We're moving from the bottom up. First, the sins of the flesh: gluttony, avarice or greed, lust or lechery, and sloth or laziness. Bad?--sure. But none of them have the pedigree of the three that remain: wrath, envy, and pride, the sins of the spirit.
Whatever ancient divine designed the seven deadlies didn't mean to imply, I'm sure, that an adulterous male becomes nothing more than the viagra-ed saturated organ of his mischief, although Bruegel or Heronymous Bosch would have loved the image, I'm sure. The sins of the flesh still connect with the soul.
But, traditionally at least, we've now arrived at the Big Three, the Sins of the Spirit, the first of which (actually third) is wrath.
The military plays big-time in Bruegel's depiction of Wrath, a landscape full of soldiers. The central figure is a male here for the first time, adorned with a helmet that's already taken an arrow, strangely enough. The animal symbol, understadably, is a bear. A phlanx of soldiers emerge from some odd dwelling, several of them toting a gigantic kitchen knife they use to slice up naked people before them. In a horror-filled smoke house behind them, another soldier has a victim on a spit and is pouring hot something into his mid-section.
An immense man of war straddles a barrel in which some jackel has a knife to another guy's throat. At bottom right, something half-human, half-lizard unsheaths a sword to do battle against whatever monsters emerge from behind a mobile fortification.
Wrath unleashes violence and death, or so the message seems, although I'd love to be able to read Bruegel better.
No one seems to know as yet what prompted Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to kill his fellow soldiers yesterday at Ft. Hood, but there can be no doubt that wrath was at the heart of things, an blinding emotion so terrible that hate eclipses love and leaves us seething. Today, 13 are dead, hundreds are mourning, because one madman's wrath hammered every bit of goodness from him.
I wasn't a young man anymore when this happened, and I was getting too old for fast pitch softball anyway, methinks. I swung at a pitch that glanced off the end of the bat and sent a squiggler down the line towards first, madly spinning in the infield dirt. You didn't have to be an all-star to make the play.
The first basemen picked it up and waited for me on the baseline. I played enough baseball to know there was going to be a head-on between two adult bulls, so I lowered my head. I'm not to be taken lightly, but this lanky first basement took the best shot and decked me. I went down like a dead man. He left me squirming in the dirt like an upturned beetle, and I was mortified--worse, shamed. I came up with my fists.
Fortunately, I was old enough to recognize what I'd become--I was stupid, just plain nuts. What coursed through me was a charge of wrath so lethal that it nearly bore a monster, something right out of Bruegel. I didn't fight the guy, but when I look at Bruegel, I see myself.
They're in all of us, these seven deadlies. Or maybe just in me. That's why they're so compelling. Sins-R-Us.
The Kansas State geographers used FBI statistics on violent crime--murder, assault, rape--per capita to chart out where people lose themselves most frequently to blind rage. Wrath festers and breaks in the red zones, above.
Once again, folks in the cornbelt come off as pretty darn even-keeled. The only place meeker than Iowa is North Dakota, where never is heard a discouraging word. You don't have to go south to find wrath, of course, but if the geographers are right, you certainly don't have to look far once you're there.
I think of Plato: There are two things a person should never be angry at--what they can help, and what they can't.
Or First Corinthians 13.