The deadly sins. We all know about them; some of us could probably list them:
Sometimes we know them by other names, such as “greed” for avarice, “anger” for wrath, “laziness” for sloth and “jealousy” for envy. There’s even an acronym, a word trick to help you remember the sins — but only if you know their Latin names: superbia, avaritia, invidia, ira, luxuria, gula and acedia. (The acronym is SALIGIA.)
Some of us may know about the seven deadly sins from the late medieval classic: Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” written in the 14th century. In the part of the epic poem that deals with purgatory, Dante envisions seven terraces. Each terrace deals with one of the deadly sins from which those in purgatory needed cleansing. For example, the proud are depicted as being unable to stand upright because of heavy stones placed on their necks. And the greedy are forced to lie on the ground with their faces pressed into the dirt because of their inordinate desire for earthly things. Dante also places “bad examples” from both the contemporary (of Dante) and the classical worlds on each of the terraces of purgatory. So we also find drunken centaurs on the terrace of gluttony.
However, while Dante took a lot of time with the seven deadly sins, he also focused — at least in purgatory — on the seven capital virtues. Most of us probably don’t know these as well as we do the deadly sins.
Sometimes these seven virtues are called the “contrary virtues,” not because they are “disagreeable,” but because they counter the deadly sins. The contrary virtues are:
- moderation and
Each of the virtues offsets a vice. So pride is cancelled out by humility and moderation balances gluttony.
Dante understood this, too, and used other examples to show the souls in purgatory a way out — up each the terraces toward heaven. These examples include Mary — showing a specific event in her life that demonstrated a particular virtue — another saint and a prayer.
So Mary’s kindness in her role at the “wedding at Cana” was used by Dante as an example. The prayer that balances out wrath is the Agnus Dei (“the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”). John the Baptist counters gluttony.
The word “virtue” comes to us from the Latin word virtus, which means several things including courage, valor, strength and character. Virtues in a religious sense are gifts offering us the abilities to become what God plans for us to be. Catholic ethicists Russell Connors Jr. and Patrick McCormick describe virtues as “good moral habits, affections, attitudes and beliefs that lead to genuine human fulfillment, even perfection, on both personal and social levels.”
Some virtues are God-given and come to us without any effort on our part. These “are the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls these three virtues “the foundation of Christian moral activity” and says that “they are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life” (n. 1813).
Other virtues have to be worked at — acquired — to be gained. These include the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance listed in the Old Testament Book of Wisdom (8:5-7) and drawn from classical Greek philosophy. These, like the capital virtues, are learned — with God’s help.
The catechism tells us, “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself” (n. 1803).
It takes practice and hard work to become virtuous. Even when God gives us virtues directly, we have to work hard to keep them alive and growing.
We might not be able to remember that acronym (SALIGIA) for the deadly sins —as we try to avoid them. However, we might be able to remember another mental aid to remind us of virtues over vices: The Lord’s Prayer.
Around the late 11th and early 12th century, it became popular to paint wheels on church walls — especially in England — depicting the deadly sins and the virtues that counter-balanced them. The prayer wheels included many pictures and colors — each symbolizing sins or virtues. (For example, red was used for wrath and lions meant pride.)
There was also the Lord’s Prayer, divided into seven parts and each part used to reference a capital virtue. So, by saying “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we would be countering pride — because we’re humbling ourselves and acknowledging that God is in charge. Another example is “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” which can help us counter anger. Saying the entire prayer, even if we can’t remember a particular vice or virtue, will still help us dispel one and grow in the other.
If we try to work with God as we strive to become virtuous, we will eventually become virtuosos at doing the right thing. It’s like learning to play the piano under the guidance of a maestro — we practice and God guides. Practice becomes habit and then virtues become second nature. We become skilled at the virtues — and persons of great character.
Sources: “The Divine Comedy”; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; fisheaters.com; deadlysins.com; catholicbible101.com; “Character, Choices and Community”; catholicnewsagency.com; “Seven deadly sins and English wall paintings” at the University of Leicester: le.ac.uk; wikipedia.org; “Virtues and Vice Lists in the Bible” at catholic-resources.org.