Sewn Shut with Rusty Wire

“Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
~ Joseph Epstein

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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.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Don’t stay quiet for too long, please. I don’t much care if someone thinks “the church” doesn’t need to hear your every thought. I for one, benefit greatly by them.

  • Tim Muldoon

    Hang in there, Joanne. Silent prayer and reflection are for every child of God, but we are also a people on mission. St. Ignatius Loyola famously counseled in his Constitutions of the Jesuit order against praying too much, saying, effectively, there was work to do. It is good to behold the sun; it is also to remove obstacles so that others may see it too. And God has given us each the task of removing those obstacles, each in our own small ways.

  • Jennifer

    You’re not alone. How funny, how ironic, how coincidental (not) that you wrote this and I read it today. Envy has been the forefront topic in my life for weeks now. The abundant crop of great Catholic bloggers and writers that I enjoy feasting on every day (like all of you here at Patheos!) is also the thing that reveals to me how envious my heart is. How I wish I were them! To have the number of readers they have, the visibility, the success, the popularity, the TALENT! Oh, the envy is sour and bitter and I hate it. I hate how small and self-centered my heart really is. Where is God? I thought it was supposed to be about HIS glory?

    I, too, enjoy listening to Fr. Barron, and as he would say, the root of it all is fear. He talks about God wanting to live a great adventure through each of us, and my fearful and envious heart wonders, “What’s my great adventure? Is there one? These others I see are having a great adventure indeed, but what if there isn’t one for me? I want the same adventure they’re having! What about me??”

    So much fear, so little trust. So little humility. So much me, so little God.

    Thanks, Joanne, for being brave enough to put this down in words and then to share it with us. God bless you.

  • Melody

    Of course prayer, reflection, and the cultivation of an “attitude of gratitude” are always good things. But I wouldn’t let armchair critics and those who would kindly invite you to shut up get under your skin too much. I hadn’t noticed you “…stirring up discontent and conflict with your posts.” I have noticed that you are honest enough to say what you really think. Which I believe is a good thing. The Church may not benefit from hearing one’s every thought (and is a blog really addressed to the Church?), but you have as much right to express your thoughts as the self-appointed deflaters.

  • Woodeene

    Oh yeah. I know envy all too well. Heck, sometimes I’m even envious of you, Joanne! :)

  • Steve

    I mean this with all honestly & sincerity: This is my favorite blog on the Patheos Catholic Channel. Keep up the top notch writing, the world needs it…

  • ace

    Joanne, you’re very talented and it’s not a competition. Your writing really resonates with me and I don’t know why Catholic blogging should be considered something needing a remedy. Your honest reflections, wit, and the wine and cheese, latte, or micro-brew of cultural commentary are both insightful and refreshing. In the Father’s mansion there are many rooms, and few would want to spend all their time on one deck of a cruise ship or stay in their cabins throughout the whole voyage (though some would, and that too should be OK). And then too, many of us also want to get off the ship and do the ports of call; the arts, handcrafts, music, and sights. Why shouldn’t our compassion be a blessing cup not only of passionately entering into suffering but also passionately entering into celebrations and the giving and receiving of gifts? If we are not with God and with each other in both suffering and joy, then it’s just masochism or pity…

    There’s probably few not working on (or feeling a need to work on) their own pride and jealousy issues. I’ve had times where I’ve needed to be told that I have a bad attitude or that I’m making a mockery of something, and, I confess to having glaring blind spots at times. I often find myself stupidly stammering before God something like: “OK God, I deserve it, just maybe not for this (whatever the issue is), but certainly for something such as… (giving him examples which come to mind)”. Sometimes when I can finally say from the heart, “OK, I deserve it, show me how”, there have been tears and the most surprising insights. How do I know that God didn’t put it on someone to say something to me, and maybe it’s not even what that person is saying but the trigger which the barb is ti the still small voice.

    The other thing that I might share which someone gave to me (and it’s not my favorite, but it has at times been fruitful) is to reflect that we are called to live in family, not just as an individual. From this beginning, reflect on the role of Joseph in the Holy Family: how his job was to work to provide for and to emotionally support Jesus and Mary; to give his life behind the scenes so that they could shine in their roles; to make things, fix things, arrange travel & lodging, and otherwise build up… Joseph’s role was no small thing when you think of the impact of his step-son and wife..

    OTOH, maybe the restlessness means there’s a quantum leap (remember the show?) in store for you. But, please keep sharing. It’s all good… even when it doesn’t feel that way.

  • Marie E

    I for one greatly benefit from your writing – so please, keep it up!

  • Rob

    Thank you, Joanne, for this introspective piece today. As a seminarian, I certainly swim in that pool of envy (rather, that great and depthless ocean of envy) when I see some brother seminarians who are gifted homilists, or gifted counselors, or gifted scripture scholars, or gifted philosophers, or gifted theologians or……you get my drift – I could go on and clog up lots of space. Your owning up to it with the honesty you did here is God’s medicine for my own soul on a day when I’m wishing I could be more like one of them instead of me. God bless you, and thank you for sharing your ‘egregious twaddle.’ (love that name, BTW)

    • joannemcportland

      God bless you, too, Rob, and I’ll keep you and your journey to priesthood—one I have to admit I used to envy, though I’ve long since turned that mystery over to God—in my prayers. God called you, and He knows your gifts.

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  • The Hermit

    I envy your humility to admit being envious and I envy your ability to write about it so openly.

  • Sally Thomas

    This is beautiful and true, and yes to all of it. I know that on Facebook I told that (true) story of my wise friend and the admonition to remember that if I envy one thing about someone else’s life, I have to want the whole life . . . but still. It’s not as though that were truly an antidote.

    And I can certainly relate to . . . well, that writer pride. That blogger pride. That “I have something to say, too” thing. I *don’t* think that public writing in and of itself constitutes pride. This is what writers do, after all. What else are you supposed to do, if you’re a writer and a Catholic, but write from your Catholicism? But it’s so easy to focus on what other people are doing: their successes, their legitimate brilliances, their lucky breaks when it never seems to be your turn for a lucky break. There’s the mortification . . .

    Anyway, thank you for this. Again, it is both beautiful and true.

  • Kathleen

    Someone wise warned me against comparing my “insides” to other people’s “outsides.” Anything quantifiable (page views, poundage, salaries) counts as “outsides.” Only God fully appreciates our “insides,” since that’s where he dwells. If He’s happy with what he created, with the gifts he’s given, with the milieu he’s chosen, that should be enough for me. And I need that reminder every single day. Peace and tranquility, Kathleen Miller

  • alan R

    I think you are a wonderful writer and I am grateful that you write. This post for example puts so well what I just recently had been dealing with but on a parish level. I found myself disgruntled about God not using me for bigger things and I could not seem to shake it. After venting some frustration in a round about way, a friend told me to pray more. So that is what I have been doing and God heard my prayers. My circumstances are the same but I feel grateful in a way that is hard to explain. I guess my point is that I like your writing very much and this one put very well how I had been living. I am grateful to God and His church and that includes you.
    Alan R

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  • Kristen inDallas

    for what it’s worth, I think all types of envy/coveting are rooted in that same pride. It all boils down to: I’ve worked harder than X/am a better person than X/have more talent than X, so why does X get the better car/wife/job/opinion of others?
    And yeah, envy feels pretty miserable, but still not QUITE as miserable as admitting that maybe I’m not such a great person, and maybe I don’t deserve that thing that I want.

    • Dan

      Brava, Kristin! When we get to be my age — or Joanne’s age — that admission may be all we have left to do. I have envy problems, too; but living in a small town helps cure them. I can look at the people around me and notice that many of them are worse off than I am. I can’t escape them, the way I could in the city, by going somewhere else.

      And Joanne? Keep blogging. Silent prayer and reflection are obviously behind much or all of what you write, and it’s nourishing to read. Thank you!

  • Bill M.

    Would you really want to be Father Barron or Leah Libresco? Of course not. Think of all the claims on their time, their overcrowded inboxes, the legions of flatterers and insulters . . .

    Your blog is a little gem — and I mean ‘little’ in the Therese-ian sense.

    • joannemcportland

      I responded YES! right away, and then read on. What a lovely, lovely compliment—and excellent perspective restorer! Thank you.

    • Dan

      Bill said it better than I.

  • Patricia

    I like your writing, but not to the extent that if you continue to do so endangers your soul. Checking “likes, “comparing yourself , etc, I guess if really true, and not just blogging hyperbole , well maybe a rest with, contemplation , reflection and prayer,acts of mercy, etc. are not bad ideas. We your readers can happily wait and offer it up. I think you are spot on in realizing that this blogging thing has the potential to become a bit of a monster, whether writing one or just reading them. More prayer; less blogging ;less blog reading, is probably a better path to holiness. Didn’t Jesus withdraw when he saw the crowds pressing, for more and more? Happy retreat.

  • Maria

    Very good post. Something we all struggle with, in all walks of life. I sometimes struggle with envy towards newbie converts, even those for whom I prayed for 20 years for their conversion. Isn’t that ridiculous!!!!