envy & sloth

John of the Cross rounds out his discussion of the vices by examining spiritual envy and sloth.

In regard to envy, many of them feel sad about the spiritual good of others and experience sensible grief in noting that their neighbor is ahead of them on the road to perfection, and they do not want to hear others praised. Learning of the virtues of others makes them sad. They cannot bear to hear others being praised without contradicting and undoing these compliments as much as possible. Their annoyance grows because they themselves do not receive these plaudits and because they long for preference in everything.

Notice the way that sadness is a symptom of spiritual sickness. This is not to say that the Christian life excludes suffering or pain: sadness refers not to what we experience, but how we respond to our experience. Those who have decided to follow the way of the cross will indeed know what it means to suffer, but, in that strange paradox that is the Christian life, there can emerge from the midst of suffering a sense of peace and joy. I think of the words of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati to his sister:

You ask me whether I am in good spirits. How could I not be, so long as my trust in God gives me strength. We must always be cheerful. Sadness should be banished from all Christian souls. For suffering is a far different thing from sadness, which is the worst disease of all. It is almost always caused by lack of Faith. But the purpose for which we have been created shows us the path along which we should go, perhaps strewn with many thorns, but not a sad path. Even in the midst of intense suffering it is one of joy.

The last vice John examines is sloth, which causes us to delay, falter and even regress in our spiritual lives:

…Beginners usually become weary in exercises that are more spiritual and flee from them since these exercises are contrary to sensory satisfaction. Since they are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave — for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them — they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly.

John does not need to give much time to describing these final two vices, as all the vices are related. One almost senses that John has a certain holy boredom with all of these imperfections: nothing is very dynamic or interesting about sin for him, since he has already passed through the dark night. He is eager to move on:

It is enough to have referred to the many imperfections of those who live in this beginner’s state to see their need for God to put them into the state of proficients. He does this by introducing them into the dark night, of which we will now speak. There, through pure dryness and interior darkness, he weans them from the breasts of these gratifications and delights, takes away all these trivialities and childish ways, and makes them acquire the virtues by very different means. No matter how earnestly beginners in all their actions and passions practice the mortification of self, they will never be able to do so entirely — far from it — until God accomplishes it in them passively by means of the purgation of this night.

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