Some years ago I read the book “Glittering Images” by Susan Howatch, the first novel in her Church of England series. Glittering images are those images that we pridefully present to the world. They reveal the “me” that we want people to see and believe. And, all too often, they capture our own gaze, blinding us to the reality of our hidden darkness. Attracted to our own light, we fearfully flee the long shadow that doggedly tracks our every step.
Those in ministry, really anyone on a spiritual path, may easily be deceived by their own glittering images. Authenticity is rare, so people do not really know what to look for, either in others or in themselves. Sprinkle our carefully crafted conversations with just the right amount of holy sounding words, deliver them in a smooth and warm tone, and people will say, we will say, “Now he, now I, must be a good and holy person.” People don’t expect much. And if we can deliver that little, with any amount of enthusiasm and a smile, we will have their attention. If we have a good measure of charisma, polish and style, we will have their gaze. People like stars, even spiritual stars.
The more recognition our glittering images bring us, the more we cling to them. They are costly to shed. Recognition leads to promotion and power. Once elevated to a platform of greater public attention, it is very difficult to disrobed from our shiny vestments and examine the flesh that is hidden beneath. The crowds would be offended. We would lose our ministry. We would lose our very sense of self.
Glittering images are not benign. They bring with them the very real possibility that we will abuse others in our anxious efforts to protect our glittering, but oh so thin and fragile images. The Church tends to promote those of glittering images, not because she is purposefully looking for such, but because she has no real way to truly know the person, too often she only sees the image. (It is not like any parishioner who might have gotten a glimpse of the shadow side is ever asked.) The Church also tends to promote from those presenting themselves with glittering images. Those most careful in speech and style, (and perhaps especially careful in finance), and not necessarily in substance, tend to rise to the top. Yes, you must have intelligence, education, and ability, but you do not necessarily need to have any real depth and experience in life. In fact, such experience may risk soiling the image. Above all, the mess of controversy must be strenuously avoided. Those in power with hopes of rising still further, therefore, will control all events and all people around them. All subordinates must project and protect the same image.The more powerful we become the less likely it is that we can shed our glittering images. In power, we become isolated. We surround ourselves with sycophants, with people who daily reassure us, people who will even go on the offensive to attack anyone who might challenge the clarity of our light. Their own glittering images depend on this for they have become a mere reflection of the one in power over them.
To free ourselves from the deception of our own glittering images we must find ourselves in community. We must find ourselves in relationships of accountability, mutuality, and transparency. Hierarchy works against these. Those in power must be purposeful in creating such relationships, relationships were titles and symbols of power are cast aside. The main character in Susan Howatch’s novel, Charles Ashworth, finds his deliverance in his painful confessions to a psychotherapist monk. Most will free themselves in the day to day, raw expressions of honesty that come from spouse and children.
The irony of the Christian message is that we only discover our true light, our true self, when we embrace our shadow, when we accept our weaknesses and allow them to be woven by God’s grace into the fabric of our strengths. This is the vestment we are called to wear. We were not created as angels or spirit beings. Christ was made known to the world through the incarnation. Christ was made flesh and dwelt among us. We are now the Body of Christ. The flesh in which we were created, weak as it at times might be, is the flesh that Christ needs. We do not seek to be perfect, but to be mature, to be wholly human. The beauty of the Incarnate Christ is most fully made present to others as his grace is made manifest in both our weaknesses and our strengths. People are in need of leaders whom they can grab hold of, not glittering images to behold.