By Mary Eberstadt
I was sitting in an unfamiliar church somewhere in Connecticut last weekend, watching one of our teenagers fidget throughout the homily.
I couldn’t blame her. The sermon was poor. It was pitched unseemly low, and meandered mightily. And with every long and winding paragraph, every phrase unconnected to the day’s readings or anything else, my exasperation also climbed. Why can’t our homilies have more meat in them? I wondered as the thing went on. Why don’t we hear about something interesting from the pulpit once in a while — like, say, the seven deadly sins?
As often happens, my peevishness boomeranged back in the dreaded words: Do it yourself. And following that inspiration — unwanted in-spiration, to be sure, but writers are lazy and take it wherever we can get it — today’s column begins a series, to be published every other week on these pages.
In the series, we’ll briefly revisit each of the seven deadly sins — hereinafter, the “Deadlies” for short — in light of some current event or pulse of the Zeitgeist.
Let’s start arbitrarily with the one that’s occupying my mind this week: Envy. Re-cently, a prominent friend of ours fell from public grace. Like numerous other people involved in finance lately, he lost his executive position in this troubled global market. I don’t know much about business, or whether he was sacked for good reason or bad; that call — as our president said about abortion during the 2008 election campaign — is beyond my pay grade.
What I know, and what readers might want to reflect on, too, is the generic media ritual that attends the fall of any prominent person these days, deserved or not — the envy-driven, lip-smacking, finger-pointing, slobbering public feeding frenzy that people of power and influence have to look forward to should their hold on those commodities ever loosen. A rich man! With a big house! Who goes to a country club!
Suddenly, everything about the lives of such people becomes public fodder, and the envy of it just can’t be missed. Suddenly, the woodwork crawls with wannabe pundits taking potshots and lobbing smears — including people who were holding doors and fetching coffee and otherwise fawning and flattering and enjoying the limelight of these alpha guys right up till the day before yesterday.
Watching this public spectacle with the eyes of a friend rather than those of a voyeur makes one thing marvelously clear. Envy, a capital sin, runs riot in America — and with no penalty. Never mind the virtues that catapulted anyone to such heights in the first place, or the good works for which many are known. You won’t be hearing about any of that, because the envy tantrum is infinitely more gratifying to our baser selves.
Such are the current rules of envy, American-style, and they bear plenty more inspection than we Christians usually give them. The world loves a fall from higher up the ladder for the reasons Tom Wolfe painted in his “The Bonfire of the Vanities”: Because many people lower down envy what those higher-ups have.
The world loves a fall for the same reason that Herman Melville has Claggart rubbing his hands and bringing down the title character in “Billy Budd”: not because Claggart lacks a conscience, exactly, but because his conscience is “the lawyer to his will.” And so are our consciences our lawyers today, when we envy and rejoice in the misfortunes of the envied — all without so much as a twinge of conscience over our coveting.
Admittedly, envy is not the showiest of the deadly sins. It doesn’t fly through the air like lust, say, or bare its fangs in public like anger. No, this little viper is content to hide coiled at the bottom of your throat — arching just enough from time to time to choke a little, and remind you who’s really in charge.
Such insidiousness is envy’s calling card. Maybe that’s why fully two commandments warn against covetousness — no other Deadly gets as many — and why the Nazarene himself had a thing or two or 20 to say about it.
Also unlike the other Deadlies, this one wears two faces rather than one. Dante nicely captures the dual nature of envy in the “Purgatorio,” sewing the eyes of the envious shut with wire — fitting punishment both for resenting the good fortunes of others, and for rejoicing in seeing such people brought down.
Fellow Christians: So what if your neighbor is rich? So what if he or she went to a better school than you did, has a cuter husband or wife, is admired by more people, drives a car snazzier than yours?
In our theology, to be perfectly bookish and technical about it, the rest of us just aren’t supposed to give a damn. Think about that the next time someone rich denounces someone who’s even richer on television, or as a camera chases someone else’s kids down the street to their nice school.
You may object that envy is simply human nature, but that telling formulation misses the religious mark. All the Deadlies have their roots in human nature; since when are Christians told to rest our laurels there? The answer is that we aren’t.
Thus endeth today’s lesson. And now let’s all look in the mirror for that beam.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things and author of “The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism,” forthcoming from Ignatius Press. This column was adapted from a series that originally appeared on The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org).
Just as antivenin counteracts the poison of a snakebite, a virtue extolled by saints throughout the centuries fends off the deleterious effects of envy. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we should train ourselves to live in humility and seek to be poor in spirit, following the example of Christ himself (see Nos. 2540, 2546).
“Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother’s progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised.”
— St. John Chrysostom in his “Homily on Romans”
“From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity.”
— St. Gregory the Great
“We fight one another and envy arms us against one another. ... If everyone strives to unsettle the Body of Christ, where shall we end up? We are engaged in making Christ’s body a corpse. ... We declare ourselves members of one and the same organism, yet we devour one another like beasts.”
— St. John Chrysostom in his “Homily on Corinthians”
“ Through the envy of the devil, death entered into the world; and also through envy we kill our neighbor; by dint of malice, of falsehood, we make him lose his reputation, his place. ... Good Christians ... envy no one; they love their neighbor; they rejoice at the good that happens to him, and they weep with him if any misfortune comes upon him. How happy should we be if we were good Christians. Ah! my children, let us, then be good Christians and we shall no more envy the good fortune of our neighbor; we shall never speak evil of him; we shall enjoy a sweet peace; our soul will be calm, we shall find paradise on earth.”
— St. John Vianney
“Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to heaven.”
— St. Ephraem the Syrian
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