Dear James (D)–The Slanted Gaze of Envy

Dear James,

There are two errors against which we must maintain our vigilance. The first is in rejecting outright the insights of Medieval Catholicism—to do this is to commit the “chronological snobbery” of which our friend Lewis wrote so eloquently. But the other, and opposite, error is to over-romanticize the medieval period. It seems to happen, often enough, that once a person gets a taste for a different worldview—one that can challenge his own with some effectiveness—he can begin to uncritically accept the whole of that other worldview and become blind to its inherent shortcomings. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to resist the urge to label certain time periods as “golden eras.” No such times exist—there are only present moments, and while we ought to view these present moments through the corrective lens of the past, we must never permit our love for old things to take us away from our duties in the present.

The whole idea of golden eras seems to me to be rooted in Envy. When I long for another time period I am commonly “looking over the fence” at some other era, which from the light of my present circumstances appears far greener and more lush. Perhaps I like the 1940s-60s, especially because it was a heyday for publishing. Or maybe I favor Pre-Reformation Europe simply because the reality of Christendom was an undisputed fact. Or perhaps any era but our own for how clergy were viewed by congregants and society alike! But the thing to note about such envious gazes is that we always choose the favorable and ignore the difficulties. Our sight is slanted. Perceiving a present difficulty (for example, in publishing, Christian identity, or clergy relations), some other era appeals on the simple basis that, to my understanding, in that era there was no such difficulty. What this ignores is that the figures from those eras were troubled by other, significant problems! Envy, in these circumstances, is tantamount to grumbling about my present problems.

I am reminded that the Israelites grumble when coming out of Egypt—they’re free from slavery, but they aren’t happy because they don’t have the cucumbers of Egypt! They’ve taken a present difficulty (a certain kind of hunger), and are looking now slant-eyed at the past (at least we were full, there!). Envy involves a distortion of vision—we no longer look at the world properly. In Envy we are blinded to the goodness of God in the present because we’re too busy longing for the things of the past, or the things possessed by others. In this way, Envy and ingratitude are the same. Envy also destroys our practical obedience. We’ve each got tasks to do in the present—a call, a vocation issued by God and determined by where we’ve been planted in faith. In Envy, I ignore the needs and duties that surround me while daydreaming about other needs, other duties. I preach badly to my congregation because I wish I was preaching at another, larger, more attentive, more Berean church up the road. I care poorly for the child who is interrupting me at the moment because I’m busy writing something that I perceive will be enjoyed by thousands. I fail to enjoy the simple meal in front of me because it isn’t as rich as the meal of my neighbor. And yes, I think the enjoyment of what is before me is an act of obedience, while the pretended enjoyment of what is not before me would necessarily be an act of disobedience!

That isn’t to say that we can’t think about the past, or look at other people’s lives, or even compare grasses across the fence. I think there is actually a more Godly form of Envy—not sinful, of course—which is one of our natural human emotions. It is the pleasure we ought to feel at another person’s success. Did you hear about X’s raise? I’m so pleased that God has blessed him in that way. Did you see Y’s new car? What a blessing for her! When someone we know experiences an accomplishment or a blessing which we haven’t, then it ought to be our response to celebrate with that person. In such celebration, I think it perfectly reasonable to piggyback our own desire for success upon their actualized success—not in imitation of theirs, but in the hope that we can achieve what is rightly our own. When someone wins a book deal, the response of wicked envy would be to wonder why it was not my book deal, or to complain about that person’s qualifications, or to generally grumble about the situation. The response of Godly Envy, however, would be to celebrate and rejoice with what God has done for that person, then prayerfully double-down on my own call. I have personally found this process to be one of the best tonics against Envy (the wicked kind)—to celebrate the successes of my companions and to pray actively for God to increase their successes. There is a great sense of joy in being released from the bondage of my own opinions regarding what is meritorious!

Fundamentally, the human creature is made to desire greatness, and yet not all of us will experience greatness in the same capacity. Envy creeps in and takes root when we begin to compare greatnesses and fixate on our own perceived deficiencies. The slanted gaze of Envy, thus, interrupts our call to the present moment. It will do no good to deny the existence of greatness or of merit, however. Some people will always be better than me, have more than me, and so forth. But they cannot fulfill the task which God has given to me to perform. Therefore a corrected Envy—the pleasure at another’s accomplishment—ought to reinforce my call to the present task.

Despite our summons to greatness, it is remarkable how quickly we can descend to the most astonishing pettiness, and hunger’s ability to bring us to such a place is unmatched. Envy at the fact that other people get to eat! But by God’s grace, the intentionality of fasting helps to expose our absurdity, and we are given fresh opportunities to pray through our focus on self, even going so far as to bless the Lord for the food others get to eat! Truly, a grateful heart is one in which envy can find no footholds.

Your mention in passing of a great church service has my interest piqued. Do tell me more in your next letter.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (C)–Sloth, Disobedience, and Listening

Dear James,

It is true, as you say, that Pride is traditionally thought to be the sin of the Garden. That doesn’t mean that Lust wasn’t part of it as well. But please note that I was very careful in my last letter to avoid suggesting that Adam and Eve’s sin was some form of sexual consummation. Rather, I focused on how their sin elevated an appetite above their obedience to God. It was carnal, therefore, in the sense that it was rooted in the body, in that it was a sin of the flesh. Claiming that their sin was a sin of Lust does not eliminate Pride, but perhaps merely augments it. (And for what it’s worth, I still believe Pride was central in that moment, but we’ll have to discuss that another week.) What this does illuminate for us clearly—and what you note as well—is that there seems to be a blurring between these sins as we’ve dealt with them so far. As far as I’m concerned, this blurring is to be expected, if only because (as Jeremiah says) the heart is deceitful above all else. Its deceit is surely manifested in the manifold ugliness of our invention for sin, and in the festering motives which sit rooted in the heart. It is the heart that is sinful, and the Seven Deadly Sins are useful inasmuch as they can bring me into fresh insight about my own, corrupted heart. In that sense, Gluttony or Lust or Pride aren’t the problem—they are symptoms. The problem is deeper—it is sin itself, rebellion against God—and all our acts of meditation and personal reflection upon sin are ineffective if they don’t target the real problem.

When you think about it, it seems that a great deal of Christian spirituality is geared toward addressing symptoms. We’re a very ad hoc people—always addressing the problem of the present moment. Part of the reason for this, surely, is that we’ve become so bad at simply listening. We hold one-way conversations with God. We abhor silence. We privilege activism over reflection, tangible service over prayerful contemplation. If you set aside time for silent reflection, however, it won’t take long for God to begin to show you your deep need for Him, and to do this by bringing to your awareness your misdeeds and failures. At least that’s what He does for me!

Ironically, this failure to listen generates our widespread subservience to Sloth, which is, I imagine, the sin we most commit out of simple negligence. The irony, of course, is that for many people silent reflection looks like laziness—it is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while there are things to be done. But true contemplation is never laziness, and nor, for that matter, is laziness quite the same thing as Sloth. Sloth is the business of ignoring our duty, or, of seeing it, and then neglecting to do it. It is an indolence in the face of a call, a turning away of our attentions from what God is asking us to do toward our own preferences, a disposition of disobedience, and it is deadly. Consider how the Rich Man in Jesus’ story reveals his Sloth by ignoring Lazarus at his doorstep.

Sloth wars against our human call to magnanimity—and here I borrow from Josef Pieper’s language. As humans we each bear within us an urge toward greatness, one that I expect is rooted in the image of God. This urge is toward what Pieper (quoting Aquinas) calls the extensio animi ad magna—the stretching of the soul towards greatness. To deny this urge is to deny something essential to our humanity. To ignore its call, or to deflect it, or to live in intentional ignorance of what it implies, is to live in Sloth. In the grip of Sloth, I sanctify my own disobedience.

The tonic to this, of course, is listening and obedience. We set aside time for meditation and reflection, to listen to God’s voice, to really hear what He wants to say. From those gleanings, we must seek to obey His voice. As a rule, this process becomes cyclic—the more we listen and obey, the more He speaks, and the more opportunities we are given to obey. Ultimately, because our true greatness can only be found in obedient service to Christ (and not by our own efforts at greatness), it follows that an attitude of intentional listening is critical to the fulfillment of call. The kind of listening, in fact, which is precisely in view when we approach a season of fasting such as this one.

In view of this, is it not possible that in some sense busyness—our chronic mania of activity—is actually a manifestation of Sloth? From what we’ve seen, the Slothful person could conceivably be extremely active and busy, but busy about all the wrong kinds of things. And indeed, how often it is that we utilize our busyness wickedly, whether to earn credit with God for our actions, or to drown out our true obedience. Busyness dulls the ears from hearing God’s voice.

That’s not to say that our lives won’t be full. Busyness and fullness are not the same thing at all. Nor are rest and play to be confused with laziness. The Lord has given us time and pleasure as gifts. They only become wicked when utilized out of proportion to their purpose. In this sense, in addition to listening, Sabbath keeping would be another ironic answer to Sloth. In Sabbath, I declare that I am not too busy to stop, rest, and enjoy God’s goodness.

May God continue to bless your fasting, James—please pray also for mine!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (B)–Medieval Wisdom and Lust

Dear James,

I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns about the lurking Catholicism and implicit medievalism in the practice of fasting and the language of Gluttony. There is, of course, nothing wrong with things that are specifically medieval. For whatever their liabilities, theirs was also an age which seemed to know a great deal more about the interaction of the body and soul. And I hope we’re both sufficiently self-aware to evaluate beliefs on their intrinsic merit, and not on their association with a specific time period. Where the medievals were right we ought to agree with them, learn from them, and utilize their thoughts as a corrective to our own, distorted age. It’s the same with things we might consider more “Catholic” than others. Whatever the liabilities or merits of Roman Catholicism, we would be foolhardy to assume that all Catholics throughout all of history are to be dismissed because of the errors of some Catholics at some points.

In this, it seems to me that our Medieval Catholic friends showed extreme wisdom in highlighting what today we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Not because there are only seven sins, nor because we ought to rank sins as a way to measure how good we think we are. No, what the medieval mind shows is a kind of comprehensive awareness of those things which have power to keep us from the fullness of life in God—Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Greed, and Pride. Ignorance of the means by which these things can keep us from God is not a strength on our part. Similarly, medievals had a robust conception of the body and the need to mortify it for the sake of our enriched life with God. Just this morning I read in Walter Hilton that “The flesh must be chastised, with discretion, to atone for past sins, and to restrain sinful inclinations, and to make the body obedient and compliant to the soul.” Note the strength of his claim—the body must be chastised. Your faith will remain infantile until some sort of physical mortification has taken shape in your spiritual life. But note the immediate appeal to discretion—we mustn’t go too far, or exceed our body’s capacity to benefit from the activity. And note the ultimate purpose—that we are striving to make our bodies “obedient and compliant to the soul” That, with concision, seems to me precisely what this season of fasting is really about, and illustrates nicely why it is at such places that we must study at the feet of our medieval, Catholic masters.

You are right to observe that by identifying sexual indiscretion as a sin of Gluttony I must therefore mean something much more nuanced by Lust. I still hold the first assertion to be true, if only because a significant part of our growth in faith and awareness of sin is the business of disambiguating the motivations of the heart. Many people who have committed sexual indiscretions may think they’ve committed a sin of Lust, when really they’re in the grip of Gluttony, sinning against both pleasure and time. They would sin less, not by denying their sexuality, but by both building up their temperance and striving to savor those pleasures which are appropriate for the given time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something intrinsically sexual about Lust, but I think the heart of the sin is placed somewhere different.

For me, the essence of Lust is in the privilege it gives to our animal nature. In Lust, my desires (and, specifically in focus, my most animal, instinctual desire—the desire to procreate) are granted decision-making power over my will. The result is that by privileging my animal nature over my spiritual I begin to deny my humanity. Lust, by fixating on desire, reduces me to nothing more than my desires. Sub-human, then, I am crippled in my capacity for relationships. By privileging personal desire above all else, Lust makes me supremely selfish.

I think it’s interesting that when we look at the creation of human persons in early Genesis we see a kind of recipe for the human creature—dirt, plus the Spirit of God. We are material (earth), and spiritual (God’s breath), at the same time. This is the central thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation. When as human creatures we are operating rightly, then the spiritual is in a position of governance over the material. But when we begin to privilege our animal desires and give them precedence over our spiritual ones, then we break the human creature and death is a necessary consequence. In this very specific sense, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin of Lust—of the privileging of animal desire (for fruit, for knowledge) over our spiritual selves (in submission to our maker). In this, it seems of especial note that our Lord’s first temptation centers on food, and that his answer to the devil was that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fasting, it would appear, is about getting our humanity back in the right place—it’s like a scheduled tune-up for the human machine.

Fasting is therefore extremely useful in addressing Lust. However, we must be careful not to turn it into a kind of cure for Lust—or indeed for any sin. There are two things to say about this. First, we mustn’t think that by engaging in spiritual activity we can merit specific spiritual merits. What I mean is that we can’t bargain with God by saying, “I’ll fast in this way if You’ll fix me with regard to sex.” That’s not the point of fasting, and that’s not how things work with God. (And yet I wonder how often these attitudes creep quietly into our thoughts when we’re fasting!) To be fair, there will always be some spiritual benefit for all intentional acts of spiritual self-discipline, but we don’t get to determine what those will be. The best thing that can happen—especially during a time of fasting from food—is that I might gain a new sense of quiet patience before the Lord, a submissiveness, a prayerfulness. From that quietude, perhaps He will work in me something unexpected, like a desire for greater kindness, or a conviction of a certain unkindness. It can be anything! But better attention to the Word of God seems to me the sole and pure motive of fasting—I starve my belly so that I can open my ears.

Second, while fasting is useful against Lust, when we use fasting to try to “defeat” sin then we open the door to self-pity. Think of it this way. When we make our fasting penance for sin, then in addition to turning it into a bargaining chip with God, we also interrupt the central process of quietude and attentiveness to God. Our focus is upon our selves and upon self-evaluation when we ought instead to have been listening to God. And so long as our attention is self-focused in fasting, the snake of self-pity writhes in our subconscious. Hunger becomes quiet self-acclamation. Sin generates a need for further self-focus. The simple truth is that fasting in itself cannot defeat sin. Fasting opens us to God, and it is God alone who defeats sin. And so long as we are seeking some other thing through fasting, then we are interrupting the very process which might actually change us.

I wonder if the positive virtue which best aligns against Lust isn’t contingency. If, in Lust, there is a temptation to depend upon my own desires as determinative of my identity, then wouldn’t it be answered by an awareness of my true, deeper dependency upon God and God alone? “Man does not live by bread alone.” Fasting seems to me one of the best ways to go about getting that relationship sorted out. Additionally, if this disordering of my desires in Lust creates selfishness, then the other positive area of focus would be intentional relationships and acts of sacrificial service. Anything, in short, that can get me out of the echo-chamber of my own desires.

Please lay aside any concerns about our correspondence. I’ve always looked forward to your letters, and it seems to me that this Lenten season has given us a perfect opportunity for just this kind of discussion about sin, fasting, and goodness. As always, I hope it will continue to be mutually beneficial!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (A)–Lent, Fasting, and Gluttony

Dear James,

I read with real pleasure of your intention to fast during this Lenten season. It seems to me more important than ever, in a disembodied and Gnostic age such as this one, that we humans strive to bring our bodies into alignment with our souls. Discipline is a very unpleasant and unpopular word, but it seems immensely good for us. In fact, all acts of bodily submission appear to bear some spiritual fruit. Not in a base and absurd way, as if we could bring our good deeds to God and bargain with Him for advantages, but simply because measured and intentional self-denial is a process which inevitably bears fruit. I applaud your intentions, and am eager to walk with you in fasting this season.

You are right to mention, of course, that a traditional part of the Lenten season is to reflect upon our sin and strive for fresh repentance. But I would hate for that to be where our focus stops. Surely, as in all spiritual exercises, our true end and goal is intimacy with God. Sin is not an end upon which we ought ever to focus exclusively, but only a road-stop on the way to life in God. It seems to me that we’ve got to keep that in mind as we reflect and pray these next six weeks. It can help in this to put special emphasis on things like the fruit of the Spirit. We are as much mired in sinfulness as we are deficient in Godliness, are we not? So if you’re going to meditate on an area of sin, then I would advise marrying that meditation to a similar area of Godliness. Our meditations, then, will have teeth, because we’ll have something positive to aim for.

It’s of note to me that you bring up Gluttony. On one point I have to disagree with you, because I don’t think it’s accurate that Gluttony is the sin which fasting most addresses. Gluttony is less about food, explicitly, than it is about pleasure. After all, I can fast for a day then break my fast on the next day by eating extravagantly. To make the most spiritual benefit from a fast, there’s an extra step that must be taken. That extra step, in turn, applies to all our sins. Of course, fasting is linked most commonly to food, and fasting from food is the simplest and easiest way to fast. It is also the way our Lord fasted, so that’s something keep especially in mind. But deeper than this, and for whatever reason, physical hunger has the capacity to awaken our awareness of not only our dependence upon God, but also our innate sinfulness. You’ve experienced, no doubt, the peckishness and inattentiveness that comes from a long time between meals. You can easily lose your temper, or not give proper focus to a task at hand. It has the effect of showing us just how contingent we are—if I don’t get my regular meals, I suddenly turn into a monster! But a simple act of self-denial has such remarkable power to not only illuminate my dependencies, but to show me what kind of a person I become when my presumed comforts are removed. In a word—a bad one! This drives me to pray, and seek the Lord, and to strive for His transforming power to work in these ugly, exposed flaws which simple hunger have revealed. In this way, fasting offers us special insight into our sin—and not merely the sins of food.

That’s not to suggest that Gluttony is a sin which doesn’t require redress—far from it! Gluttony is one of the most widespread yet unacknowledged sins of our time—a pet sin, a favorite sin, especially in its clearest forms. We take pride in overeating, and occasionally in being full of food and drink we do this to the expense of those who hunger and thirst. With our food, we have the capacity to violate righteousness, and this is a frightening prospect. What gluttony truly impinges on, however, is pleasure. I am no longer enjoying the bite I’m chewing because I am hasting to stuff my mouth with the next bite. I am no longer enjoying the meal I’ve eaten because the quantity which now fills my stomach has created pain. I am not enjoying the food in front of me because it isn’t as rich as what I would like to be eating. In the grip of Gluttony, I lose my capacity for the enjoyment of simple things. I wonder even if the phenomenon of photographing food is an indirect expression of gluttony—the artificial extension of pleasure, the pleasure at showing other people what I’m eating.

The deception of Gluttony is that, while I think I am consuming, in reality some other thing is consuming me. I am not enjoying a single episode of a show, I am watching all of them at once. I am not enjoying dessert in proportion, I am eating the whole cake. I am not enjoying the business of holding hands with my beloved, I am eager to drive forward into the marriage bed. I am not present with the person in the room, I am striving for presence with something called “the world” through access to the internet. I wonder, come to think of it, if our common usage of the internet is not the clearest expression of Gluttony we have. In all of these ways, by demanding the consumption of increasing pleasures, Gluttony eats at joy.

We have both agreed previously that pleasure is a marvelous gift from God. It is one of the ways that He calls people to Himself, a harbinger of those “pleasures forevermore” that we will discover in His presence one day. God is liberal with these pleasures, and manifold in their design. But Gluttony flattens this cornucopia of pleasures to one alone—my personal satisfaction in this present moment. We see less because we only wish to see what will make us full to our specifications. Contentment, it seems to me, is the virtue most attuned to Gluttony. That we would know when to say “enough.” That we would practice presence with our pleasures—whether it be a bite of food, or a walk on the beach, the holding of a hand, or the person in the room; that in each and every experience of pleasure we would offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord who gives them out so liberally.

May your fasting be enriched this season, James, and may we each, in our hunger, hunger most for our common Lord!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios