Saint John Climacus tells us to keep track of the extent of every passion (sin) and of every virtue so that we will know what progress we are making. We shouldn’t approach spiritual warfare—or any goal for that matter—haphazardly and without a clear definition of success.
Last week I briefly introduced each of the Seven Deadly Sins and in the coming weeks I will certainly delve much deeper into them and the practical ways to approach them. But this week, we’ll talk about the Seven Heavenly Virtues. The Seven Deadly Sins represent the sort of assaultive thoughts and actions we want to avoid, while the Seven Heavenly Virtues are thoughts and actions we want to pursue.
The Seven Heavenly Virtues correspond directly to each of the Seven Deadly Sins. They are the opposites of each sin and also the antidote to each sin.
(As a side note, since writing my introduction to the Seven Deadly Sins, I’ve found a helpful way of remembering them, which will also help you remember the Seven Heavenly Virtues. You can use the acronym PALE GAS.
Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice [Greed], Sloth)
In Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve have both eaten the forbidden fruit and God finds them out, to Adam He says:
"Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Many take this to be a punishment, but it is a prescription. A few verses down, God continues:
"Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" – therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken."
We were put here for our benefit. Acquiring the virtues is a great struggle and it is painful and that’s the point. Acquiring virtue is the reason for our lives here on earth. Not a punishment, a prescription.
Lorenzo Scupoli wrote in Unseen Warfare:
"He does not destroy all our passions (sins) at once, but leaves them in us, letting them fight against us till our very death, for just the same purpose, namely, to prove our love for Him and our obedience to His will, and to train us in spiritual warfare."
This is the game we’re playing, whether you want to or not. To avoid sin. To acquire virtue. Knowing that sin is denying the order of the Logos, the will of God, what does that say about the virtues?
Things which are sinful are not attributes of God. Conversely, that means the virtues are attributes of God. It is because we are created in the image of God and after His likeness that we are able to attain virtue. But we are fallen, our natural tendencies are not virtue, but sin. So we must work hard to reacquire these attributes.
What are they exactly?
In the same way that Pride is called the essence of all evil because it is at the root of all sins, Humility is called by Saint John Climacus the "mother of all virtues". Sins (or the Passions as they are frequently called in Eastern theology) are the result of disobedience to God’s will. Virtue starts with obedience to God’s will, and one cannot talk about obedience without mentioning humility. Obedience depends on humility, which is seeing oneself in his proper place and performing his ordained role.
To illustrate Humility and its effects on a man, there is the story of the lemon tree. When the lemon tree has no fruit, it lifts its branches high. However, its branches are bent low as it bears more fruit.
Patience defeats anger by suffocating it. Anger, by its nature, wants to accuse and wants to hurt. It is compared to a snake that writhes around in the heart, rises up into the throat, and demands to exit. Keep your mouth shut and it will be asphyxiated. Do it enough times and it diminishes or ceases altogether.
Chastity is popularly thought of as abstinence from sexual sin, which it is, but it shouldn’t be defined negatively. It’s not useful to say "Chastity is the absence of Lust". There must be a positive definition, and it’s this: Chastity is faithfulness to all things. The practice of all the virtues is the practice of Chastity because you are being faithful to the will of God and to your nature. Chastity is pursued by keeping vigil in church and in personal spiritual warfare, always knowing where you stand so you can know where you are being faithful and where you are not.
Contentedness is the culmination of desire. It is being content with your station in life, not wanting more or less than what is given to you. I recently reviewed Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a text on philosophical Stoicism, and this is a virtue where his philosophy really excels. When Marcus Aurelius writes:
"The impediment to action, advances action. What blocks the way, becomes the way."
He is referring to Contentedness. When a man is content, he recognizes that every moment, every obstacle, every inconvenience, every circumstance is provided for our spiritual benefit and for our salvation. What we do with what we are given, appreciating what we are given, accepting what we are given as divinely ordained, that is Contentedness. It’s about the present moment and present challenges, appreciating and partaking in the present rather than dwelling in the past or dreading our future.
Temperance is moderation in all things. This primarily means fasting, not only from food but from all things that sever our communion with God, from all things that do not help us avoid sin and acquire virtue.
Liberality is charity or generosity. It is freely giving that which we have received. Greed, as I wrote in Demarcating the Battlefield, is a disordered desire for material wealth, but also a disordered desire to control things. That’s because the virtue of Liberality which is Greed’s antidote begins with offering everything to the Lord. There is nothing we have that was not given to us. To think otherwise is to hope desperately for a level of control over things which we do not have. Liberality means being a cheerful giver.
Diligence is earnest labor, vigilance, godly zeal. Above all, it is watchfulness over one’s inner thoughts and fantasies, ensuring that they do not enter the heart. Disordered cognitions and fantasies drag us away from necessary spiritual and physical work. They induce laziness, and lead to despondency and despair. The best remedy is to keep watch so they can be killed before they take root. (See: Defeating Assaultive Thoughts for advice on doing just that.)
I will be addressing each sin and its corresponding virtue in future posts. It’s my hope that these will guide us in practicing virtue, defeating sin, and gaining apatheia, which is passionlessness or dispassion, a complete apathy towards sinfulness.
Moving forward, keep in mind each sin and its antidote. Be watchful.
More from "The Seven Deadly Sins" series:
- Fighting Sloth: How to Acquire Diligence
- Fighting Greed: How to Acquire Liberality
- Fighting Envy: How to Acquire Contentedness
- Fighting Wrath: How to Acquire Patience
- Fighting Lust: How to Acquire Chastity
- Fighting Gluttony: How to Acquire Temperance
- Fighting Pride: How to Acquire Humility
- Demarcating the Battlefield: An Introduction to the Seven Deadly Sins