Monday, May 19, 2014

Covetousness (the Treasure Hunter)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."  -Matthew 6: 19-21, 24

These words were spoken by Jesus Christ during His Sermon on the Mount.  (If you've not read it, please do- it's the greatest piece of condensed wisdom ever uttered in human history.  It is contained in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7.)

I felt it a good way to begin the discussion about Covetousness.  I would start by asking a simple question about Jesus' admonition: what happens when your heart is with your treasure?  I take the answer to be that this will be your treasure-- only earthly and temporary wealth-- and when you leave this Earth, your treasure will stay here and there will be no more treasure for you.  In fact, even while you are still on this Earth, there will be nothing beyond earthly wealth for you; because you have made it into your everything.

From our discussion on Envy, you may remember that Envy is about people while Covetousness concerns itself with things.  The Latin word for Covetousness is "avaritia" (Avarice), and along with the Greek "philargyria" (Greed), it means excessive love and desire for possessing riches.  So, this particular sin, which can never be satisfied, seeks to obtain more and more and more worldly riches-- to a disordered degree, of course.

~~  "Few things are needed to make a wise man happy; nothing can make a fool content; that is why most men are miserable."  --François de La Rochefoucauld  ~~

Now this is not to say that worldly riches are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  The same old caveat on capital vices/sins applies here again: it is a corruption or deprivation of some good thing, to the point of perversion.  By Covetousness we sin against ourselves, because it causes disorder in our affections (even though not in our bodies as with the sins of the flesh).  To quote an old Italian proverb:  "Big mouthfuls often choke."  Covetousness' insidiousness is clear because it often cloaks itself as a virtue under the pretext of making provisions for the future, etc.  It is the inordinate desire that is the vice; not the treasure itself.

"For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." -1 Timothy 6: 10

Covetousness, like any vice, can be big or small, and can have as its aim objects that rightfully belong to another person or objects that are "up for grabs" for anyone.  Its real malice, broadly speaking, is that it makes the acquiring, increasing, and keeping of riches the purpose in itself to live for.  Already we see how it can lead to other things.  In fact, here is a listing of the "daughters" of Covetousness, as reckoned by Gregory the Great and St. Isidore of Seville: "treachery, lying, fraud, theft, falsehood, perjury, restlessness, violence, rapacity, inhumanity, and insensibility to mercy."  Wow.  Now we know how Covetousness found its way into the Super Seven club.

Getting to the root of Covetousness is not really that difficult.  You don't need a lot of psychology training to see how people often seek to obtain one thing to satisfy (or perhaps hide from) a subconscious desire for something else entirely.  This seems true in most, if not all, of our vices/sins; and all of us are subject to it to some degree.  People sometimes eat too much because they are sad or because something inside them wants to be filled up.  People sometimes drink too much because they want to dull some ache deep within them.  People sometimes get into bad relationships because they want to find someone-- ANYONE-- who will love them.  People sometimes seek more and more and more money because they see it as the answer to the resounding emptiness that echoes inside them when they stop long enough to listen to it.

~~  "The covetous man is always in want."  --Horace  ~~

The truth is we often don't really know what it is we really want... and when we do have rare moments of realization, we run from them.  We are restless creatures constantly seeking satisfaction for desires-- sometimes to the point where those desires lead us wildly astray.  Why is this so?  In his "Confessions," St Augustine said to the Lord:  “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

There it is- a large clue for those of us seeking to better understand the hows and whys of human behavior and thought.  We were designed to be restless until we find "it:"  the one thing that will take away all the restlessness... the thing that will finally and actually satiate us.  There is a strong correlation to be made here between some of our sins (especially Covetousness) and this restless heart concept.  Have you noticed that we often behave as if we desire something that we've never had before?  How is this possible?  We cannot yearn for something we have never had; we can only yearn for our idea of what that thing is.  For example, if I have never eaten a chocolate cookie, I cannot yearn for one; I can only yearn for what I think a chocolate cookie is.  In equating this to coveting something that we've not had-- say, our neighbor's property-- it is clear that we're coveting an idea that sprang from our own restless (and sinful) heart.

This is important for a few reasons.  First, it shows a new level of complication and insidiousness to the sin of Covetousness; to the point where it has us wanting things we've never had.  Second, it shines a bright floodlight on the fact that we are rejecting, and even disdaining, our true, eternal desires for the sake of temporal things.  So often, our desires are stretching and groping and reaching out for anything and everything except for what we really want and need.  In this, we can see how Covetousness can be considered a sin against God (like all "mortal" sins).

~~  "We would earnestly desire but few things if we clearly knew what we desired."  --François de La Rochefoucauld  ~~

The mighty C.S. Lewis made famous a great concept in arguing for the existence of God.  It is known as the argument from desire and looks like this:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, "Hope")

Professor Peter Kreeft (quite mighty in his own right) has taken Lewis' argument and put some additional logic armor on it.  Take a minute sometime and read his page on it.

In summation, Covetousness is an often serious disorder within our desire center.  It is clearly quite destructive and can lead to very bad things-- both for ourselves and against our fellow man.  Mostly, it shows that we have a hole inside of us that won't be filled with earthly things.  Socrates said that if we're not content with what we have, then we will not be content with what we think we would like to have.  The bible is never shy about discussing this subject:  "Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income."  -(Ecclesiastes 5: 10).  So, there we have a pagan Greek agreeing with a scriptural passage he never read.  How about a word from another pagan, this one Roman-- just to make it unanimous.

~~  "For greed, all nature is too little."  --Lucius Annaeus Seneca  ~~

All we're left with now is what to do about Covetousness.  As I so often do, I'll turn to Thomas Aquinas, who reminds us that Virtue is perfected in accordance with right reason.  So... what does our right reason tell us?  For starters, that our "natural inclinations" should be regulated and governed by our reason and will.  This is the hard part, though, eh?  The spirit is willing, and all that.  Good news, though: according to some orange, dwarf-like creatures, we'll be happy if we can just get past this vice.

~~  “If you're not greedy you will go far, you will live in happiness too... like the Oompa.... Loompa.... doompity do.”  --The Ooompa Loompas  ~~

Those ultra-creepy (but quite lyrical) little folks make it sound so easy: just don't be greedy, right?  Well, we all know better now... it's in our nature to sometimes go full-on with Covetousness-- the degree of which being relative to the person, of course.  No, it's not easy.  If it was easy, these Capital-Deadly-Vice-Sins would not be known as such.  As for me, I'll turn to Almighty God for help.  His Virtues and His Word can do more for me against this vice (and all the others) than anything else out there-- no doubt about that.

I will have Faith that He has prepared real treasure for me; I will Hope that I can be worthy of it; I will strive to practice true Charity whenever and however I can; I will pray for Fortitude to keep me upright in my quest; I will practice Prudence when thinking about money; I will keep in mind Justice in all financial matters; and I will call upon Temperance whenever my mind begins to think I need more and more and more.

Finally, I will read His Word and try to make it a daily (hourly) presence in my life... because I know that in that Word is the secret to real, true, and eternal happiness.  After all, He promised:

"Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for God Himself has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” -Hebrews 13: 5

God bless!!


(By the way, here is an experiment of mine: a video/audio version of this essay.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lust (the Tyrant)

~~  “Lust's passion will be served; it demands, it militates, it tyrannizes.”  
--Marquis de Sade  ~~

I usually refrain from opening an essay with a quote from one of the most famous and vile perverts in history... but when you're right, you're right-- and it is fitting that one such as he would know of Lust.

For the purpose of scope, I will take this particular vice in the purest form: referring to the sexual appetite.  While it is technically true that we can lust after power, money, etc.; it is more accurate to categorize those in their own dimensions (e.g., Avarice, Gluttony, etc.).  I've come to realize that these wonderful Capital Vices are much better understood when broken down as specifically as possible.  The inner-workings of our sinful selves are a true spider-web of behaviors that all inter-connect, while still having their own unique points of origin and final ends.

I begin by asserting that Lust is not just a "thought crime," as some would think at first look.  It is true that Jesus himself told us that if we lust in our hearts, we have actually done the deed (Matthew 5: 28).  That alone is bad enough, one would think, but Lust is not done with us yet.  Those thoughts... those stubborn and seductive thoughts... they have a way of getting out of their cage and wreaking havoc on our virtue and on our very lives.

~~  "Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny."  --Ralph Waldo Emerson  ~~

Emerson's words are the absolute gospel truth-- fitting for good thoughts as well as bad ones.  We are, essentially, what we think.  If we think mostly good and virtuous thoughts, our actions and character will follow.  This is why it is so hard to break habits.  Once our actions become habit, and once our habits become part of our character, we are on the road to our destiny...  bad or good.

It can be plainly seen that Lust has wrought untold destruction on the lives of so many people over the course of humanity's existence.  As with all the vices, it really does not matter whether you look at Lust from a "religious" lens or a secular lens; the fact is, it is detrimental to a properly ordered personage.  In fact, the Catechism says that Lust is "disordered desire for, or inordinate enjoyment of, sexual pleasure (paragraph 2531).  It is morally "disordered" because it seeks the pleasure for its own sake, apart from its intended "procreative and unitive purposes."  In other words: we were designed a certain way, and when we go outside our programming, we become disordered and malfunctions begin occurring.

Just as we see with other vices, Lust begins with a desire for something that is not, in and of itself, bad.  In fact, the ostensible object that Lust seeks is actually necessary for the propagation of our species-- just as eating food is necessary for the individual to survive.  More on that later.  The problem is, of course, that Lust (and Gluttony) take what is ordered and necessary and carry it to disordered and out of control lengths.

~~  “Lust knows not where Necessity ends.”  --Benjamin Franklin   ~~

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that Lust is the craving for something that ultimately becomes directly opposed to what a person actually needs.  The nature of perversity is that, ultimately, the original object of Lust is not as important as the Lust itself.  Lust builds its own momentum and eventually nothing will satisfy the "small" craving that it started out as.  This is demonstrably evident when looking at pornography addicts (a scourge that is devastating our culture like nothing else ever has).  Medical evidence shows that pornography addicts always get to the stage where real life sensuality and even the "starter porn" they began with just don't do it for them anymore.  That is precisely because the demanding and tyrannical vice of Lust continues to push itself deeper and deeper into the consciousness (and subconsciousness) while driving the person farther and farther away from what is right and necessary.

Gregory the Great assigns Lust's "daughters" as: "blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love extending to the contempt or hatred of God, love of this world, and despair of a future world."  Whether one is "religious" or not, most of that list is not where any of us want to be.  Sacred Hindu text (the Bhagavad Gita) says that Lust is one of the three gates to Hell (Anger and Greed are the other two... go figure).  As far back as you can look, people have struggled with this vice, and God has noticed and ensured His champions worked on the problem.

"So I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance, because of their hardness of heart, they have become callous and have handed themselves over to lasciviousness for the practice of every kind of impurity to excess."  -Ephesians 4: 17-19

It is obvious that Lust disorders our reason and our will-- so, a quick word on that.  Thomas Aquinas wrote that the more necessary something is, the more we have to observe the order of reason in its regard... and  the more destructive it becomes if the order of reason is forsaken.  In his exhaustive and mighty Summa Theologia, Thomas lists the four acts of reason in determining what and how to do something:

"First is simple understanding, which apprehends some end as being good..."
"Second is counsel about what is to be done for the sake of that end...
"Third is a judgement about the things to be done...
"Fourth is the Reason's command about the thing to be done."

These four acts are torn asunder by Lust.

The first act of Reason-- understanding something that is seen as good and necessary-- is seriously hindered by Lust.  In the story of Susanna (chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel), we see two elders of the people (judges) fall into serious trouble due to their Lust for the beautiful girl.  They are told "Beauty hath deceived thee, and lust hath perverted thy heart" (Daniel, 13: 56).  Here we see Gregory's "blindness of mind" at play.  (Please read Susanna's story- it will leave a lasting impression!  LINK )

The second act of Reason-- counsel and moderation when considering an action to be taken-- also suffers at the hands of Lust.  Gregory's "rashness" shows the absence of sober counsel in one's own mind when entranced by Lust.  Hard to rationally convince yourself of the right course of action when you are dripping mental drool (in some cases, actual physical drooling may occur).

The third act of Reason-- judging the things being considered-- definitely takes a beating from Lust.  Back to the old lecherous judges in Daniel:  "They perverted their thinking... and did not keep in mind just judgments" (Daniel 13:9).  There we see Gregory's "thoughtlessness" in play.  Self: "What do I think about this action?"  Self:  "Meh- who cares?"

The fourth act of Reason-- the command given by Reason about the thing to be done-- is certainly impeded by Lust.  How can a person not be hindered in doing right and ordered things when carried away by lustful distractions and obsessions?  Is it right-minded for a person to accidentally asphyxiate himself by hanging while performing an elaborate masturbation ritual in a hotel room?  (Not an isolated occurrence, by the way.)  Where was Reason's command in that example?

Lust sees the things of this world-- i.e., bodily pleasure-- as all there is; which is the lie that leads so many to ruin.  People try to make the earth as unto Heaven... and instead end up with a self-created Hell.  Lust makes us look at other people as objects, here only to satisfy our carnal desires-- thus making our fellow human, whom we are told to love as ourselves, nothing more than a means to our selfish, lustful ends.  Does that sound even remotely ordered and right?

Lust is one of the key players in the development of what some call a "horizontal morality" -- as opposed to a "vertical morality."  Instead of right and wrong as universal constants, Lust will lead us to adopt and justify a "sliding scale" of morals.  The only thing that matters is what we want... what we crave at this moment.  Once we get it, the craving will evolve and advance, and the vicious treadmill of Lust will roll on.

~~  "Capricious, wanton, bold, and brutal- lust is meanly selfish; when resisted, cruel; And, like the blast of pestilential winds, Taints the sweet bloom of nature's fairest forms."  --John Milton  ~~

A word of clarification is probably in order here.  None of the above is to say that sex and sexual desire are bad things in and of themselves.  As previously stated, and as St Augustine of Hippo wrote:  "What food is to a man's well being, such is sexual intercourse to the welfare of the whole human race."  There is a very good reason that God made us to desire sex so deeply.  So, this is no indictment of sex; but rather a celebration of it through insisting that it be conducted rightly and with respect to all involved.

Of course, even the proper form of sexual desire can make Reason take a temporary backseat.  Putting his own inimitable spin on it, Aquinas says of sexual desire that is ordered properly:  "It is not contrary to virtue, if the act of reason be sometimes interrupted for something that is done in accordance with reason, or else it would be against virtue for a person to set himself to sleep."  Have I mentioned how much I love Saint Thomas?  How about one more quote on "good sex," just to slam home the point:

"The Creator Himself . . . established that in the (sexual generative) function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation." - Pius XII, Discourse, October 29,1951.

This brings us to the final summation.  Rightly ordered sexual pleasure: good.  Lust, which is disordered: bad.  So, what are we to do against Lust; this daunting foe that is seemingly all powerful?  For starters, it helps to understand that temptation has always been around and always will be-- but it should not be thought of as all bad.  Temptation is a necessary condition if we are to have choices and free will, and there are good lessons that can come from temptation.  It can teach us humility... because we can see how easily we can be drawn into things like Lust.  It can show us that we are, sometimes, hopelessly insane... because we desire things, even when we know they are bad for us.

"Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death."  -James 1: 13-15

Our temptations and the things we lust after can show us what is in our hearts... and that can help us shed light enough to clean out the ugly and disordered things.  By the way, the Greek word for temptation can be translated as "test"... and each time we pass a test, we get stronger and better.  So, temptation can forge us into more sturdy versions of ourselves, if we use its lessons wisely.

~~  “Virtue is nothing without the trial of temptation, for there is no conflict without an enemy, no victory without strife.”  --St Leo the Great  ~~

The surest way to defeat Lust is to get ourselves out of the business of caring so damn much for worldly things that do not endure.  These bodies will decay and cease functioning, but our souls will not.  There is no doubt that it is hard for all of us to get the worldly stuff out of our minds-- after all, we are bombarded with it seemingly every waking moment.  All the more reason to take time to think and read and meditate on virtuous things and on Virtue itself.  By the way, putting aside worldly things also has the wonderful benefit of helping us prepare for our final end and a good eternity.

~~  "The less a man knows of the pleasures of life, the less he fears death."  
--Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus  ~~

As for the Virtues' role in battling Lust; it should be intuitive that they all contribute in their own ways, but it is surely Temperance and Prudence who can lead the charge.  Prudence tells us that something is wrong... disordered; and Temperance is virtually the opposite of vices such as Lust.  Oh, and do not forget Charity: when we look upon a fellow child of God as an object for our selfish desires, that is not such a good thing.

So, as always, set your sights higher than pleasures of the flesh; pray for the Virtues and give yourself a fighting chance in this all-important struggle.

"I say then, walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh."  -Galatians 5: 16

"Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts."  -Romans 13: 13-14

God bless!


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