A Meditation on Vultures
Q: How is Envy like a vulture? A: It sits around staring sadly at what it wants until it can have what it wants, which is the substance of another.
The Definition of Envy
Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The Catechism defines it as:
The sadness at the sight of another's goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly (CCC #2539).
If this envy includes desire for grave harm, then it becomes grave sin, i.e. a mortal sin which disallows us from receiving the eucharist because we've broken friendship with the Lord. Envy violates the ninth and/or tenth commandments not to covet our neighbor's wife (Commandment IX) nor his goods (X).
Jealousy vs. Envy
So if you see a purty car and sure want one like it and it's accompanied by you feeling offended by the person who owns it -- you're Jealous but not Envious. But if you see that car and want that one, and want that other person to not have it, then you're suffering Envy. This is a very technical distinction, which may not always be present in various texts but I use it to describe two different types of ill desire.
Scripture on Envy
Aaron and Miriam experience Envy at Moses while in the wilderness (Numbers 12). There Moses' own brother and sister are insulted that Moses has married a Cushite woman, an Ethiopian. You might consider this something akin to a modern form of racism. They are offended at Moses speaking to God and ruling Israel in his station over Israel. In response, God gives Miriam leprosy and says, "If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days?" (Num 12:14). Our Father is not impressed by Envy, even in one of his own daughters.
Patristics on Envy
St. Gregory of Nyssa says:
Envy is grieved at the good deeds of men and takes advantage of their misfortunes. It is said that the vultures which devour corpses are destroyed by perfume. Their nature is akin to the foul and corrupt. Anyone who is in the power of this sickness is destroyed by the happiness of his neighbors as by the application of some perfume; but if he should see any unfortunate experience he flies to it, sets his crooked beak to it, and draws forth the hidden misfortunes. -The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; Book II
Q: How do we combat Envy? A: Exercising good will, especially towards the one you have Envy for. (CCC #2540). E.g. to those you would take, give them something.
Q: How else? A: We must uproot it like a weed.
Q: What is the root cause Envy? A: All knowledge begins in the senses (Aristotle, Aquinas). From the eye an ill passion is born, an ill judgment to have the object is made, and sin is born. Frequently PRIDE underlies Envy (CCC #2540). Humility is thus another way to cut off the root of Envy (CCC #2540). Aaron and Miriam actually didn't like their place in God's Providential Order, and thus this Pride is what led to their Envy.
Q: What combats Pride? A: Humility.
Dante on Envy
In Dante's Divine Comedy, the book Purgatorio, Canto XIII, Dante is escorted by Virgil to the layer on Mt. Purgatorio where the Envious lie. There they huddle in blind masses holding onto one another, yelling at any passerby to pray for them in hopes of it being a saint.
"This circuit," said my teacher, "knots the scourge For envy, and the cords are therefore drawn By charity's correcting hand...
...But fix thine eyes Intently through the air, and thou shalt see A multitude before thee seated, each Along the shelving grot." Then more than erst I op'd my eyes, before me view'd, and saw Shadows with garments dark as was the rock; And when we pass'd a little forth, I heard A crying, "Blessed Mary! pray for us, Michael and Peter! all ye saintly host!"
And yet Dante has pity on them. (In The Inferno Virgil chastises Dante for pitying the Damned, for to do so is to tacitly disagree with Divine Justice, so to have one's passions shaped to pity evil is itself a great evil. In Purgatory Dante is allowed to pity, for they shall see the Goodness of God once cleansed.)
I do not think there walks on earth this day Man so remorseless, that he hath not yearn'd With pity at the sight that next I saw. Mine eyes a load of sorrow teemed, when now I stood so near them, that their semblances Came clearly to my view. Of sackcloth vile Their cov'ring seem'd; and on his shoulder one Did stay another, leaning, and all lean'd Against the cliff. E'en thus the blind and poor, Near the confessionals, to crave an alms, Stand, each his head upon his fellow's sunk,
through the orbs of all, A thread of wire, impiercing, knits them up, As for the taming of a haggard hawk.
Dante uses a medieval technique of training hawks to describe how God is purging the Envious of their sin. Hawks who were young or disobedient had their eyes stitched shut, a painless but uncomfortable method. In order for the hawk to eat they had to become completely contingent on the Master's voice for food, survival, and well being. In this way the hawk's inclination to follow its own eyes or senses were subordinated to the good of the Master. So too here we are reminded that Envy enters through the eyes, and so the eyes are retrained. The lesson? We must be careful of our eyes in an era of images and screens. One only need point to the billion dollar pornography industry or the "Netflix babysitter" to see how much damage we do to ourselves with our own eyes. For more on that see Ivan Illich's Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show.
If Envy is the Vulture, then purgation is like training to be a Hawk. A useful hunter rather than a scavenger that feeds on death. If we know others who are envious, like Dante we should have pity on them. If we find envy in our own hearts, have good cheer, identify the root if there be one, consider retraining the eyes, and acts of charity like almsgiving are the fastest Christian way to defeat this vulture. Remember, the sin may be like a vulture, but you as a baptized person are a member of The Son of God in your being, and a human made in the image of God. Evil has no substance, but good does. Take care not to be the vulture who would follow the man to be crucified to pick at his flesh, but rather to suffer vultures who would mock, ridicule, spit upon, and crucify you.
Wherever the body is, there the vultures will be gathered together. -Jesus, St. Matthew's Gospel, 24:8
Photo: Le Dante, conduit par Virgile, offre des consolations aux âmes des Envieux by Hippolyte Flandrin Translation: Dante, led by Virgil, offers consolation to the soul of Envy.