You’ve heard of pride, greed, lust, and envy … but have you ever heard of acedia? Sloth is another term for it. And despite the fact that the Church fathers were vocal about the dangers of sloth, today it’s practically ignored, as if it is the most benign sin of all. But is it?
Acedia may be one of the least understood vices. It is more than simple laziness. The Catechism teaches us:
“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).
What does that mean? Well, one way to consider God’s goodness is to understand that all of His creations, whether of human, natural, or spiritual origin, are gifts from God meant to be shared. Yet in order to harvest these gifts, we first must act—in thought or deed—to open ourselves to 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 it, in order to be able to enjoy it as gift. If the blessing is another person, we must act to love, give thanks, and apologize when the circumstances demand, so as to maintain the relationship with this blessing.
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 that 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 vices, but sloth blocks us from acting on what we need to do to improve. 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.
At its core, sloth is an avoidance of a task that is of definite importance, and a gravitation toward 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.
What must we do to counteract the condition or sin (or both) of sloth?
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 experience 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, then 20 minutes on my knees should make me feel good for what I have done.
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 as soon as 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.
Read about further insights and experiences of acedia here: