Virtue or Vice? Depends on Your Rituals

The Washington Monthly went with “The Bookie of Virtue.” Newsweek picked “The Man of Virtues Has a Vice.” Everyone focused on the person involved: Did Bennett really avoid spending “the milk money,” as he claimed? Did he, as we delicately put it, “have a problem,” or was he just having fun? But I wasn't thinking about the person — or even the action of gambling, which Bennett has announced he will cease — so much as the place.

Gambling can happen in all kinds of settings. Columnist Maggie Gallagher learned to play poker from her father at their kitchen table. Friends of mine bet on the Oscars every year. But gambling at big-time casinos isn't quite like other kinds of gambling, because casinos aren't quite like other places.

Casinos are carefully designed to foster gambling to the point of addiction: no clocks, no windows, free drinks. In many casinos the machines near the door, teasingly, pay out more than the machines further in. The concentration of casinos in Las Vegas creates a special culture — from the moment you step off the airplane, you're conditioned to feel like you're stepping into a different world.

That feeling is thrilling — and dangerous. That feeling of leaving the everyday world behind is how rituals begin. The rituals of the casino world are meant to coax you into forgetting your tight finances and your self-imposed limits. At their worst, the casino rituals are meant to draw you into addictive gambling.

As Catholics, we usually think of rituals as beautiful and useful. The rituals of the Mass remind us where we are, draw us away from distracting everyday concerns and pull us into relationship with Christ.

But there's another kind of ritual: the rituals of addiction and sinful habits. I recently read the section in Elyse Fitzpatrick and Carol Cornish's Christian counseling handbook Women Helping Women on counseling addicted women. The book pointed out the ways in which all sins strive to become like addictions: Sins want to become, first, recurring temptations, then habits and then finally addictions that control our lives. And so sins use rituals in order to sink their claws in deep.

We often surround our addictions and sinful habits with a cluster of rituals: We go to particular places, perform particular actions. An addicted smoker might go out on the balcony and tap the cigarette against the pack; an adulterer might turn the family photograph against the wall so the spouse won't “see.” The rituals ease us into a behavior pattern that feels set, unbreakable, intensely familiar. Instead of focusing us and drawing us into a closer relationship with Christ, in the rituals of sin we're trying to lose ourselves, so that we don't have to think too hard about what we're doing. Instead of a ritual of love, we're drawn into a ritual of separation and self-destruction. Sin rituals are meant to muffle the conscience and blank out the mind.

These rituals also play on our love of fate and the inevitable — our flight from responsibility. We frequently hate freedom of choice, because it imposes the difficult responsibility of choosing rightly. Our self-destructive rituals make us feel like the culmination of the ritual — the sin itself — is inevitable. It's much harder to stop a ritual process midway than to avoid the process entirely, because rituals, like the casinos, are set up as conveyor belts meant to draw us deep into a particular mind-set.

This idea has several practical consequences. If you want to exploit ritualized sin, you work hard to create an atmosphere in which sin seems inevitable, normal, easy. If you want to avoid sin, on the other hand, you need to first recognize which rituals you use to ease the path to sin. Then, figure out ways to avoid or disrupt those rituals.

For example, say you find yourself getting drunk in a local bar after work. There are a lot of questions you need to ask — are you drinking because you're lonely? Because you haven't found a good way to relax? Because work upsets you? But you should also take action to disrupt what is fast becoming a ritualized sin. Why not drive out to a park after work and take a walk instead or go to church to pray?

Women Helping Women suggested, among other things, making a “who? what? where? when? why?” list describing the circumstances in which you habitually give in to temptation. The list will help you understand the roots of your recurring temptations. It can also help you devise ways to disrupt sinful patterns and replace them with patterns that focus you on Christ rather than draw you to sin. Through self-knowledge, you can get off the conveyor belt and leave behind the willful blindness of ritualized sin.

Former Register staff writer Eve Tushnet is known for her popular blog,