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Consolation & Desolation… What are “spiritualized capital sins”?

Dear Father John, you used the phrase “spiritualized capital sins” in your post on consolation and desolation. I have never heard this idea before. What are spiritualized capital sins and how do they “attempt” to re-conquer the soul as we mature?

st michael the archangel for post on spiritualized capital sinsWe have to remember that here on earth we are members of the Church militant. We are in the midst of a battle. As we grow spiritually, the enemies of our souls (the devil and his demons) don’t sit idly by. Did you know that the Church’s most notable heresiarchs (people who start heresies) were almost all priests in their forties? Pelagius, Arius, Apollinaris, Nestorius… These were all men of God, passionately dedicated to the Church and to seeking deeper intimacy with Christ, advanced in theological knowledge and in the spiritual life. Who would have guessed that they would become instruments of ecclesial devastation and spiritual shipwreck? And yet, they did. We can never forget this: as we grow spiritually, the battle doesn’t go away.

But our enemies are smart. They know that temptation has to be customized to the situation of the person being tempted. They can’t invent new sins (the seven capital sins are always the primary categories for sinful behavior), but they can disguise them in new ways. So, for someone who is well along the road towards spiritual maturity, the tempters will have to clothe the capital sins in spiritual garments.

“Spiritualized” Capital Sins

For example, the inclination to vanity can appear in a subtle desire to have one’s new and advanced piety noticed. You start trying to draw attention to the outward manifestation of your devotion. Or you find yourself seeking to impress your spiritual director – hiding real struggles from them, lest they think you are less holy than you want to appear. You may even switch spiritual directors, not for any objective reason, but simply because you don’t want to follow anyone’s advice except your own.

The inclination to pride can show up in a sort of complacency in your religious works. You think you are really doing well, and so you start planning all kinds of great spiritual projects, but you don’t actually follow through on any of them. Or, you start talking about spiritual things with other people just to give them lessons, instead of seeking ways to put the lessons into practice yourself.

In the area of sensuality, you can become attached to the consolations that God has given you in your prayer and sacramental life. So you find yourself trying to force certain emotional reactions during your meditation or after Communion. You start to seek spiritual feelings too much, forgetting that the goal of holiness is union with God in mind and will, not feelings of consolation. You can even begin to become attached to friendships or relationships that seem to be based on spiritual values, but in truth you invest in them because of the emotional payback you feel instead of the mutual spiritual support they are supposed to provide; this can become a kind of spiritual lust. Spiritual greed can take the form of an insatiable desire to read every spiritual book, to accumulate rosaries and holy cards and icons, to jump around from devotion to devotion trying to imbibe the entire spiritual patrimony of the Church all at once even to the neglect of life’s basic duties (like one’s responsibilities to family members), instead of seeking patiently to go deep in the essentials.

Keeping Our Eye on the Ball: “Thy Will Be Done – Not Mine!”

These are some examples. You can find a more systematic summary of this spiritual trap in Fr. Tanquerey’s treatise on the spiritual life, #’s 1262-1269. We need to know that these types of attachments and self-absorption are possible and that they can hinder spiritual progress as much as the less subtle sins. But we need not become obsessed with them. As always in the spiritual life, the compass and anchor remain the same: I love God by accepting and fulfilling his will in each moment of my life. That’s the litmus test, and that’s the surest guide through the shadows and tangles of this earthly pilgrimage – as sure a guide for us as it was for Jesus: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34).


Art for this post spiritualized capital sins: Modified Michael the Archangel. A 13th-century Byzantine icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai, 13th century, anonymous Byzantine painter, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Guest

    Thank you so much for this.  You have summarized the spiritual journey, as I have known it, very well:  We must always be mindful that as we grow spiritually, the tempters will clothe the capital sins in spiritual garments.  We must keep our eyes on Him.

  • Mbtvalli

    Very helpful and concise.  Thank you!

  • Becky Ward

    So glad to see this!

    I just had a conversation with someone about there being a spiritual side to many things. For instance we can usually identify the physically poor and hungry, the homeless and the sick. But what about those who are spiritually poor and hungry, homeless and sick? Do we know them when we see them? Are we one of them? 

  • AnnieB

    Am I the only one who despairs of ever doing the right thing for the right reason? It seems a very narrow path at times.

    • Sasha

      Oh, AnnieB, seeing this comment was like reading my own thoughts! No you are not alone, I feel like that most of the time too – and then I feel guilty for despair. I have no advice or answers, just the very small comfort of solidarity.

    • Clare Northern

      I am THERE- with you-thank you,

    • AnnieB, like Sasha, your comment is exactly what I have just asked my SD….I raised it because I have just come back from the Rural  Parish where we went to arrange the dates to take the Message of Divine Mercy…I felt so happy we were able to agree that the Outreach date will be on Sunday the  of 11th March and the Training of Trainers Day on the 31st March.  This means that we shall prepare the Christians of this Parish which has 9 Local Churches with a population of around 1,500 Faithful to celebrate the Feast of the Divine Mercy on 15th April as Jesus dictated to Saint Faustina.  When I got home I asked him whether this joy I am feeling is right because, like you, AnnieB, I agonize often whether I am doing the right things  for the right reasons at times to the point of desparing….when these doubts assail me, I just throw myself at the feet of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament during the 3.00 O’clock Holy Hour – The Hour of Great Mercy – and beg Him to grant me the Virtue of Humility….I am now waiting to read this Post to my SD and hear his comments and advice

  • Joseph

    This is an eye opener which is funny because I read about these things but never really identified them in my own spiritual journey. However, it also raises a question in my conduct which is:

    “Suppose there people either priests or those in charge of many things in the parish who promote things that are not taught by Holy Mother Church and in some cases condemned. Is it spiritual pride to feel an uncontrollable anger towards such things?”

    An example could be married lay people who always give homilies during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass much against the teaching of GIRM #66 OR a ‘senior Mass server’ distributing scared vessels with Holy Communion to extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (GIRM #162) OR  extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion coming en masse so that the priest would then choose to or is forced to sit at Communion time so they can do it. Or people offering to take pre-school kids out of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for Sunday school when they should be learning from their parents etc etc …

    Is it spiritual pride/ ‘holier than thou’ attitude to be angered by any of these things at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
    Fr John as someone who says Mass what is your advise when these things take place? Does one go with the flow, does one say a silent act of contrition or this constitutes judging others?

  • Joseph

    Sorry question again: I do not want to talk at all before, during or after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and so I have become a problem for others in that I do not respond if spoken to in the house of the Lord. The last time I was pressed by my son’s Catechism teacher to talk, I whispered that I don’t talk in Church.
    Sometimes I kneel longer with a pensive expression so that those who want to talk will be annoyed with me and just walk past without saying anything. Is this pride or a ‘holier than thou attitude.

    See, my theory is that ‘if the first Temple that King Solomon built was so Holy that the Glory of God shown and filled it after the dedication and it contained the Ark and its contents that were ‘types’ of Jesus Christ (the bread, tablets of law and stuff of Aaron) and Mary (the Ark); then how much more sacred are Catholic Church buildings that house the King of kings Himself enthroned body, soul and Divinity in the Tabernacle (Lk 11:31; Mtt 12:42).

    Could this be also spiritual pride, that secretly I think I love and honor God more than others or may be ‘a holier than thou attitude’?

    • Flo2010

      You said it yourself:  “so that those who want to talk will be annoyed with me and just walk past without saying anything.”

      Praying isn’t about teaching others a lesson…although that is a side-effect of your actions, God Willing. It is about the Lord and Him Alone.

  • Sandy

    This journey is an ongoing battle.  We must live in God’s will while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.  This is easy to say, but very hard to do.  Thank goodness we have the sacraments and prayer readily available.

  • Jcbf19

    I just love this! Father, you always tell it like it is, but with such good humor and fraternal charity that even when it stings a little, it’s a pain I am thankful for, and the weakness illuminated is one I have a sense of confidence in being able to break through or move beyond! 

  • sue

    Nice icon of Michael!  
    Joseph:  I take the good where I find it (3 different liturgies) and avoid what aggravates me.  At Christmas I told someone they simply had to go to a certain church for Mass – it was decorated so beautifully (I love pretty churches).  I said, why would you go to that Mass in the church basement!?  She said, doesn’t matter, it’s what’s in your heart.  

  • Rowenalitorja

    Dear Father John,
    St. John of the Cross goal is to discern if the night is in Consolation or Desolation and as far as I remembered, the word consolation in the soul comes from God and desolation comes from the evil spirit like temptations. Cosolation is peace inspiration toward good, faith and love for God.

    • Clanci45

      Where can I find something to read on this? It sounds like something which might help me

  • New Catholic Guest

    This is a very helpful article!!  Could I bother you with another question? I am a new convert and I am very confused about all of this. Since my conversion I feel like I am starving for anything spiritual that I can get my hands on. I just want to read and pray all the time. I really look forward to the time I get to read and pray. It’s been good for my children and my husband because they are also becoming stronger in their faiths. I feel like I need to make up for all of the years I missed and there is so much to learn! Every time I read somthing new I feel so wonderful because it further affirms my faith and helps me so much. I feel like I just found God and the Blessed Mother and I just want to spend time with them.  I do feel consolation, but have gone through days of deep desolation. It has been a batttle (I think) Praying and reading helps me to reject the desolation. Is this spiritual gluttony? Greed? Am I committing sins? Help! Thank you and God Bless!

    • Becky Ward

      Welcome Home!! 🙂

      Praying and reading are very good ways to get through periods of desolation.

      Since you are married you need to make sure that your spiritual activities/devotions do not get in the way of your duties as a wife and mother.  Keeping things in balance is one of the key things to remember.

      If you are at all concerned about something, mention it when you go to confession.

      God Bless!

      • New Catholic Guest

        Thank you Becky! That was kind and helpful! I will remember to be balanced with my home life and just keep praying! God Bless you!

  • Suzacon

    I hated reading this article. Not because it was poorly written, or that I disagree with its contents, but because it hurts, I saw too much of me, and it is too close to the truth. 

    • Becky Ward

      What a blessing that you recognize this!! I’m praying for you!

    • Suzacon, do not feel discouraged.  This Website is there to guide us in our journey to our Heavenly Home. As Becky tells you below, it is a great blessing that you recognize where you need to direct your fight to conquer your vices with the opposite Virtues. Frequent Holy Communion and the Sacrament of Reconciliation will give you the strength you need to subdue the enemy of your soul….so do not despair….believe me, many of us have recognized ourselves in this Post…but instead of being discouraged, we are actually thankful that Fr. John has shown us where to direct our Spiritual Combat….now that you know the disguises your enemy uses to trip you, Jesus is standing next to you to give you all the Graces you need to defend yourself….and He is fighting with you, too….so turn to Him in total Trust and allow Him to hold you by the hand and walk with you….He is just waiting for you to invite Him

  • Wow, that bit about “spiritual greed” really hit the mark for me. Lately I’ve been spending a lot more time reading Catholic books / website articles / blogs than I do actually *praying*, and yes it does have an effect on responsibilities to my family, workplace, etc. I always just put it down to poor time management–who wants to “patiently go deep in the essentials” when I’m only one Catholic Lane article away from having a perfect grasp of the Distributism vs. Austrian School debate in light of Catholic social teaching? etc. etc.–so this is a new perspective. (True, blogluttony is how I ran across this post, but I’m hoping that was providential 😉

    Thanks Father John!

  • LizEst

    Wonderful to read this in print. It helps to have the right words to describe these things.

    Thank you Father John.
    ps. Thanks for that link as well. It’s a treasure trove of spiritual literature.

  • AnaMercedes

    I’m grateful for your guidance Father.  Truly, I pray that we learn from you many things: spiritual and human… like doing more through the good use of today’s technology.  You are reaching numbers of souls, and we benefit greatly.  Let’s pray for one another because the more we commit to be faithful to Christ, the more we become a target in the spiritual battle for the souls.
    God Bless us all,

  • Thank you, Fr. John for this Post which has hit most of us where we live….as I commented below to AnnieB’s agony, I had raised a similar question with my SD after I returned home yesterday from a successful Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy Outreach Mission….and  when I later opened my Laptop, Providence was ready with your Post… I invited him to read it and give me his views….he agrees with you entirely…..we discussed the joy I feel when, say, we have succeeded in our Apostolate as we did yesterday….I told him when this joy fills me, I am immediately assailed by self-doubts as to whether this joy is because I am thankful that God has fulfilled His Will through me, or whether it is not my punny proud me who is trying to pat herself on the back and take credit for the success…as you state, it appears to me the tempter could now  be approaching me in spiritual garments….my not trusting myself and, instead throwing myself at the Feet of Jesus during the 3.00 O’Clock Holy Hour and begging His forgiveness, seeking advice  and guidance from my SD (as I was doing) and bringing these doubts during Confession, I felt are the effective ways to fight the tempter…he told me he would re-read the Post and give me appropriate guidance. The fight is tough, Father, but not matter how many times I fall – and believe me I fall oh so often – I just have to wake up and fight on….my Eternal destination rests on my never giving up no matter how often I am knocked down.

  • judeen

    i stuggled with this.. seen people with rows of holy metals on , and thought oh I wont do that.. so on.. yet in my own way I did this.. my bed room is filled with Holy Pictures – someone else bought.. I just hung. books on spiritual reading.. hungery for knowledge to grow deeper into love with God.. all I want to talk about is God.. yet is that loving my neighbor.. ? making them shut the door? i hate gossip, and everything else is empty… only thing is God… that is good to talk about.. but hey wait.. am I drowning in my own self centeredness?

  • Glennann

    So much to learn…God is faithful and will always help us in our spiritual desolation if we keep seeking and praying.  Christians are need never to be defeated

  • patricia

    Yes Father we will be tempted according to our situation and disposition of soul. We are always dealing with angelic intelligence when being tempted by the devil we need to recognize it. You are right Father we should never hide our struggles from our spiritual directors and regular confessors. They can not help us or discern if we are not honest with them. Sometimes being honest can be the most painful but is rewarding because Gods love and mercy and grace are given to the souls that trust with a child like spirit. Thank you for sharing Father. God bless always!!!

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