanity. Sometimes I wish I could be more like J.D. Salinger, who at least has the courage of his (anti-social) convictions!

  31. Barbara

    Sorry to re-comment again but I was thinking about this topic again this morning and it brought to mind a poem by Gabriela Mistral which I translated on my blog a few weeks ago. She talks a lot about faith and the artist's role. Here's a piece of it:

    "Decalogue of the artist"

    I. You shall love beauty, which is the shadow of God upon the Universe.

    II. There is no atheist art. Though you may not love the Creator, as His likeness you shall affirm Him in the act of Creation.

    III. You shall not bring forth Beauty as titillation for the senses, but as the natural food of the soul.

    IV. You shall not use her as an excuse for lust nor vanity, but as a divine exercise…

    Here's the rest of the post
    http://intimategeography.wordpress.com/2009/08/28/gabriela-mistral-spiritual-writings/

    There's also a really good poem of hers where she describes God as the First Musician.
    what's cool is that she was writing this way back in the 1920's when artists and writers were busy trying to deify themselves.

  32. Emily a.k.a. Smoochagator

    Hi Jennifer! The passage you posted didn't "oof!" me as much as it did you, but it reminded me of something I read earlier this week that gave me a huge "oof!" I don't always agree with what J. Lee Grady has to say, but I was particularly touched by his column this week titled The Lost Message of Consecration. It confirmed what I'd already been feeling lately – that I need to shift my focus from asking God to bless me to asking God how I can serve him better. Then I read your blog and thought, "Okay, God, hear you loud and clear."

    For years I have struggled with the sin of pride and self-focus, examining my motives for serving God, especially publicly. I do believe that God wants to bless and fulfill us – why would he withhold the joy of publication from you? – but he wants to do it while purifying our hearts and teaching us to love him more.

    And of course, this ties in with your recent re-post about dying to self… it sounds like God is dealing with both of us on this issue of self! Which is more than okay… it used to to scare me when I felt the Holy Spirit's conviction. I used to feel so ashamed. Now I realize that God loves me in spite of my shortcomings and only gives me those "oof" moments so I can grow closer to him 😀

  33. Kingdom Mama

    This is such a hard thing, isn't it?! I am looking forward to gleaning wisdom from the comments.

  34. Judith

    I'm in the pulpit each week and, while my venue is small, it is a temptation to pride ………. I ask myself, "For whom am I doing this? Him? Myself? Them?"

    And judging my own preaching to be either "good" OR "bad" on a given week is an occasion for more pride as I focus, yet again, on myself and not Him.

    The human condition …….. and one of the reasons the Lord had to come to save us, I guess.

  35. monica_divineoffice.org

    I think that being appreciated and praised by others is a natural desire for all of us.
    But then there are boundaries.
    We don't always know if we want the right thinks but when we take a moment to speak with God, that's a step in the right direction. God bless you in your efforts!

    Liturgy of the Hours

  36. Kelly @ Love Well

    I'm going to have to check out this book, thanks to you and your three-minute review.

    I assume you've seen this line from Thomas Merton? One of my all-time favorite "thoughts" about being a writer.

    If you write for God, you will reach many people and bring them joy.
    If you write for people, you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world for a little while.
    If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after 10 minutes, you will be so disgusted you will wish you were dead.
    – Thomas Merton

  37. Christina

    I've done this several times, but one time is coming to mind. In high school and college I would often sketch or paint pictures (and they were very nicely done). I recently tried to pick it back up and wondered if I was doing it for the glory of God or for my own glory. To help I prayed that if it was for my own glory that the Lord would "take away the talent" he'd given me.

    Well, to make a long story short – he did. At first it was through a pinched nerve that made me unable to draw, now it's just through an inability to make anything appear. I don't think there is still nerve damage, but I no longer have the ability to form a picture at all.

    Yet, although it's frustrating and humiliating, I'm glad. He answered that prayer and now I am being humbled properly 😉

  38. Kristin

    I found your blog a month or two ago, and I've really appreciated it. I am currently starting RCIA and converting to Catholicism after 24 years of being decidedly Protestant.

    I was wondering if there were any books or websites with reading material that helped you as you were converting?

    heytherejude.wordpress.com

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