Essay

Virtue Reality

By David A. Sánchez

If the question “Why am I here?” is the most foundational question humans ask themselves, then “What is sin?” must be second. The Seven Deadly Sins have been with us for centuries. Their guise may change, but their appeal never weakens. Here we examine the Seven Deadly Sins — they’re still with us, as deadly as ever.

I have been thinking about sin a lot lately. Not so much from the perspective of a character shortcoming or reason for divine judgment but from the perspective of the fragile human condition in which we live with the potential to fracture meaningful relationships. Perhaps it is the recent upheaval in my life that has led me to this introspective space. Thus, this opportunity to contemplate the Seven Deadly Sins has been a timely exercise.

Sometime during the late fourth century of the common era, a Greek monastic by the name of Evagrius Ponticus (345–399 A.D.) first compiled a list of eight “deadly” sins that, for him, were so egregious that they were categorized as entrée sins to other immoralities — sins that so compromised our relationship with God that they enabled a continued movement away from our relationship with the divine. Also during the fourth century, the Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348–413 A.D.) produced an allegorical poem titled “Psychomachia (Battle of Souls),” which details a list of virtues that countered the so-called “deadly sins.”

Around the turn of the fifth century, Evagrius’ student John Cassian (360–435 A.D.) exported the list of Evagrius’ original eight sins to Europe, and it is at this moment in history that the sins were given a prominent place in Catholic confessional theology. At the beginning of the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (540–604 A.D.) condenses and amends Evagrius’ original eight sins to the now codified Seven Deadly Sins as we know them today, and interestingly ranked them in order — in his estimation — from the most to least serious offenses. Here the sins are listed in Gregorian order from most to least serious with their corresponding countervirtues:

pride humility
envy kindness
wrath patience
sloth diligence
greed love
gluttony temperance
lust chastity

The list of seven vices and virtues gained popularity in the Middle Ages, so much so that the Catholic Church emphasized educating all lay people as to the pitfalls of the Seven Deadly Sins and their corresponding virtues. The debate on the instruction of the Seven Deadly Sins also drew attention from the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas who in the 13th century took issue — not with the list itself — but with Gregory the Great’s ranking of the seriousness of the offenses as noted in the “Summa,” II–II:153:4: “[A] capital vice is that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source. It is not then the gravity of the vice in itself that makes it capital but rather the fact that it gives rise to many other sins.”

We should also note that reflection on the Seven Deadly Sins has not been confined to Christian antiquity or the Middle Ages (as the following essays demonstrate). The Seven Deadly Sins have been reflected on through modernity as any brief survey of film, music and art surely demonstrates. It is a topic that cuts to the core of our human condition: What is our relationship to each other, and what is our relationship to the divine? And more precisely, how do our sinful natures inform, harm or deplete those relationships to the point of inflicting relational death?

So what do the Seven Deadly Sins have to do with me? For the past four months, I have been thinking about relationship death. It is my current reality and subjectivity. It has consumed my daily thoughts and invaded my dreams at night. As a result, I have found myself contemplating the bigger questions of life, and this has directly led me to the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. When I first came to the practices, I sought spiritual and emotional refuge, but now I have come to understand the Exercises as an active roadmap for developing healthy relationships — relationship with God and relationships with my fellow human beings.

As I review the Seven Deadly Sins and their virtue counterparts, I cannot help but think of the Ignatian concepts of desolation and consolation. For Ignatius, desolation leads to turning into ourselves, cutting us off from our communities and God. That movement makes us give up on things once important to us, drains our energy, and causes cynical thinking and despair. On the contrary, consolation directs our focus beyond ourselves, binds us more closely to our communities, energizes us to service, compassion, peace and joy. Consolation also restores our life balance and refreshes our inner vision. Most important, it encourages a sense of gratitude and shows us where God is active in our lives and where God is leading us. It is a cognizant movement toward God in trust.

The Ignatian concepts of desolation and consolation create an effective interpretive framework for thinking about the Seven Deadly Sins and their corresponding virtues. It would appear that our modern reception of the sins and virtues has been a disembodied practice apart from an instructive theological framework. Much of our reception of the sins has been the jurisdiction of popular cultural representations and sensationalism. As such, they have been reduced to a penal list of dos and don’ts in God’s wrathful economy. Viewed through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, however, the Seven Deadly Sins, and virtues, empower us as actors in our relational transactions with God and humanity.

In the essays that follow, each of seven contributing authors will wrestle — from their own subjective spaces — with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. We see these contributions as opportunities for creative writing in which the authors will speak to a subject of age-old interest, especially those readers of a religious bent, and offer unique, personal thoughts, comments and anecdotes that will intrigue readers and leave them with relevant and timely issues to ponder.

SLOTH
Words by Susan Straight
Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

ENVY
Words by Lynell George ’84
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

LUST
Words by Denise Hamilton ’81
Illustration by Jason Holley

GREED
Words by P-’Dre Heresy
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

ANGER
Words by Brendan Busse, S.J. ’99
Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

GLUTTONY
Words by Oliver de la Paz ’94
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

PRIDE
Words by Jason S. Sexton
Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

Biography

David A. Sánchez is associate professor of early Christianity in the Department of Theological Studies and director of American Cultures in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. Sánchez is also affiliate associate professor at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of “From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths.”