This week I’m wrapping up my sympathetic look at the Seven Deadly Sins, from the viewpoint of fallen man who’s not really eager to climb back up. If zealous Christians can aptly be termed by theologians "Weebles" — "These souls wobble but they don’t fall down!" — the much more numerous people for whom I speak might easily pass for Marsh-Wiggles. Lovers of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books will remember these glumly fatalistic frog-men from The Silver Chair, and the figure of Puddleglum. This deeply dysthymic swamp-dweller does yeoman’s work in the story, helping rescue the captive Prince Rilian and restore good government to the coup-ridden realm of Narnia. Puddleglum manages all this without betraying his native pessimism or even breaking a smile.
I don’t know if Lewis was trying to offer a hero for spiritually sluggish modern Americans, or simply a figure to inspire children of the melancholic temperament. But at most of the parishes I’ve attended throughout my life, the pews have been groaning with Marsh-Wiggles, who rise for the Gospel reluctantly, sometimes sighing, and wince as they drop their weekly $1 into the basket. The only prayer that they answer with any enthusiasm is, "The Mass is ended, go in peace," to which they practically bellow, "Thanks be to GOD!" and head for the doors. Of course, my sample is far from scientific. I’m sure that there are parishes full of tambourine-rattling, glad-handing singers of ditties like "On Eagle’s Wings." I wouldn’t know. I’ve always avoided the Charismatics, secure in my own identity as a deeply Phlegmatic Catholic — the kind that seeks a mystical union between his buttocks and the pew.
As Puddleglum might point out, we end this series on a low point — with the one sin St. Thomas considered entirely devoid of anything good, namely Envy. While other vices amount to exaggerations or distortions of wholesome appetites — for sexual fulfillment, glory, or justice — Envy seems at first to crave evil for its own sake. We’re not just talking jealousy here; in the sinful sense, jealousy means that we see what other people have, and wish we had the same, or a little bit better. I might see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together on television, and somehow convince myself that I deserved a wife that voluptuous, with lips that were even puffier. I might think of the goofiest things Pitt has said over the years, and imagine how much more entertaining I would prove by the poolside — if only I could somehow get to the side of their pool, past all that security . . . My feelings would add up to jealousy and covetousness, marking me as a creepy, potential stalker. But it need not entail any Envy.
For that to enter the picture, I’d have to follow the details of their marriage, and take delight in the troubles they encountered — to gloat over gossip columns describing their public quarrels, to chuckle when Brad lost a coveted role or Angelina put on some weight. Likewise if I consoled myself for the glamour and luxury they enjoy by chronicling in my mind what I saw as their spiritual deficits, in the manner of certain pious scolds I’ve known. Yeah, enjoy those Mediterranean beach vacations, Brad. Come Judgment Day, you’re probably headed for someplace a whole lot hotter.
Now, you needn’t be a solitary bachelor crank to enjoy such consolations. Envy is less like chemotherapy than aspirin — an all-purpose pain reliever. I’ve known of married, orthodox Catholics with large families who compensate for the fact that they drive a battered, crap-brown minivan filled up with squabbling toddlers by speculating about the contraceptive habits — and spiritual state — of richer folks with fewer kids. That Volvo should read "I ♥ the Culture of Death."
I’ve known working-class Catholics to visit a parish in a posh neighborhood, then spend the Mass pricing the jewelry the women are wearing. Surely, Lord, this could have been sold and given to the poor.
I don’t know any personally — I steer clear of people like this — but the Internet is full of "social justice" activists who resent the hard-won, quite recent prosperity of the First World in general and our country in particular. They lobby for massive foreign aid and open borders, to rectify an "injustice" they can neither define nor delimit. They just know that it’s massive, that the claims of the global poor must always be answered, and the "selfishness" of the wealthy sternly rebuked. The financially or racially "privileged" have essentially no rights, and the only Christian thing for them to do would be turn over their ill-gotten gains and go live in some favela. That would serve them right . . .
How about Traditionalist Catholics who have been relegated by their bishops to tiny parishes in the boondocks, to mental hospital chapels or funeral crypts — who mutter with grim satisfaction at the news that the diocese got slammed with another abuse suit and will have to close a "modernist" parish in the suburbs? I personally have taken pungent delight in reading how apostate religious orders are now devoid of vocations, and chuckled at the thought of elderly heretics frying up cat food.
There really is nobody out there whose life doesn’t look a bit brighter when his neighbors are viewed through jaundice-colored glasses. Millionaires are free to envy billionaires, and billionaires . . . I really can’t say. Maybe billionaires envy vampires, since the latter never have to die — unless, of course, some envious mortal sneaks up behind them with a stake . . .
Even people who focus exclusively on the spiritual life can benefit from Envy. We’ve all read in stories of the saints how their principal persecutors were frequently their superiors, or the fellow monks or nuns who lived in their convents. We read about John of the Cross, or Bernadette of Lourdes . . . and we always side with the saint. But let’s turn things around for once. Just imagine what it would be like to spend your life in a scratchy habit, having taken on the "evangelical counsels" of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience — renouncing the three consolations that pretty much make fleshly life worth living in the first place. You’ve done all that: check, check, check. You’re spending your life behind bars, and you’ve done this on purpose.
Now who toddles in but some bizarre, prophetic figure whom God visits personally, or to whom He sends His mom. The whole world is begging this person for her prayers, or waiting for his next book. He may even be trying to reform your religious order, this busybody buddinsky. (In John of the Cross’s case, he was depriving Carmelites of their shoes.) What’s left for you to do but to wonder if his inspirations are really authentic? The Devil comes garbed as an angel of light, you know. Best to test his sincerity from time to time, see how humble she really is. Sure, you’ll be inflicting some suffering in the process — but isn’t that spiritually edifying, for a saint? You’re helping him get to Heaven. Heh heh heh.
In convent or cubicle, comparing your own achievements and enjoyments with other people’s is perfectly natural — in the same sense that death is natural, and for the same historical reasons. And it serves a purpose. Envy keeps the economy moving, keeps us piling on the debt that cannot be seen to fund the purchases we flaunt. Envy is patriotic, since it helps us expand our government. It helps move wealth from selfish private hands into the coffers of the commonwealth, where honest citizens can stake their equal claims to a share of the stash. Envy comforts the lonely, consoles the slacker, fills the prodigal and the shiftless with good things, while the rich it sends empty away.
It’s a damned shame that Envy’s a deadly sin — the deadliest of the seven, according to St. Thomas, who described it as the passion that goaded Lucifer, who envied the Glory of God. What in Hell would we do without it?
John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.
Here’s the full list of John’s reflections on the Seven Deadly Sins.