Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Seven Deadlies: Lust

[Previous: Introduction] [Next: Wrath]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]

"About the sin called luxuria or lust, I shall therefore say only three things. One that it is a sin, and that it ought to be called, plainly by its own name, and neither huddled away under a generic term as immorality, nor confused with love.

Secondly, that up till now the Church, in hunting down this sin, has had the active alliance of Caesar, who has been concerned to maintain family solidarity and the orderly devolution of property in the interests of the state. By now that contract and not status is held to be the basis of society, Caesar need no longer rely on the family to maintain social solidarity; and now that so much property is held anonymously by trusts and joint stock companies, the laws of inheritance lose a great deal of their importance. Consequently, Caesar is now much less interested than he was in the sleeping arrangements of his citizens, and has in this manner cynically denounced his alliance with the Church. This is a warning against putting one's trust in any child of man -- particularly Caesar. If the Church is to continue her campaign against lust, she must do so on her own -- that is, on sacramental -- grounds; and she will have to do it, if not in defiance of Caesar, at least without his assistance.

Thirdly, there are two main reasons for which people fall into the sin of luxuria. It may be through sheer exuberance of animal spirits, in which case a sharp application of the curb may be all that is needed to bring the body into subjection and to remind it of its place in the scheme of man's twofold nature. Or -- and this commonly happens in periods of dissilusionment like our own, when philosophies are bankrupt and life appears without hope -- men and women may turn to lust in sheer boredom and discontent, trying to find some stimulus that is not provided by the drab discmofort of their mental and physical surroundings. When that is the case, stern rebukes and restrictions are worse than useless. It is as though one were to endeavor to cure anemia by bleeiding; it only reduces fuerther an already impoverished vitality. The mournful and medical aspect of twentieth-century pornography and promiscuity strongly suggests that we have reached one of these periods of spiritual depression where people go to bed because they have nothing better to do. In other words, the regrettable moral laxity of which respectable people complain may have its root cause not in luxuria at all, but in some other of the sins of society, and may automatically begin to cure itself when that root cause is removed."

[Previous: Introduction] [Next: Wrath]


Heather said...

What I find interesting here is that lust seems to be linked only to sex or sexual acts. It seems that someone who is taking such a firm stand on the sin would use the broader definition of lust the incorporates all elements of lust - not just sex.

Then again, it is easier to "detect" sin when there has been an actual "act" committed.

I'm not sure entirely how you "root" lust out of people either. As with many sins against God, it seems rather intangible.

Gashwin said...

But by definition, lust is that sin which perverts the erotic desires.[Here's the Catechism: 2351 Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.] It's related to sexuality (and therefore to sexual activity. One can be lustful without having sex, of course). Anything that inflames the erotic passions in a negative way is lust. I didn't see anything in what Ms. Sayers wrote that seemed to be narrower than this; it's a pretty broad definition.. The acts are sinful of course, but there is the inclination to the sin, the corrupted desire, that is at the root of it.

Lust can be rooted out -- by chastity, by the practice of self-control, by cultivating a life of virtue, by recognizing that the bodily appetites (erotic, or otherwise), while good, ought not to rule one's life (that's what she meant by "man's twofold nature" -- due recognition that men and women are this mysterious mixture of body and spirit.) and ultimately, by the help of grace (which is what was meant by combating this "sacramentally.").

That we live in a culture that sees lust as a virtue, and not a vice or a sin, is quite clear. Which makes combating it even harder, of course.

Her main point is: this is NOT the only thing that morality is about. Which is why she deals with lust first in the chapter, before tackling the real biggies.

Anyway -- perhaps the terms might be used here in a different way than you might understand them?

Heather said...

The terminology is a bit off for me (not my typical style of reading material, except through blog excerpts).

I was under (the perhaps mistaken) impression she was attempting to talk to others about their responsibility to combat lust in their environment.

My point then, was that it is a tricky task to prevent lust, particularly in people's hearts (as opposed to their actions).

I guess I need to beef up on my religious reading skills. :)

Gashwin said...

"My point then, was that it is a tricky task to prevent lust, particularly in people's hearts (as opposed to their actions)."

That's putting it mildly :) Actually, to be very technical, humanly speaking it's impossible. Hence the need for grace. The Law only brings condemnation. The only way to actually fulfill the law is by letting grace rule one's life and slowly transform oneself from within.

And, one by one, as each individual is converted, oh so slowly, and inefficiently, the environment changes.

[This is not to say that one shouldn't, for instance, argue for zoning laws that keep porn stores out of reach, or combat smut on TV. I don't think that was her primary focus here, though.]

pritcher said...

"...people go to bed because they have nothing better to do."

She seems to be suggesting (and I'd agree) that many of the sins against chastity that happen in our lives are not actually the fruit of lust, but rather of other sorts of spiritual deadness.

Lust is sexy--or at least it seems so, and because of that I think it's often easy to ignore the other sins in our hearts that lead to unjust and immoral sexual actions.

That's not meant to diminish in any way the importance of rooting out lust in one's own heart (or fighting manifestations of it in one's environment), but to paraphrase our Lord, it's too easy to sweep away one sin and have "the other six" come flying right in.

Which, I guess, is part of why she's organized this discussion of sin as she has.

Gashwin said...

Thanks pritcher: the end may be sexual immorality, but the root might lie elsewhere. That is a very important point she makes.

I think our society has gone further downhill since when this was written: luxuria is actively promoted, in a way that, I don't think it was in wartime Britan.

St. Izzy said...

I think that lust/luxuria is most closely related to gluttony. That is,


It is a disordered desire for an intrinsic good.

And I think that our broader culture now acknowledges this in the use of such terms as "food porn."

BTW, it is possible to commit the sin of lust even against one's spouse. It occurs when one uses (or entertains the notion of using) one's spouse for one's own selfish gratification instead of giving oneself to one's spouse in love.

Gashwin said...

@st.izzy: yep yep. I think JPII makes that (lusting after one's spouse) clear in one of those famous catechetical lectures that became TOB. As also in Love and Responsibility.

C.S. Lewis also draws a parallel between lust and gluttony, but thinks that the Fall disordered the sexual drive more. If I recall Mere Christianity correctly .. .