The Psalms and the Demons

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The third line of our Psalm 26 says, “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  But why do we need to trust in God?  Why do we slide?

The Psalms talk often about “the wicked,” and use a lot of military imagery.  (Also, as here, there is courtroom imagery: grant me justice!)   This adversarial language is for many people one of the greatest obstacles to falling in love with the Psalms.

But there is much to be gained from this warfare spirituality.  Today, let’s take some time to think about our spiritual enemies, the demons.


We face, first of all, metaphorical demons.  Think, for example, about the “seven deadly sins.”  (I did a series on these last fall.)  “Deadly sins” sounds like “mortal sin,” so we might be tempted to think the point is that these are the things you go to hell for – and then wonder how gluttony could possibly be on that list.

But the older language is “capital sins,” from the Latin word for “head.” These are the “principal”or “leading”sins, or also, the “headings” under which you can consider other sins.  The point is that gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride are the root causes of other sins: not just sins themselves but also things that lead us to sin.  The danger of gluttony, for example, is that it nurtures a sense of self-indulgence, of giving in to whatever feels good at the moment – and forgetting the spiritual battle.

The even older language (especially in Cassian) is “the spirits” of sin.  Now we are close to the metaphorical idea of “demons.”  Gluttony (wrath, sloth, etc.) are metaphorical “demons” that oppress us.  These “spirits” are not looking for what’s good for us; in fact, since they drive us without reference to our true happiness, they are our enemies.  Desire itself is not an enemy, but this tendency to run out of control is a real danger.


It is very helpful in our spiritual life to “objectify” these enemies, to name them, take them seriously, and go to war against them.  To realize that they will destroy us if we don’t destroy them.  This is war.

One thing that is helpful about this objectification of our metaphorical demons is that it helps us to distinguish ourselves from them.  I am not gluttony.  That isn’t me!  In fact, that’s . . . something else, some other power, that’s trying to hurt me!  The Psalms’ insistence on talking about enemies helps me to think this way, to separate myself from my sin.

And of course, in the Psalms, the metaphors always emphasize that our enemies are too strong for us, but God comes to our help.  It is always the helpless nation of Israel calling out to the Lord to come to the rescue – “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  Thus the way the Psalms discuss spiritual warfare also helps us to focus on grace.


But though we can think of the “spirits” of sin as metaphorical demons, we also need to be reminded that there are real demons, fallen angels.

How should we think about the demons?  The cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other actually isn’t too far off.  It is far better, anyway, than more “muscular” images of demons who throw physical objects or make heads spin (though these things are real too).

The angels are immaterial creatures.  They cannot control our free will, but they can make suggestions to us.  Good angels can point out to us things that we ought to notice.  Bad angels, demons, can plant bad ideas.  It is awfully helpful, when our minds start running to negative thinking, when all we can think of are other people’s faults, for example, or ill wishes, to realize that there do exist spiritual forces who are cleverer than us and who wish us ill.

Why would they want to hurt us?  Because they want to be in charge.  They want to be the smartest guys in the room.  (Sound familiar?  They aren’t so different from us.)


The warfare imagery of the Psalms reminds us that there are bad influences in our spiritual life, both metaphorical and real demons.

The Psalms have a magical way of shifting our focus: we may begin by thinking that other people are our enemies, but soon we see that our real enemies are spiritual.

Watch for a time today when you need to distance yourself from your demons.

The Evil of Guile

Thomas Sully (1783-1872). GossipThe Psalms speak constantly of the evil of guile. Indeed, the Psalms warn us much more about the evil of guile than of lust. Come to think of it, so does the Pope. One of my prayers for the New Year is that I will make headway against this evil in my own life.

Ramah, the Hebrew root of the word mirmah, refers principally to shooting, or throwing stones. Mirmah, then, means deceiving, fraud, treachery, falseness, guile. “Lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may in the darkness shoot at the upright in heart” (Ps. 11:2).

Let us define guile this way: it is (a) speech, that (b) is not true, and (c) aims to hurt. And let us discover how often we use it: “Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; test my kidneys and my heart. For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked [or: I wish I had walked] in thy truth.  I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with concealers” (Ps 26:2-4).


The purpose of speech is to bring people together by reference to something else: the topic of conversation. Guile undermines this, both by turning speech into a hurtful weapon instead of a tool of love, and by speaking about something that is not true, and so creating a bond over something that isn’t really there.

We can engage in this kind of speech in various ways. First, with different Gossippeople. The one we hurt can be the one we are speaking to, when we use speech to demean the person in front of us. We can also demean someone who is absent, as when we gossip and say bad things about people who aren’t there.

And guile can be part of our interior monologue – do other people talk to themselves as much as I do? I find myself imaginging conversations: I imagine telling other people how bad someone is, or how I would like to hurt that person with my own words to his face.

Oh, how much guile there is in my soul! How many of my conversations, and of my interior conversations!

Notice, too, that guile can affect our speech in non-verbal ways. The way we say, “yeah, right” can be aimed to hurt. Our tone of voice can so easily turn innocent words into weapons.


It is not always wrong to wound with words. If speech is meant to bring people together in the truth, then in fact there is a place for criticism. The problem is that so often our criticism is not true.

Here’s where I experience this most directly: when I say the words “you can’t just . . . ” to the kids. “You can’t just eat candy all day long.” Okay, well, that’s true enough. But were they asking to eat candy all day long? Were they asking to “just” eat candy? Was what they were asking for even candy?

Of course I must often tell my kids that they can’t eat what they’d like to eat. But when the words exaggerate, they create distance. I am being unfair, criticizing something they haven’t actually done. That unfairness, in fact, prevents my children from hearing the legitimate point I want to make – because the point I am actually making is not legitimate.

Exaggeration is untruth. It undermines what words are for. If I exaggerate about someone not present, I do harm in so many ways: I injure the person we are talking about, both by attaching a falsehood to their reputation, and by using my words to create greater distance between me and them, rather than love. And I also hurt the relationship in front of me, because I am building that relationship on sand, on untruth, that will not last; and on hatred, which can only come back to hurt every relationship.


How can we fight this? “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). The friends of St. Dominic said he spoke “only to God and about God.” If our interior conversation were directed toward God, I think we would be less inclined to speak untruth, because we know he knows it is untrue.

horse with bridleAnd as James says, “we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us” (James 3:3). Perhaps we can do a lot to steer our whole behavior by realizing that the words we speak are central to who we are. We might make a lot of progress just by taking the advice of so much of the Bible and the Tradition, and focus on our speech: make sure it is in love, and make sure it is true.


How does guile express itself in your life? Have you found any good strategies to fight it?

Gluttony and Fear of the Lord

gluttonyI have been thinking about gluttony: the holidays have that effect on me. So much good food. So much ill health. So much cause for celebration, but so many questions about celebrating well. It would be good if I could lose some weight in the new year, also so that I could be a better father: more energetic, stronger for the things my family needs me to be stronger for. Even more, I’d like to be holier in the new year.

My wife brought up recently that we can use fasting to celebrate, too. Traditionally the day before big feasts was a fast. It wouldn’t kill us to fast now and then – in fact, it might make us healthier. And it would be nice if we had some way to mark solemnities other than adding to our girth.


The first thing to say about our relationship with food, of course, is that it’s not that big of a deal. It’s the least big deal of all the vices: unlike pride, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, and even greed, a disordered relationship with food doesn’t directly hurt other people.

The second thing is that there are serious issues of health involved. Our culture is pretty screwed up in its pursuit of a svelt body: but the truth is, I’m overweight, and it isn’t good for me, on any level.

But the third thing is that spiritual things matter more than the size of my belly. The real question is not about diet, but about gluttony: disordered desires, that affect my love of God and neighbor, continue to read more, what follows can save your life.


Maybe a helpful way to approach the question is in terms of fear of the Lord. Yes, “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). But on the other hand, fear of the Lord is a near-constant theme in Scripture, including in the New Testament and even the words of Jesus: “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Jesus goes on immediately after that to say, “fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31). The first thing to say about fear and the spiritual life, then, must be that there are many kinds of fear: good and bad; fear of God, fear of other things; different kind, even, of fear of God.

Augustine worked out some important ideas about fear of the Lord in his commentary on that line we just saw from First John, and the tradition has really run with those ideas as very useful. In short, he says we can fear that God will get in the way of our delight, by preventing us from having fun; this is a spiritually destructive kind of fear. But we can also fear God’s punishment: and just as God’s punishment is there to help us move toward God, so too fear of that punishment can help us grow in the spiritual life. Fear of punishment is a spiritually productive thing.

But not a perfect thing. The highest, best kind of fear, says Augustine, is the fear of wounding our relationship: the delicacy of lovers, or of child and parent. I would never want to do anything to hurt the ones I love, and that makes for an entirely different kind of fear, fear that is not cast out but increased by love.


This is a helpful way to think about gluttony. On the one hand, yes, it’s true, God doesn’t “care” if I have another Christmas cookie: anyway, there’s no law against this cookie. On the other hand, I want to grow ever more sensitive, ever more delicate about my relationship with God. I want to think about him more, not less. It is not good for our spiritual life – indeed, it is one of the worst things of all – to spend life naming what God doesn’t care about, what doesn’t matter. The Psalms often repeat, “the wicked . . . has said in his heart, God has forgotten; God hides his face; God will never see it” (e.g. Ps. 11:11).

The struggle with gluttony is not about absolute right and wrong. It is about spiritual sensitivity, fear of the Lord, trying to live ever more in the presence of God. We should never think, “God hates this cookie.” But we should fight strenuously against the thought, “God doesn’t care.” God does care: he cares about our relationship. Let us use the struggle with gluttony to struggle to do what is best: what celebrates best, what best serves the people around us, what can best unite us to God, what can best serve our long-term interests. And never say God doesn’t care.


Do you find yourself approaching food with an attitude of mediocrity: it doesn’t matter, God doesn’t care? How could you grow in your relationship with God through food?

The Heart of the Matter: Gluttony and the Holidays

Warmed_spiced_eggnog-0-lA few additional words on this Sunday’s reading from Romans.

“Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.”

At first glance this list is a bit unconvincing. I sure don’t participate in any “orgies.” (I had to look that up. The root meaning of the English word has to do with very drunken parties; by extension it sometimes includes the sexual wildness that might ensue at such a party. The Greek is komos, which has to do with literally being laid out on the ground, but by extension is used for the kind of party that might leave you in such a position.) Anyway, I don’t go to orgies, and I’m not promiscuous. What does this have to do with me?

But St. Paul tends to do a kind of nasty number, where he lists some really big sins – and then punches you with a sin you commit too, in the same list with that really bad stuff!

And so after orgies and promiscuity, just when I am feeling really good about myself, he slips in “rivalry and jealousy.” Darn. It’s almost funny, how we first try to defend ourselves by saying, “nope, I don’t go to orgies” and then, at the end of the list, we have to take the opposite tack, by saying, “oh, come on Paul, rivalry and jealousy aren’t so bad . . . are they?” But Paul puts them in the same list as promiscuity! Don’t count me with them! Just because I’m always competing with my coworkers, and comparing myself (favorably) to my friends and family? That’s not so bad, is it?

Notice, in fact, that Paul does the same thing in the earlier part of the list. Our eyes can slip past this. “In orgies . . . and drunkenness. In promiscuity . . . and lust.” Oh, come on, Paul! Promiscuity is one thing, lust (the word he uses just means lack of self-control) is another! Sure I like to drink, but I don’t attend “orgies”! I’m not one of those people! I’m not a sinner!


Of course, this is the same thing Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ . . . but I say unto you . . . whosoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” What?! Look, I haven’t killed anyone. It was just a couple little mean words. Words can never hurt you!

“You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, whoever looks on a woman to long for her [yes, that’s all the Greek says] has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Come on! No! I’m not a sinner!

In fact, even the Ten Commandments play this trick on us. Have I committed Murder?  Nope.  Adultery?  I’m good.  Theft?  Not recently.  False witness?  Not under oath, anyway. Hey, look at me!  I’m righteous!  Coveting?  Oh.  Shoot. Really?  I can’t even covet my neighbor’s house?  I mean, stealing is one thing. I don’t steal anything, I just wish it were mine . . . .

Here’s the point: Christian morality is about our heart. What is your heart set on? Coveting really gets to the heart of the Ten Commandments. Treating other people as fools is just as bad as lusting in our hearts, which is well along the same path as murder and adultery. The real problem is that we are meant to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. We can’t just say, “I haven’t killed anyone.” That doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.


In our holiday drinking and celebrations, the question is not “how much is too much?” Not even, “I’m not really drunk.” The problem with drunkenness is the same problem as orgies: where is your heart? Do we love our God and our neighbor? We can certainly express those loves through conviviality – but do we love God, or do we really love food and drink?

Our reading from Romans ends, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Oh, have an egg nog! But only in Christ, only for Christ, only with your heart set on the things that are really worthy.


How do you find yourself “making provision for the desires of the flesh” instead of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ”?

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.