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A SPIRITUAL TREATISE

ON THE SEVEN CAPITAL SINS

ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS

 

 

Introduction

 

The examination of sin and its effects is relevant to every true Christian.  Anyone who seriously seeks to follow in the footsteps of the Savior must see their sin by the light of the Holy Spirit and deal with it through grace and mortification.  As the first “St. John of the Cross” has written:  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to purify us from all evil. (1 John 1:8-9)  The reality of sin is universal with the exception of Jesus and Mary.  The wise man says in Proverbs:  “Who can say, ‘My heart is clean, I am purified of sin?’” (Proverbs 20:9)  Even those far advanced in the spiritual life cannot declare themselves free of all fault.  “For the just man shall fall seven times and shall rise again. (Proverbs 24:16)  The seven capital sins have deep and lasting roots that will not be completely cleansed until we are ready to enter Heaven.

The fact that there are seven capital sins has a long tradition in the Catholic Church.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:  “Vices can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or also linked to the ‘capital sins’ which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great.  They are called ‘capital’ because they engender other sins, other vices.  They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia” (spiritual negligence). (CCC 1866)  A word about “acedia.”  Acedia is spiritual discontent and sorrow, a heavy and sluggish feeling of apathy, a soul bogged down by sensuality, the devil, or both.  It comes from a lack of spirituality and discipline, from a life of dissipation and ease, from a neglect of prayer and penance.  Acedia is primarily the spiritual affecting the emotional and physical, unlike depression which is the other way around.  However, depression (or simply physical illness) can make one more susceptible to the sin of acedia. It also makes one more vulnerable to the so-called “noonday devil” or demon of acedia who plays on our weakness, making it worse by his heavy oppressive spirit.  Unlike compunction or contrition which is a good and salutary sorrow, the sorrow resulting from acedia is harmful and evil.  There is no spiritual joy in lukewarmness, half-heartedness, or simply worldliness.  Spiritual joy comes from an intense spiritual life, to give one’s whole soul over to the will of God without reserve.  This includes a full sacramental life (Mass and Confession), personal prayer and penance (fasting), the practice of the Christian virtues (especially, humility and charity), and Eucharistic Adoration or prayer before the Tabernacle, if possible.  Finally, Sacred Scripture refers to the sin of acedia or spiritual sloth in the letter to the Hebrews.  In chapter twelve we read:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every weight and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.  For the sake of the joy that lay before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sits at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Heb. 12:1-4)

The seven capital sins “are the sources from which all other sins take their rise.” (Basic Catechism of Christian Doctrine, #325)  Here we see the reason why it is so important to see and become free of the seven capital sins in our own lives.  If we only seek to be free of the effects of sin, such as lying or swearing, and do not strike at the source of these effects, such as greed or anger, then we will never arrive at an interior life nor make much progress in the spiritual life.  The effects of sin are like branches on the tree of sin within us.  If only the branches are cut off, they will soon grow back in one form or another.  For example, we may become honest, but greed will still lead us to pursue material gain over God.  But if the roots of the tree, the seven capital sins, are pulled out and destroyed then the whole tree of sin within us shrivels up and dies and will never grow back but is replaced by grace, by the “tree of life” in paradise, that is, by the Life of Christ.  “To him who overcomes, I will give to eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. (Rev. 2:7)  To “overcome” the sin within us and be purified, we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit, “The Living Flame of Love,” in putting the “old man” to death, and in rising, more and more, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, to union with God above.  The active purification of sin (denying ourselves to fulfill God’s will) is our part.  The passive purification of sin (The Flame of Love) is God’s part.

 “Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city, and on both sides of the river was the tree of life bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.(Rev. 22:1-2)  Spiritually interpreted, this vision of St. John the Evangelist applies most especially to souls being purified of sin and united to God in the deeper spiritual life.  Beginning with the mystical life (the second part of the spiritual life) following the ascetical life (the first part of the spiritual life) the water of life, clear as crystal flows into the soul from the Father through the Son in the Love of the Holy Spirit.  That is to say, the grace of divine contemplation is infused into the soul from the mystery of the Trinity.  Through infused contemplation, the river of grace, we receive the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the tree of life.  The Blessed Trinity, the “Tree of Life,” bears twelve fruits that grow in the soul united to God.  They are:  divine love, spiritual joy, profound peace, patient perseverance, merciful kindness, moral goodness, detached generosity, gentle meekness, devoted faithfulness, humble modesty, disciplined temperance, and innocent chastity.  The leaves of the Tree of Life are the virtues, gifts, graces and blessings that God sends into souls for their spiritual health and well-being, their healing.  Poisoned by the Serpent Satan with the seven deadly sins in the Garden of Eden, we need to be restored to health by the healing grace of God.

The seven capital sins can relate to either our natural human life or our supernatural spiritual life.  For worldly unconverted souls, and even for beginners in the spiritual life after their conversion to Christ, they commonly concern human goods.  For example, one is proud of their looks or natural talents and abilities, proud of how smart they are or how much they know (intellectual pride).  For converted Christians, especially those more advanced in the spiritual life, the seven capital sins relate primarily to spiritual goods.  Here we find souls who are proud of their spiritual growth or good works, their preaching or teaching, their spiritual graces, gifts or spiritual experiences.  The great Dominican theologian Rev. Garrigou-Lagrange explains this in his classic work, The Three Ages of the Interior Life:  The capital sins “may exist under a very gross form, as happens in many souls in the state of mortal sin; but they may also exist, as St. John of the Cross points out, in souls in the state of grace, as so many departures from the course of the spiritual life.  It is thus that spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, and spiritual sloth are spoken of.” (Part II, Chap. XXI, B)  It is precisely this spiritual form of the seven capital sins that we shall explore.

St. John of the Cross brilliantly exposes the spiritual form of the seven capital sins at the beginning of The Dark Night.  Like St. Peter during the Passion of Christ, the soul becomes aware of its secret pride and presumption in a crisis of humiliation, dryness and darkness.  The Living Flame of Love, God’s Holy Spirit from above, begins to flow in and burn out the sin within.  We see ourselves in a new light, the Light of Christ, Who is darkness and night to the soul in sin.  Like the burning sun above that blinds the natural eye on a clear day, the soul begins to lose its human way of thinking, loving and living to receive “the mind of Christ,” His meek and humble heart, His Gospel way of life. (1 Cor. 2:16)  The seven capital sins stand in the way.  St. John of the Cross wants us to understand the need for a deeper conversion and purification after we have done all we can to overcome sin with ordinary grace.  The passive purification of the soul comes from a “peaceful and loving inflow of God” called infused contemplation. (The Dark Night, Book I, Chapter 10, No. 6)  As the sun gives the earth light and heat, so God gives the soul wisdom and love, or loving wisdom, in divine contemplation.  The Living Flame of Love gives a greater grace, a deeper union with God, a higher life in Jesus Christ.  This is the mystical life, the contemplative life, the deeper supernatural spiritual life. 

Usually the result of some crisis, cross or loss, the first conversion is a course correction in the direction of God and away from the world, selfishness, sin and Satan.  The passive purification of the soul in the Dark Night of the Senses is a reformation, the second conversion.  The passive purification of the soul in the Dark Night of the Spirit is a transformation, the third conversion, leading to perfection as far as life on earth allows.  The final “conversion” is a glorification in the Beatific Vision of God in heaven.                     

Like St. John the Baptist who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” contemplation must increase and meditation decrease in the mystical life (which begins with the Dark Night of the Senses or the second conversion). (John 3:30)  Contemplation is infused or passive prayer without discursive thinking or human reasoning.  Meditation is acquired or active prayer through successive reflections, thinking and imagining.  Contemplation is God’s work, although we receive it willingly with loving attention.  Meditation is our work, although God assists us with His grace.  The second conversion tips the balance of the soul in favor of the “New Man,” the new life, the life of grace, the Life of Christ.  Now there is more “New Man” than “old man” (the life of sin within, the old life), whereas before this deeper conversion there was more “old man” than “New.”

 

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