Quick. Ask yourself the last time you have heard a homily on the sin of sloth. If you are like me, it has been a long time, maybe never. Pride, greed, lust, and envy are regulars, but there is a good chance that sloth is a topic not often heard from the pulpit. Despite the fact that our church fathers and the Church itself teach of the dangers of sloth, it seems like maybe the most benign sin of all. Or is it?
Often termed acedia, sloth maybe one of the least well understood and agreed upon vices. But beyond simply being lazy, the Catechism teaches us that “acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God, and to be repelled by divine goodness” (No. 2094). Yet what is meant by divine goodness? Well, one way to consider His goodness is to understand that all of His creations, whether of a human, natural, or spiritual origin, are gifts from God meant to be shared with us. Yet in order to harvest these gifts, we first must act—in thought or deed—to open ourselves to the His graces. If the grace is forgiveness, then we must first seek to be forgiven. If the gift is our body, we must act to preserve and strengthen the temple we have been given. If the blessing is another, we must first act to love, give thanks, and apologize when the circumstances demand.
But in a world that prides itself on convenience and ease, sloth is increasingly branching out to prevent us from embracing the joy that He desires to give. Sometimes this joy might seem obvious, like taking a hike among beautiful terrain or going to a birthday party for our niece or celebrating a Mass with our fellow parishioners. But sometimes joy does not begin as joy, but rather as a hardship than could unveil a happier course. We would rather text a quick note than make the effort to have a difficult conversation in person. We would rather take a pill than vulnerably open up to a person about what truly ails us. We would rather distract ourselves in front of the television than contemplate and discuss steps to improve our situation at work. Pride might prevent us from seeing and acknowledging our other vices, but sloth blocks us from acting on what we need to do to improve them. If we are gluttonous, sloth may lead us away from opportunities to pursue a more disciplined, healthy life; if we are envious, it may retard our progress in seeking gratitude and contentment in our own life instead of desiring another. The more our slothful existence branches out, the more the light above becomes obstructed from view.
This commentary on sloth is not an assault on rest and play. Both are necessary in order to counterbalance various stressors that can easily leave us feeling worn and bedraggled. The sloth I am speaking of can be of any wholistic dimension, whether it be social, physical, psychological, or spiritual. At its core, it is an avoidance of a task that is of definite importance, and a gravitation towards an activity (or inactivity) that provides immediate relief only because it sidesteps something we should do. Many people might be quick to point out the chronic couch potato as slothful. But I would argue that we are slothful more so in what we think and say. As human beings, we repeatedly make excuses about why we can’t do things. “I just don’t have the time” or “Things are just too busy.” We have all heard ourselves and others utter these statements thousands of times. Sometimes they are true. But often they are a rationalization used to justify taking an easier course, and avoiding an action of importance.
So if the condition or sin (or both) of sloth really is this big of a concern, then what must we do to counteract its reach? Simple answers don’t abound, but the first course of action is to look at each day (and minute) as an opportunity for joy, not a likelihood for further failure. Those who struggle the most with this vice will tell that the less you do, the worse you feel, and the worse you feel, the more ashamed and immobilized you become. And so to extricate yourself from a slothful shroud, you must first consider that each reality provides an opportunity for a new joy—not on another’s terms, but on yours and His.
If I haven’t been out of bed for three days, then a walk to the front door could be occasion for a celebration, and a resolve to do it more. If I haven’t spoken to my brother in years, then a letter sent in the mail inviting him to meet in the park might evoke a smile, and a thought there might be more. If I haven’t scrubbed the bathroom floor in months (Honey, this is for you), then twenty minutes on my knees should make me feel good for what I have done, both for me and her.
And that really is the final message about sloth. Although it is far from the most benign of sins, it does have one silver lining: It might be the most readily reversible of them. Because the moment effort of body or mind moves forward on a meaningful, productive course, divine joy is there for the taking and progress of all kinds becomes real. It is then that the bare branches give way to flowers and leaves and fruit that feed us and the world that we live.