After several days of stalling, here are my reflections on the sin of Sloth. I think this is one of the most misunderstood and underestimated of the big seven.
Despite its status as a ‘Deadly Sin’ we don’t often think of Sloth as particularly deadly. Image is everything and when the sins got together and chose mascots, Sloth chose the sweetest, cuddliest one it could find. it is hard not to think of it as innocuous. How can something like this be deadly? When did a sloth kill anyone? It just doesn’t happen.
In 1986 Harper Magazine published a series of ads about each of the deadly sins. This is the ad that ran for Sloth:
We just don’t believe that Sloth is sin, or think that if its sin it really isn’t that bad. I mean aren’t we entitled to a little rest and relaxation? Certainly all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! But is this what Sloth is about? There is much more to Sloth than simply traversing the Protestant Work Ethic!
From Acedia to Sloth
Part of our confusion about Sloth, is that even within the Christian tradition it has undergone a sort of metamorphosis. One of the original eight thoughts (or passions) of Evagrius, it was originally called Acedia and referred to a a restless boredom that makes ordinary tasks seem too dull to bear (Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 74). In the West, Acedia was systemized as the Capital Sin of Sloth and the emphasis gradually shifted from internal struggle to exterior practice (Norris, Acedia & Me, 21). Acedia became Sloth, and Sloth was identified as merely laziness.
The difference between the two is significant. With “Sloth” the emphasis is on our inaction; with “Acedia” the emphasis was on an internal disposition irregardless of action or inaction. While the ideas are distinct, there is clearly overlap. Kathleen Norris says that Sloth and Acedia exist in a symbiotic relationship to one another (Sloth is Acedia‘s handmaiden, Acedia & Me, 12)
Getting to the Bottom of Acedia
The word Acedia, literally means ‘lack of care,’ which for me conjures up my father’s ‘you got potential’ lectures aimed at my under-achieving adolescence. “You could be at the top of your class, but your problem is you just don’t care.” I can quote the entire lecture verbatim and will one day pull it out of my parenting arsenal and against my will, thrust it on my own children. I hated that lecture and it wasn’t always fair; nevertheless my father’s point is a good one, when we care about something we diligently attend to it.
But spiritual writers were not concerned simply with are lack of diligence and apathy in general; rather they wanted us to attend to where laziness and lack of care have affected our relationship with God. For example, a workaholic businesswoman who crowds her schedule and time with activities and interests can still be guilty of Acedia by failing to cultivate her prayer life and attend to her own spiritual growth. The man who doesn’t go to church with his family but instead putzes at home is slothful regardless of how hard-working he is in his vocation. There is laziness and then there is laziness of the soul.
Basically Sloth is resistance to soul work. We resist the transformations that Love demands of us and instead opt for an easy existence and simply go with the flow. We perceive struggle ahead and rather than press forward we meander through our monotonous existence. Evagrius called Acedia the noon-day demon because it named the struggle desert monks had in staying committed to prayer in the heat of the desert sun. They were sleepy, their minds wandered and they had a hard time keeping their minds and hearts on God in prayer. The demonic temptation was to just let their commitment to God slide. It is precisely this failure to attend to one’s spiritual health that makes Sloth deadly.
If Acedia is an attitude of boredom and apathy and Sloth names laziness and inactivity, how do we conquer these tendencies in ourselves? The Desert and Monastic tradition suggests three practices designed to rein in our laziness, inattention, and listlessness. (The list below owes much to Kathleen Norris in Acedia & Me).
- Hard work. Seems obvious that the way to conquer laziness is by not being lazy and working hard. This is what the writer of Proverbs means when he advises the lazybones (sluggard) to look at ants (because as long as they aren’t doing anything, might as well find an anthill). Something about hard work frees us from our inner apathy, and allows us to press fully into joy of the Lord. If we stew on it, or fail to act, inertia carries us into further apathy and inaction; when we work, Acedia loses its stronghold.
- Stability. St. Benedict in his rule suggested a vow of stability in which monks committed to a particular place and didn’t wander from monastery to monastery. In a transient culture this is a value seldom practiced by sorely needed if we are to grow to spiritual maturity. When we fall victim to Acedia–that listless boredom and lack of commitment in the spiritual life–are tendency may be to run somewhere more fun or at least less monotonous. However, our growth often demands that we ‘stay in our cell’ and face ourselves. By committing to a place, you commit to community, to a way of life, and your practices. You decide to work through your issues and not bolt for the door.
- A Rule of Life. Another way to break the bondage of sloth and Acedia is through a ‘rule of life.’ A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines and commitments which provide structure and direction for your spiritual life. Communities often follow a rule, like the Benedictine Rule I mentioned above. People may also opt to write their own personal rule. I have lived under a rule when I lived in community in my twenties, doing an urban ministry program called Mission Year. Rather than finding the rules and regulations laid out for me restrictive, I found that they enabled me to stay on task and keep my priorities in place so that I could love God and others more effectively. This week I am working on a personal rule of life (I may share it here later, if I have the guts). Consider this practice, it may be worthwhile in conquering your inner sloth.
The fruit of pressing through Sloth is that we enter more fully into the joy of the Lord and experience more of his love and freedom.
May God break the power of Sloth in our hearts as we walk this Lenten journey together. But first look how cute this one is: