In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Sirs, I find that there is seven spiritual illnesses, the which may be likened to seven ears of corn stricken with a mildew. By these seven spiritual illnesses I understand the seven deadly sins, pride, lechery, covertousness, wrath, envy, sloth, and gluttony. Pride destroys in man humility and meekness, lechery destroys chastity and purity, covertousness destroys alms giving and pity, wrath destroys love and charity, envy destroys joy and gladness, gluttony destroys temperance and sobriety, sloth destroys the service of God and all other goodness.”
From preaching manuals of the time it would seem that during the fourteenth century sermons on the seven deadly sins, such as I have just read, would not have been a one off series but a weekly event. Along with the many references to the sins in art, sculpture and devotional writings it is not surprising that we are left with the impression that the medieval church was obsessed by the sins and their punishment. This is epitomized, of course, in Dante’s great Divine Comedy where midway through his life Dante awakes to find himself lost in a dark wood. With Virgil as his guide he begins a journey of self-discovery, which will lead him through the levels of hell where he sees sin in all its vile, degraded and dangerous state. In his turning away from the horror and futility of sin he begins the road of ascent towards God. It is on this path through purgatory that each of the seven deadly sins are purged through penance. So the heads that were held high with pride are now bowed in a necessary humility beneath the weight of sinfulness externalised as cold and heavy stone. The envious, who looked with grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, have their eyelids sealed from the sun. The wrathful must endure smoke and suffocation just as the sin of wrath blinded their judgement and suffocated their natural feelings. The slothful, who cared for nothing in life, are whipped into constant activity. The covertous are fettered face downward so that they can see nothing but the earth they so loved and hoarded. The gluttonous who indulged on a high standard of living are purged by starvation within the sight of plenty, and the lustful are purged not by an all consuming but all cleansing fire. Only when Dante is branded on the forehead with the seventh and last P for penance does he enter the earthly paradise before his ascent to the heavenly realms. In his writing Dante is not simply producing a poetic masterpiece for entertainment, instead he seeks to take the reader on the same journey of self-discovery. For both Dante and the Church at the time, this path began with the reality of sin and its effects, a decision to turn away from it and the work of purging the seven deadly sins through grace by the practice of virtue.
By this point I am sure that you are rather relieved that we no longer live in the dark ages of the medieval period and that a sermon series on the seven deadly sins is a one off. But you may also be wondering what the weeks ahead are going to be like. Hilary term is bad enough without enforced self-mortification and a good grilling from the pulpit. Well, to be honest, I can’t say. I don’t know what our distinguished lineup of preachers will have to say but I do know that they were each horrified when I gave them their sin.
It seems that from an age when preachers could quite happily go on for hours about the seven deadly sins or just sin in general be it gossiping or picking one’s nose, we have ended up in an age when for many the prospect of preaching on the nature of sin is anathema. Similarly for the average medieval person the seven deadly sins were all around, personified in plays and art whilst to us I wonder if we could even name them all without getting stuck at around five or six. Now I would hate to imply that the medieval person was more holy and devout than us today but it does seem that whereas sin was a living reality and a cause for concern, for us it is often seen as someone else’s problem.
One of the interesting side effects of being a priest is that you are never “off duty” as the saying goes. So its often with intrepedation that in casual meetings with strangers you let on that you are one of those odd people who are professionally “holy” because invariably the conversation will end up as a quasi – confessional. This happened to Jonathan one day when the plumber called at our flat in the Rectory in Shepperton. Entering a holy house seemed to be enough for him to pour out to Jonathan a catalogue of things he had done, like taking a camcorder someone had left behind, flirting behind his wife’s back, boozing till four in the morning and so on, all ending with the general observation that he was a really good bloke who never did anything wrong. We may not talk about sin but sin is still definitely all around, and it will continue to have a grip on our lives and linger like the foul, degrading and distorting stench it is until like Dante we name it and reject it. Not as something in other people but as something in ourselves.
A man arrived early at the station to catch his train. So he went and bought himself a newspaper, a coffee and a packet of biscuits. He sat down at a table where a woman was already sitting, and started to drink his coffee. All of a sudden the woman opposite reached out and opened the packet of biscuits and without saying a word started to eat one. Now as you can imagine the man was rather annoyed by this and not knowing what to say picked up a biscuit in an obvious way and started to crunch it nosily. The woman took another biscuit so he took another one too. This continued until the packet was finished and the woman got up and left. Furious by this time and thinking a hundred different accusations at the barefaced cheek and wrong of this woman, he stood up and picked up his paper to catch the train only to find his own packet on biscuits lying underneath.
Sin is something which afflicts all of us but it is often all too easy to see it only as someone else’s problem and be quick to judge another of sin and forget our own. For this is the very nature of sin itself. In her Revelation of Divine Love Julian of Norwich describes a vision she had of the full extent of sin on a person. She sees a servant, noble and loved by his lord, who falls into a ditch. There he is afflicted by seven great wounds, which rend his flesh and consume him with pain so much so that he is unable to lift his head to see the loving and pitying eyes of his lord. The servant is Adam, everyman, who in this earthly life is wounded and disfigured by sin and the lord is God. For Julian the most damaging aspect of sin is that it stops us seeing God’s love and leads us to believe that God is full of anger and blame for our sin, that God looks on us as we would look on each other. Instead God looks on us in our sin not with judgement and anger but with pity and love, for “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved”. Julian’s revelation shows us how God sees us in our sin and in turn how we are to look on the nature of sin in ourselves.
Dante’s description of the seven deadly sins comes from this perspective of God’s love and he sees them as a perversion, weakness or misdirection of our own natural inclination to love God in turn. For example pride, envy and wrath pervert our natural inclination to love ourselves, to love goodness and to love justice. Whilst sloth is the failure to love any good object in its proper measure and especially to love God, and avarice, gluttony and lust are all excessive loves of firstly money and power, secondly pleasure and thirdly of people.
The most important consequence of this perspective of sin is that it takes away the power sin has over us. The emphasis is no longer on sin but on the love of God, no longer on punishment but on forgiveness. For Julian the cross is a revelation of the extent of that love where Christ, though he is the fairest flower of heaven, becomes disfigured like us and takes on the pains of sin, so much so that not even sin is now able to separate us from the love of God but, through penance, it can become the path back to him. So Julian is able to boldly say that through recognizing our sin for the scourge it is, by rejecting it and receiving Christ’s saving ointment of grace and love which heals our wounds, God can even bring good out of our sin and in heaven we will stand before him and the scars that we bear as a result of sins forgiven will be our badges of glory and tokens of love.
So may I suggest that this term as we linger on each of the seven deadly sins we do not become disheartened or shameful, but hold in our hearts the truth of how God sees us in pity and love, so spurring us on to reject all that prevents us from receiving and knowing his healing love in our lives. Amen.
15th January 2006