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In the arid wilderness communities of Egypt, Evagrius was mentored and trained in the ascetic disciplines of the desert fathers. He devoted the rest of his days to the monastic life, becoming an astute student of the heart and its shadow side. Ironically it took time away from his life in the halls of power to understand the real power of sin. But what he learned there about the sin’s disorder and destructive potential is hard-won wisdom still available to those of us in public life today.
Imagining Evagrius’s work is like imagining what it would be like to be a chaplain or spiritual mentor for busy professionals such as governmental leaders and entrepreneurs. Imagine such a counselor listening to them all: idealistic rookies and seasoned cynics, those who feel like failures who can’t keep up and those who feel like untouchable successes. At weekly appointments such a counselor listens with discernment and guides them with wise advice. What if you did this with hundreds of people, for decades? At the end of such a vocation, wouldn’t you have seen it all?
Picture that counselor chronicling those conversations, identifying familiar patterns of temptation and weakness that emerged from experience and observation, along with insights into which therapies were most effective in helping people deal with their struggles; who among the struggling were most helped and why?
That’s a pretty good picture of how the list of the seven deadly sins began more than 1,500 years ago. As an apprentice Evagrius inherited a wealth of experience from his masters in those desert communities of Christian practice. He added his own counsel to their collective wisdom. He meant his list of vices—gluttony, lust, wrath, greed, sloth, envy, vainglory, and pride2—to serve as a helpful rubric that pastorally sensitive spiritual directors could use to help real struggling individuals. It wasn’t a catalog of the “deadliest” sins or the worst crimes against humanity. Just the most familiar, recurring pitfalls everybody deals with sooner or later. His books offered practical wisdom about how to live. The tradition called it “soul care.”
They helped articulate besetting problems for those who vaguely knew there was something wrong but couldn’t name or pinpoint the source of their struggle. Think of a patient who goes to the doctor with symptoms of persistent abdominal pain, wondering whether it is simple indigestion or something much more serious. The doctor helps the patient to name the problem. What is the underlying cause of the symptoms? Once we diagnose correctly, of course, we can undertake regimens designed to return us to health. John Cassian, Evagrius’s disciple, said that the vices list was meant to aid our diagnoses of “spiritual maladies” or diseases, which are then brought before Christ, the “Physician of souls,” for healing. Like a diet and exercise regimen designed to lower one’s cholesterol, the very methods used for healing certain maladies also make good preventative care, not only blocking the disease, but also building healthy habits for future well-being.
What are the vices? Anything that systematically gets in the way of our wholehearted love for God. Anything that is a close enough cousin to true human fulfillment to try to build our lives around. Anything that promises us goodness that we can engineer, rather than having to learn to receive it as a gift. It should come as no surprise to anyone what sorts of things will show up on that list—money, security, pleasure, power, status, social approval, the desire to be in control. These temptations are fundamental and perennial. When it comes to following Adam and Eve, we are like a broken record. So it’s not surprising that there is a lot from desert practice that translates well into our contemporary context.
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