Publisher: Tumblar House
Publication Date: May 8, 2015
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In Sin Revisited, Solange Hertz tackles the topic of sin with a unique perspective for modern times, delving into the intellectual approaches of the Desert Fathers as well as St. John of the Cross. In Hertz’s own words: “Don’t expect to find the seven deadly sources so familiar in song and story. You’ll find eight, and even these won’t be in the same sequence most of us are used to. This approach is newer than Vatican II, because it’s so much older, if you know what I mean, very much older certainly than the old Baltimore Catechism.” Upon reading this book, a person may subtly undergo an examination of conscience pertaining to each sin that is being discussed. This book is designed to be a guide for spiritual perfection.
What is so delicious as hurling a well-chosen epithet at the idiot who just backed into your petunias? What can equal three helpings of marrons glacés? Or another fistful of peanuts? Or fornication, especially if you feel it develops your personality?
The trouble with sin is it feels so good. It seems to fill a real need. If it didn’t, who would bother with it? I’ve done a lot of thinking about sin here at the house, and I’ve decided to write this book about it. I expect a large reading public, because sin is one topic everybody knows something about first-hand. It’s congenitally fascinating.
If you decide to read on, however, don’t expect to find the seven deadly sources so familiar in song and story. You’ll find eight, and even these won’t be in the same sequence most of us are used to. This approach is newer than Vatican II, because it’s so much older, if you know what I mean, very much older certainly than the old Baltimore Catechism.
As our Lord said, “Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old” (Matt. 13:52).
Well, here’s what I found.
Thomistic theology, based on Aristotle, gave us an excellent objective view of sin, classified under seven tidy headings based on reason. Reason tells us all sin is a form of pride, so that’s where the list begins, progressing logically into the familiar avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, before ultimately bogging down into sloth. This is eminently true and trustworthy, as the intellect sees sin, abstractly, and from a safe distance.
Please God I’ll not fall into the sin of despising St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory the Great or St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa, just to name a few doctors of the Church who used this classification with extraordinary results among all classes of people! This view will always be valid for those who approach their problems intellectually. And who doesn’t at one time or another?
But there are different ways of looking at the same truth. Instead of looking down on sin from above, we can view it more “existentially,” much as a housewife watches her good Sunday dinner become garbage as she scrapes the plates. Sin may be described, not as the intellect dissects it, but as it happens in any given individual.
There’s nothing new to us about this humbler perspective. The Bible uses it almost exclusively. Our famous original sin in Eden, for instance, wasn’t portrayed dispassionately as grand, primordial pride. It describes our first involvement with simple gluttony.
Of “the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise,” God had said, “we should not eat, and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die” (Gen. 3:3). God didn’t say why. We had to take His word for it.
And gullible Mother Eve preferred to believe the serpent, who then as always, said there’s really no such thing as sin. She saw very well for herself that “the tree was good to eat and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold; and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat.”
And she gave her husband some.
Every infant begins the same way, through his stomach. And he does so as Adam did, through the agency of his “wife,” his human body. There need be no apology, therefore, for taking the biblical approach to sin, in accordance with the earliest tradition of the Church.
Long before St. Thomas and the scholastics, the ancient Church Fathers described sin in no other terms than those the Bible uses. This was especially true of those stalwart easterners we call the Desert Fathers, who grappled nakedly with sin in the inexorable solitudes of the Egyptian Thebaid in the third and fourth centuries. Theirs was no flight into Egypt in the wake of the “infant” Christ, but a calculated foray into an arena where deadly combats between good and evil could take place at the most elemental level without mundane distractions. They were following, they tell us, the example of Christ grown to manhood, who was led by the Spirit for forty days into the desert to encounter the Enemy at close quarters.
The doughty “abbots” Serapion, Theodore, Cheremon, Joseph, Anthony, Paul, Isaac and their companions will be our guides in the pages that follow, God willing. They learned very much about sin in their solitary battles, and we would do well to listen to what they have to tell us about ourselves. They are quite in tune with the modern mind, for they are very much more “subjective” than St. Thomas or others nearer to us in time.
As a matter of fact, they were master psychologists in the true sense of the word, well aware of many principles which modern depth psychologists think they have discovered. Intensely practical, their interest in sin is anything but academic, recognizing it as a real and deadly disorder which must be cured at all costs.
They are concerned not so much with its “why” as its “how.” They do not progress logically, but psychologically over devastated human topography, following one sin as it develops into the next as it does in real life, and not as it is treated in later ascetical textbooks. No godless analyst ever probed more deeply or ruthlessly into the human soul. Anyone truly interested in breaking himself of sin with God’s help will find their pages fascinating. Others need not apply.
Every datum they left us bears the mark of bitter trial and error, but checked and counter-checked by the unfailing light of Holy Scripture given in answer to assiduous prayer. With this divine guidance they never fall into the lamentable aberrations which self-propelled secular psychology is so susceptible to .
Surprisingly enough, they don’t begin their journey in Eden as we might expect. Their trek begins from Egypt, at a time when God’s people have already long been held in the bondage of sin and slavery. They begin, in other words, with the real and existential situation of a sinner today, as he is found. They are not concerned with the—for us—purely academic falls of perfectly integrated individuals.
Egypt, they tell us, represents man’s basic sin: gluttony Until Egypt and its fleshpots are left behind, we can never hope to enter the Promised Land and take on the seven hostile Canaanite nations that lie in wait for us there. These seven represent the other capital sins, whose opposition is determined and deadly, who resist being dislodged and often rise again after defeat. These must eventually be entirely exterminated.
But “thou shalt not abhor the Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:7). Thus Scripture teaches that we can’t hope to destroy gluttony entirely like the other seven, because food is necessary to us and our very gluttony has been a means of supporting our life, even as Egypt for generations supported the Israelites. We always take something of Egypt with us. The Abbot Serapion compares the Christian with the eagle, who though he customarily soars above the clouds, must descend to earth periodically to feed on carrion to fill his belly. The best we can do with gluttony is check its incentives and superfluous cravings by the power of the mind.
Gluttony springs entirely from within us, needing no outside help. The other seven sins, however, take their occasion from outside us and must be destroyed totally and replaced by their opposites, just as the Israelites conquered and displaced the seven nations of Canaan. Nor were these peoples displaced unjustly, because they were usurpers, sons of Ham, who had first dispossessed the chosen sons of Sem to whom the land originally belonged.
Here is typified very important doctrine, which must be grasped at the outset of any serious study of sin, namely that vice is not natural to us. If it seems so, this is only because fallen nature is the only kind of nature we have ever known. God himself had to become man to show us what true human nature is, arriving in our midst through an immaculately conceived woman. Except for these two models, we have no firsthand data whatever on pure, integrated human nature.
Judging by fallen nature alone—as secular psychiatry must, for instance—we are bound to fall into disastrous miscalculations, both theological and practical. Ultimately we accept as “normal” whatever the majority of us happen to be doing at the moment, driving us headlong into immorality by majority vote, situation ethics and endless ramifications of perverted judgment.
There are no Calvinistic tendencies among the Desert Fathers. They are ruthless and realistic, but confirmed optimists when it comes to believing in man’s essential goodness. Like all great masters of the spiritual life, they envisioned its progress and difficulties entirely in terms of the gradual restoration of the divine image in which man was created and which is his by right.
Because virtue is natural to us, asceticism destroys only what is necessary in order to restore us to our original condition. As our Lord said, “From the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). Perfecting human nature doesn’t lie in adjusting to the Egyptian environment we were unfortunately born into. True human nature is the glorious Promised Land we hope to settle down in after all the interlopers are driven out.
Exposing to view the symbolism hidden in the Book of Joshua, the Fathers tell us that the seven nations Joshua fought successively in Canaan actually represent lust, avarice, anger, depression, boredom, vainglory and pride—in that order. We note with amazement that the envy and sloth we’re used to hearing about don’t figure in the list at all. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but in this “psychological” classification, we have to look for envy lurking in the territory between avarice and depression. Sloth belongs both to depression and boredom. We may not have looked at them this way before, but envy and sloth are really pretty much intellectual concepts, abstracted from what really goes on inside us.
Vainglory, on the other hand, is given an area all its own, whereas the scholastics preferred to regard it as simply a corollary of pride. And we note that the Fathers conclude their list with pride, where the scholastics begin. In practice, pride, the ultimate rejection of God in favor of self, is the final end of human sinfulness. Only a purely spiritual being like the devil can be capable of it straight off!
The sequence in which these sins occur tells even more about human frailty. Our initial gluttony is naturally followed by lust unless checked, for undue partaking of food normally leads to undue partaking of persons. After eating the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve realized immediately that they were naked. Lust in turn ushers in avarice or covetousness, for the shame it engenders impels us to hide behind extraneous possessions. We seek the covering of things, just as Adam and Eve sought loincloths and hid among the “trees of the garden” hoping to escape God’s eye.
Doesn’t everyday experience teach essentially the same thing, that we tend to rely on what we have to cover up what we are—or are not? Isn’t this the underlying rationale of status-seeking? It springs, it would seem, from lust (whether conscious or un-admitted makes little difference), nourished by an inferiority complex caused by nothing more complicated than true guilt.
Anger soon follows, next in order. Covetousness automatically generates it when we can’t have what we want. Modern psychology calls this “frustration” and thinks it has discovered something new when it postulates that it produces feelings of hostility. We’re also informed that anger produces depression. But here again the Fathers got there first. Depression is next on their list after anger, figuring as number five of the eight principal sins. Wonder of wonders, have we ever thought of this complaint as sinful?
That depression indulged in is sinful becomes evident when we learn that it brings forth the next capital sin, boredom. That boredom is sinful is an even greater surprise. Obviously we’ll have to overhaul our thinking drastically if we’re to recover the scriptural direction on sin. Not only does it bypass scholastic notions, but it runs counter to many unchallenged professional dogmas. Try telling this to an analyst!
It follows, of course, that to overcome any one sin radically, the preceding one must be tackled. It’s rather fascinating, when you come to think about it. Controlling temper, for instance, by searching into the hidden roots of avarice could well lead into chartless psychic territory not explored for about a thousand years. There are roads, but they’re not new, and sadly overgrown. Returning to origins can be very hard going, but it’s indispensable for a fresh start in all the directions this subject can take us.
So far the sins mentioned are closely related, leading one into the other inexorably unless checked forcibly at some point. Also, they require the cooperation of the body. The last two, vainglory and pride, are in a class by themselves, because they can be entirely spiritual, and they rise all the stronger and more vigorous after the others are conquered, glorying in all one’s past victories.
“When thy enemy shall fall, be not glad, and in his ruin let not thy heart rejoice, lest the Lord see, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him,” warns Proverbs (24:17-18). Pride, alas, is the “sin of the perfect.” It’s the last to go.
After we leave the gluttony of Egypt, our enemies in the Promised Land are seven, but Scripture also calls them many, because each has its allies and satellites, its guerillas and undercover agents, its sympathizers and camp followers. We are troubled by them all, but each of us has a dominant opponent, more powerful against us than the rest, given our particular physiognomy and situation, demanding to be tackled first.
“Without me you can do nothing,” God tells us (John 15:5). The Desert Fathers never tire of stressing this fact of life.
When the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into the land, which thou art going in to possess, and shall have destroyed many nations before thee, the Hethite, and the Gergezite, and the Amorrhite, and the Canaanite, and the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, seven nations much more numerous than thou art, and stronger than thou:
And the Lord thy God shall have delivered them to thee, thou shalt utterly destroy them. Thou shalt make no league with them, nor show mercy to them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them. Thou shalt not give thy daughter to his son, nor take his daughter for thy son ... Because thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God ...
Thou shalt not fear them, because the Lord thy God is in the midst of thee, a God mighty and terrible: He will consume these nations in thy sight by little and little and by degrees. Thou wilt not be able to destroy them altogether: lest perhaps the beasts of the earth should increase upon thee. But the Lord thy God shall deliver them in thy sight: and shall slay them until they be utterly destroyed (Deut. 7:1-6; 21-23).
If God is for us, and we obey His commands, who can be against us?
All we have to do is fight. This book is a field manual. It doesn’t pretend to explore the “mystery of iniquity” at its deepest roots. Man’s heart, Scripture tells us, is unsearchable. God alone can probe it, the false claims of modern psychology notwithstanding.
All we need to know God has told us already: that our irrational and indefensible proneness to sin lies in a failure of faith, just as Mother Eve’s did.
At the suggestion of the serpent, she permitted herself to doubt God’s word. Did He really mean exactly what He said about not eating the fruit? Wasn’t there, after all, a more adult approach to the problem? Is there actually such a thing as sin? Isn’t it, after all, more like a momentary snag in our inevitable evolution towards our omega point? Doesn’t our liberation from Egypt set us free from old Judaic taboos?
There is no adult approach to sin. We proclaim our puling immaturity every time we fall into it. This book, please God, will not be such an approach. It’s for infants in the spiritual life, but believing infants who take God at His word. He alone can save us from our sins, let alone forgive them; but as St. Augustine said, although He created you without your cooperation, He won’t save you without it.
So here is some of Mother Church’s most venerable advice on how to go about cooperating, pulled out of her vast storeroom. Here is what we must do with God’s help in our frantic forays into Canaan. It’s not spectacular work, but like any common foot-soldier’s, it’s essential if you want to win, or just stay alive.
Now, before preparing to leave Egypt, shall we take a last dispassionate look at what we’re leaving behind?
Let’s evaluate ...
An established writer before the Second Vatican Council, Solange Hertz wrote for most Catholic periodicals and had five books to her credit, one a selection of the Catholic Literary Foundation. When she refused to adjust her theology to the new “Spirit of Vatican II,” her manuscripts almost overnight became unacceptable to her former editors. After a series of articles on feminine spirituality for the old Triumph magazine, she continued speaking for tradition by successfully producing The Thought of Their Heart and Sin Revisited on her own.
My second favorite of Hertz's books, only behind Utopia Nowhere. The approach to sin which she highlights, that of the Desert Fathers, is a unique approach that I haven't seen anywhere else. It highlights the interrelation of sins and how one begets another. For example, gluttony is related to lust in that "undo partaking of food can lead to undo partaking of persons." It has helped me identify roots of sin in my own life which I would've never seen otherwise.
I enjoyed this book so much I can’t wait to go through it again. The first section takes you through the Desert Fathers Eight Capital Sins (can you imagine Depression and Boredom where among them?) with an allegory through the story of Joshua and how he conquered the Promised Land. Whereas the Desert Fathers begin with Gluttony and end in Pride the Second Section which concerns Saint John of the Cross Begins with Pride and ends with Gluttony. The Saint John of the Cross section is less academic and feels as if I were holding a mirror to my soul, telling me things about myself I had kept hidden. The last section talks about “the night” or time of being tested as well as the adversary himself and his tactics.
With candid editorializing, spiritually mature commentary and insightful application the late Mrs. Hertz brings the essential moral content of Cassian's Institutes and St. John of the Cross' 'Ascent' to the average Catholic reader.
She is expressly trady. And pulls no punches on the current Church crisis and the state of things like "modern psychology." Be forewarned. Or get excited. I don't judge.
The book is split up into a first half which acts like a walkthrough of the 7-deadly-sins-section of Cassian's Institutes (which incidentally you should also read, and feel inspired to read after reading this book). There is an intro, and then a section by section breakdown of each deadly sin.
The same goes with the second half of Hertz's book -- only with St. John of the Cross and particularly his Ascent of Mt Carmel as the inspiration.
I say derivative but that's not derogatory. This is a great spiritual work and worth adding to your queue of daily spiritual reading.
This is a wonderful look at the topic of sin that, honestly, has made me think more than any other I have read. Hertz tends to write in a way that makes you think outside the box and this is no exception. It brings up ideas from the Desert Fathers that you may have never considered and would be great as a tool to make a really good examination of your life and where you stand with our Lord. The approach is so fresh for being so ancient. This one is not to be missed.