Chaplain's Corner Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
The Eastern Church considers "passions" as dispositions to sin. In the Western Church they commonly number seven and are called the deadly sins. One of these passions, envy, is many times hidden or concealed behind a facade of false joy for the good others have come upon, but at the same time there is great inner pain and resentment in the hearts of the envious towards those they begrudge.
Envy is actually the last listed of the 10 Commandments, but near first on the list of its evil consequences. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's." (Ex 20: 17). The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon tells us of the primal importance of envy. It led to the first ancestral temptation, sin and its consequences: ". . . but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it." (WSol 2:24).
The Western Church Father Blessed Augustine described envy as a "diabolical sin."i Our Eastern Church Father St. John Chrysostom considered that "envy arms us against one another. . . . "ii St. Gregory the Great tells us that envy engenders conflict: "From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity."iii Envy is a refusal of charity, which is to say, of love, and is itself is rooted in pride. The pious followers of Islam see envy as an evil and will seek out Allah to be protected ". . . from the evils of the envious when they envy." (Sura 113:5).
St. Isaac the Syrian informs us that the healing of this infirmity has to start with cultivating such a great love of God that it overflows from Him to all creation. St. Isaac tells us we must emulate God by first interiorizing the spirit of His love: "He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen."iv
St. Maximus the Confessor counsels us to follow the advice of St. Paul: " Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." (Rm 12: 15). For this to be sincere it must be done without narcissistic "self reference." In Buddhism true rejoicing is seen as developing mudita, "appreciative joy," which is one of the four Divine Abidings. It is accomplished by cultivating an appreciation for something that is blooming, such a flower or a developing child. v
St. Maximus the Confessor tells us another aid to overcome envy is to realize that it is we who are responsible for any [spiritual] gifts we have received or not received: He tells us that "each of us is the steward of his own grace and, if we think logically, we would never envy another person the enjoyment of his gifts, since the disposition to receive divine blessings depends on ourselves."vi
In order to do this we must have a change of mind and heart, a metanoia. We must value the gifts of God's favor above the values of the world. Then we must see that God is willing to give us as much of His grace as we make ourselves available to receive. How? We must be God-focused, not 'others' focused. We must be guided by the writer of the Wisdom of Sirach (35:19): "[God] repays the man according to his deeds, and the works of men according to their devices." Doing this we will have no envy to conceal.
[i] De catechizand is rud ibus 4, 8: PL 40
[ii] Homily 2Cor 27, 3-4
[iii] Moralia Job 31: 45.
[iv] Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2000) The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
[vi] Philokalia, II