Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Deadly Sins: Introduction

One of the more fascinating teaches given by Evagrius and Cassian on the 'active life' (that is, the ascetical discipline involved in ridding oneself of vice and learning virtue, these activities seen as a necesary prelude to pure prayer) is the reduction of the types of thoughts to eight. Evagrius is the first to identify them, but Cassian gives lengthy teachings on them, with special insight into their interconnections. Both give them in this order:


They go from the most 'carnal' to the most 'spiritual'. Angels can commit sins of pride but not gluttony, since they don't eat. Similarly, animals, while unable to sin since they do not possess freewill, obviously do not suffer from vainglory, but can overeat and can be manipulated by stimulating pleasure in them (this last example being the mechanism by which we are snared by gluttony and fornication). Human beings are capable of them all, an assertion that surely does not require demonstration.

Eventually Gregory the Great, who was familiar with monastic traditions, reworked this teaching into the seven deadly sins. Strictly speaking, Cassian and Evagrius do not speak of sins but of 'spirits' and 'thoughts'. The basic idea is this: we have inner drives given to us for good. Because our wills are compromised by sin, we often use these drives for ill. Because our intellects are compromised by sin, we can be misled into sinful actions by choosing lesser goods. In the early monastic world, evil spirits were understood to suggest evil thoughts to the monk. By learning to identify these thoughts, the monk could reject them and be cured of vice which is the habit of choosing wrongly. I hope in these posts also to give more time than the monastic tradition tends to give to the opposed virtues. In the Stoic atmosphere of early monasticism, the whole concept of virtue would have been common knowledge on the street, whereas today we live 'After Virtue'. So this will also be a series of posts on the virtues, with more indebtedness to Thomas Aquinas than to the monastic tradition.

Personally, I find this teaching to be extremely important for one who spends a good deal of time in prayer examing thoughts. I suppose it is rather important for anyone who wishes to make progress in the moral life. Because this teaching is not well known, and because I have recently been examining the teaching in light of some knowledge I have of Eastern traditions (particularly the psychosomatic understanding of the person in Hinduism), I would like to share the tradition with you and offer some of my own very preliminary insights about the universality of this teaching.

Full disclosure: I accept Cassian's and Evagrius' general understanding that there are spiritual beings aside from ourselves and God. We can communcate with them through prayer and they can communicate with us through our thoughts as well. The good spirits are angelic, the bad spirits are demonic. I personally do not believe that possession is all that common, but I also do believe that this occurs. On the other hand, I believe that all of us at one time or another consent with certain sins and this does become a kind of addictive behavior, the cure for which can be very painful, not unlike the depictions of exorcisms in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. I also believe that modern psychology would back me up on a good deal of what I just said, at least in terms of the genuine difficulty involved in giving up unhealthy behavior. In fact, I would suggest that one definition of 'Sin', capital 's', is simply this sort of addictive behavior. The term 'addiction' itself suggests loss of intellect and free will to a harmful disorder, whereas healthy choices imply freedom, deliberation and full human flourishing.

So: we will begin tomorrow with the spirit of gluttony!

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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