I am not sure what it reveals about me, but when Patheos told me that one of the books they were featuring for their upcoming Book Club was titled Seven Deadly Sins: A Visitor’s Guide, my heart lept a little with excitment. You see, I love the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers and know that they have much to say about vice and virtue, and I have yet still much to learn.
Lawrence Cunningham’s book is a delightful short romp through what can be a dense theological arena. He writes, not as moral theologian, but with a pastoral eye, and so the book is more about coming to understand the ways we see these patterns within us and how to work gently with them. Last week I wrote about discerning the life and death impulse, and Cuningham’s book definitely offers more food for thought on cultivating awareness of both of these. He also writes with a sense of humor, calling it a “visitor’s guide” with a nod to Dante’s journey through the Inferno.
As I read through the chapters with titles like “Some gratitfying thoughts on gluttony” and “Some pure thoughts on lust” I could see a little (and sometimes more than a little) of myself in each of these life-denying patterns. These are fundamental compulsions we have struggled with since at least the time of the ancient monks, and likely far longer. This is what it means to be human.
Each vice is accompanied by a virtue which acts as an antidote. Practicing love and peace of mind is a way of dealing with our tendencies toward anger. Humility is the doorway to overcoming false pride. This is deeply rooted in ancient monastic tradition and he draws on many wise desert elders to illuminate his points. The practice of the virtues is our responsibility. Blaming others for our bad behavior misses the point of spiritual maturity entirely. What I love most about a virtue-centered ethic, is that the focus is shifted away from the sin and onto what we can cultivate to counter that pattern in our lives.
My favorite chapter was the last one, however, which focuses on the monastic practice of purity of heart. This somewhat archaic sounding goal recalls the Beatitudes where Jesus says those who are pure of heart shall see God. The seven deadly sins are obstacles on this path. They obstruct this kind of vision by bringing our focus on ourselves and our own needs.
Generosity, Cunningham highlights, is a practice which can act as an antidote to most, if not all, of these vices. Generosity arises from a sense of abundance in your own life, so that giving to others – praise, resources, support, love – becomes a natural and spontaneous way of being. Generosity demands that we shift the focus from ourselves and our lack, to others and the great grace always being offered to us in each moment.