Lust. Gluttony. Greed. Sloth. Wrath. Envy. Pride. These seven sins are the roots of so many more.
There are many more sins, of course, than the famous list of seven, but these seven are the soils out of which all of those other sins grow. They are the most accurate picture of our capacity to turn away from God and each other. Knowing them, and contemplating them for what they are and how they manifest themselves is the work of an attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible mind, something that we all possess, but often do not use.
The seven deadly sins are the subject matter of many of western literature’s greatest works. Two of the greatest examples are: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Chaucer utilizes the art form of marvelously sophisticated, comedic satire to show the actions and consequences of these sins. His purpose was to hold a mirror up to the people of his own times to get them to see what they were doing to themselves, to the Church, and to their society in a way that would let them laugh at the foolishness of their ways, as well as the consequences that arise from such foolishness, and to turn away from those ways, instead of from God.
Chaucer’s characters were drawn from the common folk, the clergy, and the nobility. Each group had innumerable members who modeled the vagaries of one or more of the deadly sins. They would tell their own stories, revealing the sinful behavior through some humorous episode of one kind or another and each story would expose some moral wisdom and, at the same time, entertain. Each group also had one character who was the prime example of moral character as an obvious contrast to the others. For the nobility this was the Knight; for the clergy it was the Parson, and for the common fold it was the Parson’s brother, the Plowman.
The model character for the clergy class was a simple country priest (the Parson) who was known by all to be genuinely pious and dedicated to his ministry. He would not demand the tithe from those who could not afford it and, yet, gave away even what little he had to any in need, he visited all of the families of his parish regularly, walking there in good weathers as well as bad, he cared for the sick, comforted the troubled, in short, all of the things that a good pastor of his flock ought to do in service to his congregation. This character does not, like the others, tell a story, but gives, rather, a short sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins. He defines each vice and gives its remedy in the form of its corresponding virtue. His sermon, somewhat paraphrased is below.
“God desires no man to perish and there are many spiritual ways to the celestial city. One noble way is Penitence, the lamenting for sin and the will to sin no more. The root of the tree of Penitence is contrition, the branches and the leaves are confession, the fruit is satisfaction, the seed grace, and the heat in that seed [is] the Love of God.
Contrition is the heart’s sorrow for sin. Sin may be venial or deadly. Venial sin is for one to love Christ less than he ought. Deadly sin is to love a creature more than the Creator. Venial sin may lead to deadly sin. There are seven deadly sins of which the first is pride.”
Pride comes in many forms: arrogance, impudence, boasting, hypocrisy, joy in having done harm, etc.. It may be experienced both inwardly and outwardly. It can show itself in “too many clothes”, (or too little in the modern sense of showing off the ‘perfect’ body). It can be shown in ostentatious hospitality, or in another example of modernity, in bragging about how many “friends” one has on Facebook, or Twitter, as an indicator of how “important” you are. Its remedy is Humility, or true self-knowledge.
Envy is sorrow at the prosperity of others and joy in their hurt. It sets itself against all other virtues. It is the most joyless of the deadly sins and is often shown in backbiting, or the spreading of malicious rumors, or outright lies about another, because they somehow are perceived as threatening to one’s own self-importance. Its remedy is the two great commandments; to love God, your neighbor, and in line with the Sermon on the Mount, your enemy.
Anger is the wicked will to vengeance. Anger against wickedness is good, wrath without bitterness. Wicked anger, though, is sudden or premeditated: the latter is worse. It is hatred, manslaughter, treachery, lies, flattery, scorn, discord, menaces, and curses. Its remedy is Patience.
Sloth (laziness) does all tasks with annoyance, frustration, or worry, does them slackly, without joy. It leads to despair. Its remedy is Fortitude, or courage in the midst of pain or adversity.
Greed is a lecherous desire for earthly things, an idolatry. It leads to things like extortion, fraud, gambling, theft, and false witness. Its remedy is Mercy, or generosity freely given, poured out for the good of others.
Gluttony is an immeasurable appetite to eat or drink. Drunkenness is the sepulcher of one’s reason. It can show itself in immoderate eating, or drinking of all kinds. Its modern equivalent could be the abuse of drugs as well. Its remedies are Abstinence, Temperance, Sobriety, in other words, moderation.
Finally, lechery, or lust, is near cousin to Gluttony. It has many forms all of which are abuses of the gift of bodily grace and it defies the true purposes of human sexuality. It is the selfish use of another’s body for one’s own physical gratification, or to gain some material wealth through, or power over, another. It is the modern practice of treating the sacred gift of sexuality as a toy, a plaything solely for momentary pleasures. An example would be the contemporary idea of “friends with benefits.” This is a theft of the body and of the soul. Its remedy is Chastity and Continence. “When the pot boils strongly the best remedy is to withdraw the fire.””
Though the language is proper to the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, its message is still quite clear. These deadly realities are still with us and still have a great deal of power. The the great irony today is that the modern age has turned them upside down, inside out. Now these sins are claimed as virtues and the virtues as vices.
The modern age is, no matter what the pundits say, no different than Chaucer’s times. Sure the technologies and the cultural accoutrements, that is, the externals, are different, but human nature is the same now as it was then and always will be. Indeed the suffering that is evident in the world today arises from the same commitment to the seven deadly sins as it did in the past. All of the modern claim to freedom from any and all limits is nothing more or less than the result of Pride, which is the source of all the other deadly sins.
Our challenges then to make the world a better place are no different than they were 700 years ago. We are challenged still today to examine our consciences. If, in our honest self-reflection, we find anything that has the whiff of pride, or greed, or envy, or lust, or laziness, or gluttony, or destructive anger, we have found the source of all of our unhappiness. If we want happiness, we must turn, then, toward the practices of virtuous behavior. Only then will our lives begin to find true meaning and purpose that is natural to human beings.
Which voices should we listen to? The voices of the modern age of “Look out for number one, because no one else will”, or to the voice of reason that whispers so clearly in our consciences. “Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before everyone are life and death, whichever they choose will be given them.” (Sirach 15: 14-15)