Lent is a good time to examine our conscience and discern the vices that draw us away from Christ so we can work on being more like him with virtues.
The Seven Deadly Sins (“Martyrdom”)
“There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to him” (Proverbs 6:16). The seven deadly sins (or capital vices) are “works of the flesh”—temptations or habits—that directly lead to the kind of behaviors that “those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). The deadly sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Here is a short description of each:
Pride or hubris—the sin of Lucifer—exalts ourselves over God severing our soul from him. It fails to acknowledge God as God and ignores his image and likeness in others—the source of human dignity— shaming others, including victims. Pride seeks to supplant and destroy God, “the complete anti-God state of mind,” according to C.S. Lewis.
Greed makes material possessions the goal of our existence, instead of God. It often leads to stealing, fraud, or abuse of authority. Envy is discontent over another’s good fortune with desires to possess it. It keeps us from seeing God’s generosity towards ourselves and may lead us causing others’ misfortune by ruining their reputation. It can even lead to hatred and murder, as Cain did with Abel.
Lust makes sensual pleasure the object of our desires instead of God. It leads to fornication, adultery, pornography, and other carnal acts. Gluttony is the overindulgence of animal needs to the neglect of our spiritual needs and the needs of others. Wrath is uncontrolled rage that uses fear, hatred, and violence to control others for selfish purposes.
Sloth or acedia fails to respond—with our whole heart, mind, strength, and soul—to God’s love, to his total gift of self. Lack of effort leads to neglect of our work, duties, and charity toward others—loving others as ourselves. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for the good to be lazy.
All the capital sins cause unhappiness. We can look upon the corresponding virtue as a real “martyrdom,” a real dying to self.
We fight pride with humility: “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14), like “the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Luke 18:13). Humility is a real sacrifice that leads us to serve our God we see in others.
We counter greed with detachment and generosity, using our possessions to serve God and others. Generous almsgiving means dying to our own selfishness, granting us true freedom. Gratitude for all the good things God gives us moves us to trust that everything “works for good with those who love” God (Romans 8:28), including what he has given others. This kills off all envy.
Chastity—purity of love—means dying to sensual attraction of the flesh so as to be able to love with our whole body and soul. Temperance helps us control our desire for food and drink, giving us the freedom to care for our spiritual needs and those of others. Patience enables us to die to ourselves (killing our wrath) by enduring difficulties and hardships so as to seek the good of our love.
Industriousness is the fruit of love, overcoming our tendency toward comfort and laziness in order that good may abound in the world and that the Kingdom of God may prosper.
So, let’s seek to die to ourselves by practicing the virtues, witnessing to Christ with a true martyrdom of love.
Fr. John R. Waiss
This year St. Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Some ask: How can we reconcile the two? One is about beginning forty days of self-denial, fasting, and almsgiving in order to prepare for Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross; the other exalts human love and relationships . Yet the two are linked, as both are about true human love.
Christ’s Passion and Death is about true human love: “Greater love than this no man has than to lay down his live for his friends,” Jesus said at the Last Supper. Human love entails sacrifice, laying down our lives for the one we love. Ash Wednesday prepares us for that. Accepting the ashes—Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return—reminds us that the only thing that remains at the end of our lives is love… not riches, fame, comfort, popularity, Facebook likes, etc. True human love should move us to go beyond ourselves and to sacrifice ourselves for others out of love; we need to be able to say No to ourselves so as to say Yes to love. Jesus Christ teaches this best.
St. Valentine himself gives us a wonderful example of saying No to himself and Yes to love. This Roman priest opposed the edict of the Emperor Claudias II that prohibited marriages of young people. Claudias thought that young, unmarried men were more daring (or more reckless) in battle and thus made better soldiers, as they were less concerned about dying and leaving behind a wife and family. The Emperor was okay that a young man had multiple partners, but not one exclusive person for whom he could really live or with whom he could form a family… that was bad for the military.
The Christian ideal of an exclusive, lifelong marriage was as novel then as it is today. It even attracted non-Christians to the Faith, as many young people wanted something that would give true meaning to their lives through the Christian ideal of marriage. So—contrary to its intent—Claudias’ edict drove many young couples to marriage even if it meant they had to become Christian. St. Valentine would secretly marry couples within the Church, consecrating their relationship before God. This was a direct violation of the Emperor’s edict, which the Church considered intrinsically unjust and evil.
Eventually, St. Valentine was caught and imprisoned—much like St. John the Baptist for declaring unlawful Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. St. Valentine was held in prison by a guard named Asterius. His blind daughter befriended the Roman priest. At Asterius’ request, St. Valentine prayed for his daughter’s healing and she miraculously regained her sight. Asterius and his family too became Christians.
When St. Valentine was brought before the Emperor Claudias, the priest tried to win over the Emperor and to convert him to Christianity. But in the end, although the Emperor came to admire St. Valentine for his integrity and moral courage, it was just too hard for him to change his ways. Claudias ordered St. Valentine to be beheaded for his witness to the holiness of the vocation of human love—he became a martyr of human love.
Doesn’t this resonate with Ash Wednesday, which prepares us for Christ’s own witness to human love? It should! Because human love and marriage requires suffering, it requires being able to lay down one’s own comforts, preferences, and plans in order to seek the good of a common life-project in marriage and family. That is the kind of love so many people—especially young people—long for. And Ash Wednesday is telling us how to find it!
Let’s use these forty days of sacrifice and prayer, of learning to say No to ourselves, in order to become better lovers… better witnesses to human love… just as St. Valentine did by imitating Christ’s “laying down his life for his friends.”
Fr. John R. Waiss
Jesus began his enlightening Sermon of the Mount with: “Blessed [or Happy] the person who…” This great Sermon, and all his teachings, is really about being happy. It is particularly attractive because this is something we all seek… we all want to be happy.
So if Christian morality and holiness is about being happy and we all seek that, then why do so few people embrace Christian morality—even among Christians? Why do so few seek holiness?
One reason—perhaps the predominant reason—is that people confuse happiness with pleasure. We say to ourselves, if I have just one more cookie… one more drink… a true romantic or sexual experience… or I really let this person a full piece of my mind (or my fist)… then the pleasure and satisfaction that it will give me will make me happy. But pleasure never does. It may give us a temporary “high,” but not permanent happiness.
A few years ago a priest shared his experience. He had done a lot of work with young addicts, and would go around to Catholic and public schools to dissuade young people from drugs. On one occasion when visiting a school this priest had just given a talk to the 7th and 8th graders and was waiting to speak to the younger grades. The principal gave him an office to work while he waited. At one point the priest got a little antsy and approached the principal: “I would like to do a little experiment with the first-graders, to see if they can tell the difference between pleasure and happiness.” The principal replied, “But they are just first-graders… they are not old enough to know that.” The visiting priest replied, “That’s why I want to do this experiment, to see if it is really true or not.” So the principal took the visiting priest to the first-grade classroom.
The first-grade teacher had a similar objection but let the priest hold forth. The priest ask the children to get out a blank piece of paper and NOT write their names on it—this was novel as they we taught that you always write you name on your paper…
Next, he asked the children to write down three things they got from their parents recently. After they finished that, he asked the children to write down the letter “P” next to the word if it gave them pleasure or the letter “H” if it made them happy. Next he asked the children to an “N” next to the word if it was something they needed and a “W” if it was something they wanted. Finally he collected the papers and thanked the children and the teacher.
The principal and the priest went back to the office to review what the children had written. Some of the things the children had received from their parents were objects: “jewelry,” a “Play-Station game,” a certain toy or doll… They all had “P” for giving them pleasure, and “W” for being something they wanted. The principal and priest noted other things on the papers too: I got a “hug” or “kiss” or “smile”… with an “H” to say it made them happy, and an “N” for being something they needed. One child even wrote: I got a “spanking” with an “N” next to it, saying “I needed that!”
So, first-graders really can tell the difference between happiness and pleasure, between needs and wants. It is us adults (and adolescents) who so often confuse the difference. And is this not why so many find it difficult to live Christian morality—it gets in the way of our pursuit of pleasure. Yet our Lord tells us that Christian morality is about what will make us truly happy, both in this life and the happiness that awaits us in heaven. Ultimate happiness will come with our love and union with God… which is what we Need.
Fr. John R. Waiss
When a child gets into his teen years, he doesn’t want a list of rules. Teenagers see rules as arbitrary directives instituted by people in power in order to control our lives. If something is good or bad, moral or immoral, somehow it has to be so because of something intrinsic, beyond rules.
St. Augustine came up with an adage that has been repeated over and over again: “Love and do what you want.” In other words, if you truly love then you don’t need rules or commandments, love itself will suffice.
Think about it: does a newlywed bride need rules to do what is right? Suppose a newlywed friend asked you for advice—how far can I go with my boss before I would be unfaithful to my beloved husband? Can I let my boss take me out to lunch, would that be unfaithful? Can I let him hold my hand or give me a kiss? … If your newlywed friend were to ask you such questions, would you think she would be truly in love? Of course not! Someone truly in love doesn’t need rules to avoid infidelity because they are so focused on pleasing their beloved. They would never even come close to offending the other.
Rules and commandments exist to help us see when our love falls short. If we lust over another or lie or steal then obviously we do not love as we should, perhaps because we don’t see how our action affects our relationship of love or perhaps because our love does not reach as far as it should: from God to all his children that he love.
The Beatitudes and the Commandments
Christ gave us the Beatitudes as way to paint a picture of true love: Blessed are the poor in spirit… who put all their material goods at the service of their loving relationships; Blessed are the meek… who don’t let disappointments and personal hurts damage their loving relationships, etc.
Both the Beatitudes and the Commandments reflect right relationships with God and with others based on true love. The Commandments tell us what actions we must avoid so as to not violate our loving relationships; the Beatitudes tell us what we must do affirm our loving relationships. The Beatitudes and Commandments complement each other.
The Commandments reflect a kind of parental pedagogy toward children, teaching those children what behavior is bad for loving relationships. The Beatitudes reflect how “love and do what you want” really means, especially between spouses: an unselfish love, pure love, forgiving and understanding love… a self-sacrificing love.
Traditionally, the Commandments were divided in two, according to the two tablets of the Law. The first “tablet” held those Commandments that deal with our relationship with God while the second held the Commandments dealing with our relationship with others.
The Ten Commandments
God explicitly revealed the Ten Commandments to us through Moses (see Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:5-21). These Commandments reflect the Natural Law, and thus could be discovered by each of us on our own. But because sometimes we are slow learners—especially when it involves doing something we don’t want to do—and because it involves something so key to our ultimate happiness, God reveals them to us like a loving father teaching his child to do difficult things that will make the child happier and more successful.
The first three Commandments explain the duties of our love for God. The fourth Commandment explains how to love God through those who communicate his parental love to us. The other Commandments explain our duties of love toward God’s other children.
Learning to love is the goal of Christian morality which can be summarized in the Commandments and Beatitudes.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Good parents not only teach their children the house rules and laws, they teach them the reason behind the rules. God does the same with us.
The Natural Law is based on the great dignity of the human person, as made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). The web of relationships and interdependence into which we are born images the Blessed Trinity itself, with its eternal web of relationships: paternity, filiation, and the communion of love.
“All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love” (CCC 1878)
Eternal life consists in our entering that web of divine relationships through Christ who reveals them to us: “no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). God grants us freedom and the ability to know and love him and others, giving us the capacity to fulfill our dignity.
While our great dignity of imaging the Holy Trinity and entering life with God—through divine filiation, intimacy with Christ, and the new life of the Spirit dwelling in us—original and personal sin has tainted and obscured it. Sin makes it very difficult for us to discern what is good for our being and happiness, as well as what is good and just in our relationships with others. For this reason God, in his loving mercy for his children, chose to reveal the essential aspects of the Natural Law in the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, which help us rediscover our great dignity. By his passion, death, and resurrection Christ reveals how much God loves us—how great our dignity is—offering us a life with him again through faith and love.
The first Commandments teach us that our great dignity consists in an exclusive relationship with God, which we express and maintain through our respect for his sacred name and the day of our covenant with him. The rest of the Ten Commandments protect the dignity of each person and helps each respect the dignity and rights of another from conception to natural death. The human body shares in the dignity of the human person because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Our dignity includes God’s call for us to live in human society by living fraternity—we are all brothers and sisters of every human being. This is key to God’s image and likeness in us. Through our different gifts, talents, and needs God calls us to self-giving: “On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others” (CCC 1936). Our particular needs correspond to someone else’s gifts and talents; our particular gifts or talents correspond to another’s needs. This is part of God’s plan for us to get us out of ourselves so as to enter into a relationship with others:
“These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment” (CCC 1937).
Christ reveals the fullness of man’s dignity—“Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes 22). Since God has entrusted the Church with safeguarding this revelation, he makes the Church the proper interpreter of the Natural Law as revealed in the Son of Man.
Fr. John R. Waiss