“Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
~ Joseph Epstein
Envy really is just miserable. Dante punishes the envious by having their eyes sewn shut with wire, because in life they drew pleasure from watching the downfall of others. In my experience, though, envy doesn’t even involve the dubious pleasures of schadenfreude. It’s less about wishing ill on others than it is about feeling the ills of being “less than others” too severely. It’s ingratitude on a feverish scale. Medieval artists, who depicted Invidia, the personification of the deadly sin of envy, as a skeletal wretch whose flesh was consumed by disease, had it right. Envy eats you from inside. And there’s nothing pleasant about it.
I woke up this morning awash in envy, my soul sewn shut with rusty wire.
I’m not coveting wordly goods, at least not more than usually. I can whip together a pretty good self-pity party on occasion, especially when friends are talking about their new vacation homes and their retirement adventures, but most of the time I have the ability to count my innumerable blessings. No, I will never be able to retire, or buy a new home (first or second), or help my kids and spoil my grandson the way every parent and grandparent longs to, but there’s nothing to blame for that but my own choices and their consequences. And all told, I am enviable in the gifts that God and life and people I love have showered on me.
Materially, I am mostly content—so much so that when I overheard, in the coffee shop where I write most mornings, the third different pitch this week for a pyramid scheme promising unlimited wealth and two Mercedes in every pot to the third group this week of desperately unemployed single mothers, I wanted to slap the fleecers and shout at their willing victims to flee. But everybody wants to believe there’s a way to get rich quick, especially those who have been poor for a long, slow stretch. I can’t judge these women for coveting stuff, just because my envy doesn’t take me in that direction.
No, what’s eating me today is an odd sort of evangelization envy, or at least that’s what I want to call it, to dress it up as less deadly a sin.
It started last night at a parish adult formation discussion of Fr Robert Barron’s Catholicism series. As I watched him use his wicked mad skills to guide people through The Last Things—lavishly illustrated with the best of Catholic art and architecture and jaw-droppingly beautiful footage from pilgrimage sites and holy places around the world—I wasn’t pondering the biblical roots of Purgatory or wondering how many angels there are. I was disputing his contention that the Church won’t say for sure that any human being is in hell . . . because I was in a hell of envy, watching him contend. For 40+ years of Catholic media production, catechetical writing, and workshop presenting, the Catholicism series is what I have wanted to be doing. I don’t wish Fr Barron ill; I’m just ill, wishing I were Fr Barron.
Of course, there’s more. Invidia has been bubbling under the surface for the past few days, ever since Leah Libresco brought her blog to the Catholic Channel. I’m happy for Leah, especially happy for her conversion, but damn, I envy her: her smarts, her looks, her youth, her particular DrWho-steampunk-bisexual-mathgeek brand of coolness. I envy her the incomparable joys of being in the first blush of romance with Rome. I envy her the attention of the baffled MSM, and the ability to parlay the exploding of all stereotypes into a good long space when she doesn’t have to align herself with anybody, but has the freedom to stand out there in the neutral zone and debate her Church, her world, and herself with those phenomenal interrogatory chops.
And her pageviews. Oh yes, I envy those numbers. Leah’s dual following—her atheist pals who want to argue with her, her new Catholic buds who want to buy her a mystagogical beer—puts the world on her RSS feed. Were I to run 6 blogs and post as many times a day as Mark Shea does, I wouldn’t live long enough to see as many cumulative Facebook shares as Leah’s one conversion post pulled. That’s pride egging envy on, as much as I want to pretend I just wish I had that kind of reach for evangelical purposes, and I’m not proud of the pride.
Pride was the subject of a comment I received this weekend on an older post, a comment that added to the “Why bother?” mood of this morning. Addressing not just me but a list of other Catholic bloggers, the reader wrote:
After years of stirring up discontent and conflict with your posts, you all seem to have suddenly come to the awareness that you are part, if not the genesis, of this problem. I’m happy to note a more respectful tone of late on several sites of late, but I’m afraid that the damage is done. As I’ve suggested before on other sites, the Church does not benefit from hearing your every thought. Silent prayer and reflection, and simple, unseen service are the best remedies for the pride of Catholic blogging.
That stings, like a needle threaded with rusty wire. Because of course my envy of Fr Barron and Ms Libresco is, in the end, rooted in my self-delusion that the Church does indeed benefit from hearing my every thought, and would benefit even more if I had a bigger audience and better talents with which to share the Word.
So I think I’d better take some time for silent prayer and reflection and the unseen service of working on being grateful—medicine, the only proven anodyne, against the pyramid scheme of pride, the flesh-eating bacteria of envy.