Dear Father John, I am not in spiritual direction right now, but I am trying to put together a program of life anyway. Can you give me some pointers about identifying my “root sin”?
You are already on the right track. A program of life is worthless (well, almost worthless, at least) without having identified our root sin. Unless we understand the dynamism underlying our frequent faults and failings, we will never be able to work intelligently to overcome them. It’s like gardening. If you want to get rid of the weeds, you can just pull out the stems; you have to get at the roots. Otherwise, progress is short-lived and unsubstantial, and sooner or later discouragement and frustration set in.
In trying to identify our root sin, the wisdom of the Church comes in handy. Spiritual writers through the ages have identified three possible candidates. Before I describe them, however, it behooves us to make one clarification. All of us, simply because of our fallen human nature, have sinful tendencies linked to all three of the candidates. Saying that we have a “root sin” simply means that for each of us, one of the three is dominant. It’s bigger than the others and exerts greater influence on our day-to-day behavior.
That said, here are the three possible root sins: pride, vanity, and sensuality. Pride, in this sense, refers to a disordered attachment to our own excellence. The proud person tends to seek meaning and fulfillment in their own achievements and conquests. Vanity is a disordered attachment to the approval of other people. The vain person tends to seek meaning and fulfillment in being appreciated or liked by other people. Sensuality is a disordered attachment to comfort, ease, and pleasure. The sensual person tends to seek meaning and fulfillment in taking it easy and simply enjoying life. Notice that each of these root sins is a disordered attachment to something. The things in themselves – achievements, relationships, pleasures – are not evil. The problem comes when we seek meaning and fulfillment in those temporal, created realities. In fact, we are created and called to seek our meaning and fulfillment in God alone, in our ever-deepening relationship with him. Achievements, relationships, and pleasures are meant to be ordered around and towards that principle and foundation of our life. As the Catechism puts it in #27:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.
Again, it is important to realize that we each have tendencies that spring from pride, vanity, and sensuality. None of us is exempt from any of them, because we all have inherited a fallen human nature. But in each of us, one of the three is usually dominant. If we can identify which one, we can better aim our efforts to grow spiritually; we can strive to develop the virtues that counteract the cause, the root, of our falls and faults. We can identify this root sin, also called “dominant defect” by some spiritual writers, by looking at the common manifestations of each. The manifestations which are strongest in your life can clue you in to your root sin.
Below you will find a list of these common manifestations. Read through them once quickly and make a note of the ones that characterize you most. You will find that sometimes you fall into all of them, but some of them will jump out at you as particularly common or strong in your life. Whichever of the three has more of those is, most likely, your root sin. As you go through this exercise, you may find it more difficult than you would like. That’s because self-knowledge is slippery. And that’s one of the most compelling reasons for finding a spiritual director to help us be objective in our spiritual work. I hope you keep looking, and pray that God will lead you to one.
COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF PRIDE
- too high an opinion of myself
- annoyance with those who contradict me, brooking no contradictions
- anger if I don’t get my way or am not taken into account
- easily judgmental, putting others down, gossiping about them
- slow to recognize my own mistakes, or to see when I hurt others, and inability to seek and give forgiveness
- rage when others don’t thank me for favors
- unwillingness to serve, rebellion against what I don’t like
- impatience, distance, brusqueness in my daily contact with others
- thinking I am the only one who knows how to do things right, unwillingness to let others help
- inflated idea of my own intelligence and understanding, dismissing what I do not understand or what others see differently
- not feeling a need for God, even though I do say prayers
- nursing grudges, even in small matters
- never taking orders
- inflexible in preferences
- always putting myself and my things first, indifference towards others and their needs, never putting myself out for them
- centering everything (conversation, choices..) on myself and my likes
- calculating in my relations with God and with others
COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF VANITY
- always seeking admiration and praise, worrying about not getting it
- excessive concern about physical appearance
- being guided by the opinions of others rather than principle (this is sometimes called “human respect”)
- some types of shyness
- sacrificing principles in order to fit in
- placing too much a premium on popularity and acceptance
- easily discouraged at my failures
- taking pleasure in listening to gossip and hearing about others’ failures
- always wanting to be the center of attention, at times stretching the truth, or lying outright, or being uncharitable in my words in order to achieve this
COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF SENSUALITY
- always the most comfortable, what requires least effort
- not going the extra mile for others
- procrastination, last-minute in everything
- shoddiness, complaining, excessively affected by minor discomforts
- inability to sacrifice
- not doing my part at home
- expecting everyone else to serve me always
- behavior and decisions ruled by my feelings and moods instead of my principles
- daydreaming a lot with self at center
- unable to control my thoughts when they attract me, even if they are not good
- doing only what I enjoy (choice of food, work, etc)
- uncontrolled and overpowering curiosity, wanting to see and experience everything and every pleasure
- my senses and impulses overrule what I know is right and wrong
- acting out my feelings (frustrations, desires…) with no regard for my conscience, God or others
- only working with those I like, being easily hurt
- fickleness and inconstancy
- can never finish what I start
Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC, STL
Art for this post on identifying one’s root sin: Detail of “Saint-Cloud,” gold chloride toned print, photographed by Eugène Atget, 1924, PD-US author’s life plus 80 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.