There’s a new podcast episode out today! Dr. Beth Allison Barr, author of Making Biblical Womanhood, is here and we are talking about history and how it shapes us, resisting the urge to impose our norms and ideas back onto the past, about medieval women, gender-bending medieval saints, good places to start reading medieval texts, and more fascinating topics…
Beth Allison Barr (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is James Vardaman Professor of History at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She recently served as president of the Conference on Faith and History (2018-2021) and is an active supporter of Christians for Biblical Equality. Barr is a regular contributor to The Anxious Bench, the popular Patheos website on religious history, and has written for Christianity Today, the Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Dallas Morning News, Sojourners, and Baptist News Global. Her work has been featured by NPR and The New Yorker. She is also a Baptist pastor’s wife and the mom of two great kids.
Yes, it’s the very last episode in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, and it’s time to talk about lust and chastity. I promise not to be like the P.E. teacher in the teen classic movie, Mean Girls (or really in every teen movie) who just is like “don’t have it!” Despite the popularity amongst many Christians of abstinence-only sex education, there’s a very good reason why in the ancient tradition, the remedy to lust is not abstinence, but chastity, which is quite different. It’s also not modesty, take note, and I’m going to think about that more in a minute.
What is lust? Lust is disordered sexual desire: inordinate, for the wrong people, at the wrong place and time, obsessive or possessive, or sexual desire ordered towards power or pleasure and not loving intimacy, and so on… Medieval English folk usually called it lechery.
Today we live in a funny complex relationship with lust. It’s the vice that the church has now been fixated on for a while, especially regarding the so-called “culture wars.” DeYoung points out how the church often centers sex in its discussion of “culture,” when in reality scriptures so often point us towards greed or idolatry in discussions of culture. Curiously, many Christians enthusiastically defend an unabashedly lecherous ex-president. Christians are now dealing with (or worse, avoiding dealing with) the very real, very awful pain of sexual disorder rampant in all corners of the church, from clerical child abuse to #metoo to the pornography epidemic, human trafficking, and abortion. There are very different sexual ethics on offer out there, that state their claims to being healthy, ethical and moral (and these are clearly simplifications but give the broad contours).
Jesus himself discusses lust and the actions that ensue from lust very little, other than his famous suggestion to cut out your eye when it leads you to lust. So we know it’s bad, and Jesus thinks it is bad, but it’s not high up on his list of priorities. Paul talks a little more about it, but his words are famously rather vague and have inspired a whole empire of treatises and argument that people follow in wildly varying ways, as we can see.
The ancient scheme of the vices reflects this lesser importance (though not lesser pain); I haven’t been ordering them willy-nilly in this series, but following the ancient order in which pride, anger, etc. begin the vices, and gluttony and lust end them. Here’s why they ordered the vices that way: these vices of the body can be easier to spot and easier to supplant with virtuous habits than those very spiritual vices that begin the list. Moreover, it’s often pride or anger or avarice lingering behind those bodily vices like lust and gluttony themselves that are wreaking the devastation. But we have a hard time grasping this, because the bitter decaying fruits of lust are so painfully obvious in ways that pride’s are not. We see the destruction of marriage and community through adultery with horrific clarity. We rage and weep over the abused child or woman and the long-term spiritual, mental, and physical damage that follows. The church dimly recognizes that cultural attitudes about sex outside the church are pretty rotten, and less fully acknowledges the rottenness comes from within, too.
So in this episode, I want to think about the core issue of our attitudes about our bodies and desire rather than specific acts. The basics: sex itself is not bad, just like the other bodily pleasures of food and drink, material goods, etc. It’s a gift from God. Full stop. Yet like all gifts, we can elevate it, desire it, shape our lives around it in a way inconducive to our full flourishing as created persons in community. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Like nitroglycerin, it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts.” Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung asks a great question: “How should our sexual desires serve our full humanness?” (195) I like her word “serve.” Sexual desire neither signifies our full humanity nor undermines it. In its proper place, our bodies and their functions and pleasures are more gifts that can help us become more human, more like Jesus in learning to love a person. Sex is interpersonal, social, spiritual and physical. Lust as bodily desire that has become out of joint is a barrier to us truly loving Jesus, our neighbor, and ourselves, while chastity, its virtuous counterpoint, heals and builds bridges. Chastity fosters loving families (through both bonds of blood and friendship) and forges bonds of intimacy and joy.
Lust, like gluttony, grows as you feed it. The less one curbs lust, the more it overwhelms a person. Again, pornography is an instructive example. The increasing violence of pornography alongside its increasing availability is well-documented. One needs more and more to feel turned on, to reach some form of satiation outside of true intimacy. This excess-oriented tendency of lust is also why medieval writers encourage being careful of the friends and acquaintances you keep in their consideration of lust. If you’re egging one another on in exploits of lust, unsurprisingly, you’re going to keep struggling even if you’re not acting upon it. If you’re consuming extremely provocative or explicit TV shows or books on a regular basis, those desires are going to be easily, regularly accessible in your mind. This looks different for all types of people, of course, but it’s the practical knowledge about lust that medieval people share with us.
Importantly, as the medieval penitential writers knew very well, the actions of lust are far down the list of lusty items. The first and foremost lustful movements happen in your mind. Like gluttony, lust is “reductive” and “strips sexual pleasure-seeking down to individual gratification, apart from a love relationship to a person” (DeYoung). Lust narrows a person down to a pleasure receptacle. You don’t need to know anything about them, you don’t need to care for them, they don’t even need to be in the room with you. This is obviously the premise of pornography. Objectification is also why a consent-based ethics of sex is not enough. Broader secular culture teaches that anything and everything sexual is permissible and ethically cool, as long as you receive and give consent. Christine Emba’s excellent recent article in the Washington Post lays out very clearly some of the problems with centering all sexual ethics on consent, and the fuzziness of consent. This centering doesn’t do enough to prevent objectification in our pursuit of sexual pleasure.
DeYoung has a great expression of lust versus love that I want to quote at length:
…because human beings find true fulfillment in love for God and for each other, sexual expressions of love require real persons. They demand a fully human encounter, not simply a useful or pleasurable exchange. They require the freedom to give ourselves to each other, and the willingness to graciously welcome another person in…To strip human sexuality of its link to love can make access to sexual pleasure safer and easier, and ostensibly and superficially under our control, perhaps, but the safety we seek in prideful self-provision also walls us off from what we really need.”
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices
The mechanics of lust are fairly simple. The writer of The Book of Vices and Virtues notes that lust begins in “foolish looking” or “foolish listening.” It escalates to foolish talking and touching. But more so, the foolish looking and hearing, the ill-advised sensory input, ends in a receptive mind, a mind ready to “delight privately,” as the book says, in these sights and sounds. Though this is simple, there’s a lot here to digest.
First, the Book’s choice of “foolish.” Lust so often starts out with foolishness. There are a lot of statistics out there about pornography, the ultimate self-gratifying, person-reducing pleasure seeking. People tend to watch porn when they’re stressed, tired, or struggling. Unsurprisingly, this is also often how affairs start: marriage feels like a chore or burden, you’re super stressed, you’re seeking some kind of escape or outlet. We are more open to folly and bad decisions when we are not taking care of our bodies and minds, or when we are avoiding the real challenges of faithfulness.
Secondly, ready to “delight privately” is worth unravelling a bit. Private delight is at the core of lust. It’s the pleasure that is yours alone and foremost, secret, not to share. It’s putting your sexual desires before all other considerations. In contrast, intimacy entails shared delight. This desire for “private delight” is also why, despite many years of absolute loads of Christian fixation on modesty, modesty is not the remedy to lust. A mind ready for private delight will take anything—a Victorian ankle emerging from swathes of massively modest dress—for its solitary pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in modesty for both men and women, in a wide variety of shapes and forms (like all virtues, it’s not one-size-fits-all, shorts shorter than a four inch inseam are immodest, hard and fast rules). The idiotic refrain “modest is hottest” reveals the paucity of how a lot of Christians treat modesty and the sick core of lust’s private delights. It short-circuits modesty back into sexual gratification, a man’s sexual pleasure in a woman’s dress. A shortsighted emphasis on modesty also places the blame for other’s lechery onto the person whom they are depersonalizing. This is the old, disgusting idea that by showing skin a woman was “asking for it.” If modesty defined narrowly as showing less skin were the antidote to lust, however, no sexual excess would have existed from about 1830-1920, a period where women showed very little of their bodies indeed. Yet we know it did.
As humans, we are called to be formed into people who view others not as objects for self-gratification or even self-fulfillment (how many see marriage now), but as other beloved ones. Sexual self-gratification and sexual shame, both rooted in lust, makes it very hard for us to see the belovedness of ourselves and others. I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, which depicts the absolute ravages of shame after fornication. Arthur Dimmesdale is destroyed by his secret sexual sins—not by the sex act itself, but by his terror of revelation and his massive guilt. The affair between himself and Hester Prynne is even never discussed in the book. Very often Christians live more on the Dimmesdale side of things than the sexual gratification side of things, but that does not help destroy the costs and pain of lust at all.
Chastity—not modesty, not consent-based sexual ethics, not sexual shame, not even celibacy or virginity—is the counterpoint to lust and its depersonalizing evil. Chastity can include some of these at times, but it is its own, bigger and broader virtue. Chastity is quite difficult to define; I was having trouble finding a pithy definition in the sources of the past. Thomas Aquinas defines chastity as the process of making “venereal pleasure,” as he calls it (unfortunate translation there), subject to our reason. I would add, subject to our expansive love for one another and ourselves as people of Jesus.
The absence of chastity is not being too weak or lusty to save sex for marriage, or something like that, as it is often framed. The lack of chastity happens within marriages, as one partner elevates their pleasures over the other partner’s experiences. We see this in pornography use and also what might be called the “smokin’ hot wife” rhetoric that emerges from certain churches all the time, recently documented in Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, a church where women are told to give their husband whatever sexual favors they please, despite their own lack of comfort. Chastity has gone wrong in many places because we have demanded it of certain people and not of others. We have asked it of women and not men, or of gay folks but not straight folks, or of single people but not married people. In our mission to recognize the image of God in each person, we are all called to chastity.
Chastity has also gone wrong because we have placed the burden of our temptations upon others, demanding modesty or particular behaviors. A famous example of what some consider chastity is the Billy Graham rule. The famous evangelist was never alone with a woman privately except his wife. This practice may not be necessary at particular moments and places (one is always welcome to flee from temptation). Yet such a hard and fast rule tends to transform women from full individuals to constant sources of danger and sexual temptation.
G.K. Chesterton has a wonderful description of chastity:
Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.
G.K. Chesterton, “A Piece of Chalk”
We must substitute the depersonalizing but pleasurable power of lust with something better, more radiant, more real, not just by stigmatizing human bodies or abstaining from sex.
Chastity is more like courage or devotion, even hospitality, than modesty or a rule-oriented set of practices. It’s more like love than mere abstention. I think the closest we get to witnessing chastity in people is not as a blanket set of behaviors. It’s in individual marriages or shining individual persons: a marriage that radiates power and peace together through their mutual trust in each others’ faithfulness and troth to one another. Chastity of course appears in a life of celibacy as well: we witness the willed devotion of a person to seeing other souls truly and then resisting the urge to use them, despite their lack of sexual gratification that the culture considers impossible to live through. These people, single, married, in religious orders, or out in the world, are safe havens, because you know they will not put their pleasures above your personhood, not even in the littlest and most inconsequential ways. Their chastity is radiant and welcoming.
What practices foster chastity, according to our medieval friends? There are some weird and highly unhelpful medieval tips, like avoiding moist foods. But there are some good ones too: keeping well your senses, for instance. Fleeing friends who lead you into doing things that you are uncomfortable with or don’t like. Watching your own language. The real action of doing good deeds for other people helps you to see God in them, and helps you to foster that love and grow it in moments when you are not tempted by lust, so that you can faithfully practice chastity when push comes to shove. Fasting helps, as gluttony and lust work in similar ways. And prayer.
Thanks for listening, friends, to this series. I really hope that it was helpful and insightful for you, not guilt-inducing or confining, but freeing as we explore together what it might mean to imitate Jesus in our different, beautifully crafted lives. I do not ask this often, but if you’ve enjoyed this series, I’d really appreciate your financial support to keep this podcast alive and kicking. You can contribute to my book-buying and website-hosting fund, at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/gracehamman. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about this or any other episode. You can find me on Twitter @gracehammanphd or Instagram @oldbookswithgrace.
The podcast will take a break for a few weeks and return in May with some really exciting new guests. Thank you again for listening and walking with me through some past ideas of the good life to examine what can form us now towards a life that loves others well.
Today in the Vices and Virtues series, we focus on gluttony. I have good news for you today: enjoyment of food does not make you a glutton. In fact, it could, just possibly, we shall see, make you the opposite of one, depending on the kind of your enjoyment. Today in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, we are talking about gluttony and abstinence.
This is getting to be a major theme of this series, but gluttony is again not quite what we’ve pigeonholed it into today. Being overweight can have very little to do with gluttony. Enjoying food is not gluttony. People of all shapes and sizes can be gluttonous. Put out of your mind, entirely, any extra pound anxiety or anger or judgment from yourself or others, because it’s honestly not very helpful.
A fifteenth-century book on discerning vices before confession guides us towards a better understanding of gluttony: “the sin is not in the meat, or drink, but in the appetite & the talent thereof, when thy delight is out of measure therein.” Yet again, we meet a vice about the violation of measure, about healthy amounts of appreciation and practice, about good habits around food. Gluttony consists in a reductive understanding of eating and drinking, shrinking food down to self-gratification in consumption or lack thereof rather than setting it in its rightful place as a social, spiritual, and bodily gift.
Gluttony shows up in habits like this, according to medieval sources: eating and drinking out of time (like never fasting, or eating out of boredom), outrageously or without measure (overeating, avoiding food when you’re really hungry for reasons like saving money or losing weight), eating greedily without manners, eating only expensive food, and overpickiness or fastidiousness, drinking to insensibility. It also includes food waste, as well as devouring what other people have worked hard for without appreciation or thought. And perhaps most interestingly of all, medieval people categorize gluttony alongside “sins of the tavern,” with other parts of gluttony including swearing, backbiting, lust, fighting, and stealing. Gluttony is closely related to idle talk, boasting, contempt, false modesty, flattery, perjury, chiding and striving, murmuration, and blasphemy.
There’s this super strong social element to characterizing gluttony. Bad table manners fall under gluttony! Why? From a very practical medieval perspective, repetitive or extreme drunkenness leads to all these sins of the tongue listed above, making gluttony a direct cause. In a passage that made me chuckle, the penitential book Jacob’s Well calls gluttony “the gateway to the sins,” which makes it sound like how people talked about marijuana in the 90s. Gluttony is the gateway drug to a lot of poor behavior. But we can think more holistically for a minute about this social element as well.
Food is a gift from God. The pleasure we get from eating and drinking is also a gift. As usual, we cannot take medieval sources just straight without thinking about them, because in that list this book includes “pleasure in eating” as a very minor sin—nothing that will get you sent straight to Hell, but maybe will earn you a few years in purgatory. Most of us don’t really hold that today, and a lot of medieval people, like St. Thomas Aquinas, would not have either.
One of my favorite questions to ask people in order to get to know them better is, “what are some of your favorite meals you have had? Who were the people, what was the food, what did it taste like, where did the meal take place?” It brings me joy to just briefly think of mine: 2005, California Pizza Kitchen, barbecue chicken salad, my high school friends driving ourselves on the first day of our senior year of high school and our first day of early release. 2015, early morning, a hospital bed, my newborn in my mom’s arms next to my dad and husband, my favorite tea with cream and honey, and a scone with copious clotted cream. The scholar Robert Kruschwitz describes his journey with Lipton Iced Tea: a glass of iced tea tastes so good to him “because it carries so much of my life.” Human taste is not just based on the food in front of us, it is “based on the integration of sense, circumstance, and activity pleasures… The foods we choose to eat and share with others can become, as Veronika Grimm observes, ‘a gesture or language to communicate intentions, feelings, and attitudes’” (145). Food is part of remembrance, the building of social bonds; it can be an essential part of healing and loving. There’s a reason why we take food to people who are grieving or recovering from surgery. It’s an act of love and care to take cooking responsibilities off their plate, but food physically nourishes our bodies, and sometimes, it can help in our spiritual healing through the times we share it together.
There’s a lot that could be said here about the Eucharist. God chooses to give himself to us in the shared act of eating. And this idea also drives home the danger in ignoring the full range of nourishing our body and the good there, subordinating it to pleasure or control. Kruschwitz writes that the pleasures of eating can “orient us to knowing and embracing the full good—that is, the good available to us when all things are duly considered. When we are gluttonous, however, they instead disable, distract, or disorient us in relation to the full good.” (145) Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung puts it very well: “Gluttony reduces human life to self-gratification” (164). If avarice, the vice we discussed last week, instrumentalizes and dehumanizes others, perhaps gluttony is instrumentalizing and dehumanizing yourself, boiling all the complexity and gift of your body down to material pleasure and gratification alone.
In a twist of irony, gluttony actually takes the keen edge off the pleasure and dulls it down. If you’re constantly worrying about calories and losing weight, the pleasure of eating with a friend is considerably diminished. If you’re constantly devouring your food, eating quickly to get it down, you do not appreciate it. Overeating destroys the lasting contentment of a delicious meal taken at the right time and place. Bad table manners are gluttonous because they subordinate caring for others to one’s appetite and destroy the moments of holistic togetherness that appreciating food communally can bring us. And in the end, indiscriminate devouring of food or overly fastidious eating habits end up in the same place: more and more hunger, but less ability to be satisfied.
The gifts of food and the cruelty of gluttony have a more practical edge as well. Gluttony includes wasteful practices towards food. Food is a finite resource. Though it may seem that there are limitless pringles and an apple always available when you want it, if you’re going to a grocery store, being mindful of what we eat, where we buy it, and how reminds us that for much of the world today and nearly all of history, consuming food was very different. In the Middle Ages, for instance, a bad harvest had immediate impact. The plight of laborers was the plight of you or your next-door neighbor or your servants. Today we mask the plight of the farmer, the impact of the weather, global warming, and so on in our complex global food systems. Yet these issues are still real. Food shortages and disastrous harvests still happen. Yet huge amounts of produce are thrown out all the time here in America because they are not pretty enough to be sold in grocery stores.
It makes sense, then, that the ancient tradition recommends abstinence, or fasting, to combat the vice of gluttony. For those used to thinking about abstinence only in the context of American sex-ed, abstinence here means, in the words of the Summa Virtutum, “the restraint of all illicit impulses… the medicine for all diseases that come from excess” (266). Abstinence becomes a fancier word for restraint. Some of this restraint is just very practical and respectful of your bodily limitations. Restraining yourself when you want to sneakily take the biggest piece of cake for yourself rather than give it to your guest, restraint when you want to eat another bowl of pasta just because you made it and its incredible even though you fully know you are full and would feel bad eating another, restraint when you really want another glass of wine but know it would push you from pleasantly buzzed to full-on drunk. It’s not centering your day around your meals, but including them in the big picture.
Abstinence comes in other forms as well. A culture of avarice and gluttony have combined and the result is that our cheapest food is often the worst for us and for the creatures we live alongside.
Our insatiable desires for cheap food here in America have led to some very unsustainable and unethical ways of treating both animals and the land. As usual, the poor suffer the most. If we have the income, buying less of certain kinds of food though we enjoy them, or spending a bit more to get less and purchasing from local farms with sustainable practices is another way of combatting gluttony through restraint. I have learned a lot about these ideas from two different friends who are farming and living close to the land (shout out to Goodie and Jack at Bell Farm and Michelle and Joe at Little Way Farm!).
Fasting, literal fasting, is also another obvious form of abstinence. But this fasting is not the same as fasting as part of a diet. Fasting in a diet may be necessary for medical reasons and be very good for your body. Fasting to combat gluttony and grow in virtue, however, emerges from love. The influential Summa Virtutum argues that “the withdrawal of food is not meritorious unless it is done voluntarily out of love,” and that ideally, fasting should be accompanied by giving the food you would have consumed to the poor. It’s an interesting idea. And it combats the pernicious side-effect of fasting for many people modern and medieval. When we participate in an ostentatiously difficult and notoriously holy practice, like fasting, it can sometimes fuel our pride and satisfaction with ourselves more than anything else. The Summa Virtutum compares the temptation of fasting to the proud holy man of Luke 18, who thanks God that he is not like the sinning, evil tax collector he sees across the street. Bernard of Clairvaux writes of this man, “he is giving thanks not because he is good, but because he is unique.” He’s not merely thankful for his gifts, he is comparing them to someone else’s lack. He’s better. Fasting can lead us to these spiritual temptations if not done in the right time and place.
Fasting in a spirit of love can provide mental and spiritual clarity, as it has for two thousand years to some of the Christians who have practiced it. And this includes many different kinds of fasting, because not all of us can fully fast. It may be abstaining from chocolate and wine, or it may be skipping breakfast on Fridays, or it may be a full-blown fast. Abundance of food at all times, like abundance of money, can sometimes cause us to lose sight of our utter dependence on God. When we fast, voluntarily abstaining from eating for a period of time, we remember our limitations and our gifts. Fasting disrupts our usual habits. It forces us to pay attention to ideas, feelings, or habits we might ordinarily let slide.
The church itself has also built into itself an ancient tradition of feasts and fasts. We enjoy the body and the pleasures we have through our senses to celebrate the joys of salvation and the good news of the gospel and the wondrous exploits of the people who have followed Jesus. We also fast to remember our limitations, to mourn with those to whom food has lost its savor through suffering or grief, to lament the past, or to focus on spiritual as well as temporal goods. The cycle of feasting and fasting is meant to undermine spiritual complacency in either hypocritical holiness, an unhealthy unrelenting focus on either how bad or how good the world is, or shallow rejoicing and toxic positivity. The two modes of feasting and fasting sharpen one another. DeYoung writes, “Fasting heightens our appreciation for material goods while also keeping this appreciation in its place, with room for the enjoyment of both simple bodily pleasures and spiritual goods.” (184) One of the meals I mentioned earlier, the scone with tea, tasted so very wonderful because I had been fasting (due to said childbirth) for the last twelve or fifteen hours during my labor process. Fasting, in whatever form you partake, is similar to labor in some ways. It’s something rather painful that generates life: in this case, a life more fully aware and in touch with the goodness of bodies and creation.
Perhaps acknowledging gluttony and practicing abstinence looks like this balance and awareness of feast and fast. It’s feasting, drinking and eating really good things, savoring and recognizing them with gusto and joy for the gift they are, with company you love. It’s also abstaining at important times to sharpen your awareness of those gifts, to brighten your sense of your dependence on the gifts of God, and to acknowledge others in hard places.
Next week is the FINAL WEEK of this Lenten series! Perhaps you are rejoicing, ready to not discover what new vicious habits you labor under each week! I know I am, I am eagerly looking forward to Easter. We will consider lust and chastity. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. I am also around on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace. I’d love to hear from you!
Today in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, we are talking about avarice and generosity. Let’s begin with something really important that you probably would not know from looking at the lives of most Christians: scripture contains more warnings about money than about sex. Avarice, or covetise, as medieval English authors often called it, is the umbrella term for a whole host of disordered attitudes about money and acquisition. Though greed is often used, these attitudes and actions go beyond that: they include, of course, the burning desire to acquire and consume, hoarding, stinginess, extravagance in purchasing, usury (lending with interest), theft, simony (the selling of spiritual things like offices, positions, authority, sacraments), and withholding.
Funny story: while researching and writing this episode I had a very real moment of avaricious habit bite me, accompanied by a strong dose of pride. Avarice, like all other vices, is a habit. You’re trained into it, or as one medieval penitential manual says, avarice is the teacher at a great school, and everyone is a student there. I’ve recognized that I have some avaricious habits for a while. Despite the fact that our income has considerably shrunk since I left graduate school, after I had my third child during the pandemic, I found myself “rewarding” myself with little treats constantly. Life was so ridiculously hard, why shouldn’t I have that t-shirt or candle or tea latte or cute outfit for my baby? But after several months of this, a long hard look at our bank account and our habits of spending, my husband and I both decided to cut back. I had realized that I gravitated toward online shopping when I was sad or stressed out. This year, I decided that I would try to break my bad habit of self-soothing with purchasing and not buy clothes for myself at all, with the one exception of a dress for a family wedding that I really did not have. So far, so good.
As I was writing this episode, I started to feel really good about myself. I had unsubscribed from all advertising emails and deals in order to avoid temptation, as one book recommended. I was fasting from consumerism. I was, one might say, noble. Literally as I was admiring myself, I clicked on an Instagram ad for a Jane Austen t-shirt. I caught myself and laughed. The absurdity of vice and its power over us! The power of pride, always reeling us back into itself.
The fact of the matter is that when we combat avarice, we are facing very large, very serious cultural messaging that is incredibly difficult to avoid. But let’s take a closer look, because buying a t-shirt on its own is not a bad thing. What makes something avaricious?
One penitential text defines covetise, at its rotten core, as a love ruled by worldly goods, love that comes from one’s lack of trust and security in God, for dread of poverty, believing that God and all the world will fail him unless he has gathered much and kept it for dark days ahead. At its root is disordered desire, imbalanced yearning that may swing wildly between excess and hoarding, between prodigality and miserhood. But what each of these different behaviors include at their core is the sneaking idea that God himself is not enough and cannot be enough, so one must protect oneself with goods. As Chaucer’s Parson points out, avarice can be a pretty basic form of idolatry, of worship that puts its trust in places other than God.
Avarice can sometimes be confused with a lust for goods, sheer covetousness alone. Yet avarice has some major differences from lust or gluttony. For one, both lust and gluttony are eventually satiated, however terrible the lustful or gluttonous might feel after their encounter with forbidden fruit. And though their desire will return, there’s a moment of satiation and pleasure. Avarice, while certainly pleasurable in its accumulation, there’s really no obvious moment of “getting your fill.” We can easily recognize this because this is the premise capitalism is based on: the more you buy, the more you want. And I certainly recognize the truth in my own life: the more I buy clothes or books, my two favorite expenditures, the more ideas I get for what I want. I didn’t know I wanted them until I saw them, but want them I do, and make poor decisions in order to get them.
One could respond, Grace, surely you aren’t buying clothes or books with the idea of securing yourself against the abandonment of God? No, not really. But am I buying them in order to feel better about myself or the world in a tactic that I know will not work in the long run and distracts me from what is actually wrong? Yes. Am I buying them in carelessness for, say, the consequences of fast fashion on the earth, or the millions of people who have less resources than I do? Also yes. There is a disordered desire at play, even if it’s not full-blown private jet purchase while people die casually in poverty. And let me be clear: buying a beautiful blouse is not a sin, even if you have other beautiful blouses. There’s a place for appreciating beautiful clothes in the world. There’s not at all a clear-cut line, like once you have fifteen blouses you are sinfully greedy about clothing. But we Americans have long been in the school of avarice, and avarice has become our primary teacher in our habits of discerning what we need from what we want in terms of material possessions.
I really appreciated Andrew Pinsent’s meditations on avarice in the book Virtues & Their Vices. He notes this difficulty in discerning avarice: “One of the particularities of the relationship of money and virtue is that there are cases of heroic virtue under surprisingly diverse conditions of material wealth.” From St. Francis of Assisi, a young aristocrat who casts aside all of his wealth to the fabulously wealthy King David, whose various vices do not seem to stem from money but from lust, from Mother Teresa to St. Homobonus, the medieval patron saint of businessmen who had a hefty inheritance and used it to work wonders in his native Italian town, we meet all kinds of holy folk, rich and poor and somewhere in-between. For some, the answer will be to give everything away, and for others, it’s not.
If we hold too tightly to one particular rule about money, we tend to get into trouble (honestly, this could be extended to most of our temptations in general—the Prohibition, for instance, turned out disastrous). In the Middle Ages, controversies raged around the Dominican and Franciscan friars and their choice to live in voluntary poverty. Many theologians and writers, including the poet of Piers Plowman, William Langland, felt that this commitment actually made them more vulnerable to the sway and influence of money, not less. If you read enough penitential manuals on the vices, a repetitive theme emerges. Many of them have massive sections on simony under the banner of avarice—simony was the sin of selling spiritual goods which should never be sold, like offices, prayers, even sacraments. Wealthy laypeople would bribe these friars to give them light penance in exchange for their confessions—this is actually where the modern-day term of “short shrift” comes from! To give someone “short shrift” means to listen to a very short confession and light penance, not giving their vices the proper attention and depth of contrition needed for real spiritual change and communal harmony. A steady income made bribes and the selling of the sacrament less appealing, thought Langland and many others.
This is related to the next idea about avarice: the way in which you get your money matters. The means do not justify the ends; the acquisition of money does not justify the actions taken to get it. There’s obvious examples, like theft or lying or fraud, that come under the banner of avarice. But there’s also actions that are naturally integrated into our society today, like usury. Usury is the lending of money at “unreasonably high rates,” or at any rates at all. In other words, the modern system of credit cards, student loans, payday lending, and some kinds of mortgages would all have been considered sinful for Christians to partake in, on the end of the person loaning the money. There is a robust, ancient Christian argument, rooted in Old Testament practices, for the forgiveness of longterm debt like student loans—fascinating given some of our current debates. Theoretically, medieval people believed that Christians were not supposed to loan each other money with interest at all—they were supposed to loan freely, and be ready to forgive those loans fairly easily if the person loaned couldn’t pay them back in a reasonable way. This is because we all belong to the Body of Christ, and your success is my success. In reality, these prohibitions against lending with interest led to some pretty convoluted and terrible outcomes as people tried to find ways to get money loaned to them, or make money off the money they were loaning.
One example comes in antisemitic violence and stereotypes. In the Middle Ages, some wealthy Jewish folks became moneylenders, encouraged by the monarchy and nobles, because according to this system, they could lend at interest because it wasn’t Christian to Christian lending. Not only did this practice not follow the spirit of the warnings against avarice by exploiting a loophole, it inflamed violent animosity and antisemitic stereotypes (Jewish people as money-oriented) that still exist today. The nobles could use Jewish financiers to help them fund their wars, then if they found that the money was too much to return, or that they tired of the relationship, they could surreptitiously look the other directions when prejudiced, angry mobs attacked the Jewish quarter, or they could tax the Jews at insanely high rates. There’s a long and tragic history there.
There are other poor ways of making money guided by avarice: what one medieval book on penance calls “disreputable crafts.” What you do matters and shapes you as it makes you money. Medieval people included distasteful entertainment jobs, like jugglers, public buffoons (which I’m not exactly sure what that entails) and heralds-at-arms, that is, announcers for tournaments, under this category. Do we include sports announcers here now? Comedians? I wouldn’t, but it’s fascinating to see how cultural categories shift and change. In a category we are more accustomed to putting in the disreputable craft category, prostitution is also included. Disordered attitudes towards money, as medieval folks understood it, are ultimately a force that dehumanizes other people, instrumentalizes them towards your own ends of wealth or material gain, and we are all sadly aware of the ways that human trafficking and sex work has in the end dehumanized many people.
This is the poison of all acts of avarice, not just making money in ways that are not congruent to one’s true status as an image-bearer. Avarice dehumanizes and instrumentalizes people, whether that’s in theft, in borrowing and lending money to make money and forget about the person, in hoarding wealth or in rabid accumulation of goods. It destroys community; it elevates the desires of one individual above the needs of the many. We see this in certain lobbyists getting politicians to act against the good of their constituents through massive donations to their campaigns, in landlords wantonly raising rent, in the hoarding of vaccines away from impoverished countries, in the basic injustice of a billionaire in a twenty-room mansion while ten miles away a person lacks the money to pay rent on a roach-ridden apartment. Dante describes the avaricious in hell as having lost their individual identities, faceless men and women with their countenances to the ground:
The undiscerning life which made them sordid
Now makes them unto all discernment dim.
Dante, Inferno, Canto VII
Pinsent usefully explains, “The implication is that, as a consequence of the failure of the avaricious to know or recognize other persons in this life, the distinctiveness of their own personal identity has faded…avarice impedes mutual recognition of persons.” In our desire for objects, we forget people. Service workers become nonentities as the man seeks the perfect dining experience. The poor become a faceless block that have little relation with the $5,000 purse purchased by the wealthy woman. Money can teach a false sense that we are self-made, above the community, and we become our own gods. A side component that may be more relevant to those of us who don’t spend money on exquisite dining or fabulous purses: our ceaseless acquisition and consumption results in trash and waste, which also destroys community. A fruit of avarice that medieval people never would have considered is our ongoing destruction of the planet we live upon through fast fashion, and through unceasing upgrades to our technology and homes and cars. We also become entangled within systems that exploit other people through low pay or even modern-day slavery.
Unsurprisingly, when I think about this, I begin to spiral downward, perhaps all the way mentally into Dante’s Inferno myself. Let’s think about the remedy to avarice, which is, unsurprisingly, generosity or liberality, which are the same idea, and mercy.
Generosity or liberality characterizes, just like avarice, an attitude towards money and material goods. Unlike avarice, it is rightly-ordered orientation towards money, directed towards freedom, justice, and one’s brothers and sisters. In a great phrase from Pinsent, someone who is generous or liberal with their money has a “wholesome lightheartedness” about their possessions. Like a child they enjoy them, but they know their true worth in the grand scheme of things. I like this phrase because it reminds us that our goods can become burdensome. It also puts our goods into the right light. The bottom line of who we are as created people is that nothing we have is earned; everything we have is a gift. This attitude helps us to remember to give because of all we have been given.
Generosity does not concern actual amounts given: anyone, regardless of wealth or age or status, can be generous with what they have. In fact, says Pinsent, all orientation towards money should be governed by human relationship. This is a useful rule of thumb that flexibly expands and contracts to include all kinds of people with different ways of being in the world and different kinds of needs and incomes and access. When we contextualize our spending habits and our money within a larger framework of remembering our fellow human beings, we can more adequately discern good uses of money from ones that exist to distract or self-glorify. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung also has a good question for us as we learn to reorient our attitudes about money towards the generous: “If I keep handling possessions like this for the next ten or twenty years, what sort of character will I develop and what kind of person will I become?” (114)
Medieval people focused more on mercy than generosity or liberality. Mercy is nothing more than being materially moved by someone else’s suffering and acting upon those feelings. Mercy is really the opposite of avarice. Instead of depersonalization, it’s forcefully recollecting someone else’s humanity and personhood even in the most awful circumstances. An attitude of mercy needs to be cultivated—it’s not necessarily automatic. To help cultivate mercy, medieval texts almost universally recommend the seven bodily works of mercy as a helpful reminder list for Christians:
1. To feed the poor.
2. To clothe the poor and the naked.
3. To lend to the needy and forgive their debts.
4. To visit the sick.
5. To receive strangers.
6. To visit and comfort prisoners, and save them if you can.
7. To bury the dead.
These acts of bodies materially caring for other bodies combat the spiritual affliction of avarice and put faces back on people that we can easily ignore. Note: there’s no caveats accompanying these acts about worthiness, innocence, or any of the other ways in which we qualify whom we choose to do good deeds for. It’s visit the prisoners and aid them, regardless of what they’ve done. Feed the poor and clothe them, whether they are children or drug addicts. The needy might include a college student or a homeless person. These are remarkably, thankfully simple and flexible and based off of Jesus’s own actions and the actions of his disciples following his death. These are also ways we should be considering using our own money.
These acts of mercy do not only help others in need. They change us in our souls. Acting this way reorients us towards freedom and love and generosity itself. They transform our habits and help us to remember our gifts and practice gratitude. They do not make you the generous powerful patron we would all secretly like to be thought as—they remind us that we are all needy and beloved embodied souls, and everything we have is a lovely gift!
Next week we will think through gluttony and abstinence, another frequently misunderstood set of vice and virtue. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free monthly Substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. I am also around on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace. I’d love to hear from you!
Today in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, we are thinking through sloth and perseverance. Does my love for terrible reality television make me a practitioner of sloth? What even is sloth? Spoiler: my love for terrible reality television does not make me a sloth, nor a practitioner of sloth. Sloth is perhaps the most misunderstood of the Seven Capital Vices. Let’s dive in.
We think of sloth as laziness, as a bodily kind of sin like gluttony or lust. We treat it, accordingly, mostly like a joke. In what world is laying on the couch, eating potato chips, and watching bad TV a deadly serious sin? Sure, maybe a problem, but truly an awful sin? But this is not the ancient sense of sloth. In reality, say the earliest theorists of sloth, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and their most eminent interpreters like Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a spiritual vice. Its ancient name is “acedia,” but I will still use sloth because it’s fun to say. And before I go further, some people have aligned acedia with clinical depression. I do not, because a vice involves a habitual choice, whereas clinical depression is a disease. Because people with clinical depression are no saintlier than anyone else, I’m sure some of them do struggle with the vice of sloth, but let’s not muddy the waters and conflate the two.
Sloth is resistance to charity, to our true vocation of friendship with God or with our neighbor or even love for ourselves, because it is too difficult or overwhelming. The classic scriptural example of this is in the Hebrew scriptures, when the Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land because they are afraid of how hard it will be. Sloth is a powerful, serious, and common vice. In Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s words, “sloth essentially concerns one’s fundamental commitment to one’s spiritual identity and vocation” (179).
The Book of Vices and Virtues, that medieval penitential manual, calls it “weariness of good deeds” (26). It’s a slackness in love when it should be burning, a pusillanimity or “unboldness” in your deeds and words. It’s the person who dares not to go down a way, says the Book, for “fear of a snail that showeth his horns”—in other words, when we are so daunted by an obstacle, big or small, that we simply choose to go an easier way.
If you’re like me, burnt out by the pandemic and parenting small children and disastrous cultural discourse and fear about the environment and all that junk, you might be dazedly thinking to yourself, what’s wrong with the easy way? Lord, give me easiness, I beg. My husband and I actually went to an event the other night when we were asked to write down the desires of our heart, really honestly. And, unsurprisingly given my temperament and the last few years, the first thing I wrote was solitude. But then the second thing I wrote was “an easy life, a cozy life like a hobbit in a hole.” What’s so wrong about that?
In fact, there is nothing wrong with ease itself, or relaxing, or even sometimes being lazy. Full human lives have those gifts. But the cost of valuing ease over all other goods is shockingly high, particularly in relationships. And relationships are what we are called to, as the children of God. DeYoung makes the stakes clear of choosing ease at all costs, through interpreting Aquinas’s account:
On Aquinas’s relational account of sloth, slothful people want all the comforts of being in a relationship—with the identity, security, love, and happiness it brings—while ultimately resisting or refusing to let love change them or make disciples of them. They are like a married couple who long for a relationship of unconditional love, but who chafe at the thought of disciplining their own desires or sacrificing themselves in order to maintain that relationship and allow it to flourish…
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 192.
Sloth is this resistance towards love and the demands of love in our relationship with our Maker and in our vocations here on Earth. W.H. Auden, in his poem The Age of Anxiety, neatly conveys the bottom line of sloth rooted in pride:
We would rather be ruined than changed We would rather die in our dread Than climb the cross of the moment And let our illusions die.
W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
Avoiding the cross of the moment, in Auden’s language, can lead to some deep and bitter sadness, even misery and self-contempt, and very often loneliness. This aversion or avoidance is not just felt, but sought out and reinforced. Again, DeYoung is helpful: “sloth is the will’s aversion to our participation in God—that is, our resistance to his making us ‘like-natured’ to him through the Holy Spirit’s presence and work within us, and thus our resistance to the friendship and love grounded in that likeness of nature” (188-9).
Some manuals tell us that obstinacy is a sure sign of sloth, and I think it’s a good one to keep in mind. What is obstinacy? Jacob’s Well aligns it with being stony-hearted. When your heart is hard as stone, you do not weep for those who are suffering, you have no sweetness, no ruth or pity, no love or fear for those in tough positions.
Medieval writers document extensively that laziness and forgetfulness are symptoms (not causes!) of sloth. And they also write that overbusy-ness, recklessness, and burnout are also symptoms of sloth. This makes sense, because according to our temperament we distract ourselves from our difficult calling, and try to control our spiritual lives and vocations as much as we can. For some of us, that looks like avoidance, quietism, and yes, laziness. For others of us, that looks like “too great a zeal,” in the words of the medieval writers, for fasting, excessively volunteering at church, and spiritual practices that end up being us trying to claw our way out of what we are actually asked to do in love and friendship. Distractions and diversions from the difficult way of charity look different for different people. Yet they end similarly: sloth as a sure road to contempt and despair and restless unhappiness is well-documented.
So how did sloth get so associated with bodily laziness, leaving its spiritual components behind? One thing is that the Desert Fathers and their spiritual descendants advised manual labor as a remedy for sloth. This works sometimes, but not exclusively. And I have a hunch that it’s a remedy less as labor itself, and more because you are doing something difficult, and sometimes when you accomplish one difficult thing, you feel empowered to do more difficult things. Especially if you’re doing it outside in fresh air. But medieval people disagree with me on that point. They have some rather unhelpful comments (ceaselessly work, some urge, disregarding their own earlier points about busy-ness as distraction). Jacob’s Well uses a really lame story about a hermit who built his shelter close to a spring so that he didn’t have to walk far to get water, but it turns out angels were counting his footsteps and determining the merit of his hermithood, so he moved further away and that solved both his sloth and merit problem. Cool.
Because of exempla like these, sloth eventually became inseparable from one of its main symptoms, laziness of the body, or lethargy, or a lack of effort. And in the modern West, this was useful, because thinking of sloth this way fits one of capitalism’s main narratives about the world: that work is the way to salvation. That restless busy-ness became a virtue of capitalism. Josef Pieper, the midcentury Thomist philosopher and theologian, writes that sloth has become “a concept of the middle class work ethic. The fact that it is numbered among the seven ‘capital sins’ seems, as it were, to confer the sanction and approval of religion on the absence of leisure in the capitalistic industrial order” (Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture, 54). The industrious worker is just as likely as a couch potato to be under the influence of sloth and its root, pride. So ironically, then, one resistance to sloth is actually rest and quiet contemplation in defiance to the demands of our busy, busy life that offers distractions and diversions and work galore. And let this be a lesson for you—laziness itself is not a sin, but instead usually reveals other things. Are you overdoing it? Are you resisting something that you need to embrace? Are you not taking care of your mind or body or soul?
In the long tradition, the usual remedy for sloth is the gift of strength. The Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime defines strength as “the considered accepting of risks and the longlasting bearing of hardships” and takes Isaiah 35 as inspiration. It invites us to use the remedy of strength: “Strengthen the feeble hands and confirm the weak knees. Say to the fainthearted, ‘take courage.”’ In the classic medieval love of cataloguing and listing, it breaks down strength into several categories. The first is greatheartedness, which is the voluntary and reasonable undertaking of difficult things (ie: conquering your fear of heights and learning rock climbing, not free climbing Yosemite). The second was confidence, which honestly I was delighted to see in a medieval text, because that idea is rather rare for medieval folks. Confidence was defined as “the certain hope to carry to its end a task one has undertaken,” and is closely associated with Jesus’s promises for sanctification and eternal life. The next is composure, “not to be afraid of the inconveniences that lie before us and accompany the task we have begun.” Another is high-mindedness, “carrying difficult and noble things to the end” (238). The last is constancy, “the mind’s stability that is firm and persevering in its resolve.” Note that medieval folks were very aware that doing difficult things was a prolonged process—they assign different virtues to the beginning, middle, and ends of daunting projects under the banner of strength.
The Book of Vices and Virtues offers a perspective I really like. It defines the gift of strength as “a new heart, a noble heart and hardy—noble to despise all that the world may offer and give him, and of this hardiness speaketh our Lord when he sayeth, “Blessed be they that hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Book). This is a heart that sees value where it is, and where it is not. Then it clarifies the last bit in a way that encourages me greatly: “He sayeth not ‘blessed be they that do righteousness,’ but ‘blessed be they that have hunger and thirst for righteousness’… none of us truly know how to do right, and he knows our weakness, which is why he blesses our desire and not our actions” (Book). Our misguided attempts may go awry. But the Lord sees and blesses our desire. This is the virtue of a valiant friend who comes into the fray to undergo hardship with their suffering friend. It’s described by the very old-fashioned word “doughty”—you’re not picking fights, but you’re undaunted by the obstacles in the way of love. And the way of doughtiness is open to anyone who desires, from the smallest elementary schooler to the elderly grandparent: “the habit makes not the monk, nor arms the knight, but the good heart and doughty works.”
Strength is allied with good hope, trustiness, patience, and security. What is security doing there? It means one rests in the immutable fact that one is loved by God, and though the waters are deep and frightening, the love is deeper still. Constancy too accompanies strength. I had my youngest at the beginning of the pandemic (April 3rd, 2020, to be exact) and it was a dreadful time. We named her Constance before we knew the pandemic was coming, but it turned out to be the right name at the right time. The road ahead was filled with fear and hard decisions, but her name became a promise of God’s love and a hope that we would not shy away from the hard things. Constance is the “virtue that maketh the heart as steadfast and trusty to God as a tower that is founded upon the hard rock and as a tree that is rooted hard in good earth, that shaketh ne boweth for no wind that may come ne blow, that is to say for no adventure that comes, good nor evil” (168). Never a woman or man comes to victory without constancy, says the Book.
The manuals urge us to participate in the Eucharist to increase our strength; I imagine it somewhat irreverently like a marathon runner who stops to drink water or Gatorade. They note that remembering Christ’s passion can help to heal obstinacy in sloth. Intentionally soften your heart, cry at the thought of love. I add rest as an antidote to sloth, and slow contemplative time.
I want to end with this reflection from Julian of Norwich, who believes that sloth—dread and fear of hard things and our weakness—alongside despair, are the sins most difficult to discern and handle. We fear ourselves, that we are too much for God in our sinfulness and inability.
God showed two manner of sickness that we have. That one is unpatience or sloth, for we bear our travail and our pain heavily. That other is despair or doubtful dread, as I shall say after. Generally, he showed sin, wherein all is comprehended. But in special, he showed none but these two. And these two are that which most travaileth and tempesteth us, as by that our Lord showed me, of which will he we be amended. I speak of such men and women that for God’s love hate sin and dispose them to do God’s will. Then, by our spiritual blindness and bodily heaviness, which are most inclining to these. And therefore it is God’s will that they be known, and then shall we refuse them, as we do other sins. …this unknowing [of love] it is that most letteth God’s lovers, as to my sight. For when we begin to hate sin, and amend us by the ordinance of Holy Church, yet there dwelleth a dread that letteth us by the beholding of ourself and of our sin afore done, and some of us for our every day sins. For we hold not to our covenants, nor keep not our cleanness that the Lord setteth in us, but fall oftimes into so much wretchedness that shame it is to say it. And the beholding of this maketh us so sorry and so heavy that we cannot see any comfort. And this dread we take sometimes for a meekness, but it is a foul blindness and a weakness.
Julian of Norwich, Long Text, ch. 73
Julian’s words remind us that sometimes we confuse sloth with consciousness of our sins and of our own inabilities. It’s almost the flip side of pride. And she reminds us, time and time again, that we are loved as we are. Sloth can’t bring itself to believe that the love is real, that strength is there for us in our hour of need, that the challenges that come our way are often good for our souls and bodies though we can’t see it.
I will end with her words as a good reminder for my own slothful soul: “For some of us believe that God is almighty and may do all, and that he is all wisdom and can do all. But that he is all love and will do all, there we stint” (ch. 73). I am working on that last bit of remembrance.
Next week we will consider avarice, or greed, and generosity, or mercy. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free monthly Substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. I am also around on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace. I’d love to hear from you!
Today, in the fourth of the Lent Seven Capital Vices and their remedies, I’m thinking about anger and its remedies. I’ll preface by saying I’m quite uncomfortable with anger. I grew up in a family that didn’t really express anger, as we have all later acknowledged to one another. I am intimidated by angry people, and when I am angry, I hate it. So I’m carrying some baggage into this one. Anger, like pride, is tough, because there’s good anger and bad anger. In his book City of God, St. Augustine of Hippo categorizes anger as a passion. As a passion, or emotion, or feeling, not a virtue, it is value-neutral, depending on why the person is angry and how they handle and express their anger.
How do we separate good anger from bad anger, while also realizing that perhaps that division is a little too neat at times? Good ire seeks to protect goodness. It’s anger against wickedness, caused by injustice. Such an anger can coexist with one of its remedies, patience. Righteous anger is a mean, opposed to complacency or apathy on one side, and the disproportionate or wrong wrath on the other. The midcentury Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper writes that “The power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul” (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 192). Anger is a powerful motivator to action. It can actually be a problem if one does not get angry about some of the great injustices of the world. Inadequate anger about racism, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, upholds the status quo and makes real change difficult. The commonplace sign, “no justice, no peace/know justice, know peace” expresses an epistemological reality, not a goal or a threat.
The ethicist Zac Cogley argues that anger can be virtuous or vicious by how well it evaluates wrongdoing, how it motivates the angry person, and how that anger is communicated (in Virtues & Their Vices). Anger is not virtuous if it fails at any one of those points. If you’re angry for a great reason, but you communicate recklessly or with intent to harm, or if you have fabulous communication but are insufficiently or overly angry, or if your anger is for a bad reason, it does not count as righteous.
Cogley also notes that each and every culture has unwritten rules about the display of anger. I remember I visited Rome as a college student and this woman across the street from me was just furious about something. I couldn’t tell what, because she was Italian and I didn’t speak the language. But she was gesticulating and screaming just on the street. No one around her on a very busy street batted an eyelash. In America, someone probably would have called the cops. I found it fascinating. A less neutral example, however, appears with angry women in America, who are socialized differently with anger than men. Cogley cites Jody Miller’s depressing study, which describes how the display of righteous anger by women in response to harassment, especially young Black women, often resulted in simply more harassment from the offending men (Virtues & Their Vices, 215). Cultural norms deeply affect how people perceive anger—and how they react to it. Anger is culturally complex, and social perceptions of it often unfair.
What is bad anger? According to Geoffrey Chaucer quoting Aristotle, a wicked will to be avenged in word or deed. Chaucer divides bad anger into two varieties: sudden or hasty ire, without the advice and consent of reason (one immediately thinks of the kind of wrath that leads to third degree murder, or to road rage or to an ill-considered cussing out). The other is ire to which reason fully consents, the slow burn anger towards vengeance, and this kind of anger, in Chaucer’s words, “wasteth and destroyeth the likeness of God” (Parson’s Tale). This is the first-degree murder wrath—and it is also the premeditated curse, the mean-tempered criticism, the carefully crafted, devastating slight. “Chiding and reproach” can create cruel, gaping wounds in the heart. These are spiritual manslaughter, note the pastoral materials of the day, following Jesus’s words about murder in the heart. Hate, says Chaucer, is nothing more than old wrath. I imagine a formerly hot soup with a congealed layer on top of it: hate as a gross meal of wrath cooled down and stagnant from its peak at boiling.
Fire truly is the metaphor of choice for anger. It can warm a house, cook a delicious dinner, or burn down an entire town. It can purge or kill. The parallel to anger is clear. The medieval Book of Vices & Virtues notes the especially deadly combination of wrath and power: when two lords go to war, many of the dead in the aftermath have no guilt, churches are robbed and broken, town burned down, men, women, and children are disinherited. The relationship with wrath and war is also repeated over and over by these medieval writers. Anger’s divisive power is never more visible than in war. The angry person is at war with another person, but also, and perhaps more devastatingly, at war with himself: “when wrath is so full in a man, he tormenteth his soul and his body so that he has no sleep or rest” (Book of Vices & Virtues). Who hasn’t argued with a spouse late in the evening and then seethed under the covers, unable to sleep or be at peace? The Book also tells us that you can tell an angry man by the way he treats those he considers beneath him; I think of servers at a restaurant, fellow drivers, his children, the poor.
Our wrath also makes rationalizers out of us. As a society, we have gotten too casual with our anger, especially with the commonplace rage inflamed by wicked tongues, and correspondingly, familiar with equivocation and rationalization. Twitter drips with contempt, and Facebook’s algorithm happily inflames open rage. Politicians use wrathful language on a regular basis, hoping to harness its power to their wagon. And it’s often disguised as humor or “just rhetoric,” (though there’s no such thing as mere rhetoric; words always have meaning and consequences beyond what one perhaps intends).
I’ve seen a lot of rage recently centered on Critical Race Theory. I’ve been fascinated and repelled to see that most of this rage is generated without even quite knowing what it is, let alone reading it. Someone ran for school board in my neighborhood solely on opposing critical race theory—when critical race theory isn’t even remotely taught in the school district here. This candidate hoped to channel the countrywide rage around a literally nonexistent local threat to the benefit of his personal victory. What the nation witnessed on January 6th of last year spoke to me of a society, made up of a lot of Christians, enamored with their anger, fed by it, consumed by it. DeYoung concludes, “When wrath lacks justice’s good judgment and genuine impartiality, good reasoning becomes its puppet” (146). Sometimes our anger drives us to good purposes, as with Martin Luther King’s urging for white moderates to be more angry, not less, about the prevalent racism which they blithely underestimated. But too, too often, our reasoning becomes the puppet of wrath, and we ourselves become the puppet of whatever is inflaming that wrath. Don’t let yourself become a tool for anyone else. It is ultimately dehumanizing.
Anger, good or bad, is not to be tossed around or cultivated lightly—just as you watch your young child carefully around a fun campfire, just as you install smoke alarms in your house. We are all excellent rationalizers, quick to categorize our wrath in the first category rather than the second. And we do need to feel our feelings—to shove anger down and ignore it is to miss many important signs about who you are in the world, what is just and unjust, and what you need. But it is equally important to note that to turn to wrath without thought time after time creates its own habits. Aquinas observes that the passions become more out of control the more we give them free rein. Jacob’s Well notes that some angry people are like a man who sees someone else’s house on fire and then lights fire to his own. He destroys his own soul by denouncing the sins of others.
Everyone knows angry people, people ready to be furious at the drop of a hat. Jacob’s Well also advises one to avoid these people as one would a mad dog or an ogre, because they are dangerous. Dallas Willard nicely sums up Thomas’s tradition when he writes, “feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters” (The Renovation of the Heart, 122).
One of the most fascinating things about reading these ancient texts attempting to describe human behavior and figure out the world is that sometimes they come very close to modern ideas in psychology. Chaucer writes that wrath is usually a secondary sin, generated from pride or envy. Later that day, in a modern-day paper on anger, I read that anger is a secondary emotion, usually masking something else like fear or sorrow. DeYoung notes that people with high standards or ideals are often troubled by anger. The closer and more precious is the threat, the bigger the reaction. If someone’s child is threatened, see the anger that erupts from parents! As any teacher knows well, this anger is sometimes in response to a real danger to their children, or merely ruffled pride. It does not make the anger in a fearful or offended parent less potent. DeYoung teaches that the desert father Evagrius impels us to ask, “What is your anger guarding?” (Glittering Vices, 142).
I find it incredibly fascinating that unlike envy and love, or pride and humility, the tradition disagrees on what remedy is most suitable for anger. Because anger is sometimes good and deeply needed, the remedy becomes more complicated. Patience has been suggested, as has meekness. And I found more curious remedies: the gift of knowledge, for instance, or a medieval virtue called “evenhead.”
Knowledge does not really count as a virtue—it’s really more of a gift, to be sought and received. However, willingness to learn and learning itself are both important habits. The Book of Vices and Virtues notes that often, the gift of knowledge casts out the sin of wrath. Knowledge makes men and women more wise and measured in all things. The Book announces that with this gift you will become more like the angels of the Lord, who “all full of eyen to-fore and behind.” Sign me up! I want to have eyen to-fore and behind, I could read books in the front and the back! But seriously, who hasn’t flared up in anger to discover mitigating circumstances? A simple example: your friend is uncharacteristically late to lunch. You’re angry, because your time is limited. They get there, and they are teary-eyed. They got in a fender-bender on their way to lunch, or had a difficult phone conversation that delayed them. The irritation leaves you, as wind out of your sails. On a much bigger level, the magnificent book by Eli Saslow, Rising Out of Hatred, depicts the transformation of the white supremacist wunderkind Derek Black. Black attended college, and some brave Jewish students befriended him. The power of their friendship, and the newfound knowledge about Jewish people that Black was confronted with, challenged Black’s hatred to his core and led him to publicly renounce white supremacy. His openness to learning changed him. Though he was rejected by his family and friends, Black could not unlearn what he had learned from his college friends. His reason and his passion became aligned in the light of this new knowledge, and his hatred, old wrath, could not bear the light.
The Book of Vices and Virtues uses some vivid examples to describe the person endowed with gift of knowledge: you become like the master builder, who knows the measures, who doesn’t miss a line or a levelling. Or like the prior who makes order in the cloister of the heart and all its sides: the understanding and the will, the reason and the passions. When these sides accord, they make a sweet melody together, each informing the other. Your task, as a human in pursuit of this gift, is to inquire, to judge, to consider carefully, and then to communicate your understanding. If you find yourself angry about something you have not encountered personally or do not understand—as in, say, the previous critical race theory example, or really anything wielded by public figures to stir up emotion and response—it’s important to proceed with caution and investigate for yourself. Don’t take others’ words for it, unless they are personally learned on the subject themselves. The questions of the gift of knowledge are, in interrogating something wrathful: what’s the manner? What’s the intent? Note: knowledge can often make you angrier. This is why it’s a good remedy in many respects for wrath. It can help redirect us to fruitful anger, rather than embitterment.
The funny little medieval virtue called “evenhead” is closely related to knowledge. It’s closely related to what we might call temperance, or equanimity. The evenheaded person has accurate self-judgment, and is good at examining her conscience. She does not put herself in positions where her anger might spiral out of control, for example, in getting drunk or overfasting. She takes care of her body, because she knows that her body is the source of good and bad anger, the fight-or-flight response, the gut instinct that says to remove yourself from a situation, or alternatively, to intervene in righteous anger. She is a careful listener, and hesitates to judge others’ secret motives. She refuses to “affirm” anything but what she has “well-inquired” (Book). In her speaking, she is deliberate. She follows the counsel of Proverbs 29: “If a wise man contend with a fool, whether he be angry or laugh, he shall find no rest.” This is not a very modern virtue. We often prize brute honesty at the cost of a measured and deliberate response, which is a double-edged sword that is both good and bad for us today. But medieval evenhead is worth thinking about further, especially in the context of the online world.
It’s not too far from the next remedy, meekness. Now the word meekness has survived to today, but it has acquired a very negative connotation. One of the pieces on anger I read even treated meekness as a straight up vice, similar to apathy or cowardice. As a woman I feel extremely uncomfortable with this word. It has, for centuries, been attached to a culturally valued form of womanhood, especially of wifehood, as the meek wife entirely under her husband’s thumb, one who never complains or reveals her true needs and thoughts. But historical meekness is richer and more nuanced than these things. When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” meekness can’t possibly mean cowardice, or a mealy-mouthed refusal to engage, or womanly reticence. What might it mean?
John Chrysostom, as quoted by a very influential medieval book of virtues, the Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime, says “meekness is the calmness of a mind which cannot be easily vexed by the evils it suffers nor be provoked to inflict evils” (152). I think of meekness as the power to choose your battles. If you are not “easily vexed,” in the words of Chrysostom, your anger becomes more moving and powerful when it is aroused. And a resistance to inflicting evils means that, in the words of the Summa Virtutum, “Meekness is the soft pillow on the bed of conscience, on which our soul rests in safety.” Unlike the wrathful, tossing and turning, unable to rest, meekness gives space to rest for a moment. And, if, as medieval writers point out time and time again, wrath and power are extremely dangerous bedfellows, then “meekness deserves to be a leader,” in their fascinating explanation of the meek inheriting the earth (Summa Virtutum). The meek listen and are ready for correction. And all of our cultural understandings of meekness are upended, as we see the meek only fit for following the brave or outspoken or defiant. Meekness fits one for power and influence—the opposite of disqualification.
Finally, we have patience. I’m running out of space, so this is NOT a good summation of patience, but here goes. The Summa Virtutum distinguishes between the two by saying meekness measures anger, while patience suffers under external hardship. Note: patience can be misinterpreted as shut up and take it. But it isn’t. We are told Job is both meek and patient, while not scrupling to doggedly question the Lord or call out his friends for their terrible interpretation of events and God. Chaucer tells quite a different little story about the need and utility of patience:
A philosopher upon a time, that would have beaten his disciple for his great trespass, for which he was greatly amoved, and brought a yard to beat the child, and when this child saw the yard, he said to his master, “what do you think you’re doing?” “I will beat thee,” said the master, “for your correction.” “For truth,” said the child, “you ought first to correct yourself, that have lost all your patience for the guilt of a child.” “For truth,” said the master all weeping, “thou sayest truth. Have thou the yard, my dear son, and correct me for my impatience.”
Chaucer, Parson’s Tale
Patience is a remedy because it keeps us from mimicking the impatient philosopher and beating a child. In patience, as we endure the suffering of some external event, we discern large evils from smaller ones and modulate our behavior accordingly. Patience allows us to endure the anger-inducing situation in order to respond righteously. An angry reaction while stuck in traffic is different than an angry reaction while witnessing or experiencing discrimination. An angry response of beating a child is different than an angry response of gentle chastisement over failure to apply oneself.
Patience has also been compared to good anger, in the sense that it allows one to keep going, to keep working for love in the world. Martin Luther King Jr is a famous, often used exemplar of both good anger and patience. He suffered deeply, yet endured. His patience was the very opposite of a quietist passivity.
My final thought: as a woman socialized into not expressing anger and as someone generally uncomfortable with anger, I want to feel my anger, and not shame myself for it. Anger itself is not a sin. What constitutes vice comes afterward, in my actions, in my thoughts, in how I treat others. Instead, I will ask myself, like Evagrius did 1700 years ago, what is my anger guarding? Then, I can act.
Next week we will think about the strange vice of sloth and its remedy, strength. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman.
Welcome back to the Lent 2022 series, on virtues and vices. This week is on envy and its remedy, love.
Envy has been defined from ancient times as varying forms of sorrow from another person’s prosperity, and joy in their downfall. In other words, it’s the mirror opposite of weeping when others weep, and rejoicing when others rejoice. Sorrow might throw you off here. But it’s that genuine discomfort, irritation, mournful and malicious comparison of yourself in relation to someone else’s life, success, things, looks, whatever it is. It’s the feeling you get of shameful happiness when they lose that thing you envy, or when life is hard for them. It is embarrassing, impotent, so obviously emerging from our nastiest thoughts and feelings. Chaucer writes in The Canterbury Tales, following a long tradition, that all sins have some level of delight in them, except envy. Think of the smugness of pride, the deliciousness of being furious and reveling in righteous indignation, the obvious pleasures of lust or gluttony. Envy alone has no salty savor.
We often use envy and jealousy interchangeably, but they are actually different. Jealousy entails guarding sedulously what you already feel like you possess: a jealous partner guards their boyfriend or girlfriend possessively and usually wrongly. God is described as a jealous God in the Hebrew Scriptures, because Israel is his, and he looks after it zealously. Envy, on the other hand, always entails something you do not have but desire, and extends beyond covetousness into the personal. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her excellent chapter on envy in The Glittering Vices, notes that the “while the covetous person’s desires focus on having an object for herself, the envious person is at least as concerned with the rival’s status or good standing as a result of having that object. The covetous person delights in acquiring the thing, while the envier delights in the way the redistribution of goods affects her and her rival’s respective positions” (69). Consider the difference between someone buying some nice shoes because they saw someone else wearing them and wanted them, to someone buying nice shoes because they are a brand more expensive than the brand that their friend wears.
“Envy is ever joined to the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy” writes Francis Bacon. Last week we discussed pride and comparison. But again, pride takes joy in that comparison, reveling in the prideful one’s superiority. Envy always falls short. DeYoung again: “Because of what they lack, enviers feel less admirable and less worthy of love” (Glittering Vices, 69). DeYoung uses the helpful example of Mozart and Salieri in the great film Amadeus. Salieri is eaten alive by his envy of Mozart, causing harm to Mozart when he can, which also morphs into self-hatred.
Another medieval penitential manual notes envy is seldom confessed to friends or to spiritual advisors. We hide envy, cloaking it in other, more reasonable emotions or rationales. This is probably because it hits too close to home; envy is too closely wrapped up in our deepest personal discontents about our lives. So how does envy reach the light of day?
The medieval penitential manuals have extensive lists of envious behavior. Envy proceeds along a well-worn human path, certain ways of speaking and bitterness of heart, unbinding of friendships, sowing discord, scorn, accusations, putting impediments in the way of those who wish to do right, and finally, concrete acts of malignity like property damage or public slander.
Rarely do things progress so far in our envy that we burn down their house that we long for, steal the boyfriend or car that we want ourselves, or murder, though the envious do all those things. Instead, for most of us, envy surfaces in the way that we talk about other people when they are not around: what medieval writers labelled, in a wonderful triad of envious language, backbiting, grucching, and murmuration. Jacob’s Well compares the language of the envious person to a hound, that cringes before the person in their sight, then bites them once their back is turned. Chaucer has a wonderful passage on backbiting:
Some man praiseth his neighbor by wicked entent, for he maketh always a wicked knot at least end. Always he maketh a “but” at last end, that is worthy of more blame than is worth all the praising. The second species is that if a man be good and dooth or sayeth a thing to good entent, the backbiter will turn all that goodness upside-down to his malicious intent. The third is to reduce the bounty of his neighbor. The fourth species is if men speak goodness of such a man, then will the backbiter say, “by my faith, such a man is yet better than he,” in dispraising of the man that men praised. The fifth space is this: for to consent gladly and harken gladly to the harm that men speak of other folk.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale
Chaucer’s list makes me laugh and cringe. I’ve seen these things happen in conversation, and I’ve especially seen politicians and public figures use these tactics. Most sadly, I’ve used them myself. The wicked knot at the end of the sentence! Or to silently revel as others criticize. That’s a nice one because I don’t get my hands dirty. Ouch.
I recognize envy in my own life when I want something not to work out for a friend, acquaintance, even a random person online, merely because I wish it were me. If it’s not me, they better not be able to have it or do it either. I recognize my envy in mostly really silly objects: a vacation abroad or a success in writing in my field (how dare you receive recognition, too, for writing about Julian of Norwich, the greatest English mystical writer!), scarcely disguised satisfaction when someone else argues with someone I too argue with. These examples might lead you to notice, as the medieval writers recognize, envy makes you really dumb. Your judgment sours, and you begrudge things that are ridiculous.
As it turns out, such feelings are far less about those people than they are in the end about myself. DeYoung writes, “spite at the unworthiness of the rival also works to distract from and disguise the envier’s own sense of unworthiness. The commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The envier can do neither” (Glittering Vices, 79). In my envy, I disguise my real feelings: real sadness over not having the income or freedom as a parent of young children to travel like I long to, real insecurity over my skills as a writer and doubt I will ever succeed as I wish to, real worries that I’m not as right as I want to think I am. It’s easier to lash out at the other than to deal with my own feelings and fears and perhaps the truth. It’s easier to feel like I’ve been cheated of what’s rightfully my own and not theirs.
Have we now piled on enough yet? Onto the remedy.
Unsurprisingly, love is the remedy. To love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And in the case of envy, both neighbor-love and self-love are either nonexistent or severely lacking. In the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer writes, “First is the love of God principal and loving of his neighbor as himself, for truthfully one cannot be without the other.” And our medieval friends do not mince words about who our neighbor is. From Chaucer’s Parson:
“Also in the name of neighbor is comprehended thy enemy… certes, our enemies have more need of love than our friends…in that same deed have we remembrance of the love of Jesus Christ that died for his enemies. For right as the devil is discomfited by humility, right so is he wounded to the death by love of our enemy.”
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale
This love, medieval writers tell us, is tenderhearted. It weeps when others weep, and rejoices when they rejoice, rather than the twisted opposites of envy. It’s softhearted and helpful. It is truly the love of 1 Corinthians 13. The Book of Vices and Virtues and Jacob’s Well, both penitential manuals from a similar source, use a beautiful but challenging extended metaphor from scripture that we are all members of Christ’s body. We are common in his image and likeness. We have all been baptized in the precious blood of Jesus Christ.
This body imagery does a lot of heavy lifting: cultivating love for self and neighbor through our shared identity as beloved and in the process of sanctification: “Then should we much love each other, that God loveth and praiseth so much and maketh so worthy.” The Book in particular uses it to great effect. In the Body, “the good and the wise forebear the foolish and the feeble, right as the bones beareth the tender flesh.” We are not all bones, winkingly says the Book. The quality is forbearance, that particular kind of patience and compassion for your neighbor, that you often also need to ask for yourself. Similarly, there’s a bodily love and mutuality that the Book identifies in defending your neighbor rather than tearing him down: “When a foot stumbleth or slideth, the other helpeth it anon; when someone tries to smite the head, the hand intervenes and takes the blow instead. We are all rightful members of the body.” When a person is healthy, such actions are reflexive and natural.
I find this metaphor interesting and challenging. But as we all know, it’s nearly impossible to just look at someone you envy and go, “okay, guess I’ll just love them now!” The old habits remain, so we must tear down those old habits. One of the misperceptions of labelling vices and then particular virtues as their “remedies” means that we may imagine love “fixing” our envy problem, which it does in the long run, because of love itself. But these analogies are descriptive rather than proscriptive. Talking about it does not make it so. Cool, how do I get to that reflexive point of protecting the wounded foot, instead of smirking when the toe gets stubbed because I wanted its shoes for myself? How can I begin to love instead of envy?
Jacob’s Well tells a story about the envious man, who is out in a figurative storm desperately searching for shelter. He wanders towards a little cottage with a light in the window, knocks, and begs to be let in. It is the House of Righteousness, and Righteousness refuses to let him in, because he is not righteous. He gets to another house, warm and cozy, a shelter from the ravages of envy’s storm. It’s Truth’s house, but Truth refuses to let him in because he has not been telling the truth about himself, about his own desires, and especially about the person he envies. He wanders on, growing wearier and frightened. He gets to the House of Peace. Surely Peace will take him in! But Peace sees his inner turmoil and refuses. But Peace offers a word—“go to the House of Mercy. She will take you in and give you shelter.” And the man wanders off, and finally comes upon Mercy’s cottage. And she lets him enter even in his state of raging envy and untruth.
When we are wrestling with the heavy burden of envy, we must seek out the House of Mercy, and only God’s mercy can teach us how to love (or practice any virtue, for that matter). Charity is the unitive fire, the bright kindling that allows us to warm one another and ourselves. But because love—or friendship, as many of the manuals define love—is so difficult to do well and truthfully, we especially need the aid of mercy. Pray. Jacob’s Well suggests reading the penitential psalms on a regular basis to help reach for mercy (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). (And by the way, I cannot believe how many times I’ve quoted Jacob’s Well approvingly in this episode, because it is often off-the-rails bonkers. Be proud of me, for last week I resisted sharing an absolutely disgusting humility anecdote from that book.)
DeYoung also offers some ideas to combat envy. One is to avoid comparison entirely by doing secret acts of love, either things that are too small and insignificant to be noticed by anyone, or not ever telling your good deeds. She notes that “the envier needs to learn what it feels like to do something good for another, without her usual frame of reference in which her performance will be noted, tallied up, and made the basis of comparison between persons” (83). She also suggests that the envious person seek out noncompetitive activities with others that are mutually good, like listening to music, taking a walk, looking at art. These acts that saturate one with beauty and companionship are good antidotes to envy, and good beginnings to seeing someone beyond the threat they pose to you.
Watch the tongue. This is where envy often emerges. How do I speak of others, especially online? Criticism is often necessary, but do I take pleasure in it? What kind, if so? Interrogate your motives when you speak ill of others, even if you’re simply repeating someone else.
As someone who has struggled with envy at times, I know a good help for me. Recognizing and smiling at my own beloved absurdity nips envy in the bud. Envy, like Pride or Wrath, is very serious. It does not like to be laughed at. But when I begin to feel the familiar malice of envy, the listless irritation, the delight in hearing someone slammed or mocked or criticized in conversation, I know I need to laugh at myself. St. Francis of Assisi famously called his body “Brother Ass,” and while he was too severe on his body, following the spirit of the age, I think he had a good idea. Saying, with love to yourself, you little ass—not asshole, no abusive language here, just a stubborn, unspiritual little donkey—frees us from the utter seriousness we impose upon ourselves in our times of sin. It’s also easy, once you get in the habit, because envy truly is often ridiculous and funny. I don’t own travelling to Europe or Julian of Norwich. Why begrudge them, Sister Ass? And I still want to go to Europe but I also feel a little freer.
Ultimately, the envious person needs a reframing of their identity, and from whence their value comes. The envious person needs the reminder of humility of last week, blended with the love of this week. We are unconditionally loved, and naturally little and limited, and the Lord looks upon our creation and loves us as we are. We remind ourselves of this, our deepest core identity.
Next week we will think about wrath and its various remedies. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman.
Some of the vices you will know are not a real temptation for you, or some of the virtues come without too much pain. That’s not the case today. For today, I introduce the traditional Queen of the Vices, Pride—though for each and every one of us, it’s not really an introduction, because we are all deeply familiar with the Queen even if we call her by different names. I also delve down to the foundation of the life of virtue, the salt of the virtues themselves, that keeps every other virtue and gift from corrupting into a source of division or self-righteousness, humility.
The day this episode airs is Ash Wednesday, which makes today a wonderfully appropriate day to talk about our first virtue and vice pairing, humility and pride. For pride denies that we are mortal, that our bodies return to ash and dust; while humility affirms our dependence and need and general dustiness.
Ok, wow. That’s a lot of pressure. Let’s slow down and approach them one at a time. In this series, we will look at the vice first, then, in traditional fashion, its “remedy,” the virtue. And a repeated warning: this is for you and me. This is not to identify your friends and enemies, unless they ask for your help in doing so.
Pride is the desire for excellence in excess of right reason, teaches Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, in City of God, writes that “pride imitates God inordinately: for it hath equality of fellowship under him, and wishes to usurp his dominion over our fellow-creatures” (Augustine, Civitate Dei xiv, 13, xix, 12). We are meant to imitate God, to follow Christ. Pride comes when we attempt to imitate God in his authority, when we forget who we are as created, limited creatures. And pride was considered the queen of the virtues, because most sins arise from pride, that self-deception about one’s place, power, and importance.
All this sounds bad, but how does that translate into our daily lives? This is where our medieval friends can help us. First: pride refuses to subject itself to anything. It denies that it serves anything or anyone but itself. This is a problem because we are all, in fact, subject to God as his children. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae: “the root of pride is found to consist in man not being, in some way, subject to God and his rule” ( If you’re an American, like myself, you’re likely cringing at this repeated word subject. It’s too… monarchical. Ugh. But this is the truth: When we do not acknowledge that we are subject to anything or anyone, we are incapable of learning or any kind of transformation. Pride is the opposite of learning. How so? To learn, you must first acknowledge that someone else, a teacher, book, trainer, friend, partner, child—possesses some kind of knowledge or craft that you do not, and that you cannot hope to acquire without help. So you submit or subject yourself to that person or text; you pay attention to what they say, and you emulate them.
Pride also makes someone esteem themselves as greater than they are in actuality, and use whatever means they can to place themselves in the best possible light. A much later teacher in the virtues, our good friend Jane Austen, writes, “how quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” (Persuasion). Similarly, Aquinas writes, “A man is ready to believe what he desires very much” (ST II-II.162.3.ad.2). Pride is a kind of twisted self-love, and entails an uncanny ability to mold interpretations of events, facts, and feelings to fit the desire to understand yourself as in charge, as better than someone else, or as really good at something you’re really not. Medieval penitential texts called this presumption. The medieval manual Jacob’s Well describes presumption:
“looking after reverence, to sit above, to speak first, to have the words out of another man’s mouth, to take worship of the world, passing all other; deeming thyself stronger, wiser, hardier, worthier, than another; in believing thyself better than thou art; in not giving others credit or taking credit to thyself that really belongs to another. The grace of fortune, of goodness, of prosperity, of virtues, that thou hast of God, thou thinkest that thou hast them of God for thy good works, and that thou hast well deserved them. Or else the love, worship, or riches, which thou hast of God, thou thinkest that thou hast them of thy good governance and wits, and not God…Proud of your might and your service, proud of your bearing and your working, proud of your honesty and your generosity and your good conditions, of your dress, your wit and eloquence, your intelligence and understanding.”
Whenever you have a great gift, which quite honestly is each of us in the surpassing beauty of our createdness, there is great risk of pride, whether that gift is something interior or exterior to yourself. You start to believe that what you have, you generated yourself, or that what you have, you received from God due to your own merits.
Are we never then, to take pride in a job well-done, in hard work, in our appearance when we look nice, in a thought hard-fought-for on a page of writing? There is such a thing as good pride, as we know through experience and through these writers. Again, medieval folks help us here to discern bad pride from good pride. Thomas Aquinas helps us here: bad pride in our achievements or belongings overpasses the rule of reason. We overrate our excellence, or treasure it more than another person’s similar excellence. Good pride in accomplishments can become bad pride when it includes ingratitude or unawareness about the help you’ve received.
Another hint is that you don’t merely value the hard work well-done, you treasure your singularity in it. There’s an element of comparison present that goes beyond appreciation for the good, beautiful, and worthy. There’s sometimes scorn or anger or ostentatiousness, an eye towards the responses of others. The philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung notes “which audience we seek approval and applause from yields telltale clues about our motives” (Glittering Vices, 51). This outward looking desire for approval and appreciation was traditionally called vainglory, a word that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard used without irony. All of these have roots in originally good impulses, to celebrate the good we do and see and are given. But we wield it as confirmation of our worth, even our superiority. DeYoung writes, “Vainglory provides a cheap substitute for true fulfillment of the human desire to be profoundly known by another person—to be known by name, for who we truly are—and to be loved just that way” (59).
Vainglory is closely related to arrogance because they both thrive upon comparison. While vainglory relies on praise from others that makes one feel above everyone, arrogance twists available evidence to the same end: one’s own perceived superiority in methods, in knowledge, in character. Craig Boyd writes, “Conceit does not measure its own value by the opinions of others because it sees their opinions as worthless. Rather, we compare ourselves to others in ways that inevitably favor ourselves over them…others become the means to our own value not because they have valuable opinions but because they themselves are less valuable than we are” (Boyd, Virtues & Their Vices, 252).
Do you feel like you’re just getting beat while you’re down? I do writing this. It’s hard to say these things aloud, to feel that level of extreme cringe recognizing yourself in some of this. Perhaps you’re even feeling some contempt for yourself. So let’s go now to Pride’s remedy, humility, in this ancient tradition. We are locked in a war of overvaluing and undervaluing overselves, between pride and self-contempt. Both are wrong. And humility is the middle way, though it has been deeply misunderstood throughout the years.
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote the most popular account of humility in The Steps of Humility and Pride. Geoffrey Chaucer translates Bernard’s definition into his English in The Parson’s Tale, the final work of The Canterbury Tales: “humility, or meekness…is a virtue through which a man hath truthful knowledge of himself, and holdeth of himself no price nor dainty, as in regard of what he deserves, considering ever his frailty” (lines 475-476).
Humility is appropriate self-esteem, accurate self-judgment, true self-knowledge. Humility lives in the tension that we are God’s beloved children, wonderfully made, richly endowed with gifts and beauty—and that we are mortal, created from the dust, limited in our powers of intellect and strength, failing, needy in every regard. Practicing humility does not consist of hypocritical groveling, or hiding your gifts. It aligns with honesty. The reason why humility often sounds harsher than it really is, is that in reality, it is so much harder for us to acknowledge our failures and limitations than our strengths and victories. We are always drawn to imagine ourselves as more gifted, powerful, and deserving—or at least more righteous and justified in our behavior—than we are in reality. If pride is that little voice which excuses all your behavior as justified, humility is the voice which persistently seeks to learn—am I really? Is that truthful?
The word “humility” is used confusingly in our society. We watch professional athletes say things like “I’m so humbled” when we saw them taunt their opponents earlier; or politicians speak proudly of their “humble origins” and turn around the next minute and sell out to corporate or party interests. It’s no wonder we often associate the word with false humility, with hypocrisy. This is because we often confuse humility with outward action or circumstance. But more accurately, humility is a kind of cognitive and affective habit that influences every part of our actions and way of being in the word. In other words, it consists of both a heart-attitude and a mind-attitude that reflexively seeks to remember one’s own spiritual, moral, and physical dependence on God, on other people, even on circumstance. No one is self-made.
How do we cultivate humility? What does that even look like? Many of the penitential manuals offer us something that seems awful and medieval in the worst way: they try to tell us about the gift of fear. Ew. No thanks. Such a doctrine has been poorly applied over the centuries. Think the Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, used to frighten college freshmen in rhetoric composition classes for time immemorial. Think Jacob’s Well with its oozy pits, which says “think! But thou amend thee, he shall damn thee in endless pain!” Or: “thou art a sack of dung”! I think—I hope—one of the gifts of our culture is that we as a church are getting better at not hating the bodies that God created good, and also trusting that Jesus loves us and does not actually think we are a sack of dung.
But I also stigmatize fear; I am afraid of my own fear. Julian of Norwich helps me to more reflectively consider the gift of fear and its use as weapon against pride. She notices four kinds of “dread.” And while these dreads may serve some limited purpose, they are not truly gifts, nor are they ultimately holy. The only dread that truly pleases God, she writes, is “reverent dread.” She describes it as “soft” and paradoxically, the more you have it, the less you feel hampered by it. This dread we may better understand as awe or deep respect. Julian sees it as what one naturally feels and owes to the Lord of Creation, the majestic Father of Lights. It’s probably like the feeling one would have around a blue whale, or an active volcano. Careful, careful, we say in adoration, rejoicing in the giant power we witness, suddenly aware of our smallness and our fragility. And our awareness of that smallness and fragility leads us to embrace our Father Protector. Julian understands this reverent dread as a path towards the habitual practice of humility. She writes:
All dreads other than reverent dread that are proferred to us, though they come under color of holiness, they are not so true…That dread that maketh us hastily to flee from all that is not good and fall into our lord’s breast, as the child into the mother’s bosom, with all our intent and all our mind—knowing our feebleness and our great need, knowing his everlasting goodness and his blissful love, only seeking him for salvation, cleaving to him with secure trust—that dread that bringeth us into this working, it is kind and gracious and good and true. (73.27-34)
Remember, you are God’s children, weak, limited, frail, and beloved by this indescribable, ultimate Holy Presence. Such reverent dread does not prevent us from approaching the Presence, but helps us to seek God and reminds us with knowledge of who we are and who God is.
Medieval people understood children as the ultimate exemplar of humility. For children, unlike the prideful, are eager to learn, eager to soak in knowledge, unafraid of their ignorance but persisting in discovery and submitting to their teachers. Children also show us holy pride, a pride without comparing or denigrating others, true delight in their handiwork. My preschooler, in great delight, shows me his name that he has worked so, so hard to write. Clumsy letters march down the side of the page, and he is proud that he has labored so hard and produced this work. I, his mother, am so proud of him. The work goes up on the fridge, to rejoice over. And the next minute he asks for help working on his ABCs or unfortunately for me, perhaps wiping his bottom. Because he has written his name, he does not take it for mastery of the world, or rest on his laurels, or that he’s a superior four-year-old.
This, too, is why humility is understood as the root, alongside charity, of all the other virtues. Thomas Aquinas writes that if the life of virtue were a building, humility would be the foundation, sunk into the ground and providing stability for each other virtue (ST II-II 161.5.ad 2). All other virtues are built upon acknowledgment that you, by yourself, are not the master of the universe, that you are not perfect but are needy, limited, and loved. For without this acknowledgment, anything good you do can easily become a source of superiority over others. Who hasn’t seen this happen in real time, either in yourself or in a close friend or family member?
Humility can also be misunderstood or misapplied because it has, in the past, been a virtue abused by those in power, commanded by those in charge to those beneath them, laying like a heavy burden on women, on people of color, on actual children. But surprisingly, medieval people can help us here as well. For they understood that our lot in life partially determines what kinds of vices are challenges for us, and what kind of virtues are especially difficult. Pride, as the queen of the vices, is a struggle for everyone. But someone in a position of power or wealth is going to be more easily led into the snares of pride, because it’s easier for that person to forget their dependence, their littleness, their true need. Medieval literature, like Dante’s Inferno or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales have countless examples of lords, cardinals, and bishops as models of corrupt pride. So while historically, humility has been heavily demanded of women, or people of color, in reality the far greater risk of pride was to the white men at the pinnacle of the patriarchal society. History certainly speaks clearly in retrospect.
We might cast this risk for pride into these terms: if I’m considered successful in my field, or in authority over people at my job, or reasonably comfortable in regards to money, or if historically my ancestors have been in a position that rules over other people, I should consider myself at particular risk of pride and in need of extra awareness and practice of humility. This list includes many Americans. It’s almost as if you discovered that your family carries a gene that makes you prone to cancer. You would certainly go to the doctor on a more regular basis, ask more questions, wear sunscreen, and so on. You would live with a different awareness of risk and healthy choices. You would stop some habits, and start others.
The worst part of medieval humility is its insistence on the disgusting, filthy nature of humanity. Many medieval authors call upon you to despise yourself, to recognize the foul seed from whence you came. It’s not that we are not often horrible. Look no further than the annals of history or how you last handled yourself arguing with your spouse or a friend. But overemphasizing this aspect of ourselves can lead to great damage. We must hold together our failures with our beloved createdness to truly know ourselves. And what they’ve got right is that we cannot live in illusion about our capacity for misuse of power and gift. We are creatures of the symphony, of the gothic cathedrals, of brain surgery, and creatures that bomb other countries and abandon children and let the poor starve. Everyone likes to think they would have been the person to hide Jewish people under the floorboards during the Holocaust, or would have recognized the true evil of slavery in the Antebellum South. Humility knows better; it recognizes there’s no guarantees we would have done the right thing.
What are practices that help us to learn how to be humble? Asking is the first thing. Our desires must be transformed, because no one particularly wants to be humble, to really know oneself and be known in all the nitty-gritty of life. As in all the virtues, we need teachers. We soak our minds in Jesus, the most humble one, and his life and death. We also have Mary to teach us humility.
Julian of Norwich instructs us to know in your bones, and repeat to yourself over and over, that you are God’s beloved child, irrespective of what you’ve done in your life.
The medieval penitential manuals wisely advise readers to practice silence and restraint in your speech, (and I would add—particularly online). This advice is clearly situational, and does not mean to be permanently silent, or that keeping one’s thoughts to oneself is a virtue. But it means carefully considering ideas, events, and actions before commenting or arguing about them. The medieval writers often quote Proverbs 18: “he that answers before he hears shows himself to be a fool and worthy of confusion.” And unfortunately, especially online, speed and aggression in speech is valued over slow, measured response. Humility calls us to resist our own hot takes.
I’m working on saying thank you for all the little things as well as the big. To echo St. Paul, humility asks us, with both seriousness and joy, what do you have that you have not received? Rejoice in your victories, while acknowledging the help you have been given.
Another tip that the medievals advise is to practice confession. If you follow a tradition of Christianity that has sacramental confession, do that. If you do not, practice confession to trusted friends, spouses, or mentors. To confess some of your ugliest thoughts frees you from their power.
Admitting where we have been wrong, whether in confession or in personal apology, is a big deal and very good for cultivating humility.
Genuinely praise other people, without guile or angling to get your own compliment back or to be better liked. Recognize excellence in others. This practice habituates us into seeing the goodness of God’s creation.
Next week we will think about love and envy. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman.
Today starts the beginning of the Old Books With Grace podcast Lent series, on the virtues and vices. Yes, yes, I know it’s not Lent yet, but to fit everything I needed to fit, we had to start a week early. Consider this your bonus week.
Imagine yourself as a fourteenth-century English villager during Lent. Whether you live in a sleepy agricultural village, a busy little market town, or the hubbub of London itself, you are preparing your heart for the great Paschal feast, for Easter and its season of celebration. In this period in history, unless you were an especially devout individual, you would have taken the Eucharist once a year, on Good Friday. To take Christ’s body once a year meant there was a lot of pressure on being ready. With the assistance of your local priest, you would prepare yourself for the presence of Jesus through the sacrament of penance. First, you reflected on your sins with regret, called contrition. Then, you confessed your sins to the priest. Then, if you needed to do penance through prayer or pilgrimage or public apology or something else, you did that. Then, you could take communion with a clear conscience that you were not disrespecting Jesus. But all kinds of practical matters intervene, worried medieval folk—what if you forgot a vice? Or what if you knew you struggled with something, but didn’t know the best way to combat it? Remember this was before therapy and broadcast media!
In the Middle Ages, in response to this issue, a very popular genre of writing sprang up: penitential manuals, meant to help priests aid their parishioners in examining their conscience, or for laypeople themselves to explore the moral quandaries of the soul and body. These handbooks described the sacraments as well as the vices that people were likely to succumb to, or the virtues that would help them become more like Christ. Some of these wonderfully bizarre, at times very colorful and at times very dull books survive to this day, and these are what I read for this series.
We don’t want to cultivate the anxiety of don’t miss a sin for fear of offending the Lord! Such crushing pressure takes its own tolls. But we do, like our medieval friends, want to know ourselves. We want to become more like Jesus, to prepare our hearts for Resurrection. And these manuals, with their lists of virtues and vices and human behaviors, give us an unusual, provocative, and sometimes very helpful window into human nature and gifts.
There are many ways of telling the story of how the catalogues and schemata of vices and virtues developed, but roughly two paths in the Christian tradition that cross, converge, and diverge throughout the years. One begins with Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Greek philosophers, roughly four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Aristotle in particular developed a robust theory of virtue, oriented towards the good of the polis, the city. So we meet the beginnings of the idea of common good. He codifies the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. The Romans, too, liked these ideas. Yet the life of virtue was reserved exclusively for men and citizens—women and enslaved people could not really practice the virtues, said Aristotle. Ok, so moving on.
Another story of the virtues and vices begins in the desert of Egypt, with the birth of Christian monasticism. About three hundred years or so after the death of Christ, people like St. Antony began to withdraw to the desert, to build communities based on a life of ascetism and vows of poverty. In that process, people like Evagrius, John Cassian, and Amma Theodora began to compile pastoral aids for resisting the temptations of the desert. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers knew the desert leaves you nowhere to hide: when one retreats from society, from the ever-changing company and views and products and foods, one is left with her own thoughts for company. You are faced with the temptations deep inside of you that you have managed to hide from yourself, or hide from others. They began to list these temptations and their characteristics, in the format that we sometimes call the Seven Deadly Sins: pride or vainglory, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, gluttony, and greed or avarice. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, author of The Glittering Vices (which I can’t recommend enough if you’re interested in the vice and virtue traditions) writes that a better, more historically accurate name for them are the Seven Capital Vices. Why capital? Capital comes from the Latin word for head (caput), as in fountainhead or beginning (think of a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence!). It’s not that these list in exhaustive detail every possible vice, but that these are the roots, the sources, of all the vicious actions we can think of.
Unlike Aristotle’s list of virtues, this list of vices emerges from pastoral care—that is, from the leaders of spiritual communities learning how to care for and spiritually direct the men and women under their guidance—not from theory. So it focuses on people’s actions, on obstacles held in common that face us as we learn to follow Christ, and ways to combat those temptations and actions. It also means that it’s sometimes unhelpfully vague and fascinatingly flexible! The Seven Capital Vices was picked up as useful and pertinent, especially in lives of community, by some of the great pastoral thinkers of the early Middle Ages, like Pope Gregory the Great or St. Benedict. By the late Middle Ages, it was ubiquitous as a pastoral tool, used in the way I describe at the beginning of this episode. These penitential materials listed these Seven Capital Vices in great detail, often with wonderfully weird and sometimes terrifying examples. Alongside those Seven Capital Sins, by this point, writers had paired Remedies, virtues from scriptural sources, particularly the Beatitudes, to go with them and combat the vices themselves: humility, love, patience or meekness, perseverance or strength, generosity, abstinence, and chastity.
On the theoretical level, brilliant medieval theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas began to take these pastoral tools of thinking about vice, virtue, habits, and human behavior, and juxtapose them with some of the more theoretical ideas about the life of human happiness postulated by Aristotle and his Arabic commentators back in the day (A lot of Aristotle’s writing only comes to us through Arabic preservation! That’s another hugely fascinating story!). By the fourteenth century in England, scholars, priests, poets, contemplatives, and ordinary laypeople were all wrestling with these ideas in their daily lives, using them to think about their own behavior, what they owed to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and how their lives might become transformed.
But at this point you might be asking yourself a few questions. As we know, not everything from the past is worth preserving. What’s this ancient way of thinking about human behavior worth to us today, when we have so much new and wonderful information on human behavior in general? What even is a vice or a virtue, strictly speaking?
Both virtues and vices are habits, something we do over and over until they become part of our character. They are unnatural or exterior to us at first, and then the more we do them, the more they become part of who we are. Habits can be practiced and cultivated, or disrupted and destroyed over time and repetition, as anyone knows who has tried to follow an exercise regimen or who has learned to read. A child at first can only read for a short period of time, with a Bob Book or Dr. Seuss, and as they practice and practice, they progress to reading chapter books, and further, until they can pick up and enjoy, say, something as complex as Dostoyevsky. Or running—if I tried to run right now, I would make it a very dreadful five minutes before calling it. But some people train up to doing ultramarathons. Running has become a habit for them, loved for its own sake. The repetition of a habit increases ease and skill. And we humans are creatures of habit, in every sense. Even something that initially seems like it wouldn’t be a habit, like spontaneity, can be a habit, as we see in folks who regularly seek out novelty or thrills or new hobbies for enjoyment.
A virtue is a habit that makes us more human, more conforming to the image of God that we truly are. A vice, in contrast, corrupts our humanity. It is a practice that corrodes and obscures that image. Vices and virtues are distinguished by their ends.One is directed towards love of God and neighbor and characterized by right reason. The other is directed towards love of self alone. Both become parts of our character as people, which makes sense. We have all met individuals uniquely brave, bitterly angry, remarkably loyal, or eaten up by envy. We recognize it because that characterizes their typical response to challenging situations. These people aren’t loyal once, brave once, or wrathful or envious once.
Such a way of living, being habituated in virtue, requires teachers and mentors. We begin to recognize courage by looking at the lives, choices, and words of people like Martin Luther King Jr., or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We can learn humility at the feet of St. Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich. And less famous people as well—we learn from parents, teachers, priests or pastors, siblings, even our own children. The famous moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, compares learning the virtues to a child learning chess. The adult teaching the child chess will explain moves, play with him, and reward him for trying and for well-done moves. These rewards could be candy or affirmation. The child at first plays for these rewards, because chess itself is challenging and tricky and not necessarily enjoyable. But as the child masters the game, the reward becomes the game itself. The child learns to love chess for its own sake; through practicing virtue, we learn to love virtuous action not for the rewards it gains us, but for the virtue itself.
Because virtue is a habit, individual acts can be virtuous, without the people themselves being actually virtuous. Take the classic example of courage. A soldier in World War I may go over the top of his trench in warfare, an act of undoubted bravery. But he himself may not be a courageous person, or practicing true courage. He could be just following orders because he does not want to get shot for desertion. He may be chasing a thrill of adrenaline, or pridefully looking to boost his reputation among his fellow soldiers. Or he may just want to slaughter Germans. So the virtues are not always easy to discern from observation alone, and virtuous people and actions do not all look the same. People who have weak or even rotten characters can still perform a good act, as we all know. People who have characters of kindness will still on occasion be cruel.
People have objected to the idea of the virtues and vices throughout history. There’s not space here to address them all in full, but here’s a greatest hits version, with greatest hits answers:
1. Are you saying I can will my way into goodness? In part—but not fully. As with anything, when we practice something, we get better at it. I can practice patience while driving in rush hour. My lack of yelling or honking or cursing might not be a virtue just yet, because I’m still doing it with a begrudging irritation. Eventually, hopefully, I lose the instinct to curse and yell at other drivers because I’m just not practicing that impulse. I endure the traffic; I’m practicing patient behavior. Yet is it part of my character yet? Patience is not the absence of sorrow, irritation, or anger. Augustine writes that to be patient is to bear evils inflicted upon oneself without inflicting them on others, and one is not patient if one is simply waiting for their own opportunity to inflict evil. How can I not will evil to my enemies? How do I practice that?? Patience is a full, complete thing of its own, and it comes by the grace of God and our practice in an act of cooperation. It reminds me of tending a garden. We pick a good location, cultivate the soil, water our seedlings, and clear the space of weeds. But we cannot will the tomatoes onto the plants. The virtues, like our sanctification, like gardening, are a joint project between us and God, a beautiful place where we participate in learning how to live well, but we are not the final word. We attempt to imitate Jesus, usually begrudgingly and halfheartedly, but he transforms our desires. And he loves us first and foremost—no matter how virtuous or vicious we are. Our virtues do not earn Christ’s love; his love gives us the freedom to participate in our own process of becoming.
2. The virtues seem inequitable. It’s a lot easier for some people to practice the virtues. Someone might argue, anyone could be good if they had been well-fed, well-educated, and well-loved as a child. I have no answers for the varying difficulties of our lives, and why some things are easy for some people and harder for others. So it’s really important for us to realize that virtues and vices look different in everyone’s life. Think of it this way: everyone, regardless of their abilities, needs exercise to take care of their bodies. I do not have the gifts and training of Lebron James or Katie Ledecky. But it’s crucial for a well-lived life that I learn how to take care of my body through exercise and proper nutrition. Similarly, the virtues are not one-size-fits-all. They are not a rule, or a set of governing laws for behavior. The virtues contract and expand to fit individual lives and points in history. A six-year-old wouldn’t go over the top of a trench, but I’ve known some courageous six-year-olds nevertheless. And we can learn from them. Importantly, we also know that wealth and getting everything you ever wanted is no safeguard for the good life. Billie Eilish sings, “I had a dream / I got everything I wanted” and then admits that it might’ve been a nightmare. Some of the most viciously unhappy people in history have been rich and achieved their dreams.
3. In this series, I will talk about concepts like wrath, meekness, envy, perseverance, abstinence, gluttony, and mercy, among others. Sometimes, the very words feel unhelpfully old-fashioned. Some of them set your teeth on edge, and not just the vices. What are we supposed to do with a so-called virtue like meekness? Or with a tricky vice like gluttony? These words have occasionally been coopted and wielded like weapons to enforce culturally good behavior at different points in history. What woman today hears meekness without a little shudder at the shadow of patriarchal abuse? What person wrestling with body image hears gluttony without dread and fear? I’ll let you into a secret—very often, these words have not historically meant what we mean when we use them today. I will be returning to some ancient and medieval friends to excavate meaning out of these difficult words, as well as brainstorming together how they might apply to us today in nuanced but truthful ways. Many of these are worth reclaiming and adding back more robustly into our moral vocabulary.
4. Finally, I’ve met some folks who don’t like them because they feel like the virtues are an extra-biblical imposition, something made up by people to get people to act the way they think is good. There’s no mention in the Bible of the Seven Capital Vices, or the Seven Christian Virtues, or whatever schema you want to use. This is true in one sense. But on the other hand, the Bible is chockful of saints and sinners, of beauty and evil, of failure and learning from those falls. It speaks of transformation and growth, of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the life of love. The vices and virtues are another way to help us conceptualize those ideas. And Jesus himself embodies each and every one of the virtues.
Why should we power through the discomfort or confusion? Because learning about the vices and virtues helps us in our ongoing pilgrimage for sanctification, for becoming more like Jesus. The beauty of virtuous people is astounding. I want to be like them, and I want to learn how to become more that way. I also think of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Recognizing virtues will not “fix” us—or even make us more virtuous—but it expands our Christian imagination in our journey to loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor more fully and creatively.
The vices are a different beast. Why would we want to think about them? My tendency—and I suspect yours as well—is to continually justify my own actions, craft them into the most reasonable, the most understandable thoughts and actions possible, even when I know it wasn’t great, what I did. We begin to know ourselves better, our motivations, our failures, our temptations. Understanding the vices helps us to move past the project of self-justification and into our true, already existing justification, and our ongoing sanctification in Christ.
I have chosen for this series to work through the Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies, rather than the traditional Seven Virtues, because it’s Lent now. Next week I begin with the traditional Queen of the Vices, the originator, the roots of the tree of vice: Pride. And I also begin with the foundation of the virtues, the beginning and end of self-knowledge, Humility. We follow in the footsteps of our medieval forebears by exploring these pairings, and asking ourselves where we have fallen, and how we can think and act after our fall, and confessing them to ourselves and to one another during the season of Lent leading up to Good Friday. It’s the ultimate Lenten project, to excavate our motives out of the darkness in which we bury our actions, and to confess them. We begin to know ourselves as weak and in need of mercy and help, and to celebrate that we are so loved, so treasured, so valuable even in that weakness.
I want to end with a few thoughts before we start to look at actual virtues and vices next week. The first—I am not speaking from my superior soapbox. I am not a perfect practitioner of the virtues, and I am quite accomplished at most of the vices. The second: I do not want to preach at you or make you feel guilty. I’m not your priest or pastor, or your spiritual director, or a trained theologian. I’m a medievalist who works on literature and theology, and these ideas have been helpful to me in my journey of becoming more human. The third: the greatest problem with the vices and virtues is that they have been wielded like weapons against the people that the church does not like. But they are meant to be tools for inner work above all; they are helpful for tracing ideas and influences of the past, too; then the inner work and historical work can help dismantle the systemic problems—like poverty or racism.
I also want to say that this is not meant to be normative or even exhortative. Some of this may ring very true to you—some of it not so much. My goal for this series is to present these words from the past, translating them into some contemporary contexts, and also just think through the weird and the wonderful, the uncomfortable and the challenging. It expands our Christian imagination and spiritual vocabulary for good and evil. It’s not to provoke an unthinking return to the past. The weird and wonderful medieval calls us to think, to examine, to probe our own hearts and minds and commitments and actions, and that’s what I’m hoping for in this Lenten project.
So listen and discern, have conversations with friends and mentors, and to paraphrase Augustine at the end of Confessions, “what human can empower another human to understand these things”—that is, the depths of human action and transformation? He concludes that we must keep asking, seeking, knocking at Christ’s door, and only then will we receive, find, and walk in.
On this episode of Old Books With Grace, I welcome Sophfronia Scott, author of one of my favorite books I read in 2021, The Seeker and the Monk. I loved our conversation about reading contemplatively and creating dialogue with the writers of the past as one reads. Enjoy!
Sophfronia Scott is a Harvard-educated novelist, essayist, and leading contemplative thinker whose work has appeared in numerous publications and received a 2020 Artist Fellowship Grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts as well as the 2021 Thomas Merton Award from the International Thomas Merton Society for her book The Seeker and the Monk. She is the founding director of Alma College’s MFA in Creative Writing, a low-residency graduate program based in Alma, Michigan. Sophfronia lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut where she continues to fight a losing battle against the weeds in her flower beds. Her website is www.Sophfronia.com.