In writing about Savonarola, I got to thinking about what a modern ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ would look like. What are the vanities we would come to throw into the flames and utterly destroy for all eternity?
Typically, useless luxuries are thrown into such bonfires. Who really needs fabulous works of Renaissance art, anyway? Right? But what is the traditional Christian concept that lies at the foot, that is the kindling, of bonfires of the vanities?
It is, and here I conjecture, most likely twofold. One — the things of this world are unnecessary. Thus, vain, as its Latin root vanus means. Empty. Needless. Who needs make up? Who needs hair product? Who needs to upgrade his’er iPad yesterday? Is not this stripping away of all wordly goods an abundant command in the Gospels? Luke 14:33 unsettles me on a regular basis:
In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (NIV)
The second is related. The great good in the universe is not in the universe. The summum bonum of our lives is not of our lives. God is paradoxically closer than our very breath yet as far above us as the heavens are from the earth. The Holy One is both immanent and transcendant. And the things of this world can get in the way. Our books, our art, our new clothes, or treasured possessions, our delicacies, our gadgets — these things can distract us from the great good found in God alone through grace alone.
So the mindset of the Bonfire of the Vanities is — throw away the distractions. Then turn your attention to God.
I am imagining this not in Florence but in Edinburgh. I’m imagining the square in front of St Giles although perhaps the National Gallery would be more appropriate. And there, beside the statue of some Duke of Buccleuch or other, in front the late Gothic facade (or is it a Victorian re-do?), there are the flames, reaching to the Duke of Buccleuch’s bronze head.
In procession along the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge, through the grey, cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town come the Edinburghers. In their jeans and skirts and sweat pants (aka ‘tracky bottoms’!!) with half their rear exposed. In their kilts and suits and hoodies and skin-tight leggings. They trudge, pale-skinned to the orange glow of the flames.
And there they throw in the vanities of this age: iPads, iPods, iPhones, iEverything, Swiss watches, jewellery, make up, hair gel, books, CDs, DVDs, external hard drives full of illegally downloaded films, sound systems, flat screen TVs, your mom, theatre tickets, musical instruments (even these could go at times!), fancy shoes, and on and on.
Edinburgh is auld reekie again. And not just in terms of smoke, but Standard English reeky. The stench of burning plastic and rubber fills the air as the penitents throw their worldly sources of distraction and affection and misplaced fulfilment and false self-worth onto the towering inferno, its column rising black and malodorous into the slate-grey Midlothian sky.
But somehow I doubt there will be a black-and-white-robed Dominican from St Albert’s chaplaincy standing there urging everyone on.
So a modern Bonfire of the Vanities.
We hope such excess is not necessary. But what is necessary to reach for the Invisible God, bound as we are to the physical realities all around us. We need to make daily space for being undistracted. We need to unclutter not just our homes but our schedules. Perhaps we need to engage in a bit of a metaphorical Bonfire of the Vanities ourselves.
It is Lent. The perfect excuse for a little spiritual discipline, yes?