Saturday, April 26, 2014

Envy (the Vice Devoid of Pleasure)

~~  "An envious man waxeth lean with the fatness of his neighbors. Envy is the daughter of pride, the author of murder and revenge, the beginner of secret sedition and the perpetual tormentor of virtue. Envy is the filthy slime of the soul; a venom, a poison, or quicksilver which consumeth the flesh and drieth up the marrow of the bones."  --Socrates  ~~

Well, that opening quotation is full enough to be an essay in itself.  Pithy and brief, it does capture the essence of Envy.  The deeper I've looked into and thought about this one, the more I realize (yet again) how many ways there are for us frail humans to descend into habits and behaviors that are destructive to us and hurtful to others-- most especially God.

Just to avoid confusion, let's first draw a distinction between Envy and Covetousness (Avarice/Greed).  Simply put, Covetousness focuses on things (gold, land, cars, etc.), while Envy focuses on people.  Envy is what makes me sad because you have something-- which I may or may not actually want, but I definitely do not want you to have it.  That train of thought, once pulled out of the station, is heading for perilous places, as we'll discuss forthwith.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.  -Proverbs 14: 30

By the way, while some people conflate Envy with Jealousy, I see them as close-but-not-so-close-after-all (they are called out separately in the listing of the "deeds of the flesh" in Galatians 5: 19-21).  Jealousy, to me, is really about not wanting to lose something that I already have (or think I have), and often involves matters of romance.  While Jealousy can certainly be destructive ("For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice." -James 3: 16), I think it is usually less so than Envy.  Furthermore, in some ways-- depending upon one's exact definition of it-- Jealousy can be a positive force.  Aristotle distinguished the two by saying Jealousy is reasonable since through it, a person can make himself get "good things;" while Envy would not want his neighbor to have those good things.

~~  "Jealousy is in a manner just and reasonable, as it tends to preserve a good which belongs, or which we believe belongs to us. Envy, on the other hand, is a fury that cannot endure the happiness of others."  --François de La Rochefoucauld  ~~

Envy is from the Latin "invidia," which means "to look against or at in a hostile manner."  It has been called the "side-long glance" that we cast at others whom we think are better off in some way than we are.  It can bring us to feelings such as "God is not fair because He has given others what He has not given me."  As we'll discuss, Envy leads to bad things, and always has.  Genesis (chapter 4)  shows the results of Cain's side-long glance... all the evil that came from that.

Envy "loves" what other people possess, instead of loving what is Good, Beautiful and True. It eats away the heart of the envious person.  In his "Inferno," Dante presents the envious as among those farthest away from Heaven.  Their eyes are sewn shut (no side-long glances that way) as they weep over their sins.

Envy intrinsically carries an evil because it is, literally, displeasure at another person's good; and that puts it contrary to right reason and the high virtue of Charity, which rejoices in our neighbor's good.  Aristotle remarked that "the very mention of envy denotes something evil."  Envy arises from vainglory, since it is concerned with opinions and other people.  It is also, sadly, all too common in most every one of us at some point-- clearly more in some than in others.

~~  “It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.”  --Aeschylus  ~~

Gregory the Great says Envy's "daughters" are: "hatred, tale-bearing, detraction, joy at our neighbor's misfortunes, and grief for his prosperity."  St. Augustine called Envy the "diabolical" sin, and listed its offspring as "hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity.”  From these two ancient wise men and their virtually identical lists, we are now getting the notion that there is more to Envy than simply wanting something that someone else has and being upset because they have it.  Envy also often takes great delight in other people’s misfortunes, faults, and failures.  In fact, Envy is often not satisfied unless someone is hurt.  Thomas Aquinas points out that while joy at another's misfortune is not directly the same as envy, "it is a result thereof, because grief over our neighbor's good, which is Envy, gives rise to joy in his misfortune."

Now we are crossing into deeper sin, to be sure.  A German word for this is "schadenfreude," which is satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune (the Germans have a word for everything, by the way).  The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the problem very clearly:  "Envy is a capital sin. It refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin."  There is no arguing with that.  Simple deduction shows the formula: we are called to love one another fully and deeply-- wanting the very best for our neighbor and never wanting bad for him-- and Envy takes us from that road and puts us on the highway to hell.

~~  “Our envy of others devours us most of all."  --Alexander Solzhenitsyn  ~~

Envy pits us against one another-- maybe more so than any other vice, because it is so personal.  St John Chrysostom saw this and said, "We fight one another, and envy arms us against one another" and we wind up "devouring one another like beasts."  If you have not read it (or don't remember it), please read Nathan's Parable in the biblical book 2 Samuel, Ch 12.  When the prophet Nathan wanted to spur King David to repentance, he told him the story about the poor man who had only one ewe lamb that he treated like his own daughter and the rich man who, despite having a great number of flocks, envied the poor man and ultimately stole his lamb.  I won't spoil the moral of the story, so please do visit it.

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it.  -Book of Wisdom, 2: 24

Finally, let's look at the "why" of Envy.  With other sins and vices, we can at least usually see where there is some pleasure to be gained-- some desire to be satisfied.  What do we get from Envy?  Well, since every person seeks "good" (and oh, so often we are mistaken on what is and isn't a good to be sought), there must be something good we feel can be gained through Envy.  So, it may be that someone else's "good" is seen as our own "bad"... and from there comes our sorrow for the other's good.  That is, almost always, a perversion of the rational appetite, and a surrender to what St Thomas called the "irascible appetite."

Ultimately, any sin or vice that seeks a good for oneself over someone else is problematic.  It boils down to Love and Charity, as does most everything in the end.  At the heart of it is the fact that a person desires good for the one he loves, and if that one is himself, then... well, you get the picture.  While Envy may involve that "side-long glance" at others, it is really about what is going on inside.  Just as Gluttony is not about the food, and Sloth is not about the specific slothful activity, Envy is not about the other person at all.  Things have a way of always circling back to our own inner workings, eh what?

~~  “A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.”  --Soren Kierkegaard  ~~

Well, since we've arrived back at ourselves, let's figure out how to dispatch this Envy monster (Shakespeare's "green-eyed monster" maybe).  The obvious answer is Love.  St. Paul lays it out quite clearly for us in 1st Corinthians (13: 4): "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud."  There- problem solved.  Oh... wait.  Not so simple, after all.  Love, Love, Love... love your God, love your neighbor, love your enemy.  Where are we called to love ourselves over those others?  Nowhere- that's where.  Yet, we so often do love ourselves and put ourselves above all else.  Love is a powerful force, but it is one that can be fraught with peril when we imperfect humans attempt to wield it.  In proper alignment, Love is the answer to Envy, plain and simple.

One of Love's soldiers is pity.  When we feel pangs of pity for some wretched person's plight, that is an act of Love.  In fact, pity can be thought of as something of an opposite to Envy.  This is not to say that we should condescendingly go around pitying people all the time... that would be downright annoying and is obviously superficial and disingenuous.  I refer to true pity that comes to us naturally when we see a fellow human suffering.  It means we saw in them something we know could happen to us (back home again), and through that, we have empathy for them.  This is a good use of "personalizing" things.  We want their suffering to end because we can empathize with it and know it to be bad.  In practice, that means we love them.

Practicing simple acts of brotherly love, including pity in its proper form, can be one way to strengthen our virtue and avoid Envy.  Here is a thing I try to do that has helped me with this beast.  When I start to feel what I take to be Envy, I ask myself if this person (whom I may be glancing side-long at) has any problems or issues.  Of course he does.  In fact, even if I'm not aware of the specifics, it is quite possible that he has problems worse than any I may have.  Well, I honestly do not want people to have bad problems, so that leads my soft heart toward other, nobler feelings besides Envy.

A chief source of Envy seems to be that we feel something is not "just" or "fair."  A cure for this is to invoke the Cardinal Virtue of Justice.  Remind yourself that while you may think someone has something that you should rightfully have, the chances are that it is not "cosmic justice" that is misaligned; but rather your perception of it.  In any case, Justice calls us to look outside ourselves and be rational and reasonable.  In the face of that, Envy, which is anything but rational and reasonable, will usually shrink away in humiliation.

The bottom line for me is to realize that Envy is the one vice that really has nothing good to offer me-- not even temporary pleasure in any real sense.  That should make it one of the easier ones to get past-- with some good spiritual elbow grease, that is.  Love and Charity in all things, good people... that is how we get to where we all want and need to be.

Let us not be made desirous of vainglory, provoking one another, envying one another. -Galatians 5: 26

God bless!


Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Biggest Day!

The darkness that has held the world for two days is now lifted.  The crushing scourge of sin which has kept mankind chained to death is now defeated.  He has fulfilled what has been promised and bought salvation for all who believe in him.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”   Matthew, 28: 1-10

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." 1 Peter 1:3 

Happy Easter, one and all!

We have come through the pain of Good Friday, and the long vigil of Holy Saturday... and now our faith is validated.  

Alleluia - Alleluia!!  Christ is risen!!


Friday, April 18, 2014

What Love Looks Like

Good Friday.  Many still to this day ask "why is it good if such an awful thing happened?"  Fair enough question, I guess.  I remember thinking such things myself as a young child.  Simple to answer, but the truth of the answer is not so easy to really comprehend and digest.

By his passion and death, Jesus Christ proved his great and infinite love for all mankind.  He bought, with his suffering and blood, every blessing for us.  So, as terrible as it was for Him to go through it... without it there would be no Resurrection--  no Easter-- no life for those who believe in him.  Such love as He showed should humble the mightiest among us.  Such love should bring all humanity to its knees in humble adoration and appreciation.

Catholics, and other Christians, mark this day in multiple ways.  We fast, we attend services, we pray, we try to remain silent and reverential from noon to three pm, etc.  Whatever else we may do, though, we must not let it be "just another day."  Because it is not.  This is the day that began in pain and ended in sorrow... but it is also the penultimate step to the greatest and best thing to ever happen in the history of the entire world.

~~  "Even on the cross He did not hide Himself from sight; rather, He made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker."  --St. Athanasius of Alexandria  ~~

If you've not seen Mel Gibson's masterpiece, "The Passion of the Christ," I strongly suggest it.  (I offer a warning that is is extremely graphic and does not flinch from depicting what our Lord went through.)  In making ourselves hyper aware of what He did for us-- almost to the point of "wallowing" in His pain-- we show that, in our small, human way, we understand and appreciate it.  

"He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."  1 Peter, 2: 24

God bless.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Holy Week Invitation

Calling all Christians- and any other person interested in self-improvement.  Please read this post and let me know if you are willing to accept my invitation.  If you are "non-religious," I contend that you can still benefit greatly from it... in fact, I would bet on it.

Palm Sunday is here!  Thus begins the very height of the Christian calendar year.  As the deep purple curtain of Lent begins to open to the Light that is coming with Easter, we have an amazing opportunity before us.  For forty days, we are called to fasting, to alms-giving, and to prayer.  Many of us, myself included, have been guilty in the past (and maybe the present) of not living up to all three of those during Lent.  But even if we did live up to them, once Lent is lost in the bright wake of Easter Sunday, how easy has it been to slip right back into "old ways?"  Far too easy.

I've always been deeply interested in the lives of the saints-- and of late, even more so.  I have made it an official habit to read the "saint of the day" every morning- and also to read quotes and acts from saints each day.  This has been one of my extra-special Lenten objectives, and I have succeeded at it.  I can report to you that it has made a noticeable difference in the way I feel and in the way I see things.

In Romans and 1st Corinthians, among many other books of the bible, we are called to be saints.  It is why we are on this Earth.  The chief aspect of a saint is, of course, holiness.  That sanctification should be our goal, because just reading and believing our faith is not enough.  We are called to live our lives in the way that pleases God and in a way that helps others please God (thereby "dragging one another to heaven," as my daughter says).  Consider the opening of Ephesians (1: 3-6):

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.  In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved."

There it is.  He "chose us... to be holy and without blemish before him..."  If you take His Word seriously, how can you ignore that?  I can't... not anymore.  I can no longer just say and think that I am "trying" to be good, while still slipping back into the same vices and faults that are, literally, leading me to hell.  I have to work harder to get there... I want to be able to answer that call to sainthood; and I want to invite any and all of you who read this to join me.  That's right, I want to be a saint!   Come on!  Are you in?

Since I've never been a saint before, I'm not exactly sure of the road-map; but fortunately, we have some fantastic advice and examples to follow.  By simple observation, we can see that there are certain things all of the saints have in common.  As we look at these, let's see if we think we can do them.  The first attribute that we should start with is that saints are not perfect.  They are humans who are people of their times, and often subject to the problems associated with those times.  No one is perfect... and we will not be, no matter how hard we try.  Okay, I can definitely do that one!  Here are some more things we know about saints:

  1. They truly follow the Commandments, especially the greatest one, loving God with all their heart and might.  It has been rightly said that everything is vanity, except to love God and to serve Him alone.
  2. They spend a lot of time reading His Word and other virtuous things.  In other words: they take time to learn all they can about God and God's plans and work.
  3. They work very hard to love all other people, just as each of us is told to do.  Every living human being is a child of God and will live eternally (one way or another).  We have to feel the same deep and abiding love for one another that Jesus showed to us.
  4. They shunned the "worldly" things that would take their eyes off the prize, so to speak.  "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"  (Mark, 8: 36)
  5. They exercise true humility, giving all praise and honor where it belongs: to Almighty God.  Every time we think we are better than someone else, or are supremely pleased with ourselves, we must remember to slap our own face, so to speak, until that prideful flare is extinguished.
  6. They pray.  A lot.  A whole lot.  How can I be a true friend to God if I do not speak to Him regularly.  We are busy and it is so easy to fall into a habit of only praying at certain times (nighttime, church, dinner, etc.).  That is the road to making prayer just "something that we do," instead of a regular, on-going dialogue with the Holy Trinity (I have started to speak to all three regularly).
  7. They take risks-- often fearlessly-- because they trust in God.  From father Abraham to modern saints in the Middle East, China, and other hostile areas, saints do what it takes to achieve God's Will "on Earth, as it is in Heaven."  If He tells me to do something, I want to have the courage to do it. 

I've been reading "The Imitation of Christ," by Thomas à Kempis (HIGHLY recommend it).  I want to share a passage that gets right at the heart of our quest for sainthood.  From chapter eleven:

--How came it to pass that many of the Saints were so perfectly
contemplative of Divine things?  Because they steadfastly
sought to mortify themselves from all worldly desires, and so
were enabled to cling with their whole heart to God, and be free
and at leisure for the thought of Him.  We are too much occupied
with our own affections, and too anxious about transitory things.
Seldom, too, do we entirely conquer even a single fault, nor are
we zealous for daily growth in grace.  And so we remain lukewarm
and unspiritual.
--Were we fully watchful of ourselves, and not bound in spirit
to outward things, then might we be wise unto salvation, and make
progress in Divine contemplation.  Our great and grievous
stumbling-block is that, not being freed from our affections and
desires, we strive not to enter into the perfect way of the
Saints.  And when even a little trouble befalleth us, too quickly
are we cast down, and fly to the world to give us comfort.
--If we would quit ourselves, and strive to stand firm in the 
battle, then would we see the Lord helping us from Heaven.
For He Himself is always ready to help those who strive and who
trust in Him; yea, He provideth for us occasions of striving, to
the end that we may win the victory.  If we look upon our
progress in religion as a progress only in outward observances
and forms, then our devoutness will soon come to an end.  But let us
lay the axe to the very root of our life, that, being cleansed
from affections, we may possess our souls in peace.
--If each year should see even one fault rooted out from us, we
would go quickly on toward perfection.  But on the contrary, we
often feel that we were better and holier in the beginning of our
conversion than after many years of profession.  Zeal and
progress ought to increase day by day; yet now it seemeth a great
thing if one is able to retain some portion of his first ardour.
If we would put some slight stress on ourselves at the beginning,
then afterwards we should be able to do all things with ease and
--It is a hard thing to break through a habit, and a yet harder
thing to go contrary to our own will.  Yet if thou do not overcome 
small and easy obstacles, how shalt thou overcome greater ones?
Withstand thy will at the beginning, and unlearn an evil habit,
lest it lead thee little by little into worse difficulties.  Oh,
if thou knewest what peace to thyself thy holy life would bring
to thyself, and what joy to others, methinketh thou wouldst be
more zealous for spiritual profit.

So, now what...?  Well, in the spirit of taking things one day at a time (which is how I've been trying to live for the past year), I plan to add to each of my days a little more study, prayer, and contemplation.  I figure that if I can keep my mind on His word and the true faith, then I will be breaking bad habits and ingraining good ones.  As I said, I've managed to add a few good habits, including making my first waking act a sign of thanks and devotion to God.  Now, I want to expand... so, here is my plan; and again, I invite you to join me.

Between now and Easter, 2015, I plan to:

  • Read the entire bible (again).  This time, I intend to read it with my Faith in full swing.  In other words, I'm not going to try to be "scholarly" or "learned" in reading it... I'm just going to read it as I would any book, and let His revelation come to me.  I've heard that is the best thing to do, by the way.  The bible has only 73 books (66 for the King James), so that is not too much more than one per week (some of the books are very short and take only minutes to read).  There are all sorts of options here for the modern reader: online sources (here is the one I usually use on my computer:  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) online bible. ), smart phone/tablet apps (there is a FANTASTIC app called "Laudate" that I use several times a day for the bible and much more), or an actual hard copy of the bible.  Whichever you choose, I recommend a "study bible," that is, one with good footnotes- those really help.
  • Read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  I strongly recommend this-- maybe especially for my non-Catholic brethren out there.  (The great Fulton Sheen famously said: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be").  The Catechism is a fantastic way to get straight to the source of the Church's teachings.  It is laid out very well and is very readable.  You can find free copies of it, but the easiest is an online version, like this one from the USCCB
  • Pray even more.  Regular, little talks with God injected throughout my day.  
  • Continue to read about the saints.  The Laudate app I mentioned has a great "Saint of the Day" feature, plus there are many more sources.

By doing all of this "learning," I will be keeping my mind and energy pointed in a positive direction.  It sounds like a lot, but in the scheme of a 24 hour day, I can make time for an hour or less for something this incredibly important.  If you feel a bit squeamish about trying to undertake what may seem a daunting challenge, please remember that Jesus promised us that if we knock, the door will open; and if we seek, we will find.  Then consider that the mighty Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the very smartest people ever to live, explained that we can't know all and truly understand everything immediately.  He, the great master of rational thinking, taught that Faith has to be in there at all times, especially at the beginning.  Then, we will work on the learning part.

“We can't have full knowledge all at once. We must start by believing; then afterwards we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves.”  --Saint Thomas Aquinas

If you join me, we can help one another along.  Like those contests where teams get together to see who can lose the most weight, we can be a team working together to lose faults and gain virtue.  We can monitor one another's progress and discuss difficulties we encounter.  There is great power in such teamwork.  I know that I will reach out to others during this challenge-- and I stand ready to respond to anyone who reaches out to me.

Patrick Coffin, the host of the wildly popular "Catholic Answers Live" show, often ends his broadcast by saying "Be a saint-- what else is there?"  I really do hope and pray that you will join me, in as much capacity as you can.  Please pass this post along to anyone and everyone you know.  We can help each other so much, and we can make a difference in not just our own lives, but in the "greater good" of this very troubled society.

Guided by Faith and a firm desire to be closer to Him and to do His work, we will go from merely reading and learning and praying to actually LIVING THE FAITH.

"Because it is written: You shall be holy, for I am holy."  1 Peter, 1: 16

God bless!!


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sloth (the "Nothing" Vice)

The Ant and the Sluggard at Harvest (Proverbs 6: 6-11)

Go to the ant, O sluggard, study her ways and learn wisdom;
For though she has no chief, no commander or ruler,
She procures her food in the summer, stores up her provisions in the harvest.
How long, O sluggard, will you lie there? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest—
Then poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like a brigand.

I'll begin by saying that this was a tough one for me.  Like most people, I probably looked upon Sloth as something not-so-great, but not intuitively or necessarily a "deadly" or "capital" sin or vice.  As usual, I had a lot to learn.  I always knew that Sloth is more than simple laziness, but I was never sure just why and just how much more.  So, before I went in depth into what the bible, the ancients, and the Church Fathers/Doctors had to say, I challenged myself to come up with a compendium of Sloth's impact.  Like all the Capital Vices, you can come at it from a secular or a "religious" angle and you will get the same basic result: it is a bad thing that leads to more bad things and makes you less than what you should be.  When you add the "generic" bad things to the spiritual bad things, it becomes easy to see how Sloth came to be held as one of the big seven.

~~  “[Sloth is] the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”   --Dorothy Sayers  ~~

That quote really resonates with me... Sloth is the "nothing" vice.  In general, we are talking about a vice that leads us to avoid what we ought to be doing in favor of... anything else.  Some have called it a "sluggishness of the mind" which neglects to begin doing good.  Sloth's Latin equivalent is Acedia (Greek Akedia) - which means the "I don't care feeling."  That is a good place to start, because essentially if we really cared about the good thing we were supposed to be doing, then we would do it.  This immediately shows us that Sloth is much deeper than mere "laziness."  You could say that, even if Sloth is not actively "sinning," per se, it is acting to smother the virtues by preventing their acts.

"Through sloth, the rafters sag; when hands are slack, the house leaks."  Ecclesiastes 10: 18

At the risk of sounding audacious, I think Sloth is the very thing that keeps all of us-- to a relative extent-- from achieving all that we can.  François duc de La Rochefoucauld (pretty smart guy, for a Frenchman) said that "the mind attaches itself by idleness and habit to whatever is easy or pleasant," thereby preventing us from enlarging and expanding our mind to its full capacity.  For a quick self-test, ask yourself if you can think of a time when you delayed (or simply avoided altogether) doing something that needed to be done by telling yourself that it was just "too difficult" or "too time-consuming."  That is what we often do (and always have).  How many good and noble things have I not done in my life, due to a vexatious tendency to talk myself out of it because of Sloth's insidious influence?

~~  “We excuse our sloth under the pretext of difficulty.”  --Marcus Fabius Quintilian  ~~

The lengths that Sloth will go to vary among individuals, but the general effect is universal.  Sloth would have us think that the practice of doing good and righteous things is filled with difficulties and so, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, we begin to "chafe under the perceived restraints imposed by the Virtues."  As we Christians know, the true way is narrow and Sloth uses that truth to lead us to (falsely) see it as also long and weary.  No wonder that our mind and soul grow sluggish at the thought of such a painful journey.  Next thing you know, the very idea of living rightly-- of doing all we ought to do-- does not inspire joy in us, but instead, other things... maybe disgust and sorrow.

"Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin."  James 4: 17

Now, man shuns things that cause sorrow- even if those things are, in themselves, good and spiritual.  It follows that Sloth would be a sin since the "sorrow" is borne of not wanting to do the good things that one ought to do. Also, since it is a "sorrow," it is opposed to joy.  That alone is worth remembering.  True joy, not transitory feelings like pleasure, can come only from true good.  According to Aristotle, a man who shuns good things will move to other things that give him pleasure: thus "those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body."  Plainly: Sloth is troublesome since it is essentially the opposition of the flesh to the spirit.

~~  “That destructive siren, sloth, is ever to be avoided.”  --Horace  ~~

There it is, then.  There is how Sloth earns a spot in the top seven.  If I am sorrowful and distressed at the prospect of what I must do to be truly good and keep my friendship with God, then that is directly opposed to the high virtue of Charity.  Taken to its full potential, I would be violating the greatest of the Commandments:  "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole might."  James made it crystal clear that working on doing what is good and right is the surest sign of fidelity to the Almighty.

"But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.'"  James 2: 18

Speaking of work, how about a topic that is timely and relevant to modern society.  What of those (generations) whom Sloth has brought to live off the public dole?  I'm not referring to anyone legitimately unable to work (or find work).  No, I mean the folks who have become virtual wards of the state, and who do not do the right thing by providing for themselves.  It may be government abetted Sloth... but it is Sloth, nonetheless.  Oh, and lest we think our generation is the only one to deal with this topic-- let's not forget that it is as old as humanity... because the Capital Vices are as old as humanity.  The bible is rife with warnings and recriminations against all kinds of Sloth, including the "welfare state" kind.  Here are two examples from the New Testament:

"In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat."  2 Thessalonians 3: 10

"And whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."  1 Timothy 5: 8

We must, of course, spend a moment covering Sloth's progeny.  We know that all of the big seven lead to other vices, so let's see about Sloth.  St. Gregory the Great assigns six "daughters" to Sloth:  "malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, and wandering of the mind after unlawful things."  That listing seems rightly assigned to me, if not exhaustive.  Other thinkers have added a few others, among them idleness and restlessness.  I would add the potential to harm one's physical self by too much "down time."  I would also consider the viral effect that Sloth can produce-- it is not just the personal things that affect me that are endangered by Sloth.  What about all of the wrongs out there that I am not fighting against because Sloth has me in a headlock?

~~  "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."  --Edmond Burke  ~~

Effectively fighting this vice might look a bit different than the ways we combat some other sins.  St. John Cassian famously said "Experience shows that the onslaught of sloth is not to be evaded by flight but to be conquered by resistance."  I take that to be a common sense approach, considering that the nature of Sloth is to ease its way into our lives and overtake our will.  That is something that will only be overcome by creating and maintaining good habits and effective mental models.  Thank God for our weapons: Fortitude will keep us moving when Justice and Prudence tell us we should, because Temperance announced that we had rested long enough.  Faith will embrace us because we worked in its name and in the name of Charity.  Finally, in response to the "sorrow" we might feel at the narrow and long road of righteousness, Hope will shine its bright light to show us that it's not really so hard, after all.

Of course, the simple answer is to just "get busy," right?  After all, Ben Franklin himself said “Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy."  I would insert a small caveat, though, to remind us that "busy" alone is not a solution to this vice.  Busy in what we ought to be busy in is the real key.  For example, Francis Bacon asserted that to spend too much time in studies is a form of Sloth.  It is not, although it may seem at first, counter-intuitive that "being busy" can also mean "being slothful;" especially when considered in light of all the above.  One can be "busy" sleeping, eating, talking, walking, studying, etc., etc., etc.  Although none of those activities are in and of themselves bad or "sinful," all of that "busy-ness" becomes Sloth when it becomes inordinate... and, mostly, when it gets in the way of the thing(s) we ought to be doing.

St. Paul sends us along with a cheerful antidote to the poison of old Mr. Sloth:

"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."  1 Corinthians 15: 58

God bless!


Thursday, April 03, 2014

Gluttony (a Plate Too Far)

~~  "As long as the vice of gluttony has a hold on a man, all that he has done valiantly is forfeited by him: and as long as the belly is unrestrained, all virtue comes to naught."  --Gregory the Great  ~~

Let's begin with a mental picture of this lovely vice.  The word "Gluttony" is from Latin: gluttire-- to gulp down, swallow.  I know what that looks like (even without a mirror).  Go ahead, picture it.  In its full bloom, it is vexingly pleasurable to feel for oneself and quite sickening to witness in another.  More than many other vices, it is usually out there for all to see-- and they do see.

~~  “Gluttony is not a secret vice.”  --Orson Welles  ~~

Beyond the gross factor, why is it considered one of the big seven?  For starters, it is another of those attributes that can be considered a moral deformity because it defies our reason.  It is right and logical that necessity should be the measure of our indulgence in eating and drinking; and Gluttony ignores that with a snarl and a burp.  It's not just gulping down and swallowing... in the inimitable and compendious reckoning of Thomas Aquinas, it is gulping down and swallowing "Prae-propere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose" (too quickly, too expensively, too much, too greedily, too daintily).

Part of the criteria involved in a certain vice/sin to be named "capital" is that other vices/sins originate from it.  It doesn't take a microscope to see that this is true of Gluttony.  Gregory lists the "daughters" of Gluttony as unseemly joy, scurrility (vulgarity), uncleanness, loquaciousness, and dullness of mind.  To almost any degree, those are ugly stains to have showing on one's character.  There are certainly others that can be borne of Gluttony, depending upon the person and the details.

Gluttony can be considered a minor (venial) sin or a major (mortal) sin, based upon the circumstance.  I can see that rather clearly: minor when it comes in small and occasional doses.  The mighty Augustine himself said "Who is it, Lord, that does not eat a little more than necessary?"  I am not sure that there are very many people in the history of the world who have not been guilty of such at some point(s).  However, one can see where it could get much worse-- where food and drink become the raison d'être; thus putting one in the company of those St Paul spoke of in Philippians 3:19 ("Their end is destruction. Their god is their stomach; their glory is in their 'shame.' Their minds are occupied with earthly things.").  It's not just Paul, the rest of the Good Book is not shy about weighing in on Gluttony.

"Be not greedy in any feasting, and pour not out thyself upon any meat: For in many meats there will be sickness, and greediness will turn to choler.  By surfeiting many have perished: but he that is temperate, shall prolong life."  Sirach, 37: 32-34

Dante took quite seriously the biblical admonitions of Gluttony (as he did with all the Capital Vices).  In the "Inferno," the 3rd Circle of hell is populated with those poor souls whose chief sin in life was Gluttony.  For eternity, they must lie in "stinking dirt" and a "foul slush," with putrid and cold rain falling on them.  They are guarded and tormented by the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who is constantly ripping and tearing at them.  The better one's imagination, the worse this notion is.

In either case, minor or major, Gluttony is certainly something that is all too prevalent in human nature.  I believe that, upon some cogitation, the reason becomes obvious.  Like many vices, Gluttony is behavior that is reaching for some level of happiness and satiety.  Perhaps even more than others, though, Gluttony will never succeed in that quest because, as Qoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes (6: 7) "All the labor of man is for his mouth, yet the appetite is never satisfied."  There is something there, no?  The human  heart is always seeking more than it possesses; and that is obviously because what it possesses is not hitting the mark for some reason.  (Keep that point in mind- we'll unpack it a lot more when we get to discussing Envy.)

It is really not such a fine line of distinction between enjoying one's food and drink and being a glutton.  It's more like a fairly thick line that, for some reason, we still have trouble seeing in ourselves.  As is the case with many things, it really is a matter of conditioning oneself into (or out of) a habit.  That starts with recognition that there is an issue; and it continues with finding the proper tools to address the issue.  Gregory saw that since pleasure and necessity go together in eating/drinking, we can easily fail to discern between the proper call of necessity and the seduction of inordinate pleasure.

- Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.  Proverbs 23: 20-21 -

So, if we're going to tame the "enemy" (our gluttonous appetite) that is dwelling inside us, we have to stand up and engage in spiritual combat.  Fortunately, as we've been discussing for a while now, we have the Virtues to help with these pesky and problematic vices/sins.  I've been praying and working diligently for quite a while now on achieving Temperance in all things.  I have had some great successes and some... not quite successes; but even when falling short, I can feel the power of that virtue... if only I can become able and worthy to wield it.

The other Virtues can also help in their own ways, of course.  Prudence will tell us how unwise and unhealthy it is to be a glutton.  Justice, working with Charity, will help us channel some of the objects of our gluttony to those in need.  Fortitude will keep us moving along the difficult path of denying ourselves excessive (and harmful) pleasure.  Faith will remind us that we are really hungry for more than food and thirsty for more than drink... and that we will finally be satisfied when we go to Him.

As an avowed lover of food and drink, I would be remiss if I let this essay descend into a "bashing" of one of the best gifts we poor little humans posses.  It should be stated and understood clearly that it is not the food's or drink's fault.  It is what we do with them that makes all the difference; and the bottom line is that the thing being over-indulged in (food and/or drink) is in itself neither bad nor good.  (Sounds a bit like the gun control debate, eh?)  We can and should appreciate the good food and drink that comes to us from the Lord's bounty.

~~  "He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise."  --Henry David Thoreau  ~~

The endlessly wonderful, and truly miraculous, array of food and beverage that are available to us is most certainly one of God's great gifts to the world.  However, like any of His gifts, we must partake of them rightly (and gratefully, I would add).  In fact, the more we can train ourselves to enjoy things moderately, modestly, and gratefully, the more we will actually enjoy them.  Don't believe me?  Let's make it a homework experiment and see how it goes.

It is, in my mind, beyond question that the Almighty loves us and wants what is good and right for us.  Just look at Ecclesiastes again: "Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun" (8: 15).  AND mortals should " and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God"  (2: 24).

So we'll close by remembering that, while it is definitely okay to "eat, drink, and be merry," we must never let that inclination become the master of our focus.  It hurts us physically, morally, and spiritually-- and it is yet another brick in the wall that our vices and sins seek to build between us and our true end.

- "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."  1 Corinthians 3: 16-17 -

Bon appétit and God bless!


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