The Seven Vices, conclusion: Thinking about Love

image for vicesWe have spent the last seven weeks considering the seven cardinal vices: gluttony, lust, avarice (or greed), sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

This list is the product of centuries of spiritual direction by men who knew the Bible, loved the Church, and seriously pursued their own spiritual life. The list varies somewhat. John Cassian gave the first classic list, in his The Institutes of the Desert Fathers, a book written in the early 400s to introduce monks in France to the wisdom of the monks in the Egyptian desert.

The desert fathers were the first great spiritual heroes of the Christian tradition. For over a hundred years, they had been both praying and talking to one another: a central aspect of the wisdom of the desert was the willingness to learn from others. Cassian uses the image of a bee flying from flower to flower, collecting what each distinct flower has to offer. The point is that no one has all the answers; we get real wisdom by listening to all the great voices.

Sometimes I think modern ideas of spiritual direction can lose some of this richness. In the wisdom of the tradition, no one person knows everything. The “grace of state” that is sometimes evoked now as justification for total submission to a single spiritual director is an idea with no grounds in the Catholic tradition: it is purely modern. Even spiritual direction itself is a concept never once mentioned in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and, so far as I have been able to tell, not practiced in the modern submission-to-one-teacher way until quite recently. My point is not that we shouldn’t have spiritual directors – a spiritual director or regular confessor can be very helpful. The point is that we must go searching for wisdom, and the wisdom of the tradition; no one person can just give us all the answers.

The idea of the traditional list of seven vices is not that this is all you need to know. It’s that we can listen to the wisdom of those who have come before and then think clearly for ourselves


In fact, the list of seven is not Cassian’s. He had eight. The list of seven comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who lived around the year 600. He too was a monk, a disciple of St. Benedict, and a great guide of souls, who had spent time in both the East (Constantinople) and the West (Rome). He well knew the conclusion of St. Benedict’s Rule (my emphasis):

 “Now, we have written this Rule that, observing it in monasteries, we may show that we have acquired at least some moral righteousness, or a beginning of the monastic life.

“On the other hand, he that hastens on to the perfection of the religious life, has at hand the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which leads a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and the New Testaments is not a most exact rule of human life? Or, what book of the holy Cathlic Fathers does not loudly proclaim how we may go straight to our Creator? So, too, the Collations of the Fathers [Cassian’s longer book], and their Institutes [Cassian’s shorter book] and lives [there are many, but St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony was always a favorite], and the rule of our holy Father, Basil – what are they but the monuments of the virtues of exemplary and obedient monks?”

In other words, St. Benedict too was a “bee,” drawing from everything he could, especially Scripture. He does not present himself as the end, but as a beginning.

Gregory read Cassian, as Benedict taught, and came up with his own version, narrowing Cassian’s list of eight vices to seven. (He combined Cassian’s sadness and distraction into sloth, and vainglory and pride into just pride, and added envy.) What we find here is an active mind: thinking about Scripture, learning from the fathers, paying attention to his own and others’ spiritual lives, and using authority to go deeper, not just to sign off on a dead list.


In the end, the spiritual life is very simple: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and therefore love your neighbor as yourself. That’s all there is to it.

What lists like this list of seven can help us do is to appreciate better what true love looks like, and how we often fail to love. The saints who have gone before us simply point out some of the ways we might miss the mark.

How do you travel like a bee from flower to flower? How do you practice gathering the wisdom of Scripture and the Tradition?

The Spirit of Pride

image for vices

Part 7 in our series on the vices.

We come now to the deepest vice, pride. I said last week that envy is close to the sin that brought down Satan, who could not stand to see Jesus and Mary elevated. But in fact the heart of the spiritual life, and the heart of sin, is more directly related to God.

The first sin, the Tradition insists, was not against neighbor, but against God. Lucifer said, “I will not serve,” and Michael responded, “who is like God?” Lucifer, it is conjectured, was the highest of all the angels. Everyone else could accept being second. Lucifer wanted to be first. Michael was not the highest of angels – in fact, in the traditional scheme, archangels are way down toward the bottom, little more than messengers, while the Cherubim and Seraphim stand around the throne. But Michael triumphs because he knows that God is God; no one is like God!

Micha-el is just Hebrew for the question “who is like the Almighty?” To ask ourselves this question is the greatest battle cry of all.

On the one hand, this is about worship. The “serve” in Satan’s cry – non serviam! – is actually the Latin word for worship. I will not worship. That is the heart of pride. To which the response is: but who is like the Almighty?

On the other hand, it is about grace. Satan does not want to receive, he cannot tolerate the idea of grace. To which, again, the response is: but who is like the Almighty? Who could provide for us like God? What could be more wonderful than to receive what God has to give us?

The fall of Satan is nothing other than the corruption that comes when the most brilliant intellect suddenly becomes foolish. How foolish to think that you can stand in the place of God.

And all the more foolish when lower creatures let him convince them. “You shall be like gods!” he tells Adam and Eve. To which the response must be, “no! for who is like the Almighty?!”

This is fundamentally what it is all about. To acknowledge God as God, to worship him and to receive the gifts he offers.


From the beginning, God has given us signs of this worship. Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the tree. The point is that lower actions can symbolize our relation to God. To receive his law is to let ourselves be in a position of receiving.

The battle against pride is played out on all sorts of symbolic levels. The deepest part of the moral law is simply the acknowledgement that God is God. He created the world, he made its order. To reject nature is, above all, to reject nature’s God. To think that we are better than God. But who is like God?

(In the form of a question, it makes us think. Gosh . . . yeah, how foolish . . . .)

The great spiritual writers give us other concrete ways to practice humility. Cassian, the collector of the fourth-century Desert Fathers, suggests we offer and accept apologies; that we be kind to the people around us; that we submit to the wisdom of our elders, and the needs of our community. These are all goods in themselves. But the bigger point is that these are ways we can practice knowing that we are not God. No, mine is not the greatest wisdom. No, an offense against me is not the greatest offense. No, vengeance is not mine.

St. Benedict gives us some harsher practices. To keep our voices down; not to assert ourselves over much; even to avoid being too uproarious in our sense of humor. These ideas drive my students crazy. But the point is that self-worship is so very easy. So easy to insist that everyone look at me!

Now, humility is only ever a secondary thing – and these steps to humility are second to that second. Being boisterous or not is not the main point. But the point is to practice recognizing that God is God: he is the good, he is the healer, his is the wisdom. This is not exactly self-contempt. In fact, it is a focus on his mercy. But to focus on his mercy requires being willing to receive, not always asserting ourselves.


And finally, we look to Mary. She is the handmaid of the Lord. She is full of his grace. She receives everything from him, gives everything to him, and is nothing without him. She is simply “with the Lord.” To love Mary is to discover the heart of humility.

How do you find yourself placing yourself in the place of God? And how do you step back and let him be God?

This concludes our series on the vices.  Click here for the rest of the “vices” series.

The Spirit of Envy

image for vicesPart 6 in our weekly series on the vices.

I recently got to chat with a holy older friar, a somewhat prominent theologian, distinctly conservative (for what that matters) and an expert on moral and spiritual theology. We were talking about Pope Francis – and the rage against him from some parts of the Catholic world, who proclaim him insufficiently pro-life, etc. “We have some elder sons going on,” quipped the old friar. And so we have two excellent tales: the prodigal son’s elder brother, and the conservative outrage at Pope Francis, with which to consider the second-to-last of our vices, envy.


The elder brother is perhaps easier to understand – because he is at a greater distance. When the father treats the prodigal son well, the elder son is outraged: “these many years have I served you, never at any time transgressing your command – and yet you never gave me a kid, so that I might make merry with my friends!”

The first lesson of the elder son is that there are sins other than those of the flesh. These are subtler sins, but no less poisonous in our relationship with God and with our neighbor. He followed the commandment – but that wasn’t enough, because he still raged against the Father and against his brother. Sin is altogether finer than we often think. It is all about those two simple relationships: yes, slovenliness and lust hurt our relationships with God and man – but the point is the relationships, not the lust. Envy strikes just as deep. Indeed, it strikes deeper, because it lays hidden. At least the prodigal knows he has a problem.

Envy hates the goodness of others because it is in love with its own goodness. The Latin invidia, the source of our word envy, means something like “looking into,” as in, with a look that burns holes in the other. It is different from jealousy: it isn’t about wanting what the other person has. It is about hating the other person, hating his goodness, because it is a threat to my pride. This is dangerous stuff. It comes close to the sin that brought down Satan: he could not stand to see Jesus and Mary elevated, could not rejoice at their goodness.


What is going on in conservative outrage against Pope Francis? It’s worth noting that they constantly misquote him, and build false oppositions between him and his predecessors, though I can’t get into that here.

That holy old friar said – laughing, because he is actually humble – “It’s not fair! I’ve trained my whole life to say intelligent things, and Francis wins them over with a simple gesture!” Envy, invidia, burning holes in him with their eyes. How dare he be loved! How dare he suggest there is any goodness in the world other than mine!


Francis has something to teach us about the cure for envy, too. It lies in being part of a community. When I view myself as an individual, a free agent, then other people’s success looks like nothing but competition. But that is not the reality. We are on the same team! My brother’s goodness is good for me!

Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (a favorite document of Pope Benedict’s), says,

“The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God.”

Obedience means, first, being a team player. Obedience to legitimate authority – even my boss! but especially my pope and my bishop – is an important way to cultivate a sense of team work, of being part of a community that is bigger than myself. Finding myself in the communion of the Church, instead of outside, being critical, helps overcome my sense of competition against other people’s goodness. Obedience is at the service of community.

Second, obedience means respect for my elders. Their wisdom is my gain. The Christian longs to learn from his elders: from Scripture, from the Tradition, from the Magisterium, also as a way of cultivating a sense that the truest goods are ones that are shared. Respect for our elders is a sure way to fight envy.


Are we elder sons: at work, in the family, in the Church? No worry: God has mercy on us too. A fabulous line lies hidden in the parable of the Prodigal Son. “The elder son . . . was angry, and would not go in: therefore his father came out, and entreated him.” Even when we refuse to stoop, he stoops to us.

Click here for the rest of the “Vices” series.

The Spirit of Wrath

image for vicesPart 5 in our weekly series on the vices.

This week we consider the vice of wrath. The first three spirits we faced, gluttony, lust, and avarice, were about things outside of us; the next, acedia or sloth, was about ourselves; the next two, wrath and envy, are about other people. The last one, pride, will be directly about our relationship to God.

One way to think of the difference between wrath and envy is that envy is toward those who are in some way better than us, while wrath is about those in some sense beneath us. Envy is “angry” that other people are better than us; wrath is angry that people are not good enough. Funny, isn’t it: seems like they can’t do anything right.


The Desert Fathers sometimes said that the only one we should ever really get angry with is ourselves. Perhaps the deeper point is that the only one truly subordinate to me is me. If we rage against sin, or any kind of imperfection, let it be our own.

This is one of the many ways the Psalms are a remarkably helpful form of prayer. The Psalmist is always fighting. He has enemies everywhere. Praying with the Psalms, I find something wonderful happen, time after time. The Psalmist starts talking about enemies, asking God to smite them (the Psalmist never smites his own enemies: he always asks God to do it). And, I don’t know about you, but I always have plenty of people whom I can fit into that role. Ah, yes, him – that guy at work, my friend I am fighting with, the family member who is bothering me – ah, yes, that’s my enemy!

But my first reaction to the Psalmist’s violence is to say, gosh, I guess I don’t really want him to be smitten that badly. I mean, it’s not like I want my coworker to die. But then the other thing that starts to happen, even in the shorter Psalms, is that I quickly begin to realize that my coworker is not my real enemy. Somehow the Psalms turn a mirror on us . . . and we realize that the real enemy is spiritual, not material; inside me, not outside. The cause of my frustration is not him, it’s me.

Medieval art likes to depict devils. They are always kind of silly looking: goofy little guys with bird heads, or something. And it’s helpful to realize: that is my enemy. “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords,” says one Psalm. No, that’s not my colleague. That’s the little voice whispering in my ear that I should drag myself into this fight. And it’s the little voice whispering in my ear, afterwards, that I should continue to dwell on the fight, that I should fill my interior life with attacks on other people.

When we pray, in the same Psalm, “let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell,” we don’t mean our family members. We mean those hellish spirits that are always sowing discord.


Does this mean the real problem is devils? Well, maybe. But it’s nice to notice that the “spirits” we are battling against can refer both to real, external spiritual powers, and to sinful aspects of our own selves. It is both the devil and my own sinful self who cause me problems. And both spirits, the devil and the my own emotions, or selfishness, or whatever: I want all these spirits to be crushed. That is the real battle. That is who I should really be angry with: both the devil, and the part of myself that is so full of hate.

We should be most angry at our own anger.

The Psalms have some horrifying lines: “O daughter of Babylon . . . happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Are we talking about infanticide? No: because the children of Babylon are not other people’s children. They are sins rising up within me. Kill them in their infancy. Crush the serpent’s head, before he can climb all the way into your soul.


The Psalms are awfully violent! But the point is, emotion has its place. We are not meant to be cool as a cucumber. We are meant to fight, to rage against the rage within us, to hate our hatred, with violence! To love the Lord, and the neighbor he gives us, with passion.

Click here for the rest of the “Vices” series.

The Spirit of Acedia (or sloth)

image for vicesPart 4 in our Friday series on the vices.

Our continuing series on the vices brings us next to the vice of “acedia,” sometimes translated as “sloth.” Put simply, acedia is sadness at the idea of doing what we ought to do.

We now come to a vice directly related to ourselves. Gluttony, lust, and avarice (or greed) are about how we relate to physical goods, things. (Lust, of course, involves a person – but viewed as a thing.) The last three vices we will consider, wrath, envy, and pride, have to do with how we view other people. But sloth is about ourselves.

All seven of these vices just show us obstacles to love. We live to love. But we find our love particularly hindered in these seven ways. Strangely, in acedia we find, when we look at ourselves, that we ourselves are a hindrance to love. Acedia is nothing more than our inclination not to love.


Acedia, according to John Cassian, who summarizes the teachings of the desert fathers of fourth-century Africa, has two parts. The first, perhaps more obvious, is simple sadness.

It is useful to distinguish what we mean by sadness. We can quibble about which English words to use, but perhaps we should say there is “sorrow,” where we recognize something as bad; there is “depression,” which is a clinical, chemical problem; and then there is “sadness,” or dejection. Not all sadness is depression.

What the spiritual tradition wants us to see is that sadness – not sorrow or depression, but dejection – is a kind of passivity rooted in selfishness. A coworker treats you wrong. Of course that should arouse sorrow: you don’t want it to be that way, for his sake even more than yours. And okay, perhaps you have something physical going on, either real clinical depression, or you are just tired, or hungry, or whatever. But sadness is when you just give up.

Most prominently, you are saying there is nothing I can do. I will not pray, I will not work, I will not go on with my life. He is so bad, I will do nothing. You view yourself as purely passive, and you fail to take responsibility for doing your part to love and to heal.

More deeply, you are refusing responsibility for love. Love, you are saying, is something the world owes you. If they don’t give it to you, it is not your fault, and there is nothing you can do about it. Sadness, by its very nature, covers itself with such a mantle of passivity that it pretends it is not a choice. But deep down, it is: it is self-worship, self-focus, a simple failure to love.

This is the opposite of sorrow. Sorrow motivates us to action: to pray, to love, to help. Sadness says we don’t have to, because it’s not our fault. Poor me.


The other side of acedia looks like the opposite. The monks call it “the noonday devil” (from a line in the Psalms), and it is that restlessness that refuses to dig in to the task before us. This doesn’t only hit us in the early afternoon, but it does hit especially then. It is like what a priest once told a friend of mine in confession, “you are like the person at a party who is always looking over the shoulder of the person you are talking to, looking for who you’ll talk to next.”

This too is acedia: rather than loving, rather than embracing the task before us, the noonday devil chases us off, and we are always somewhere else. The noonday devil likes the internet and our text messages: always an excuse to be somewhere else.

But though it looks the opposite of sadness – super active rather than super passive – both amount to a refusal to embrace the task before us, a refusal to love. We look inside and find . . . we just don’t want to love, don’t want to give ourselves: to our work, to our prayer, to the people before us.


All of these vices are nothing but obstacles to love. The spiritual life is really nothing but love: to love God, and to love the people he has given us, the people he has called to be his own mystical body, through whom we can better love him.

And so the solution to all the vices is nothing but love. We overcome both our passivity and our restlessness by loving him, and them, ever more deeply.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

The Spirit of Avarice

image for vicesPart 3 in our Friday series on the vices.

St. Paul says, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). The statement is nice, nicer than it at first appears.

First of all, he does not say that the love of money is the greatest evil, the ultimate evil, or even the cause of all evil. He says it is the root. St. Thomas’s commentary on this passage has us consider what a root is. Fundamentally, a root supplies nourishment for everything else.

This is a good opening for thinking about money, and property in general. These goods are entirely relevant. We cannot go without food or we would starve, and at least the race in general cannot go without sex or we would die out. But property is only needed to support other things – and so every kind of property is possible to go without, and some people are able to go without owning anything at all. This includes not only the most radical Franciscans, but also children. As long as what they need is supplied, they don’t actually need to own anything, and they certainly don’t need money. Money, and all property, is always in order that – we need money in order that we can get something else.

A funny consequence of this is that there is never “enough.” When you eat, you get full, because you only need a certain amount, and at some point you are so full that you can’t cram anything more in. This is because food is directly related to a particular need. But there is a kind of infinity about money. You can keep accumulating more and more precisely because you are always saving for other things. There is no “enough,” no “full.” This is true of other property, too. You have a house for living in – but though you can have enough food, you can always have a bigger, or fancier, kitchen to cook it in.

Because money, and indeed all property, is a supplier for other things – a “root” – we have to be careful. We have to keep an eye on this desire, and make sure our focus is on what we’re supplying – actual living – rather than on the money that lets us get it.

Somewhere in here fits Pope Francis’s nice line of Argentine hospitality: “you can always put more water on the beans.” That is, to some extent, hospitality, and life in general, doesn’t actually need that much stuff.


Second: Paul says the problem is the love of money. Money isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, things are not bad – we are! In fact, property is a great good, something worth defending with a Commandment (Thou shalt not steal), and a whole aspect of Church teaching (Catholic social thought). We should fight to make sure people have enough. But indeed, the primary reason we don’t is because of where our hearts are. When we love people, we work to care for them, and provide for them. (And when we love God, we love people.)

But when we love money, our heart is not in the right place. And, indeed, just as money itself is a root for other things, the love of money is a root of evil. It is a root of evil because it is idolatry: setting our hearts on what is not in itself loveable takes us away from loving what is. You cannot serve both God and mammon. This is an excellent reminder of what the moral life is all about. The focus is on the heart, what we love. When we love wrong, we act wrong, and we go wrong. We are commanded to act right so that we will love right.


Third: how should we relate to things? Earlier in First Timothy, Paul warns us of “seducing spirits, and doctrines of the devil” (4:1). These spirits, he says, will teach us that the material world is evil: “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats” (4:3a). (Note that he points to sex and food: the most basic bodily needs of the individual and of society.)

But this is wrong, says Paul, because these are things that “God has created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (4:3b-5).

The key point is thanksgiving. The bodily world is good when we rise with thanks to God; but we are evil when we forget him who is the source of all good.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

The Spirit of Lust

image for vicesPart 2 in our Friday series on the vices.

The Greeks had a myth of the blind prophet Tiresias, who had been both man and woman, and so knew what sex was like from both perspectives. The point they were making is that we don’t know what sexuality is like for the opposite gender.

We should notice that when it comes to sex, it would almost make sense to use two different words for the two different roles. Man and woman do entirely different things with entirely different organs, stimulating entirely different chemical responses (issuing from organs that the other sex doesn’t even possess).

A friend who was recently married told me the best advice he got was just that sex is nothing like what you expect. The reason is that, in heterosexual relationships, the other person just plain isn’t like you, and so doesn’t respond the way you would expect. In most respects, we are both human – but when it comes to sex, we are like two different species.

Deep down in the spirit of lust is precisely the expectation that a person who is fundamentally different from us ought to respond the way we want them to respond. How self-absorbed! How irrational! How strange that we should be so foolish.

On one level, sex really is the same for man and woman. At the most basic biological level, sex is for the perpetuation of the species through procreation. That doesn’t mean every act should conceive a baby; it doesn’t mean there isn’t an awful lot more to human relationships, and especially marriage. It just means that we should realize: gosh, there really isn’t any sense to this particularly bizarre biological conjugation except that it gets our gametes together.

St. Thomas Aquinas notes an important, very practical consequence of this. On the biological level – and gee, what is more biological than sex! – sex is a complete waste of energy for the individual, but a necessity for the species. In other words, its entire purpose is social.

In fact, says St. Thomas, that explains why the sex drive is so darned strong: precisely because, unlike eating and sleeping, there isn’t any selfish reason for us to engage in this act.  Nature has to give us a big push in the back to make sure the species doesn’t die out. That push appears to have been strong enough. . . . Strong enough, ironically, that many people do it for nothing but pleasure – just like pigs.

That goes too, of course, for the bonding associated with sex. Human babies don’t thrive without a mama and a papa. Thus it’s built into both man and woman, on the most natural level, to stick together with the person we mate with. This caveman stuff, as if men just want to inseminate and run, is nonsense: a man’s DNA isn’t even passed on if he doesn’t make sure his baby survives to adulthood. In fact, bonding is so built into our sexuality that mating can also be used just to bond.

A consequence of that is that we should realize: every remotely sexual act – even a look that arouses desire – is naturally designed to make us bond with the other person. We weren’t made for casual sex. It doesn’t make biological sense for a species like us.

That’s a lot of biology. A couple words on spirituality. First, notice how irrational we are about this. Lust, all the great spiritual writers agree, is not the most important problem in the spiritual life. But it is a very good indicator of the Fall. We are not as strong as we think we are. Let lust – and for some people, its reverse image, which is the inability to summon desire when appropriate – just remind us of our desperate need for God’s grace. How foolish we are! We are not as strong as we think we are.

Second, a word on virginity. The propagation of the species is a very fine thing, with all the nobility of human parenthood. A very noble thing. And yet there are higher things.

The spirit of virginity is the spirit of living for more. Living to love God above all things – but living, too, for human relationships that transcend the propagation of the species.

That’s a spirit that married people need to live, too. Ironically, to give ourselves totally to our vocations, we must not let ourselves be swallowed up by our sexuality. We must all carry within us the spirit of virginity.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

The Spirit of Gluttony

image for vicesOn Fridays we will be going through the primary vices that stand in the way of our development in the spiritual life.


Our first vice is gluttony. Viewed from a worldly perspective, gluttony doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. Sure, we should be healthy, and I suppose that means we shouldn’t sneak too much ice cream in the afternoon, or take fourth helpings every night. I don’t know about you, but what really causes me trouble, in terms of sheer empty calories, is bourbon. Ah, bourbon!

But on the other hand, and maybe ironically, the Catholic should have enough contempt for the body not to take this too seriously. There are worse things in the world than having a little bit of a beer belly. In fact, in our world today, it often seems that worship of the body has gone way too far. People organize their whole lives around staying svelte.

To truly love the body is not to worship it, but to live in it. A little bourbon, appropriately applied; a piece of birthday cake; a feast with friends: these, we rightly say, are worth more than a magazine-worthy body.

And indeed, there is a kind of gluttony even in taking food too seriously. Foodies – those who live for the coolest recipe, or the most super-organic food out there – often seem to be making their bellies their gods. We don’t want to do that.

So on the natural level, gluttony is a vice than can go both ways: we can love food too much, we can oppose it too much; we can be too worried about health, we can be not worried enough; we can be too picky, we can be too slovenly. The key is moderation – or, better, discretion. The key is to eat intelligently, to be led by our souls, not our bellies.

But gluttony is also significant on the spiritual level. It is significant, in fact, precisely because it is not that big of a deal on the natural level.

On the spiritual level, the question of gluttony is precisely why we make such a big deal of it. Why, when the tradition suggests we skip a meal here or there, or not have a fancy meal or too many desserts, does that make us panic? What are we living for?

Precisely because food isn’t that big of a deal – honestly, there are a lot of things we can go without, even if they are nice – it is a good place to practice self-control.

Think of it this way. An awful lot of our sins can be described as spiritual gluttony. Those nasty words I am so tempted to say are like a tasty treat. I need to say no. That lustful glance, that self-indulgent rest when I know I should be working or praying, the addictive acquisition of stuff I don’t need, and the delicious indulgence of my own will just for the sake of doing it my way: this is the real stuff of the spiritual life, but it is all an awful lot like grabbing a glass of bourbon (or a cookie, or a third helping of dinner, or an excuse on a fast day).

Fasting and gluttony are not the most important thing. They are the little thing, where we can practice living for something higher, instead of just indulging.

And so the Church encourages us to fast. Traditionally every day of Lent, except Sundays and solemnities, was a fast day: pretty tough. In the East they make it both longer and tougher. Canon Law still tells us to skip meat on Fridays (and for many of us, fish is even fancier than meat) unless we live a harder fast. Many in the tradition have found small ways to fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year, and the day before every feast day. And there are always ways to deny ourselves what we don’t really need.

On the other hand, we can also practice detachment from food by eating when we ought. To make a feast on a feast day: not just self-indulgence, but really celebrating with food.

And practicing hospitality. St. Benedict’s Rule says to treat the guest like Christ. He’s really just paraphrasing Cassian on gluttony, where he says that the desert fathers would eat nothing for days – then have six meals a day to welcome guests.

The point is to use food to practice setting love above all else.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.