Correcting Vices with Virtues

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”  (Matthew 12:43-45)

Repentance has as its goal spiritual healing as we endeavor to overcome the sickening affects of the Fall.  Confession is not mostly about enumerating sins but rather about finding healing for our spiritual ills.   Fr Alexis Trader reminds us that in penance we are trying to find an antidote for our sins and the church fathers did suggest specific virtuous behaviors to replace sinful ones.  He writes:

“Ascetic tradition singles out eight principal bad thoughts that encompass and engender all the other sins that the mind can commit. The eight bad thoughts include gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. They are the conceptual analogues to specific behaviors, for “what the body acts out in the world of things, the nous acts out in the world of conceptual images.” Hence, the thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms as the gluttonous behavior of someone overeating, the unchaste conduct of someone having illicit sexual relations, the avaricious actions of someone gambling, and for forth. This patristic connection between thought and behavior links the subjective reality of the eight bad thoughts to the objective reality of concrete actions that can be observed and measured by an external observer. 

Furthermore, if bad thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms, their antidotes can also be framed in like manner. For example, in a text attributed to St. John of Damascus, the author notes that

“gluttony can be corrected by self-control;

unchastity by desire for God and longing for future blessings;

avarice by compassion for the poor;

anger by goodwill and love for all men;

worldly dejection by spiritual joy;

listlessness by patience, perseverance, and offering thanks to God;

vain-glory by doing good in secret and by praying constantly with a contrite heart;

and pride by not judging or despising anyone in the manner of the boastful Pharisee, and by considering oneself the least of all men.”

(Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 79)

It is not enough in confession to simply catalog one’s misdeeds.  If we don’t replace our sinful behaviors with virtuous ones, we will find the momentary gain of emptying our sins in confession is confounded by the fact that the same behaviors will continue and become worse.  Healing takes place as we rid ourselves of our sins by replacing bad behaviors with good deeds.  We have to fill our time and our hearts with good things or the empty heart will remain the haunt of our sinful thoughts which also are our demons.

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