Solicitude: The Second Lively Virtue

About the distance of an earthly mile
we’d gone already, and in little time,
because our wills were eager – when we heard
Spirits coming our way, flying above,
heard them but never saw them, graciously
welcoming to the wedding feast of love.
The first voice called aloud as it flew by,
“They have no wine,” and so it made its way,
continuing the message of its cry.
Dante, Purgatory 13.22-30

Just as the heart-opening virtue of humility is the remedy for pride, so solicitude for the good of others is the remedy for envy, the second of the deadly vices.  Our name for this vice derives from the Latin invidia, which literally means the habit of seeing things twisted (the inner meaning of our word wrong) or inside-out.  When, for example, Milton’s Satan catches sight of the innocent Adam and Eve engaging in a passionate kiss, he cannot help but look:

Aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plain’d:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting!  Thus these two,
Imparadised in one another’s arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, whilst I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love but fierce desire
(Among our other torments not the least)
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines.  (Paradise Lost, 4.502-511)

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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We can imagine him there, squint-eyed, compelled to see and hating what he sees.

Envy is a kind of small-souled reduction of pride.  There is a vain glory in one who strives to be seen as preeminent among his fellows; but there is not even a vain glory in one who wishes that no one were seen to be the least bit greater than he.  Envy, as Thomas Aquinas defines it, is the self-indulged sorrow at beholding the good of others, especially if that good is spiritual.  My neighbor is affable; I call him a gladhander.  My brother considers well before he speaks; I call him sly.  My sister weeps when she sees an animal suffering; I call her a sentimentalist.  My friend crosses himself and says grace before he eats his lunch in the cafeteria; I call him a religious zealot.  Envy does worse than attribute vices to people who are not vicious.  It grieves at the sight of their very virtues, and turns those virtues the wrong side out.  Nor is there any virtue that cannot be eyed askance by the envious soul.  Ask our Lord.  He was a wine-tippler who cast out devils in the name of Beelzebub.  So said the leering Pharisees.

As always in Dante’s Purgatory, the work I have quoted above, the principal exemplar of the virtue we are to cultivate is provided by Mary.  When the poets enter the terrace where envy is punished, they hear voices overhead, and the first of these merely cries out, “They have no wine,” the words of Mary to Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana.  How is that meant, as Dante puts it, to welcome souls “to the wedding feast of love”?  What virtue does it represent?

That short utterance, so simple and yet so powerful, recalls the whole scene in the Gospel of John.  Jesus and the first disciples are at a wedding feast, when the bride and the bridegroom run out of wine.  An envious person at this moment would secretly rejoice, or feel a thrill of self-satisfaction.  “I knew better.  I told them that twenty jars would not be enough.  Well, some people just don’t listen.”  But Mary, solicitous for the welfare of the married couple, makes their plight her own.  She wishes to avert the embarrassment.  We can go farther: she wishes that the conviviality of the feast, a great good in itself, would continue, for without the wine the feast would surely break up.

“They have no wine,” she says.  What can this mean?  It is wine that gladdens the heart, as the psalmist says, and so her appeal to Jesus is more than an appeal to provide some practical necessity.  It strikes to the heart.  “I have come to give you life, and life in abundance,” Jesus will say to His disciples.  He has come to make our joy complete.  He is Himself the wine that makes the heart leap; the wine pressed from his own veins upon the Cross, and the wine drunk anew in Heaven with all of those who accept His gifts.

“Woman, it is not my hour,” says Jesus in response, and I have long heard it said that by this statement He meant, “I had not planned on performing any wonders just yet,” or perhaps that He was testing Mary to see how she would react.  But if we remember the bread and wine of the Eucharist, that wonder that the apostle surely has in mind, we may hear Jesus as intimating to us that it is not yet time for the broaching of that sweet wine of the sacrament.  What we have, then, is not a solicitous Mary and a reluctant Jesus, but both Mary and Jesus solicitous for the good of others, and Jesus then rewarding His mother’s complete faith in Him and her gracious good will for the bride and the groom.  He turns the water into wine.  It is not the wine of the kingdom of God, not yet; but it is excellent wine, as the headwaiter says, who reproaches the groom for saving it to the end, when, for half drunken revelers, any old wine would do.  Jesus, so to speak, will reverse the order for all of us drinkers of wine: every blessing we enjoy now will be but a foretaste of the liquor of heaven.

No doubt the feast at Cana went on, and only a few people knew that Jesus and Mary were at the heart of that feast.  It was their solicitude that enabled it to go on.  And this rejoicing in the good of others is one of the notes that should surprise us most about our Lord.  Not only does He deign to dwell among us and to bless us; He derives real delight from our feeble attempts to understand Him and to love Him.  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” He cries out when Peter confesses that He is the Messiah, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven!”  He offers to enter the pagan centurion’s home to cure the man’s dying servant, and when that brave Roman soldier says, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed,” Jesus marvels at the man, saying, “I have not found such faith in all of Israel!”  Of John the Baptist He says that no greater man has ever been born of woman, yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.  He compares His father to the man who threw a great feast when his wayward son had returned to him, and to a woman who invited her neighbors over to rejoice with her when she found her lost coin.  We know, in worldly terms, what that prodigal son was worth – we hear it from the elder son himself, caught in sorrow at his brother’s spiritual blessing.  The boy was a shiftless and ungrateful wretch who squandered his father’s wealth on drunkenness and whoring.  We may guess that the coin the woman found would have been as nothing to a Herod or a Pilate.  Nor is a single sheep lost in the wilderness worth any great deal.  But Jesus the Good Shepherd, rejoicing, carries that lost sheep home upon His shoulders.

How difficult this virtue is to practice!  The hedonist is not only the man who steeps himself in pleasures of the belly or the flesh.  The hedonist may be quite austere – Epicurus himself was, who lent his name to the pursuit of one’s own pleasure.  But when we are truly solicitous for the blessings of other people, then and only then do we begin to hear the singing and the laughter of the feast, as from a castle upon a great height.  Then we join our fellows, and say with the psalmist, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’”


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