2 Feb. 3 June. 3 Oct.
The fifth degree of humility is, not to hide from one’s Abbot any of the evil thoughts that beset one’s heart, or the sins committed in secret, but humbly to confess them. Concerning which the Scripture exhorteth us, saying: “Make known thy way unto the Lord, and hope in Him.” And again: “Confess to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endureth for ever.” So also the prophet saith: “I have made known to Thee mine offence, and mine iniquities I have not hidden. I will confess against myself my iniquities to the Lord: and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart.”
Thoughts are the battleground of the monk. What are these evil thoughts that Saint Benedict says beset one’s heart? Evagrius Ponticus named them in the fourth century. Evagrius’ list was a kind of diagnostic tool for the care of souls. It allowed monks to name the evil thoughts (λογισμοι; logísmoi) that, if allowed to develop, become patterns of behavour, that is, vices. Being able to name one’s thoughts makes it possible to confess them, and confessing them unmasks them for what they really are, putting to flight the demons who lurk behind them or proliferate around them. Here, then, is Evagrius’ list. Saint John Cassian introduced it to the West, and Saint Gregory the Great distilled it into what we know as the seven capital sins.
1. Gluttony – (γαστριμαργία; gastrimargía);
2. Lust or Fornication – (πορνεία; porneía);
3. Avarice or Love of money – (φιλαργυρία; philarguría);
4. Dejection or Sadness – (λύπη; lúpe);
5. Anger – (ὀργή; orgé);
6. Despondency or Listlessness – (ἀκηδία; akedía);
7. Vainglory – (κενοδοξία; kenodoxía);
8. Pride – (ὑπερηφανία; huperephanía).
The thoughts of gluttony, lust, and avarice come first because they are, as a rule, the first to wage war on novices and young monks. They often return around middle age and may also make a final violent assault on men in the final years of life. The monk who thinks he has put the baser vices of gluttony, lust, and avarice behind him may be surprised to find them salivating, and leering, and grasping in front of him. There is no security save in believing oneself to be lower than the newest novice. The monk who says to himself, “I have been in the monastery longer than these johnny-come-latelies. I have completed every book on the reading–list. I knew more than anyone even before entering the monastery,” that monk is asking for trouble. His pride will make him the prime target of the demons of gluttony, lust, and avarice.
Dejection, anger, and despondency come close on the heels of gluttony, lust, and avarice. Just when a monk begins to think that he can safely rest from spiritual combat and begin to enjoy a quiet life in the cloister, he will be assailed by temptations of dejection, anger, and despondency. The last of these three, despondency, also called acedia (ἀκηδία), is a kind of chronic fatigue syndrome of the soul. It may suddenly go into remission and then return. It can be as debilitating as clinical depression, and may manifest some of the same symptoms, but it is a spiritual malady and must be treated as such, without neglecting the natural remedies that may relieve certain of its manifestations. Even Saint Thomas (II:1, q. 38, 5) recommends hot baths and naps! Sometimes the weekly long walk does the job! Saint Gregory says that despondency has six daughters: malice, rancour, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commandments, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects. Abba Apollo had the gift of curing melancholy. This is a precious gift in any monastery and, it seems to me me, that an abbot might rightly ask this gift of God, if it will redound to the glory of God and the good of souls:
If anyone did appear a little downcast, Abba Apollo at once asked him the reason and told each one what was in the secret recesses of his heart. He used to say, “Those who are going to inherit the Kingdom of heaven must not be despondent about their salvation… we who have been considered worthy of so great a hope, how shall we not rejoice without ceasing, since the Apostle urges us always, “Pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks”?”
You know the story of Saint Antony of Egypt who was instructed by an angel to alternate a little work with a little prayer and, in this way, emerge from a bout of acedia.
When the holy Abba Antony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but those thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
Acedia is best treated by the practice of discretion. The horarium is the guardian of discretion, but a brother in the grip of acedia may not have the energy to follow the horarium exactly. What is such a man to do? There is a balance to be found between over–reacting and not reacting at all. A brother who has an aversion to pray may say, “I shall force myself to pray for an hour no matter what happens.” If that resolution comes not from God but from the brother’s desire to prove himself, he may succumb to weariness after twenty minutes, and flee from the place of his prayer saying to himself, “You loser, you failure, you pitiful excuse for a monk, you thought you could pray for an hour, and you cannot even pray for twenty minutes. Give up. It’s all to no avail.” If, on the other hand, the resolution comes from God, the brother will say to himself, “You are already worn out by a long aversion to prayer. See if you can pray for fifteen minutes.” After fifteen minutes, the brother realises that he has prayed and that, in fact, his prayer was not as hard as he feared it would be. He rises from his place of prayer with thanksgiving and joy in his heart, and says to himself, “Tomorrow, you will be able to pray for twenty minutes. Praise God for the little he has given you to do and pay no heed to devil who will try to make you feel bad for not doing more. It is better to do little and remain humble than to do much and become puffed up over it.”
Another example: Two brothers decide to give up drinking wine at meals. The first gets through the first week without a drop of wine so much as moistening his lips. He feels pleased with himself and begins to look down on the brother next to him who drinks his half–glass of wine at every meal. The second gets through two days and then, on the third day has a disagreement with the brother in charge of work. Meal time comes; he goes to table and says, “After having put up with that idiot of a brother, I deserve a glass of wine.” He pours himself a full glass that day, and the next day, and the day after that. In the end, he abandons his first resolution altogether. In the same monastery there is still another brother who says to himself, “God created wine to cheer the heart of man. I shall not disdain what God has created, but I shall use it moderately and with thanksgiving.” This brother drinks his half–glass of wine at every meal. He looks up to those who do without it altogether, and doesn’t look down on those who drink more or less than he, for he says to himself, “Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner, another after that” (Chapter XL).
The two last evil thoughts in Evagrius’ list are more spiritual: he calls them vainglory and pride. These two thoughts attack monks who think they have vanquished the demons of gluttony, fornication, and greed. Such monks are found to be nearly flawless in their observance; they love holy reading; they experience a certain peace in prayer and may often prolong it because they are beginning to be drawn on by love. Vainglory has seven very ugly daughters: disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, contentions, obstinacies, discords, and the presumptions of novelties. As for pride, there is no vice and there is no sin that does not trace its roots back to it.
Gluttony, lust, and avarice thrive in a man’s grosser appetites. Dejection, anger, and despondency protrude from the chinks in a man’s incensive make–up, that is, in his emotional life. Vainglory and pride seat themselves on the throne of a man’s intelligence. Saint Benedict says that these thoughts, of which any man would feel ashamed, are the very thoughts that a monk must disclose to his abbot. And there is more: should a brother commit any sin secretly — in thought, word, or deed — he must confess that secret sin without delay, lest by trying to hide the sin, it become a stench inside him and, like the carcass of a dead animal, attract maggots and flies, that is, the little parasitic demons who feed off of the rot of unconfessed sins.
Read Book XXXI, Chapter 45 (87–88) of the Moralia of Saint Gregory the Great. He identifies not only the seven capital sins, but also the multiple vices that they spawn.
When pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders it immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. . . . But these several sins have each their army against us. For from vain glory there arise disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, contentions, obstinacies, discords, and the presumptions of novelties. From envy there spring hatred, whispering, detraction, exultation at the misfortunes of a neighbour, and affliction at his prosperity. From anger are produced strifes, swelling of mind, insults, clamour, indignation, blasphemies. From melancholy there arise malice, rancour, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects. From avarice there spring treachery, fraud, deceit, perjury, restlessness, violence, and hardnesses of heart against compassion. From gluttony are propagated foolish mirth, scurrility, uncleanness, babbling, dulness of sense in understanding. From lust are generated blindness of mind, inconsiderateness, inconstancy, precipitation, self-love, hatred of God, affection for this present world, but dread or despair of that which is to come. Because, therefore, seven principal vices produce from themselves so great a multitude of vices, when they reach the heart, they bring, as it were, the bands of an army after them.
One last thing: the godly counsel of the abbot, or of the father with whom he shares his care of souls, is of no good without the obedience of the disciple. If the abbot says, “Brother, go and do such and such,” and the brother thinks, “That will not help me. It’s not what I need,” and then neglects to carry out what has been prescribed, he is acting like the sick man who refuses to take the medicine prescribed by the physician. The real obstacles to such a brother’s cure are his pride and disobedience. There are also brothers who believe themselves to be so unique, so special, so above or apart from the rest of men, that they are convinced that their superiors cannot understand them, or help them, or teach them anything. Such brothers will argue, refute, discuss, and debate until they squeeze what they want out of the abbot and are dispensed from what they really need.