Contraries are Cured by Contraries

It was understood in the ancient world that God is complete unity and the created world is full of multiplicity – this is the difference between God and creation, eternity is one and time is many. We were created in God’s image, without divisions or conflicting impulses and desires inside us. The separation of our original unity into contraries (pairs of opposites) which oppose each other was represented by the fall of our original parents from the harmony of Eden. The first set of contraries in the human soul was between good and evil, symbolised by the fruit which Adam and Eve ate. Goodness is the foundation of everything since all things have their source in God and God is good. This is why in Genesis 1 it says over and over again that God saw what she had made and behold it was good. The good God made a good creation and we are part of that. Evil is a corruption of good – it takes the good creation which the good God made and makes it something which it was not meant to be. 

Our free will, even though it is itself good, allows us to choose between opposites like good and evil and this is how we were able to fall from the original goodness. It is primarily by dividing the world up into little categories and choosing between them that humans are able to go about their business and make decisions. Part of what it means to be human is to put things into categories and name them, this is how our languages are built and it is the primary tool used in all human intellectual activity. Our minds understand reality by comparison. We know cold because it isn’t hot, we know dry because it isn’t wet. The knowledge of good and evil was the first set of opposites which we learned to distinguish between and because of it we were able to choose whether we want to do good or evil. From that original split in the human consciousness all the virtues which were created in us from the beginning become subject to corruption. Just as evil came into existence by a corruption of good, so too anger comes into our hearts as a corruption of patience, sorrow comes into our hearts as a corruption of joy, and greed comes into our hearts as a corruption of generosity. 

In the rule for his monks, Columbanus established a system of nine virtues which are original to the human condition, nine vices which are the contraries and corruption of each of the original virtues, and then gave several examples of vices and virtues which are born from those first opposites. He used the imagery of a forest of vices and virtues which grow intermingled with one another and which can all trace their lineage back to the seeds spread by those original nine fruits, expressing them in various combinations and with great diversity. He uses the imagery of trees precisely because it was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which was the first pair of opposites and the first corruption of a virtue into a vice.

The virtues which are contrary to the vices are not always at a simple one-to-one ratio. Shame and pride are both contraries of humility. Anger and sadness are both contrary to spiritual joy. Because the human being is made in the image of God, at our deepest level we are as unknowable as God and any system which we create can only approximate what is really going on inside our hearts. That’s part of the brilliance of Columbanus’ reimagining of the teaching of Cassian which had a system of eight vices to be overcome by the monk. The eight vices named by the desert monks were incredibly insightful but they could also be limiting when a vice which a person is feeling doesn’t fit neatly into one of their eight categories. There are also many vices which they failed to name altogether. Columbanus’ system is a little more flexible and willing to change. It names nine pairs of virtues and vices but it also admits that the forest is endless and that there are as many vices to be overcome as there are people in the world. 

Columbanus uses Ephesians 2:10 which says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do ” as an example of how the virtues are created within us from the beginning. For Columbanus, this passage is saying that virtues are the good works which are prepared in advance for us to do. They are original to our condition and they were prepared in advance for us and implanted within us. These original virtues bear seeds which are good and the corruption of them into their opposites bears seeds which are evil. All these seeds together make a forest with countless vices and virtues, each understood as its own tree. The trees can even cross pollinate and we end up with fruit that has its source in both vice and virtue simultaneously. This cross pollination makes the entire situation a little wishy washy and requires us to think outside the box when discerning what is vice and what is virtue.

This list of nine virtues and their opposites which Columbanus gives us is an account of the fall from Eden. It describes the spiritual divisions which arose from that first pair of opposites which arose in the human psyche – good and evil. The nine contraries are listed below and if you take the time to look carefully you can see how each division leads to the next. The human soul begins in goodness but as it falls away from that goodness the inevitable result is bitterness, discord, hatred, and greed. Therefore, in order to return to goodness we must consciously choose to allow joy to heal bitterness, peace to heal conflict, compassion to heal greed, truth to heal lying, justice to heal injustice, righteousness to heal unrighteousness, innocence to heal temptation, and finally goodness will heal wickedness and we will have returned to the harmony of Eden, only this time we will be there by our own free will and not by the innocence of our condition. Here is Columbanus’ list of vices and his spiritual interpretation of the fall.

  1. Goodness/wickedness
  2. Innocence/temptation
  3. Righteousness/unrighteousness
  4. Justice/injustice
  5. Truth/lying
  6. Compassion/greed
  7. Love/hatred
  8. The peace of salvation/discord
  9. Spiritual joy/bitterness

His list of original virtues and their contraries are a description of how we came to find ourselves in this condition of opposites. The original virtues were created within us undivided, but we have a creative potential of our own because of our free will and just as God creates by an act of separation, so have we created vices within our souls by separating them from the virtues. We were created with humility in our essence but we separated pride from it and as a result Adam and Eve hid from God in shame of their nakedness and disobeyed God in their being tempted by the snake. As a result our innocence was corrupted by its opposite temptation and we fell from righteousness into unrighteousness which in turn created injustice in the world and so on down the list. Columbanus described it like this,

“For those things which are born from these two opposites, from good and evil, are beyond number. But the first evil, which is the pride of primal wickedness, is that which departs from its original goodness and innocence, the opposite of which is the humility of a righteous goodness that acknowledges and glorifies its creator and which is a rational creature’s first good. Thus the rest have gradually grown to be a huge forest of names in two parts.”

This corruption of virtue is like a wound in the soul. The early desert monks and the Celts who were inspired by them used the wisdom of the medicine of their time to try and treat these spiritual wounds. It was well known in ancient times that sickness in the human body is an imbalance. Ancient Greek doctors, inspired by Hippocrates and Galen, treated illnesses by the application of opposites. If a person is dehydrated (they are too dry) then they need water to heal that. Water heals dehydration precisely because wet is the opposite of dry. If a person has hypothermia (they are too cold) then they can be treated by the application of its opposite, heat. We heal our spiritual wounds by the application of opposites as well. If someone is suffering from a sense of hopelessness, then we heal that by giving them hope. If a person is suffering from outbursts of violence, then we heal them by working to instill peace in their heart. Every vice which arises in us is a wound and we heal this wound by giving a medicine which bestows the opposite quality of the sickness which a person is suffering from.

For the Celtic monks, these medicines were typically embodied practices which they called penance and the books which were used to discern which kind of penance a person needed were called a penitential. The penitential tradition appears to have taken root with the Welsh monks first and then found its way to the Irish monks from there. The concept of healing by contraries was the basis for how the penitentials worked. An anamchara could look up the particular vice that an individual was suffering from and have at their disposal a selection of penances which would instill the opposite virtue. While Columbanus clearly ustilised the system of contraries in his penitential, it was Vinnian who first explicitly used it. In the penitential of Vinnian we are told,

“By contraries, as we said, let us make haste to cure contraries and to cleanse away the faults from our hearts and introduce virtues in their places. Patience must arise for wrathfulness; kindliness, or the love of God and of one’s neighbour, for envy; for detraction, restraint of heart and tongue; for dejection, spiritual joy; for greed, liberality.”

Because of the nuance of each soul and the uniqueness of each spiritual wound a person suffers from, Columbanus insisted that there can be no cookie cutter set of spiritual practices which every person needs to do in order to return to their original goodness. He used the word “offenses” in the quote from his penitential below which shows a very modern seeming understanding of anti-social behaviour as an illness which is to be treated rather than a crime which is to be punished. Even though the penances anamcharas would prescribe were often harsh by modern standards, the intention was restorative rather than punitive. For Columbanus, a person in the community committing offenses was suffering from an ailment and any consequences which they might receive were designed to heal them based on the principle of contraries. Columbanus described it like this,

“The diversity of offenses makes a diversity of penances. For doctors of the body also compound their medicines in diverse kinds…Then so also should spiritual doctors treat with diverse kinds of cures the wounds of souls, their sicknesses, offences, griefs, distresses, and pains.”

We must have an open mind in order to see the unique needs of every individual. By taking the time to fully understand the quality of a person’s suffering, and not just the outward actions which result from it, we are able to help that person heal. Not only must we be discerning in identifying the vice which a person struggles with but we must also be mindful that there is a great deal of nuance involved in naming the right contrary for each vice. For instance several contraries to anger exist: forgiveness, peace, patience, appreciation, etc. Depending on the subjective quality of your anger one or more of these may fit, or perhaps there is another virtue not mentioned here which is the true contrary to your vice. The question is: what original virtue is this vice a corruption of? Once you know that, you can work to instill that virtue and return your soul to the original goodness in which it was created.

What vices do you struggle with?

What virtues can you work to instill in order to heal them?


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