Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner.
When I was a child I was quite devout. I confess I can see now an element of paganism to it all: take me to a circle of granite ‘dancers’ petrified by God’s curse and I would happily jig around it on the Sabbath, too, tempting the Lord to turn me into stone; with no sense of conflict to the self that crossed her chest and bent her knee. I was always drawn to ecclesiastical pageantry, of course, but I feel no guilt about that. It has been honed into efficiency by centuries of practice: the magnificence of church interiors, choral music and embroidered robes entirely overwhelmed my youthful senses, just as they were designed to do. High on incense I received my first glimpses of a kind of beauty entirely alien to my rural life, for all the gilded sunsets and hedgerow flowers. I am sure and gratefully glad that church attendance early awoke an appreciation of art. What I also felt, however – and with hindsight, perhaps it was merely an outlet for a naturally passionate nature – was a true and unshakeable fervour for worship. It was in church I came to learn of sin.
When you are a child, when your sins involve secretly hating your brother or telling a minor lie, wiping the slate clean and vowing to try better from hereon-in is a pleasurable feeling. You are, after all, constantly being told in every part of your life to improve and amend yourself; and so it feels par for the course. Not a million miles dissimilar to knowing your noncommittal attitude to team-sports has, once more, disappointed the games mistress. (I personally felt I had more chance of pleasing God.) You can luxuriate in the magnificence of spirituality – as well as its pettier, competitive aspects: making your Ash Wednesday forehead-smudge last the whole day, outrageous Lenten self-denials, ‘offering up’ stubbed toes and stomach-ache – with little of the downside. When some years later I ascended the Sancta Scala in Rome upon my knees in hopes of a plenary indulgence, agonizingly, tearfully slow while streams of children raced up past; their light-limbed glee seemed almost parabolic.
It is when you get older that the notion of sin begins to weigh you down. Strangely, I felt no guilt about my teenage sexual exploration, despite the Pet Shop Boys timely admonition that ‘It’ was ‘A Sin’. Only later, possessed of a very vivid and very real idea of hell and its punishments, grimly furnished from 19th century novels, medieval tracts and the gaudy gore of American evangelism, did the state of my soul begin to trouble me. I shan’t tire you, gentle reader, with a full confession: my sins would likely only disappoint, and I should prefer you to think me technicolour in my transgressions. Such as they were, however, they still caused me sleepless nights of genuine fear about my damnation to come – particularly after perusing the more graphic passages of Dante’s Inferno. I was, quite honestly, sometimes terrified. No amount of prayer or propitiatory acts sufficed to make me feel absolved. Only when I ceased to believe in that sort of God – when I was able, you might say, to pardon myself – did I overcome my preoccupation with sin and retribution.
Mea culpa – forgive this autobiographical digression, but it seems to me that we cannot really consider sin without examining what it brings with it: the stomach-churning fear of eternal physical torture. These days we glibly talk of sins and indulgences, usually (if we’re female) meaning tubs of ice-cream and treats at the day-spa; an attitude the advertising industry likes to perpetuate. ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ however are neither a range of ‘limited-edition’ Magnum lollies nor Louis Vuitton bags (though the concept has been used to sell them both), but offences against ‘reason, truth and right conscience’. The ‘deadly’ quality of the sins refers to their fatal effect on spiritual health – ‘the venym of syn slaas manes soule’1.
While both Testaments contain lists of ‘evil actions’ the idea of the seven sins really post-dates the Fourth Lateran Council (1214), which established the practice of annual confession. Reminiscing over an entire past year, it helped to have some way of categorising your misdemeanours. So it is that after thisdate, manuscript illustrations and wall-paintings appeared replete with nifty teaching aids: tables and diagrams showing linked sequences of catechetical instruction divided into septenaries for ease of memory. All you neededto know to save your soul was there: the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Canonical Hours, the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Arms of Justice, the Beatitudes, the Seven Corporal Works ofMercy. Oddly, while every other one of these schemata has become deeply unfashionable, the idea of the sins persists. Nevertheless the Seven Deadly Sins, though ‘on-trend’ enough to merit an America’s Next Top Model photoshoot, patently belong to a very medieval worldview, one which we have arguably outgrown.2
Few would perhaps dispute, whatever their feelings about the Christian faith, that the list of lies and deliberate cruelties ‘the Lord hateth’ in the Book of Proverbs is agood summary of what to avoid to have a comfortable, ethically-sound life, but what can we make of avarice, lechery, gluttony, pride, sloth, wrath, envy?3 In our ‘greed is good’, banking-bonus, ‘because you’re worth it’, ‘Taste the Difference’, ‘This is not just food…’, culture, who considers any item on that list to be a sin? We fear and loathe obesity but, victims of our ‘genes’, of ‘misleadingly-labelled’ food with ‘hidden fat’, of ‘addictive’ junk-food, we none of us guilty of gluttony. Without pride, envy and avarice the global economy would collapse, for we’d far less likely splash out on off-shore banking, luxury holidays, regular new cars, £150 a-pot face-creams, or Jimmy Choo shoes. Wrath is justifiable, a normal response to the pressures of modern life: the road-rage of the commuter, the trolley-rage of the working mum. Sloth is economising your energy with some ‘chill-out time’. And lechery… well, none of us here at ER would take issue with the life-affirming value of that.
Well, that last one I meant, but I must admit to having been a little snide just then; I think that by and large we are inhabiting an age that has seen the dilution and eventual death of sin. In many respects this is an excellent thing. However sin, like salvation, was envisaged to express a truth I still stand by: the radical freedom of each human being. Whatever our circumstances, we all have the choice in any moment to be altruistic or selfish. When we call what our ancestors would have classified as ‘sins’ simply ‘natural’ or ‘unavoidable’, when we see ourselves as victims of drives and compulsions rather than creatures equipped with choice and agency, I think we may have diminished ourselves. I’m very much hoping that some of my fellow-contributors this month will have come up with some choice new sins for me to sample: if for no other reason, at least so that I can still enjoy the occasional guilty pleasure of opting to transgress.
1From Dan Jon Gaytrygge’s Sermon, associated with the Constitutions issued by Archbishop Thoresby for the Diocese of York in 1357.
2Cycle 4 (2007): the final pictures can be seen on YouTube.
3Proverbs 6: 16-19: ‘These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.’
Picture above isThe Seven Deadly Sins,Hans Baldung Grien, from theBuch Granatapfel, 1511