Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Seven (Deadly Sins) of Nine (Personality Types)

The worst part of the joke (?) in the title is, I'm not even a Star Trek fan; I just couldn't resist the (barely) pun.

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I had coffee with my sister today, and at one point our conversation turned to the Seven Deadly Sins and their intersection with the Enneagram. The former, as everyone knows, is a device long used by the Church to explain how sin tends to work; the latter is a personality typology system, obscure in origin but remarkably helpful in self-work. [1] The cross-pollination of the two has led me to a much richer understanding of what the Seven Deadly Sins mean, which in turn has afforded me powerful tools for the spiritual life.

The Seven Deadly Sins, or more properly Capital Sins, are: superbia or pride, invidia or envy, ira or wrath, acedia or sloth [2], avaritia or avarice, gula or gluttony, and luxuria or lust. Some confusion can emerge over these; for example, why aren't cruelty or murder or blasphemy on the list? The answer is that these seven sins are called capital, from the Latin word for 'head,' because they're the fundamental kinds of sinfulness, the basic motives by which we sin. (To call them deadly is thus rather arbitrary; a better alternative might be to say that they are radical or root sins.) The attraction of the number seven, so often linked to magical or mystical concepts and corresponding to so many other groups of seven in the Catholic tradition, doubtless encouraged the use of this model in catechesis; but this list descends from older and slightly more variegated lists of sins, which are themselves drawn from the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

The origins of Enneagram, as I said, are not clearly known. Sometimes it is connected with Sufism, but the Sufis themselves disclaim inventing it and their are Sufis who neither know nor care about it, so I think we can safely disregard that theory. Anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it's a helpful tool for self-work, and one of the ways that it's helpful is that it defines each personality type, not in terms of external traits like astrology, but in terms of the interior logic of the mind. And that, in turn, means that it is specially well-equipped to identify the chronic weakness of each type.

This post isn't an Enneagram primer or anything, but the insights I've taken from that system have prompted me to view the Capital Sins through its lens, and I've accordingly seen fit to divide and describe the sins in this way: pride (arrogance), pride (vainglory), envy, wrath, sloth (accidie), sloth (cowardice), avarice, gluttony, and lust. Here's what I take each one to mean, in Latin because you can't stop me and then in English for clarity. Do note that my descriptions here aren't necessarily what the Christian tradition as a whole has consistently meant by these terms—they're simply what I have found to be most helpful in trying to understanding the operation of the spirit.


All pride is focus on self at the expense of God and our neighbor; but we may do this in different ways. One way is to be so preoccupied with ourselves (whether in conceit or self-loathing) that we place no value in anything that anyone else thinks of us. A person in thrall to arrogance not only sloughs off criticism, but despises praise—at best they think it no more than their just deserts, and at worst, they despise anything that comes from others as unworthy of themselves.


This is the other and more comical sort of pride, what we commonly call vanity or ego. This kind of pride desperately wants the opinion of others; usually it wants their approval, but some rebellious psyches will accept or would rather have disapproval, as long as it means attention. Unlike adrogantia, which worships ourself, vana-gloria worships what others think of us; it is a very sociable sin (though not necessarily a pleasanter one).


The English and especially the Latin names for this sin are extremely beautiful as well as solidly traditional, so I was reluctant to change them. However, envy in modern English principally carries the sense of jealousy (though without its specifically sexual connotations), and invidia is broader than that: it literally means 'an un-look,' that is, the evil eye. Hatred of others' happiness or malicious pleasure in their anguish is one form of invidia, but this sin is, more generally, distress that other people enjoy things we don't or can't. Shame, self-contempt, and self-pity, even when not combined with malice against others, are forms of envy in this sense.


Anger is a fairly straightforward sin to recognize, but its inner nature is less well-understood than its manifestations. The key to ira is that it isn't simply an overflow of the aggressor impulse—however much that may influence proneness to anger or our style of expressing anger. Rather, ira is the soul's response to what it has determined (fairly or not) to be injustice, when that response is allowed to run amok rather than channeled by the reason. Righteousness, real or perceived, is always the premise of wrath.


Sloth in this sense is indifference: laziness, can't-be-bothered-ness, the dismal flagging of desire for goodness and eventually of desire in general. 'It doesn't matter' is the lie at the rotten core of this apple of the knowledge of good and evil, a diabolical parody of the innocence of our first parents. This, in Dantean language, is 'Love Defective,' punished in Hell (or rather, just outside of Hell) by its perpetrators being forced to run after a mutating banner in a changeless ring, and purified in Purgatory by a superficially similar ceaseless race. In either case, I suspect Dante was right that only a moderated yet unpitying discipline can get through the fog of accidie.


This is an altogether different beast from accidie. Cowardice can know and even love the good, in a way; its flaw is panic. Experiencing fear is universal to mankind, but ignavia gives in to fear and pain when it not only should stand its ground, but has the capacity to do so; St Peter's denial of Christ was an act of ignavia, as his rapid and thorough repentance shows, for if he had been merely indifferent he would not have been hurt and horrified by what he had done. Unlike its cousin, this species of sloth can (I believe) be reached best by tenderness and patience, tactics practically the opposite of those appropriate to curing desidia.


Avarice—sometimes called more simply greed, but avarice is a better word because greed can signify many kinds of indulgence—is generally thought of as the love of money, or at broadest the love of possessions and status. That's more or less true. However, like wrath, avarice merits a closer look. Where ira springs from a sense of righteousness, avaritia springs from a sense of security; it isn't merely the love of power (which more properly belongs to vainglory) or of beautiful things (which is really a species of gluttony, as we'll see in a moment); it is an addiction to the, ultimately illusory, sense of safety that position and assets bring. 


Gula is generally thought of in terms of food. However, it can be thought of (I think) more profitably as a preoccupation with pleasure in general, whether the pleasures of the palate or of anything else. Addiction to pleasure—in food, in sex, in beautiful objects, or whatever else—is much the same passion and works much the same way, regardless of its object. Gula is thus a fairly concise sin, if a difficult one for the vast majority of people to resist.


The name lust is in some ways unfortunate: in archaic English it merely means 'craving, desire,' and conversely in contemporary English it has an exclusively sexual sense (which, ironically, the word porn can reverse, inasmuch as something that appeals to any strong interest X tends to be referred to as 'X porn'). Anyway, lust is normally taken to mean a preoccupation with sexual pleasure; and while that certainly exists, I think we must be careful to understand lust in terms of human sexuality, which is a relational thing. Anybody who really did enjoy sex merely in terms of sensations, and not in terms of human connection (or the illusion of it), would fornicate out of gula rather than luxuria; luxuria dotes on the connection, wallows in romanticism, perhaps worships its beloved, certainly worships its relationship. Lust places people before God as gluttony places pleasure before him, or as avarice places security before him, or as accidie places nothing before him.

The Enneagram, at least as I've seen it formulated, doesn't actually use these nine 'capital sins' to define personality—for one thing, personalities aren't defined merely by their characteristic flaws, and for another, I wasn't the one who came up with the system. But I think this works as an illuminating way of approaching sin when we examine our consciences, both in going to Confession and in everyday life.

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[1] Some Catholics are under the impression that the Enneagram is part of the New Age movement, or has been condemned by the Church, or something else along those lines. Given how nebulous the idea of 'New Age' is, the former could perhaps be true, but not in a sense that mattered; the latter is simply false. There are irresponsible Enneagram proponents out there, some of whom combine it with other ideas or techniques that are less wholesome, but in strict fairness the same thing is true of the Nicene Creed. The best expositor of the Enneagram that I've yet come across is Beatrice Chestnut (although Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson wrote at least one fairly good book on the subject too).
[2] Also, in a delightful archaism, sometimes called accidie (AK-si-dee), or by its Latin name. Why acedia seems to be more frequently called by its Latin name than the other six, I have no idea.


  1. What's Bill Cipher doing here? :D

    1. Can you think of a better image of unchecked sins? ;)

  2. Love the Enneagram! My wife and I find it helpful for examination of conscience.