Letter From L.A.

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By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
Photo by Carlos Cano

 

Los Angeles, America’s favorite dystopia. It’s no flash of inspiration to conclude that the Seven Deadly Sins — envy, pride, lust, greed, wrath, gluttony and sloth — are an apt description of this city’s worst qualities. Backroom land deals, siphoned water rights, tawdry screenplays — classic character flaws drive entire industries here. There’s some truth in that dark view. Sandow Birk, a Southern California artist, suggested as much when he and Marcus Sanders set their “Dante’s Inferno,” a modern translation of the classic, in the City of Angels.

From the late 1800s to the 1960s, Catholic elementary school children confronted the litany of deadly sins in the pages of the Baltimore Catechism, the lesson book on the Catholic faith for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. In only two pages, the depiction of the seven deadly sins left an indelible mark on young minds. The story of Adam and Eve and their Original Sin, with a garden, a tree, an apple and a talking serpent, was a tame fantasy compared with transgressions — lust, anger and greed, no doubt — that were painfully real and, frankly, inviting. And the sins were frightfully illustrated in a style that presaged the art of cartoonist R. Crumb: seven gnarled, ugly red roots driving deep into the ground to fuel a full and raging tree labeled, in capital letters, “SIN.”

You could conclude, according to the Book of Genesis, that Adam and Eve succumbed to two sins in short order — pride and envy (lust must have come later). And it’s sometimes puzzling that hardness of heart, omnipresent and omnidamaging, didn’t make the cut.

But one wonders: What’s so deadly about sloth? A “sluggishness of mind,” Thomas Aquinas considered it. “Sloth is the desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the known will of God. … Everything we do is to be a means of salvation. The slothful person is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it.” Trying not very hard — that must be the opposite of Ignatius’ magis, the insatiable desire to do more for God and others.

The deadly sins do have their opposites — the Cardinal Virtues: kindness, humility, chastity, generosity, patience, moderation and diligence. They don’t command a marquee. But with a bit of sleuthing, you can locate them in L.A.: Olvera Street’s La Placita Catholic Church, Homeboy Industries on the edge of Chinatown, a Catholic Worker soup kitchen at 6th and Gladys, some studio lots, in classrooms, playgrounds and legal clinics, and in and around Sacred Heart Chapel.