I like that Father John writes out his sermons and posts them on the church website — you can read this one here.
Before addressing the first of the seven deadlies, Fr. John speaks more about why it’s a good idea to study them. Just as carbon monoxide can enter a home without a sign and poison the inhabitants, so sin can creep into our lives and render us spiritually dead without us noticing. There is good news:
…it is often possible to restore to spiritual life someone who has been spiritually dead. In fact, that is the basic, fundamental Christian miracle: that Jesus can raise people who were dead in sins to life in Himself.
“Alive” is not an all-or-nothing category. Illness of any kind — emotional, psychological, physical — does not mean we’re not alive. It’s a good idea to strive to be as healthy as we can be in all of these areas, not because of fear or shame, but because we want to be open to the fullness of life. Some things — and I am so glad Fr. John put some emphasis here — “require more courage to cope with than others.”
There is also spiritual health. The spirit is not our emotions or our mind or our body but underlies everything else. It is what is designed to connect us with God. When our connection with God isn’t working right, it effects everything else. And here Fr. John says what I’ve said (thanks to Joe) about the consequences of the fall — that it’s not just a fracturing of our relationship with God, but with ourselves and with others. He adds that it also effects the way we work in the world and our stewardship of it. It’s a bit eerie how he mentions the integration of the self, something Joe also emphasized, although perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at such a reminder that Joe had no monopoly on truth. And I like his reminder that the word ‘eccentric’ means ‘off center’ — “having lost their true center in God.”
Sin is that word we use as Christians to explain the source and effect of our disconnection from God—the estrangement of our spirit with the Holy Spirit of God.
In the first sermon of this series, and again in conversation the other day, Fr. John mentioned how he used to look at sin as a moralist, by which I think he means he used to think in terms of lists of things to do or not do. I wonder what it’s been like for the folks who have been at St. Thomas throughout his tenure, to see his views on various things unfold, evolve, change, develop. Perhaps for some it’s been disorienting — ‘how can there be any truth if our pastor’s ideas about it have changed over time; maybe what he’s preaching now is also going to turn out to be false’ — perhaps for others it’s been encouraging — to accept that our understanding does change and develop, to not be too frightened when we see it happening.
Fr. John beautifully summarizes this introduction by assuring us that dealing with sin is one of those now-and-not-yet things. We have now looked to Jesus for life, determined to follow him in obedience and love, renounced sin and its wayward disconnections, and that’s huge. The not yet part is that we are recovering, practicing, learning, and not instantly given perfect spiritual health. Part of our work is the study of sin so as to more quickly notice and deal with it in our lives.
Traditionally the church has named pride as the root of all sin. Our culture tends to consider low self-esteem to be the root of our problems. The ubiquitous competitiveness of our society fosters a lot of this low self-esteem. Deeper problems, such as childhood abuse and neglect, contribute as well. (I was mortified to hear people laugh when he mentioned that people on Facebook have higher suicide rates than others.)
This is important — Fr. John opens the next paragraph with these words:
All of this competitiveness is the offspring of pride and the sibling of ambition. If we could restrain our pride, we might solve of a lot of our self-esteem issues, for the antidote to both is a proper humility —- as counter-intuitive as that may sound.
What I missed on Sunday was that he’s no longer talking about those deeper problems like abuse and neglect. He’s talking about competitiveness — the relentless comparisons and contrasts and judgments, the hopeless effort to be superior in all things, or at least not inferior. Not that competitiveness and the associated pride and ambition are easy to overcome. The “If we could restrain our pride” bit is not “Tsk, tsk, just stop sinning” but maybe more like “How hard it is — but if only!” The emphasis is on making connection between pride and competition, not on condemning those who struggle to love themselves properly.
What is humility? “[A] proper orientation to reality. It is the virtue of embracing and preferring what is real to what is an illusion.” This is what Freud named the Reality Principle. The opposing Pleasure Principle involves avoiding pain at any cost, even at the cost of living in reality.
What is pride? Inordinate self-love?
Proper self-love is the high standard by which we are to love our neighbor. Fr. John talks about the foolishness of thinking one has to master self-love before loving one’s neighbor; does anyone really hold to that false dichotomy? Or is he really talking about those who make time for therapy, who start saying no to a lot of requests they would have meekly accepted before, who look like they are withdrawing from their usual busy and ministry-stuffed lives? Yeah, that process of learning to understand boundaries, learning to be a true self, can be a long and messy one… who is anyone else to say what it should look like, how long it should take, or how much the person has to do to qualify as loving others?
He also talks about how loving our self is a proper response to the love of God, who made us and redeemed us. Again it’s not a “Tsk tsk, just stop sinning, get over your baggage, and love yourself already.” It’s a thing to learn, to practice, to aim for, to acknowledge as right and good. God loves our neighbors in the same way, and so we ought to love them as well. Proper self-love and love of neighbors is an antidote to all that competitiveness. (Dear little Amy struggles with this! She is so concerned about who looks the prettiest, or has this or that best thing, and so on… )
What is inordinate self-love? There is the solipsistic mistake of thinking our self is the only thing that exists and matters. Fr. John quotes an unnamed movie star as evidence; here’s just one sentence from the quotation: “The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your identity.” Even when people use such absolute terms as “the only thing,” we can’t always be absolutely sure of their meaning. Could she be saying that even the best relationships, the strongest community, the deepest connections, are not the fusion of like souls, but only a temporary touching of the edges? Existential aloneness — we are all, ultimately, alone. I guess it depends on what you mean by “alone” and “connection.” Anyway, this quotation, too, was met with some laughter… Is there ever an appropriate time to laugh in ridicule of someone, anyone, no matter how foolish they may be?
It is also pride, inordinate self-love, to keep distance from God. Somehow I missed this, too: Fr. John acknowledges, with a whole paragraph, how much negative life experiences can drive this distance-keeping — how much fear, how much distrust, how much need to defend and protect the self. (Thank you for that compassionate understanding.) There are also those who strive for or claim autonomy for other reasons more traditionally associated with pride — “arrogance and a determination that no one is going to tell him what to do.”
All of this inordinate self-love is not really self-love at all — it does not foster living in reality as the true self. Autonomy is a falsehood. The true self is open to, connected with, God. What can draw the distant to God and the true self? Jesus, who had real humility — living squarely in reality, including the reality of his deity and role as Messiah, without competitiveness or anything false about him. In the lyrics of Rick Elias, he was a man of no reputation — not highly thought of by many people, and not concerned about the reputations of those he interacted with. If we cared less about our own reputations and those of others, perhaps for one thing we wouldn’t be so quick to ridicule others or to listen to internalized voices of ridicule. To be truly humble, open to Jesus and to others, we would also be open to our own true self.