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The Ugliness of Sin: a Fight to the Death

During the Holy season of Lent, the Church in her wisdom has many mysteries and truths of faith that she wishes to bring to the minds of the faithful. In my last article, I spoke of the importance of practicing mortification. We saw how not only are the saints called to a life of mortification, but all men. Now I would like to turn your attention to the subject of sin, and how we should avoid it. Sin is spiritual death, a cancer. Just like certain physical cancers can grow if one does not avoid certain excesses, so too does sin spread if one does not avoid it. I now present to you the wise words of my spiritual Father, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, as he treats of the nature of sin and its remedies in his spiritual treatise The Three Ages of the Interior Life.

We have treated in general of the necessity of mortification and abnegation because of the consequences both of Original Sin and of our personal sins, and also because of the infinite elevation of our supernatural end and the necessity of imitating Jesus crucified. We shall consider somewhat in detail the principal sins to be avoided, their roots, and their consequences. St. Thomas does so in treating of the seven capital sins.[1] With the aid of his work, we can make a serious and profound examination of conscience, especially if we ask for the light of the Holy Spirit, in order to see from above the stains on our souls, a little as the Lord Himself sees them. The gifts of knowledge and counsel can here greatly fill out what Christian prudence tells us; with it an increasingly enlightened, upright, and certain conscience will be developed in us.

It is interesting to see what Garrigou-Lagrange says about the severity of the Seven Deadly Sins. They are not in fact the worst of sins. Yet why is there such focus on these by the Fathers?

As shown by St. Gregory the Great[2] and, following him in a more profound manner, also by St. Thomas,[3] the capital sins of pride,[4] sloth,[5] envy, anger, avarice, gluttony, and lust not the gravest sins of all; they are less grave than heresy, apostasy, despair, and hatred of God. But the capital sins are those toward which we are first of all inclined, and which lead to a separation from God and to still graver sins.

Man does not reach complete perversity all of a sudden; he is led to it progressively, by a gradual descent to evil.

The spiritual master of Thomism then asks about the roots of the Seven Deadly sins:

In the first place we must examine the root of the seven capital sins. As St. Thomas says, they all spring from inordinate self-love or egoism, which hinders us from loving God above all else and inclines us to turn away from Him. St. Augustine says: “Two loves built two cities: the love of self even to contempt of God built the city of Babylon, that is, that of the world and of immorality; the love of God even to contempt of self built the city of God.”[6]

Evidently we sin, that is, we turn away from God or become estranged from Him, only because we desire and will to have a created good in a manner not conformable to the Divine law.[7] This comes about only by reason of an inordinate love of ourselves, which is thus the source of every sin. This inordinate self-love or egoism must not only be moderated, but mortified so that an ordered love of self may prevail in us. This love is the secondary act of charity, by which the just man loves himself for God in order to glorify God in time and eternity. Whereas the sinner in the state of mortal sin loves himself above all else and in practice prefers himself to God, the just man loves God more than himself and must, in addition, love himself in God and for God. He must love his body that it may serve the soul instead of being an obstacle to its higher life; he must love his soul that it may live eternally with Divine life. He must love his intellect and will that they may live increasingly by the light and love of God. Such is manifestly the broad meaning of the mortification of self-love, of self-will, which is opposed to that of God. Life must be prevented from descending, so that it may rise toward Him Who is the source of every good and of all beatitude. Nothing is clearer.

Thus the difficulty is in mortifying – that is, putting to death – this inordinate self-love by means of a strong spiritual struggle. But at the same time, replacing this wickedness with a proper of self “in God and for God.” How to untangle this paradox? Let us return to our Trad godfather:

Inordinate self-love leads us to death, according to the Savior’s words: “He that loveth his life (in an egotistical manner) shall lose it; and he that hateth (or sacrifices) his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal.”[8] In the Saints this love of God reaches even us.

From inordinate self-love, the root of every sin, spring the three concupiscences which St. John speaks of, when he says: “For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world.”[9]

These are, in fact, the three great manifestations of the spirit of the world in regard to the goods of the body, to exterior goods, and to the goods of the spirit. One is thus led to confound apparent good and real good in these three orders.[10]

This truth from Holy Scripture, argues the Master, is what leads us to combat with the proper zeal of spiritual violence. This is a fight to the death. It is kill or be killed. Eternity is on the line.

St. Thomas observes that the sins of the flesh are more shameful than those of the spirit, for they lower man to the level of the brute; but those of the spirit, such as pride, the only ones that exist in the devil, are more grave for they are more directly opposed to God and turn us more away from Him.[11]

The concupiscence of the flesh is the inordinate desire of what is, or seems to be, useful to the preservation of the individual and of the species; from this inordinate or sensual love arise gluttony and lust. Voluptuousness can thus become an idol and blind us more and more.

This is why in Lent we go back to the basics: bodily fasting. This is the first combat, according to the Fathers (cf. Cassian, Institutes).

The concupiscence of the eyes is the inordinate desire of all that can please the sight: of luxury, wealth, money which makes it possible for us to procure worldly goods. From it is born avarice. The avaricious man ends by making his hidden treasure his god, adoring it, and sacrificing everything to it: his time, his strength, his family, and sometimes his eternity.

Thus with this “lust of the eyes” the sinner is leaving the carnal, animal sins approaching the demonic pride by exalting himself, leading to Satanic precipice:

The pride of life is the inordinate love of our own excellence, of all that can emphasize it, no matter how hard or difficult that may be. He who yields more and more to pride ends by becoming his own god, as Lucifer did. From this vice all sin and perdition may spring; whence the importance of humility, a fundamental virtue, just as pride is the source of every sin. According to St. Gregory and St. Thomas,[12] pride or arrogance is more than a capital sin; it is the root from which proceed especially four capital sins: vanity or vainglory, spiritual sloth or wicked sadness which embitters, envy, and anger.

Vanity is the inordinate love of praise and honors. Spiritual sloth saddens the soul at the thought of the labor involved in sanctification, and at the thought of the spiritual good of good works because of the effort and abnegation they require. Envy inclines us to grow sad over another’s good, in so far as it appears to oppose our own excellence. Anger, when it is not just indignation but a sin, is an inordinate movement of the soul which inclines us to repulse violently what displeases us; from it arise quarrels, insults, and abusive words.

These capital vices, especially spiritual sloth, envy, and anger, engender a wicked sadness that weighs down the soul; they are quite the opposite of spiritual peace and joy, which are the fruits of charity.

Thus we have the root of all sin in pride and all its ugly growth in our souls. What is the answer? Spiritual violence – lest we die the most terrible death we can die. Our example is the Saints.

All these seeds of death must not only be moderated, but mortified. The original seed is self-love, from which proceed the three concupiscences; and from them, the seven capital sins. This is what made St. Paul say: “If you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.”[13]

We see this mortification in the lives of the Saints, where grace finally dominates all the inclinations of fallen nature in order to restore our nature, to heal it, and to communicate a higher life to it. This is clear for the Christian mind, and the generous practice of such mortification prepares the soul for the more profound purifications that God Himself sends in order to destroy completely the seeds of death that still subsist in our sensible appetites and higher faculties.

The Saints give us hope that holiness is not only necessary for salvation, but possible in this life. But the Master next turns to considering the difficulty of the consequences of these sins in our souls. This helps us understand – painfully, if necessary – the difficult truth of how far we have to go on the road to holiness and eternal life. Mortification means Purgatory begins now, in this life!

By the consequences of sin are generally understood the remnants of sin (reliquiae peccati), the evil inclinations left, so to speak, in our temperament even after sin has been forgiven, as concupiscence, which is a remnant of Original Sin, remains after Baptism, like a wound in the course of healing. The consequences of the capital sins may also mean the other sins that spring from them. The capital sins are so called because they are like the head or the principle of many others. We are, first of all, inclined toward them, and by them in turn toward sins that are often more serious.

Thus vainglory or vanity engenders disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, contention through rivalry, discord, love of novelties, and stubbornness. It is a vice that may lead to most lamentable falls and apostasy.

Spiritual sloth, disgust for spiritual things and for the work of sanctification, because of the effort it demands, is a vice directly opposed to the love of God and to the holy joy that results from it. Sloth engenders malice, rancor or bitterness toward our neighbor, pusillanimity in the face of duty to be accomplished, discouragement, spiritual torpor, forgetfulness of the precepts, seeking after forbidden things. Slipping downward on the slope of pride, vainglory, and spiritual sloth, many have lost their vocation.

In the same way, envy or willful displeasure at the sight of another’s good, as if it were an evil for us, engenders hatred, slander, calumny, joy at the misfortune of another, and sadness at his success.

Gluttony and sensuality also produce other vices and may lead to blindness of spirit, to hardness of heart, to attachment to the present life even to the loss of hope of eternal life, and to love of self even to hatred of God, and to final impenitence.

At this point let me pause and challenge my fellow Trads: how many of us are showing a “holy joy” in our movement, to win over our fellow Catholics to traditional Catholicism? Or do we rather show a “hardness of heart” in our movement, so that we fall into endangering our souls through the evils of social media. As Julian Kwasniewski wrote about recently, it is easy for us in our movement to fall into these things. This Lent, let us redouble our efforts to not only fast like Trads, but manifest in our lives traditional holiness, as described by our Trad godfather here.

The capital sins are often mortal; they are venial only when the matter is light or the consent not complete. They may exist under a very gross form, as happens in many souls in the state of mortal sin; but they may also exist, as St. John of the Cross points out,[14] in souls in the state of grace, as so many departures from the course of the spiritual life. It is thus that spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, and spiritual sloth are spoken of.

Spiritual pride induces us, for example, to flee from those who reproach us, even when they have the authority to do so and are acting justly; it may even induce us to hold a certain rancor against them.

As for spiritual gluttony, it may make us desire sensible consolations in piety, to the point of seeking ourselves in it more than we seek God.

With spiritual pride, it is the origin of false mysticism. Happily, contrary to what is true of the virtues, these vices or defects are not connected. One may have some without the others; several indeed are contradictory: for example, one cannot be avaricious and prodigal at one and the same time.

In the next article, we will learn from our spiritual Master about the importance of conscience in the spiritual life, giving us remedies to work with so that we can, by grace, save our souls and heal from sin.


[1] Cf. Ia IIae, q. 77, a. 4 f.; q. 84, a. 4.

[2] Moral., Bk. XXXI, chap. 17.

[3] See Ia IIae, q. 77, a. 4 f.; q. 84, a. 4.

[4] For St. Gregory and St. Thomas, vainglory is the first of the capital sins.

[5] St. Gregory and St. Thomas use the term, acedia, that is, evil sadness which embitters.

[6] The City of God, Bk. XIV, chap. 28.

[7] Cf. St. Thomas, loco cit.

[8] John 12:25.

[9] Cf. 1 John 2:16.

[10] See Ia IIae, q. 77, a. 5.

[11] Ibid., q. 73, a. 5: “Spiritual sins are of greater guilt than carnal sins. … Spiritual sin denotes more a turning from something. … Sins of intemperance are most worthy of reproach… because by these sins man is, so to speak, brutalized.

[12] Cf. Ibid., q. 84, a. 4.

[13] Rom. 8:13. Cf. Col. 3:5.

[14] The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chaps. 2-8.

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