Eighth in a Series on Catholic Morals
Fr. John H. Stapleton
Gerard van der Kuijl (1604-1673)
You can never cure a disease till you get at the seat or root of the evil. It will not do to attack the several manifestations that appear on the surface, the aches and pains and attendant disorders. You must attack the affected organ, cut out the root of the evil growth, and kill the obnoxious germ. There is no other permanent remedy; until this is done, all relief is but temporary.
And if we desire to remove the distemper of sin, similarly it is necessary to seek out the root of all sin. We can lay our finger on it at once; it is inordinate self-love.
Ask yourself why you broke this or that commandment. It is because it forbade you a satisfaction that you coveted, a satisfaction that your self-love imperiously demanded; or it is because it prescribed an act that cost an effort, and you loved yourself too much to make that effort. Examine every failing, little or great, and you will trace them back to the same source. If we thought more of God and less of ourselves we would never sin. The sinner lives for himself first, and for God afterwards.
Strange that such a sacred thing as love, the source of all good, may thus, by abuse, become the fountainhead of all evil! Perhaps, if it were not so sacred and prolific of good, its excess would not be so unholy. But the higher you stand when you tumble, the greater the fall; so the better a thing is in itself, the more abominable is its abuse. Love directed aright, towards God first, is the fulfillment of the Law; love misdirected is the very destruction of all law.
Yet it is not wrong to love oneself; that is the first law of nature. One, and one only being, the Maker, are we bound to love more than ourselves. The neighbor is to be loved as ourselves. And if our just interests conflict with his, if our rights and his are opposed to each other, there is no legitimate means but we may employ to obtain or secure what is rightly ours. The evil of self-love lies in its abuse and excess, in that it goes beyond the limits set by God and nature, that it puts unjustly our interests before God's and the neighbor's, and that to self it sacrifices them and all that pertains to them. Self, the "ego," is the idol before which all must bow.
Self-love, on an evil day, in the garden of Eden, wedded sin, Satan himself officiating under the disguise of a serpent; and she gave birth to seven daughters like unto herself, who in turn became fruitful mothers of iniquity. Haughty Pride, first-born and queen among her sisters, is inordinate love of one's worth and excellence, talents and beauty; sordid Avarice or Covetousness is excessive love of riches; loathsome Lust is the third, and loves carnal pleasures without regard for the law; fiery Anger, a counterpart of pride, is love rejected but seeking blindly to remedy the loss; bestial Gluttony worships the stomach; green-eyed Envy is hate for wealth and happiness denied; finally Sloth loves bodily ease and comfort to excess. The infamous brood! These parents of all iniquity are called the seven deadly sins. They assume the leadership of evil in the world and are the seven arms of Satan.
As it becomes their dignity, these vices never walk alone or go unattended, and that is the desperate feature of their malice. Each has a cortège of passions, a whole train of inferior minions, that accompany or follow. Once entrance is gained and a free hand is given, there is no telling the result. Once seated and secure, the passion seeks to satisfy itself; that is its business. Certain means are required to this end, and these means can be procured only by sinning. Obstacles often stand in the way and new sins furnish steps to vault over, or implements to batter them down. Intricate and difficult conditions frequently arise as the result of self-indulgence, out of which there is no exit but by fresh sins. Hence the long train of crimes led by one deadly sin towards the goal of its satisfaction, and hence the havoc wrought by its untrammeled working in a human soul.
This may seem exaggerated to some; others it may mislead as to the true nature of the deadly sins, unless it be dearly put forth in what their malice consists. Deadly sins are not, in the first place, in themselves, sins; they are vices, passions, inclinations or tendencies to sin, and we know that a vice is not necessarily sinful. Our first parents bequeathed to us as an inheritance these germs of misery and sin. We are all in a greater or lesser degree prone to excess and to desire unlawful pleasures. Yet, for all that, we do not of necessity sin. We sin when we yield to these tendencies and do what they suggest. The simple proneness to evil, devoid of all willful yielding is therefore not wrong. Why? Because we cannot help it; that is a good and sufficient reason.
These passions may lie dormant in our nature without soliciting to evil; they may, at any moment, awake to action with or without provocation. The sight of an enemy or the thought of a wrong may stir up anger; pride may be aroused by flattery, applause or even compliments; the demon of lust may make its presence known and felt for a good reason, for a slight reason, or for no reason at all; gluttony shows its head at the sight of food or drink, etc.
He who deliberately and without reason arouses a passion, and thus exposes himself imprudently to an assault of concupiscence, is grievously guilty; for it is to trifle with a powerful and dangerous enemy and it betokens indifference to the soul's salvation.
Suggestions, seductions, allurements follow upon the awakening of these passions. When the array of these forces comes in contact with the will, the struggle is on; it is called temptation. Warfare is the natural state of man on earth. Without it, the world here below would be a paradise, but life would be without merit.
In this unprovoked and righteous battle with sin, the only evil to be apprehended is the danger of yielding. But far from being sinful, the greater the danger, the more meritorious the struggle. It matters not what we experience while fighting the enemy. Imagination and sensation that solicit to yielding, anxiety of mind and discouragement, to all this there is no wrong attached, but merit.
Right or wrong depends on the outcome. Every struggle ends in victory or defeat for one party and in temptation there is sin only in defeat. A single act of the will decides. It matters not how long the struggle lasts; if the will does not capitulate, there is no sin.
This resistance demands plenty of energy, a soul inured to like combats and an ample provision of weapons of defense - faith, hatred of sin, love of God. Prayer is essential. Flight is the safest means, but is not always possible. Humility and self-denial are an excellent, even necessary, preparation for assured victory.
No man need expect to make himself proof against temptation. It is not a sign of weakness; or if so, it is a weakness common to all men. There is weakness only in defeat, and cowardice as well. The gallant and strong are they who fight manfully. Manful resistance means victory, and victory makes one stronger and invincible, while defeat at every repetition places victory farther and farther beyond our reach.
Success requires more than strength, it requires wisdom, the wisdom to single out the particular passion that predominates in us, to study its artifices and by remote preparation to make ourselves secure against its assaults. The leader thus exposed and its power for evil reduced to a minimum, it will be comparatively easy to hold in check all other dependent passions.