Sad but true

I am becoming a scholar of the early Catholic Church, a curious fact, given my distress and anger at what organised religion can and does get up to. Anyway, the latest fruit of my labours (apple shaped since it involves knowledge that the early orthodox Christians tried to place beyond mortal ken) is the Seven Deadly Sins. So what about them?

First, there were actually eight. These were drawn up by Evagrius of Pontus, alone in the desert, excommunicated from social life and trying to muzzle his consequent desires. To those sins we have all had drummed into us, he added vainglory and sadness. Pope Gregory, at the end of the 6th century, removed these latter two and instituted envy instead. So, the final list is the work of the fevered minds of men (like the contents of the bible, the Koran, the Vedas …). It all depends on your belief systems, the degree to which you feel that God was speaking through their authors.


Anyway, back to the Catholics. Pope Gregory, in tightening up the vices, re-engineered the way that the church operated in those turbulent times. As well as refining what constituted vice, he saw to it that priests should be celibate. The reason appears to have been economic. If priests married then their wealth would be passed to their children and not the church. In order that priests might manage their celibacy, the move became part of the train to make sex a sin. Full stop. Soon it was for procreation only and must never share a bed with lust. Before this, lust was seen as a natural expression of male and female desire in Greek and Roman times and had none of the demonology associated with it that came with Gregory et al. Were they such evil civilisations? Only a lateral branch of ‘heretics’ or free lovers, called Gnostics, continued in the old ways, seeing priestly, public and group sex as a form of sacrament; that is until they were ruthlessly expunged and their religious writings destroyed.

But I digress. What interested me was not the behaviour of the Catholic Church, then and now but why sadness was regarded as a sin in the first place and then later airbrushed from the list along with vainglory. The latter seems obvious in that every time I have entered a Catholic house of God, I have been struck by its glorification of the material things of life. The gold, the tapestries, the art, the incense, the wine, the rich life of priests even in poor communities. Yet sadness…

It is a subtle and enduring emotion. Perhaps it was felt that sadness, caused by the death of another, or the loss of a lover, was an emotion which undermined the glories of the life hereafter. How could a truly religious Catholic, imbued with the spirit of the Holy Ghost, feel sadness? Pray and this corrosive emotion could be washed away.

I would have it back there among the Seven Deadly Sins instead of lust. Lust, as those who study the brain might aver, is the result of chemistry which, more often than not, subjugates reason. As long as it is not imposed on another and causes no physical, emotional or mental harm, lust should be de-listed. Sadness, however, whilst part of the mourning that comes to us now and then, should not be an indulgence. Then it truly is a vice. I’ll finish with a story from my own experience.

I was talking with an old soldier who lost all his platoon companions during the first world war. He was perpetually sad, even morose. Why had he survived? It wasn’t fair. I suggested to him that he should be living a celebratory life on behalf of those who had died for his sake. It was an illumination. He grasped my hand and went home. I felt the sin of self-congratulation.

The next day we met and he told me that his wife wanted me to keep my mouth shut. For her, the man was an embodiment of sadness. That was what she loved and what kept them together.

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