Lilies that Fester: Spiritualized Envy

If you haven’t read The Screwtape Letters, you should. In fact, click over there right now and buy it. C. S. Lewis’s harrowing look inside of the mind of a “designated tempter” (he’s just like a guardian angel, except . . . the opposite) isn’t just insightful entertainment; it’s more like reading an intercepted copy of the Enemy’s plans. Key to advancing in the spiritual life is to know, deep down in your bones, just what we’re up against. We face, in our attempts to cooperate with Grace, determined attempts at sabotage by the most brilliant intellect ever created. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem warned:
The Dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you.
We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.
As we scramble up from the fallenness we’re born in, weighed down by all the neuroses, habits, and rationalizations we’ve picked up through the years, blown hither and thither by the windbags who dominate our culture, the ground we walk is strewn with booby-traps. As we try to ascend from ordinary worldliness, our efforts do not go unnoticed. The cold Spirit who threw away Beatitude watches us like a scientist goading rats toward electric shocks. He’s driven to persecute us by a galling, eternal Envy of the happiness we were promised, which he perfectly remembers, craves, and hates. While we were still wallowing down in the mires of sensuality or resentment, he could snicker and turn his back. But as we clamber to the middle heights on the way to true friendship with Christ, we begin to attract his attention. Our cases cease to be cold, and our files are sucked through the vast, pneumatic ducts of hell to the desks of more talented tempters. That’s when the real “fun” begins.

For a certain type of Catholic, this is when his sincere outrage at the crazed, depressing hedonism that rules the airwaves and the Internet can screw him up into a Puritan, even a world-hating Gnostic. I’ve read ultra-Traditionalist authors who are so appalled at the modern West’s sterile sex-cult that they’ve blundered into heresy — like the elderly lady author who wrote that sexuality hadn’t simply been corrupted by the Fall; sex was the result of the Fall, imposed by an angry Creator to mock man’s attempts at becoming “like unto God” by driving him to rut like the other beasts. Needless to say, this writer trashed attempts by Pope John Paul II to recover a healthy reverence for sex; in fact, she rejected St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that marital union is the ordinary means of grace for the sacrament. Such assertions, she scoffed, were merely an attempt by misguided Christians to baptize the “pagan sex cults” of the ancient world.
To this, of course, the orthodox answer is that those very cults were themselves a perversion of the holiness God intended to attach to the marital act. But why bother arguing? We’re not facing here an intellectual difficulty but a spiritual snare, which captured the author and threatens us. Outraged at the sinful abuse of a Created good, she rejects its proper use — imputing evil to those who enjoy it. Married couples who claim that their lovemaking brings them closer to each other and to God she dismisses as self-deluded neo-pagans. Much better, she says, to admit that even marital intercourse is typically at least venially sinful (something St. Augustine said, in a momentary backslide to his Manichaean years), and try to minimize the damage. Close your eyes and focus on procreation . . .
A different type of Catholic traumatized by the sex wars becomes another sort of scold, using Catholic moral teaching as a scourge with which to flog men in general, and male sexuality in particular. Or the person fixates on various power imbalances between the sexes, and in the name of “justice” cultivates resentment — in just the way Marxists treat economic inequality as the tinder to start a class war.
Again, you can try to argue all this, and point out that each sex has its crosses, and the Fall affected each equally, but you won’t get very far. You aren’t dealing with bad ideas so much as wounded pride, shriveled hopes, long-treasured grudges, or the scars left on the person from his own or others’ sins — all helped to fester by a Tempter who learned that spiritualizing Envy is a surefire way to steer aspiring saints from holiness back toward hellfire.
The tendency toward spiritualizing Envy extends far beyond the bedroom. It’s common for Catholics who’ve climbed free of gross materialism, and tried to cultivate a Christ-like love for the poor, to lurch without even noticing it into a slow, burning resentment for the “rich.” It’s easy to snipe at the leftist academic who rants about his old classmates from college who chose to be stockbrokers, then shows up at class reunions wearing his Sunday worst so he can scoff at their snazzy suits. More insidious, and more to our point, is the dark temptation that drives initially well-meaning Catholics — often addled by the unprincipled and silly “social justice” documents churned out by hapless prelates — to set themselves up in judgment over others. Which is, as I seem to recall, one of the few things Christ specifically told us not to do (Mt 7:1).
We never know, really — unless he is running for president — how much of someone’s income he gives to charity. Nor can we tell whether the posh person in the next pew (whose Italian suit distracts all through the Canon) is wearing clothes he bought for work, which he needs to live out his vocation. Is it any of our business if someone who has worked hard and saved his money buys a house that’s larger than we think he “needs”? What possible spiritual good can come from dwelling on such questions, or congratulating ourselves for our relative penury?
At best, this kind of thinking tempts us to the deadly sin of Envy. At worst, it can lead us to act unjustly — on a small scale, by loathing our neighbor whose only sin was to succeed; and on a large scale, by adopting coercive politics that claim, in the name of “justice,” the right to confiscate other people’s money. I’ve known souls who started by trying to cultivate a Franciscan love of the poor, and even of the freedom St. Francis found in “Lady Poverty,” who ended up hating wealth and then the wealthy. From a holy, ascetic aversion to the snares of worldliness, they stumbled into a dark, malicious resentment of the consolations enjoyed by others. Caressing their moral superiority muscle in solitary ecstasy, they’re having far more fun than the hapless golfers over at the country club, whom now they hate.
Let’s remember which Spirit dwells in poverty, cold, and darkness, consumed by rage at the calm beatitude of the Saints. It is he who takes delight in short, unhappy lives attended by illness, hunger, and toil. Social and political programs whose origin lies in hell have throughout the 20th century helped spread these stern “blessings” to tens of millions who otherwise might have enjoyed modest prosperity. If you care to read about these people and their fate, you can look them up in The Black Book of Communism. Diluted, generic versions of this colossal, concentrated evil are still on sale at political drugstores, under brand names like “social justice,” “multiculturalism,” and “diversity.” We all know their side-effects, both for society and the soul.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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