“The sadness of the good of others,
and more of the good of a brother,
it’s the sin that God
The City of God, XV, 7, 1.
More than four decades ago, on a visit I made to Cintio Vitier in his cubicle-cell of the National Library, he told me, I do not remember what issue: “Unamuno said that Spain’s national evil is envy, instead, that of Cuba is resentment.” Back then, I was almost a teenager and didn’t think too much about the phrase, but for some reason I didn’t forget it. Only now, closer to the end of my life than to its beginnings, do I return to the reasons that assisted the author of Niebla and that of The Cuban in poetry, about having found in the pages of Origins an essay by María Zambrano entitled “The Sacred Evils: Envy”.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines envy as “the sadness experienced for the good of one’s neighbour and the disorderly desire to possess it, even improperly” (CEC, 2539). It is one of the deadly sins, which St Augustine considered “the diabolical sin par excellence” perhaps because he was mindful of the book of Wisdom which states that “death entered the world by the envy of the Devil and his followers must suffer it” (Sat 2:24). Sacred Scripture is full of impressive examples: out of envy Cain killed his brother Abel (Gen 4:2-12), by envy the brothers of the visionary Joseph threw him into a dry well and then sold him as a slave (Gen 37:1-28), out of envy the rich man of the parable of the prophet Nathan stole the poor his only sheep (2S 12 , 1-4).
Like a viral disease, envy spreads around the world. The same is the case at the gates of homes, offices – high or low – that are introduced into intellectual institutions and even religious ones. In some people it is not a punctual fault, but it becomes a way of living and seeing the world. When envy becomes culture then it becomes its most ingrained expression, resentment.
Unamuno knew about this from his childhood. He had an older brother, single, bitter, who always saw With ojeriza the triumphs of Miguel. It is said that towards the end of his life a sign came to hang around his neck, saying, “Don’t come and tell me about my brother!” This helped him forge a novel like Abel Sánchez, where Cain and Abel’s drama becomes that of Joaquin and Abel. This Joaquin Monegro can confess in the account that: “I began to hate Abel with all my soul,” he tells us, and to propose to me both to hide that hatred, to pay it, to raise it, to care for him in the far reaches of the bowels of my soul. [So] I was born to hell in my life.” De Unamuno, envied and defamed by conservatives and socialists, against which he cast merciless anathema, wrote his compatriot Gregorio Marañón that he was owed “the deepest pages about the passion of resentment, insinuating and lethal morbidity of Spanish life”.
Zambrano gave origins a thoughtful excerpt on this evil, which he would later, revised, include in his book The Man and the Divine (1955).1 The Andalusian philosopher shows off her knowledge of classical cultures, her harmony with the thought of St Augustine and her closeness to some edges of thinkers such as Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset and , sharply, enters the dark interiorities of the envious to discover that process in which the image of others is disfigured and moves away to become “the other”.
Years ago I saw a medieval engraving depicting a kind of monster of remote human appearance, holding a snake in his arms and devouring his heart. It was the symbol of envy. The dangerous reptile always finds pretexts to slide into the vital organ, the same goes for economic differences, real or supposed advantages that some possess, the successes that certain athletes, artists, scientists or entrepreneurs obtain and even family happiness. Her bite inoculates a whole mob of resentments, already forever saddened by the joy of others, and willing to harm her to try to quench the ardant of her frustrations.
A country where envious evil proliferates will be able to beget a new man, on the contrary, it will be like a terrestrial hell. The pages of Mary should be put next to the homily of Pope Francis, delivered in the Casa Santa Marta, on January 21, 2016, in the feast of Saint Aés, virgin and martyr, in the effort to examine us and seek to uproot from our field an evil that leads to violence and spiritual death:
“In the heart, jealousy or envy grows like weed: it grows and does not let the good grass grow. Everything he thinks makes him shade, makes him sick. He’s never at peace! It’s a tormented heart, an ugly heart! Moreover, the envious heart – as we hear here – leads to death. And Scripture makes it clear: by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.
“And I, thinking and reflecting on this passage of Scripture, invite myself and everyone to look for whether there is any jealousy in my heart, some envy, that always leads to death and does not make me happy. Because this disease leads us to see how good there is in each other as if it were against you. And this is an ugly sin! It’s the beginning of so many, so many criminalities. Let us ask the Lord to give us the grace not to open our hearts to jealousy, not to open our hearts to envy, because these things always lead to death.
“Envy – according to Pilate’s interpretation, which was very intelligent, but cowardly! – is the one that brought Jesus to death. The instrument, the last instrument. He had been given it out of envy. Let us also ask the Lord for the grace of never giving, out of envy, a brother to death, a sister of the parish, of the community, nor to a neighbor of the ward: everyone has his sins, each has his virtues. They’re each other’s own. Seeing good and not killing with gossip, envy or jealousy.”
1 In this book it appears in the third section, entitled “The Processes of the Divine”, the text “Earth hell: envy”; its first part is the one that appeared in Origins, to it is added a second, called “Earth Hell: The Shadow”.