Monday, October 19, 2015
The Virtue in the Vice
Order of Service - First Parish Church - Sunday, October 4, 2015 - “the Virtue in the Vice”
Meditation and Responsive Affirmation: “Books & Covers”
We ought not to look at a thing once and say anything definitively about it. For there are many layers to a thing. Every experience, every person, every moment has inherent within them layers upon layers of value and opportunity. How many times have you met someone and made a snap decision about them and why they act as they do, or say the things they say? How many of you have taken the time from the moment of encounter to wonder about them first? Likewise, we sniff in disdain at anything which does not conform to our idea of normative. But how many times have you found out afterward that not only was it a good thing, but that it was a miraculous thing? How often does it turn out to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing?
I am the book.
I am the cover.
I see without judging.
I hear without concluding.
I know without seeing.
I am love.
I am honesty.
I am compassion.
Sermon: “The Virtue in the Vice”
Evagrius Ponticus was a 4th century Christian monk and ascetic born 20 years after the Council of Nicea codified Christianity into a single approved doctrine in 325 AD. Christianity as we have come to recognize it was still in its infancy. Evagrius was an intelligent and ambitious young man. Before he became a monk he had risen to prominence in the church as a lector, then deacon, then archdeacon. He basked in the compliments of his peers. He loved his fine clothes and paraded them about the streets of Constantinople. He fell in love with a married woman and had to flee. He fled to a monastery near Jerusalem in an attempt to cool his jets but still the peacock, he couldn’t help but make a big show of himself even in the Holy City. But then he fell ill and as many do, Evagrius confessed his ways in fear of his immortal soul should he perish. He confessed his pride to Melania the Elder and she convinced him to renounce his ways and join the desert monks. Which he did.
Now obsessed with saving others from sin, Evagrius compiled a quasi-original list of temptations which he referred to as “impure thoughts.”
vainglory (unjustified boasting),
pride (exalting oneself, self-idolatry).
And that’s a dangerous thing for the Church, pride. That’s an idea that they kept quite prominent in the teachings and methodology. Don’t think too highly of yourself. Don’t get uppity. Don’t ask any questions and do as you’re told. Ergo, self-value becomes a sin. Can you see how that idea infected humanity? Pride. Another value-neutral word twisted into a term of judgement. Like selfish or wrong. How dare you have pride.
It’s hard to know for certain if Evagrius was obsessed with zeal about the sins of his own past. Being a fancy-dressing ladies man and all. But I bet he spent a special amount of time theologizing on lust, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius occasionally included jealousy on the list, too. He probably wasn’t all that pleased about the jealous husband of his girlfriend.
His list was revised a bit by a monk only 15 years older than Evagrius named John Cassian. Brother Cassian rearranged the order but also amped up the name of the list from Evagrius’ “impure thoughts” to “principal faults,” which Pope Gregory I updated the list two centuries later to from eight to seven which he named “deadly sins.” Even the language used to name the list becomes ever more terrifying with each revision. “Impure thoughts” becomes “principal faults” which becomes “deadly sins.” Ramping up the fight against human nature with ever more resistant language.
But what exactly are they resisting here? They are resistant not to the sins, but what are actually the symptoms of deeper human issues. Gluttony isn't a problem. Gluttony is the symptom of a problem. For sins are actually based on actions that prevent us from being in relationship with one another. These aren’t that. The ‘deadly seven’ aren’t actually sins at all by definition. These so-called sins are not the problems themselves. The Church would have done well to project (as well as portray) a more responsive approach to serving mankind in their words. To see honestly the root causes of these behaviors and heal them where they hurt. Abstinence is no advice for anything. For relative abstinence from harm is the natural result of increased love and respect of self. Don’t eradicate the gun, educate the person holding it. Don’t make a war on drugs, open a safe injection site that doesn’t judge but offers services when those who need them are ready. Which statistically reduces the crime rate in the neighborhood by the way because the addicts who use it are ones protecting the area. Maybe they’re protecting it because they don’t want to risk losing it. Or maybe because they’re grateful to the neighborhood who welcomed them despite their afflictions. Could be both. Open one and find out.
Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, Wrath, Envy, Avarice, and Pride. I see an old man who spits when he talks. Jowls and rage-filled face shaking as he provokes the very words themselves into retaliating against him like a pile of cartoon letters devouring him. And in Unitarian Universalism, to ideas like the seven deadly sins we have retaliated. Or have we? On many levels, perhaps most levels, this faith tradition was founded in angry reaction to spiritual injustice. Spiritual inequity. We resent the tradition that whoever has the most money and power gets to choose the gods the people may worship. There is a type of person who doesn’t respond well to that. They see through the sham a bit, and do one of three things: rebel, react, or respond. Sometimes rebel and react can be the same thing. For they are both emotionally-charged. The problem is that they are both about resistance. “What you resist persists,” as Carl Jung put it. But to respond is different that to resist. To respond is to listen honestly.
Reaction and rebellion are emotional responses to an injury to one’s pride, one’s personhood essentially. Our families and our safety become entangled with our sense of person, and reaction and rebellion are what keep us safe. Fight or flight. It’s where we begin to attach words like honor to the word glory. And coin phrases like the great rebellion. We give license to so many kinds of pride that the definition becomes so broad and muddy we lose its meaning. We lose our sense of the difference between healthy pride and a pride which prevents or destroys relationship. We give reaction and rebellion glorious and heroic names to perpetuate the meme of Resistance is Tradition. And resistance has gotten us where we are today. I mean that both ways. And you will possibly be resistant to this very idea. For resistance has an important place in our history. But so does response.
When we respond to something we are listening honestly to it. We are being deliberately nonresistant so that we may discern the deeper meaning. We attempt to separate the emotional state from the objective view as we try to decide what’s really going on here. When we are in a state of understanding we make better choices about how to achieve the optimum result. We are also in a far better state of mind to evaluate what is optimum. When we are in a state of angry reaction or rebellion, we usually define “optimum” as retaliation. Vengeance. When we get mad, we get even. When we operate from pride we are injured at the heart and we reply with rage. And there will always be situations where we shall continue to be like this. It is what keeps us safe in many ways. But when we are free to make the choice between an emotional reaction or a thoughtful response, taking a deep breath is always a good idea.
The word respond is also a noun, actually. Not just a verb. A respond is an architectural form. A half-column that supports an archway. There is an ironic poetry to the synchronicity of all that when it comes to talking about faith and covenant. The legend of Noah stated that God agreed, after the waters receded, never again to resist humanity or bring widespread destruction on the earth. As a symbol of Its promise God placed his bow in the heavens. To hang it up. One of the legends of the rainbow. A reaction uses a bow to kill and destroy. A response, however, supports a thoughtful and more loving action. One that through compassion, seeks deeper understanding first before taking action. One that holds up under pressure. Two strong columns, working together in agreement, to hold up an archway, a bow in the heavens, a vault, a promise. The life practice that emerges from this is the concept of nonresistance. If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em is usually the way I put it. Not do what they are doing, necessarily, but don’t resist what’s in front of you. Surf it. Make it work. Don’t resist, respond. Don’t take it personally, examine what’s really going on here. Listen honestly. Be mindful, remain calm, decide what is really best for everyone, including your adversaries, and then do what’s right. And like a good respond, support others when you see them doing the same.
What you resist persists. There is a tremendous amount to ponder about the idea. Except it’s natural to resist something we don’t like. When pushed, we fight back. It’s a deeply felt component of the American Idea. We stand up for ourselves and our neighbors. We conquered this land fair and square. Not discovered. Conquered. We resisted all that stood in our way of doing what we would with this land. But to respond is different. What if the Europeans who arrived on these shores had been a bit more responsive to the people they found here? What might our land look like today if they had not conquered, but cohabitated?
We celebrate resistance and rebellion in our culture. They are fiercely protected ideals. And yet the philosophy of nonresistance has also managed to stick around. This is what they mean by the famous advice of turn the other cheek, by the way. To turn the other cheek when someone strikes you does not mean please, sir, may I have another. It means nonresistance. Look to another answer. Turn away from negativity and place your focus toward what it is that you really want, not at what you don’t want. To resist is to engage the enemy and give it all your attention and energy. Stop giving them what they want. Because then what you don’t want grows. To turn away from negativity—which sometimes asks us to swallow our pride—and place our attention on growing and building mutually beneficial ideas and solutions; that is the practice of nonresistance.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi both understood this principle. Reverend King did not fight the law, he ignored it. He did not resist it, he behaved as if what he wanted was already true. He walked across the bridge in Selma. He did not set fire to it. Gandhi did not rebel against the British. He invited his people to walk to the ocean and make salt. Both of these nonresistant actions ultimately led to the realization of their goals. Somewhat arguably, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Remember, we throw anchors at destinations we can only imagine might exist beyond the horizon of our view, and then drag ourselves there with struggle and sacrifice. The dreams of Gandhi and Dr. King live on and find their gradual fulfilment in fits and starts.
Leaders who react are resisted. Leaders who respond are loved. When Evagrius began to collect together a series of temptations he called “impure thoughts,” it was a reaction to a problem he saw in himself and others. The mistake of Evagrius was to place the focus of the teachings on what not to do instead of what to do. On fear instead of encouragement. This list is an anti-gospel. The title of the list which started as “impure thoughts,” became “principal faults,” then “deadly sins.” As the language changed to become even more resistant and reactionary, what was once impure thinking became damnable behavior. Deadly. Literally venomous to one’s eternal soul, according to them. And how long have people believed it? It’s no wonder we feel manipulated and angry.
But these words, for all their flawed approach, were actually intended to guide us toward virtue; toward a better thought. But had they been worded as guideposts of aspiration, we might have responded differently to them. If they were a map of where to go instead of where not to go, we might have gone there instead. They just all got it wrong. And religion became the first bastion of fear-based marketing.
As I said before, Unitarian Universalism has it’s appeal to those who have reacted to the tactics of organized religion throughout the ages. But despite our reaction, our tradition has also encoded into itself a practice of response rather than reaction.
To these declarations of sin, vice, and impure thoughts Unitarian Universalism has, over time, mindfully responded to the highly resistant language of the famous list of Seven Deadly Sins with the socially responsive Seven Principles. Many of them are intended to accomplish the exact same goals as each other. But one uses the language of resistance and fear, and the other is all about responding mindfully to the challenges of this world with love.
Gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, avarice, jealousy, vainglory, pride. Thomas Aquinas believed that all these are related to Pride. When editing his version of the list a thousand years later in the 13th century he placed Pride first. For pride is emotional, and it is the emotional state which leads us to behave in ways that are not always in our best interest. Although pride is more value-neutral than its presence on the list of Seven Deadly Sins would suggest. Pride is always emotional, but not always bad. It’s good to be proud of one’s self for doing a good job, or displaying pride as a positive response to discrimination. That’s a healthy and loving way of responding to life.
The wretched behaviors on the list of Seven Deadly Sins however, are reactions to life. They are textbook emotional symptoms of loss, neglect, hunger, abuse. When we are harmed, emotionally or physically, we often react disproportionately to life thereafter. A child who grows up hungry—nutritionally or emotionally—may very well find solace in overeating, or sex. A child who grows up neglected, unloved, uneducated may rightfully give up, feel despair and hopelessness which appear on the list as sorrow and sloth. And we see the result of oversexualizing and abusing our children in rampant teen pregnancy. Lust is a self-image problem, a self-value problem. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often results in many of these behaviors. How do we respond to them?
The virtue in the vice is the opportunity they each hold for displaying compassion for your neighbor. When you see these things, don’t judge them. Send them love. Pray also for those who help them because that is their calling. Place your focus on the blessing of solution. Wholeness. Relationship. Restoration. And as a result, the interdependent web, of which we are all a glorious part, thickens.
Information about the history of the Seven Deadly Sins comes from the following online sources (all accessed Sept & Oct 2015):
Posted by Wil Darcangelo at 6:41 AM