Understanding “Capital Sins”

We are all quite familiar with the seven capital sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Perhaps we learned about them in a classroom setting; certainly we have encountered them in ourselves and others!

Today, I would like to invite each of us to do something we normally don’t do – to feel deeply the Father’s kindness toward us in our weaknesses and our repeated tendency towards sin. Then, with Jesus, we can allow ourselves to be curious about these inclinations that we experience.

As an accomplished sinner myself and as one who offers pastoral care to sinners, I find that we fallen humans tend to feel a great deal of shame and contempt around our weaknesses, our vulnerability to sin, and the details of our acting out. We tend to despise any part of ourselves that feels inclined to think or speak or act in one of these ways. Whether an inclination to numb out in slothfulness, to overeat, to compare ourselves with others and feel sadness, or to enter the realm of sexual fantasizing, we just wish that it would all go away. Shame incites us to see the broken pieces of our heart as worthless garbage to be incinerated, rather than as bearing the image of God and beckoning us back to the heart of the Father.

A deeper understanding of the capital sins – what they really are and why they are called “capital” in the first place – leads us to seek traces of God’s goodness even in those places of our heart that feel totally beyond his reach.

If we speak with greater accuracy, these seven impulses are not “sins” in the full and proper sense. They are tendencies or vulnerabilities in us. They are called “sins” because they come from sin and incline us toward sin. In Catholic theology, we speak of “concupiscence” as a wound in us, a strong inclination toward sinfulness that is part of the human experience as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. This wound of concupiscence is, of course, exacerbated by our own choices in life. The more we sin, the more we want to sin. The seven capital sins can then be understood as seven different ways that fallen human beings experience a strong inclination toward sin. We do not find it difficult to allow ourselves to indulge in any one of these seven inclinations. Jesus speaks about the wide gate and easy road that leads to destruction – in contrast to the narrow gate and difficult road that leads to life.

Indeed, we probably best know these tendencies as the “seven deadly sins” – because they easily become toxic, harmful, and deeply destructive. Unchecked, they rupture our relationships with God, others, and self, and ultimately lead towaerd death in every sense – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of a God who is love – an eternal communion of persons in glorious relationship. We innately understand just how destructive our acting out becomes – and the devil is all too eager to bury us in shame. His endgame is to tear away as many of us as he can and get us to agree to never ending isolation, misery, and torment.

But why are these seven tendencies called “capital sins”?  The word “capital” comes from the Latin caput – which means “head,” but can also mean “source.”  John Cassian and Gregory the Great reflect on how each of these impulses becomes a source of sinfulness in us – not sins in and of themselves, but, if unchecked, strong impulses that lead us down the road of perdition.

The thing is, the devil cannot create. He is not God. He can only use the good and beautiful things God has created in an attempt to lie and steal and destroy. Ignatius of Loyola refers to the devil as “the enemy of human nature.” He absolutely despises us. He hates the glory of God that shines in each of us. That is where he attacks the hardest – which in a backwards way teaches us an important lesson: if we look deeply into our hearts at the places where we experience the most intense attack in the form of the seven capital sins, there we will find God’s glory the most present. Why else would the devil attack us so intensely there?

In other words, at the core of each of these seven capital sins in us, we find amazingly good desires and needs that God has placed in the human heart. Yes, these seven tendencies can easily become sources of sinfulness that have great potential to lead us astray. But they can also be deeply helpful clues to lead us back to God!

That is where tender kindness, childlike wonder, and holy curiosity come in. Rather than shaming myself, I can start noticing what is happening in my heart. My anger is there whether I like it or not! Yes, I can allow it to leak out in aggression toward others or myself. But it can also be an invitation into the fullness of God’s truth and justice, and an awakening of my prophetic identity in Christ. In my envy I can notice the things my heart deeply aches for – often things the Lord deeply desires for me – but only if I am willing to allow myself to feel the heartache of longing and waiting. In my lust I can notice all kinds of desires and needs – to be desired and chosen, to be safe and secure, to be embraced, to be known and understood, or to be loved as I am, (notice that none of these is really about sex!). In my sloth I may discover much less “laziness” and much more shame and fear – an urge to hide and isolate and turn away when what I actually need is real relationships, in which I can be cared for precisely where I feel the weakest and most vulnerable.

Whatever capital sins we find to be our “personal favorites” are also very likely the places we will find the deepest and holiest longings of our hearts –places in which our loving Father desires us to experience our true dignity, meaning, and purpose as his beloved children. Each of us can become “disciples” – yes, in the sense of discipline, but even more so by allowing Jesus to help us become students of our own heart, which is created in the image and likeness of God and declared by him to be “very good.” If we open ourselves to that experience of authentic discipleship, the places of our deepest sorrow and struggle will become the very places that lead us back to the heart of the Father.

Learning to Saunter

Have you ever had that experience of always assuming you knew what a word meant, only to discover that it actually bears quite a different meaning?

I had one of those moments with the word “saunter.” I had encountered it often in books, usually with the same phraseology: “He sauntered in.”  To me, in context, it always felt synonymous with “strutted,” and I never bothered to look the word up.

But one day I was on vacation, a guest at the home of friends, reading one of those life-coaching plaques in their home (I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess which room of the house it was in).   The plaque gave dozens of tidbits of advice for joyful living.

One of those sage counsels was “Saunter aimlessly.” It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the phrases on the plaque. “Strut aimlessly”??  I suddenly found myself hearing the admonition of Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means…”

So I got out my dictionary. Actually, let’s be honest – I got out my smart phone, which is ironic, because the smart phone is quite possibly one of the greatest disrupters of sauntering in all of human existence.  But it gets the job done as a dictionary. The scales fell from my eyes as I read the following:

1. walk in a slow, relaxed manner, without hurry or effort.

It was so much more than an “aha!” moment. It was one of those divine taps on the shoulder. Perhaps I had misunderstood this vocabulary word all my life because I am not so skilled at sauntering.

Well actually, that’s not entirely true. Deep down, my heart LOVES to saunter. Have you seen those Family Circus installments that trace little Billy’s meanderings with a dotted line? I definitely have a little child inside that absolutely delights in sautnering – exploring the nooks and crannies of God’s creation in a spirit of curiosity, awe, and adventure. But many other parts of me rise up to squelch that childlike longing.

My workaholic and perfectionistic tendencies don’t tend to leave space for little Derek to saunter. I experience restless urges within me – an urge to “get caught up,” and urge to be constantly productive, and an urge to meet the impossible expectations of others. My inner critic warns me that there is no time for such childish pursuits. If I stop to smell the roses, an inner alarm goes off, warning me to move on to the next thing or raising my internal level of guilt about being selfish or lazy.

I apparently did not know the meaning of the word “saunter” during my four years living in Italy, but it was often right there in front of me. I recall feeling frequently annoyed at the locals, stuck behind them as they strolled aimlessly down the sidewalk – on those few Roman streets that are actually wide enough to have sidewalks. Somehow one Italian could effectively block an eight-foot wide space, always walking down the middle, often smoking a cigarette, and veering randomly to the left or the right as they sauntered along without a care in the world. Italians are not exactly known for efficiency or industriousness, especially the further south one goes. There I was, descended from neurotic Northern Europeans – and even among my own people bearing a legendary reputation for productivity and overachieving. Needless to say, I did not blend in, nor did I try to. I found ways to beat the system and accomplish the tasks I felt driven to do – but not without resentment and frustration. I could have learned some lessons from those Italians.

In truth, we cannot live as humans without sauntering sometimes. Our ultimate purpose in life is to abide with the Lord forever. Each one of us carries deep within us a yearning for rest. If we do not honor that yearning, it will find ways to express itself – often in fruitless fantasies or mindless escapes that do not actually refresh us.

Desiring our happiness and wellbeing, God commands us to engage in Sabbath rest. He rests on the seventh day and invites us to participate in his rest. Easier said than done!

I remember the summer of 1995, at the end of my freshman year of college. I felt a conviction that, as a student, my labor was academic – which means observing Sunday as a day of rest from my studies. I made the decision not to do homework on the Lord’s Day. I thought it would be incredibly hard to “get my work done” without utilizing Sunday. I was wrong there. Those adjustments proved easy to make, and helped me be more intentional about my time the rest of the week. There was no challenge academically. Rather, what surprised me was how exceedingly difficult it proved to spend the newly found time on Sunday in real rest and rejuvenation. I found my heart restless as it tried to indulge in various kinds of entertainment or pleasure.  My prayer felt scattered and distracted. It surprised me that rest could be so hard!

I remember a similar restlessness on many of my retreats over the years – worrying about “doing it right.” I eventually learned that the Lord would bless me regardless, and now I cherish my retreat days each year. They are one of the rare times in the year that I seem to feel greater freedom to saunter. At so many other times, there is something inside of me that seeks to sabotage authentic rest. It doesn’t feel safe to be blessed and to receive. There is a vulnerability in it that is so wonderful and so terrifying at the same time.

I think “sauntering” can be even harder for me, because sauntering still includes a certain sense of movement and purposefulness, albeit in a more carefree manner.  I tend to set myself up with impossible tasks and then always feel in a hurry, always under stress. I walk fast. I drive fast. I plow through tasks. I am disciplined and driven. In that setup, there is little permission to move at a slower pace, to welcome interruptions as opportunities to receive, to wonder at and delight in the amazing beauty that surrounds me.

These moments of sauntering, puttering, meandering – whatever the right term is – are so essential for me to feel safe, to be open and receptive, to notice and to care, to be in awe and to wonder, to learn, to grow, to be generous, to appreciate, to be grateful, to affirm and encourage others, and to praise God. I am so much less human if I do not allow space for sauntering in my life.

Thankfully beauty often breaks through in spite of my defenses. It sneaks in the back door and catches me by surprise.  At those moments I have a choice to make. Will I rush on to the next thing and miss an opportunity to abide with the one who loves me so much? Or will I be kind to myself, allowing myself to take in the goodness and beauty, to savor it, to delight in it, and to praise the God who gives such good gifts?

Jesus, teach me to “saunter aimlessly” and to learn to be at peace when I do so.

From Wonder to Wisdom

Childlike wonder is a precious gift.

It is so much fun to observe the awe of children as they plunge into the present moment. They exhibit an eager and relentless curiosity, whether exploring the flora and fauna in the backyard or dismantling their toys to figure out how they actually work. They burst forth with such intense joy during spontaneous play as they gleefully cry out “Again!! Again!!” They tirelessly yearn for the eternal in their experience of the present moment. They instinctively and effortlessly convert a large open room into a playground or an adventure zone. They easily overlook the expensive Christmas gift their parents have purchased, instead playing for hours with the large cardboard box or the shiny wrapping paper.

The common denominator in all of these experiences is a marvelous human capacity to be wholly and wholeheartedly present in the present moment. We do not need to teach our children how to do this; they do it effortlessly. It is hardwired into our humanity. God has put the timeless into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Sadly, the trials and traumas of life often leave us splintered and fragmented, and we “grown-ups” can be much more guarded about entering freely and wholeheartedly into the present moment. We hold parts of ourselves back. This self-protection is so sad because the present moment is the only thing that really exists! The past is irretrievably gone, no matter how much we cling to it or dwell upon it. The future is not yet here and is largely unknown to us, no matter how much we try to control it. Certainly it is wise to learn from the past and plan for the future, but ultimately the “now” of the present moment is the one and only space in which we can encounter the living God. All times are simultaneously and perfectly present to him. There is no before and after, only the “now” of his eternal existence. As the most unique of all God’s creatures, made in his own image and likeness, we humans are most fully ourselves when we abide in the present moment.

We learn in Scripture that the beginning of Wisdom is to be found in the fear of the Lord (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). The “fear” that leads to wisdom is not a cowering or groveling fear, and it is most definitely not the paralyzing fear that many of us know all too well. It is what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “filial fear.”

Thomas describes the difference between “filial fear” and “servile fear.” Servile fear is a slave-like fear, motivated primarily by avoiding punishment. This kind of fear can certainly be a strong motivator, but it is not what sets us apart in the image and likeness of God. The fear of pain or punishment is something that we share with all our fellow mammals. It can be a helpful beginning to wake us up or turn us away from a destructive path. But servile fear will not lead us to grow in Wisdom. Indeed, it is much more likely to pull us out of the present moment. From a brain science perspective, servile fear kicks in our survival response of “fight or flight or freeze.” In those moments, our prefrontal cortex (the higher and more rational part of our brain) goes offline as our survival instincts take over. Survival mode is great when our life is on the line. But it does not allow for childlike wonder.

Filial fear, by contrast, is what sons and daughters have towards a loving, benevolent, and merciful father. They cherish him and their relationship with him. They desire that relationship to grow ever more intimate and shun anything that would turn them away from that joyful communion of love.

Many of us still need to make the journey of maturity from servile fear to filial fear, a journey described so beautifully by Paul in Romans 8: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Faith is a gift, utterly undeserved. It moves mountains, removing any and all obstacles that get in the way of us growing into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Restored by Faith, we can rediscover an even greater childlike wonder, which leads us to true Wisdom. We can rediscover the spontaneous joy and gratitude and praise that come from abiding in the present moment.

What a special gift to grow into during this time of COVID-19, in which many are feeling bored or understimulated. The words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind:  “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

If we become again like little children, even the smallest blessings of daily life can become an unmitigated experience of wonder and awe in God’s presence. All is gift, and his glory shines everywhere in the creatures he has made. Those who become again like little children can experience it.

What are the cardboard boxes God is dropping into your life today? Are you ready to receive them with awe and praise and gratitude? What is holding you back from being wholeheartedly in the present? Are there parts of your heart that resist, hesitate, or bail out? Will you let the soothing balm of the Holy Spirit calm you, opening all of your heart to receive the glorious freedom of the children of God? It is a freedom that can only be experienced in the “now” of the present moment.

To Wonder and be Curious

This post is an important corrective and counterbalance to the previous one. The spiritual weapon of “talking back” (antirrhēsis) is indeed powerful in the moment of temptation. Like Jesus in the desert, we can willfully claim and assert our glorious human dignity and freedom. We can swiftly and decisively fight back against evil before the temptation has a chance to grow.

But what about all the calmer moments that precede? Jesus’ victory in the moment of temptation flowed forth from all that came before: being claimed as God’s beloved Son in his baptism and then spending forty days receiving spiritual strength through prayer and self-denial. It was his childlike dependence on his Father that won the deeper and more decisive victory. He came to the battle as one fully awake and aware, fully alive in his humanity. We who are members of his Body are invited to share in the same childlike trust, including the amazing human capacity for curiosity and wonder.

Jesus encourages us to become like little children. Every healthy human child discovers the power of “No!!” and “Mine!!” and “You can’t make me!!” Those words, properly learned and properly harnessed, can become wonderful weapons in the moment of temptation. Every healthy human child goes on to discover an even more powerful word: “Why?” What a precious gift it is to have curiosity and wonder at why things are the way they are. From philosophers to poets to scientists, all our greatest human achievements, all of our most shining successes emerge as fruits of childlike curiosity and wonder.

It is so easy to lose that curiosity and wonder. For one thing, it is exhausting to parents to hear the word “Why?” a hundred times a day. It is tempting to stifle children in their pursuit of wisdom. For another thing, it is incredibly hard to have wonder and awe in moments of trial or trauma. Whether war or abuse or addiction or mental illness, when our daily living environment becomes a fight for survival, we do not tend to take time to smell the roses or to marvel at why things are the way they are. We need to feel safe and secure to be able to do that. Jesus faced Satan with an incredible sense of safety and security in the Father’s love and in his own human dignity.

I have written before about the importance of getting down to the roots. Sure, we can lop off the dandelion heads time and again – they will keep growing back until we uproot the plants. This is especially our human experience if we are struggling with habitual patterns of sin or addictive behaviors. In those cases, we may find ourselves fighting temptation again and again. We may win 99 out of 100 battles, only to fall hard once again into the same sin or struggle. Certainly we can celebrate those 99 victories and not wallow in shame over the one defeat. But even more importantly, we can give ourselves permission to step back calmly, to remember that we are a beloved child of God (even in our moments of sin). Basking in empathy and kindness and grace, we can look upon our situation and begin asking questions, engaging that gift of childlike curiosity and wonder. We can begin to asking   “Isn’t that interesting…?”  “I wonder why that would happen just now…?” And so forth.

Far too often, we engage in self-loathing and self-shaming. I can think of things I used to say often to myself: Why do I have to be this way?” “There I go again.” “What’s wrong with me?” I’m sure that most of you have your own inner critic in those moments as well. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can shift gears, choosing empathy and kindness, and can begin asking questions with curiosity and wonder.

For myself, one of my most frequent struggles is to feel the urge to eat something even when I am not at all hungry. I have learned (sometimes anyway) to “just notice that” and wonder at it. Isn’t it interesting that I would feel the urge to eat something just now? I know I’m not hungry…

Actually, my curiosity and self-reflection (and talking to others about it) has led me to identify forty-two different behaviors that spring up in me during times of unrest. Some are more sinful; others are benign. All of them are ways of surviving and protecting me from feeling vulnerable and exposed. I am learning that it is not really those behaviors that I am wanting, but instead I am reacting to feelings of insecurity, shame, fear, loneliness, or sadness. These are learned behaviors that have helped me survive in the past. I don’t need them anymore.

I have begun looking at them as a cast of characters, as a members of the family in the drama of my interior life. When ten or twenty of them start showing up at once, it’s a sign to me that I really need to pay attention. Rather than running away, rather than becoming disgusted with myself, I need to reach out and connect with someone who cares – God, certainly, but also others in the flesh who can be a listening ear and an empathizing heart. These different parts of myself are not actually evil – they are trying to help me, but need to be integrated, re-organized, and directed. As the prophet Isaiah promises, a little child will guide them all – first and foremost with his wonder and awe in God’s presence.

This process is so counter-intuitive for many of us. Our tendency in the face of temptations is to run and to flee, and to see our habitual temptation as bad. Instead, we could look at it much more like an indicator light on the dashboard of our car. It’s there to get us to pay attention and look under the hood – calling on experts if need be. In cases like mine, that may mean reaching out to a trained therapist or a support group, in addition to a spiritual mentor and good friends. Whatever helps us feel safe and secure and rediscover the power of childlike wonder.

Our hearts are made in God’s own image and likeness and are very good. That means that even our most twisted fantasies or darkest thoughts, at their roots, begin as legitimate human needs and good desires. That means that fighting temptation is not our only tactic. We need connection and safety in healthy human relationships; we need to reactivate our capacity for curiosity and wonder, becoming like little children and in so doing becoming whole and holy.

Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.