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?