Replacing Vices with Virtues


“As the other passions come to birth, we must curb them and make our minds tranquil; we must banish anger, passion, grudges, enmity, malice, evil desires, all licentiousness, all the works of the flesh, which, according to St. Paul, are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, drunkenness and carousingings.

It is fitting, therefore, to force out of our souls all these vices and to be eager to acquire the fruit of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, modesty and continence. If we shall thus purify our minds by constantly chanting the lessons of piety, we shall henceforth be able, by preparing ourselves beforehand, to make ourselves worthy to receive His gift, great as it is, and to guard the good things which are given.

(St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p. 36)

Meeting our Vices with Virtues

In the desert fathers, a certain St. Isaiah presents the temptations as something that meet us along the paths of life.  As we walk through life in the things we normally do, we can encounter these temptations which are looking for opportunities to influence us.  We have to be practiced in the virtues to know how to resist them.

“Let us remember love for the poor, that this love might save us from greed, when the sin of greed shall come to meet us.

Let us acquire peace with all, the humble and the great, that this might guard us against hate, when it shall come to meet us.

Let us acquire patience before all and in all things, that this might guard us against hate, when it shall come to meet us.

Let us love all of our brothers and sisters, without hating anyone or repaying anyone any ill done against us; for this shall guard us against envy, when this demon too shall come to meet us.

Let us love the endurance in humility of our neighbor’s word, even if this word should bring upon us hurt and derision; for humility will guard us against pride, when it too shall come to meet us.

Let us seek to honor our neighbor and not to condemn or hurt anyone; for this shall protect us from gossip, when it shall come to meet us.

Let us despise the cares of this world and its honor, that we might be saved from its bewitching evil, when it shall come to meet us.

Let us teach our tongues to be unceasingly occupied with the commandments of God, righteousness, and prayer, that we might be protected from falsehood, when it shall too come to meet us.”

(St. Isaiah, The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Vol. 2, p 38)


Virtues as Vices and Vice Versa

“… there are many vices that appear as virtues.  For example, greed disguises itself as frugality and wastefulness is thought to be generosity.  Often laziness is accounted kindness and wrath appears as spiritual zeal.  And excessive haste is confused with the efficiency of promptness, while tardiness is taken for serious deliberation.     It is necessary, therefore, that the director of souls carefully discern the difference between the virtues and vices so that, on the one hand, he does not allow greed to take hold of the heart of the [sinner] who appears frugal or, on the other hand, so that he does not allow another to boast of his generosity, when, in effect, he is simply being wasteful.”  (St. Gregory the Great, THE BOOK OF PASTORAL RULE, pp 76-77)

Sin Vs. Virtue

Colossians 3:4-11

 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.  Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.  But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
 The 4th Century Christian monastic, who wrote under the pseudonym of Macarius, wrote: 

For just as on the racetrack the chariot that takes the lead becomes an obstacle, pressing and checking and preventing the others from stretching out and reaching the goal first, so do the thoughts of the soul and of sin run the race in man.  If the thought of sin gets the upper hand from the start, it becomes an obstacle, checking and hindering the soul from approaching God to carry off the victory against sin.

But where God himself truly mounts and guides the soul, he always obtains the victory, skillfully directing and leading with expertise the chariot of the soul to a heavenly mind forever.    (Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter , pg 42)

Lust: A Grasping but Empty Pursuit of Happiness

I previously mentioned enjoying Abbot Christopher Jamison’s FINDING HAPPINESS: MONASTIC STEPS FOR A FULFILLING LIFE .  This little book is a wonderful meditation on the seven deadly sins and how they can suck the happiness out of life – essential thinking for a people who feel some federally guaranteed right and an entitlement to pursue happiness.

One of the book’s chapters looks at the sin of lust.  Lust, especially for many young people, is such a powerful force in life that many consider it an evolutionary force which cannot really be controlled but hardly a sin.  For many, lust like greed is an antiquated word no longer reflecting modern sensitivities.    No doubt some feel it was expunged from the language by Freud and exorcised from the list of human sins by scientific rationalism. 

Jamison makes the observation:

“Whereas sex may be about love but may also be about selfishness, by contrast chastity is always about love: a living out of one’s marriage vows for lone of one’s spouse; a faithful observance of celibacy out of love of Christ’s call to be a monk or nun.” 

It is true that sex may be about love, but not always.  It can be driven by selfish lust seeking personal sexual release without regard for whom one is with.  Converting sex to love takes effort.  Expressing love through sex takes self control and the ability to think about the other before one’s self.  Michael Gorman in his study of St. Paul’s soteriology, INHABITING THE CRUCIFORM GOD, expresses the same idea:  “For (St.) Paul, sexual immorality (Greek porneia – ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’ …) and cruciform love cannot coexist, for porneia is at best a form of self-love, of self-indulgence that harms others and diminishes the holiness of both the individual and the community.” 

Ideas about controlling sexual desire did not emerge in prudish Victorianism.  Christianity emerged into a Roman Empire whose sexual mores left something to be desired, or perhaps left nothing to desire as lust was given reign over people’s lives. 

“Yet the desert fathers and mothers lived during the decline of the Roman Empire, a time notorious for sexual excesses.  They made their choices not against a background of Victorian modesty but from within a culture that, as illustrated on the walls of Pompeii, was sexually uninhibited.  Their insights therefore spring from a sexual climate that shared some similarities with our own.  … How to be faithful in a sexual relationship is an enduring concern for every generation and, as we will see, chastity properly understood is still a vital ingredient in sexual fidelity.”

What perhaps is incomprehensible to some modern people is that in the world of the Roman Empire where sexual excesses were tolerated, many people were attracted to the purity, self control, and asceticism of both Judaism and Christianity.   People in droves abandoned their pagan license to embrace the divine love found in Christianity and the self denial it demanded when one agreed to take up the cross and follow Christ.

Virtues and Vices

Concerning external asceticism and what practice is better and primary,

know this, Beloved Ones, that all the virtues are mutually bound to each other.

Like a spiritual chain, one is dependent upon the other:

prayer to love, love to joy,

 joy to meekness, meekness to humility,

humility to service, service to hope,

hope to faith, faith to obedience,

obedience to simplicity.

And likewise, on the opposite side, the vices are bound one to the other:

hatred to anger, anger to pride,

 pride to vain glory, vainglory to disbelief,

disbelief to hardness of heart,    hardness of heart to carelessness,

carelessness to sloth, sloth to acedia or boredom,

boredom to a lack of perseverance, a lack of perseverance to a love of pleasure.

And the other parts of vice similarly are interdependent.

So also on the good side the virtues are dependent on each other and are interconnected.  

(Pseudo-Macarius; The Firfty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter)


Which virtue is most important?


Cloud of Witnesses in the 20th Century
Cloud of Witnesses in the 20th Century

St. Makarios of Egypt said

Where outward ascetic practice is concerned, which virtue is the most important? 

The answer to this is that the virtues are linked one to the other, and follow as it were a sacred sequence, one depending on the other. For instance,

prayer is linked to love,

love to joy,

joy to gentleness,

gentleness to humility,

humility to service,

service to hope,

hope to faith,

faith to obedience,

and obedience to simplicity.

Similarly, the vices are linked one to another:

hatred to anger,

anger to pride,

pride to self-esteem,

self-esteem to unbelief,

unbelief to hardheartedness,

 hardheartedness to negligence,

negligence to sluggishness,

sluggishness to apathy,

apathy to listlessness,

listlessness to lack of endurance,

lack of endurance to self-indulgence,

and so on with all the other vices.