Sloth in Drag

It would be easy — too easy — to toss off Sloth as a sin that only afflicted the lazy. My initial instincts in writing about this deadly sin led me to do just that. But friends pointed out to me that there’s another and subtler form it takes, which occurs among the busiest workaholics. You know, the kind of person targeted in Harry Chapin’s insidiously catchy song:
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son,
You know we’ll have a good time then.
You know we’ll have a good time then.
It’s one of those 70s ditties you’ve heard wafting in the waiting rooms of bail bondsmen and psychiatrists more times than you care to admit, and it’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it? You might think you can drive it out with another tune, but you’ll find that this is the kind of song that requires prayer and fasting.

Sorry I had to do that. But the song really does point to the fact that millions of modern people are content to fill the void that is their spiritual lives with incessant, often invented activities. Speaking of the 1970s, remember all the pointless crazes that filled that abysmal decade? In a mere 10 years, our culture was subjected to:

mood rings,
biorhythm calculators,
CB radios,
roller disco,
pet rocks,
swingers’ retreats,
anti-disco rallies,
hair metal, and
the Novus Ordo Missae.

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Clearly, we had way too much time on our hands. The energy we’d stopped putting into wholesome (if, on the surface, oddball) activities such as fasting, all-night vigils, Eucharistic processions, and child-rearing needed some outlet, however pointless. A few Catholics really did become committed to serving the poor under the rubric of “social justice,” but for most of us the gradual demolition of the “oppressive” structure of pre-1970 Catholicism became a pretext for self-indulgence of the lowest, dullest order.
Remember that in the 1920s (and 1820s, 1720s, and all the way to the 420s), the mass of people lived in sparsely functional homes but lavished their extra wealth on decorating their places of worship. In the 1970s, we threw this engine into reverse. We focused on making our homes into comfy, high-tech palaces, while churches were stripped of ornament, thrown together out of cheap concrete, ornamented by chintzy abstract windows, crappy banners, and ficus trees. But at least the pews and kneelers had plenty of padding. Indeed, there’s an almost perfect ratio, I’ve found, between how ugly a modern church is and how comfortable is the seating. Go to churches in rural Italy or Mexico, where people either stand or kneel on floors to gaze up at jewel-encrusted masterworks devoted to glorifying God, then toddle off to some monstrous new cathedral that looks like a Sam’s Club, and you’ll see the point: Sloth can also take the form of misplaced priorities. We’re ignoring that mysterious lump we keep feeling under the skin, sending Twitter updates to all our friends about the progress of our acupuncture.
Those of us who have filled up our days with works and tasks that, piled up, really do seem like legitimate reasons for keeping our religious life to a minimum need to make a sharp turn in the opposite direction. One might start by violently truncating a single range of activities — by getting rid of your iPod and Blackberry, for instance, and insisting on some time during the day when you are both silent and unreachable. Use that time for some idiot-simple repetitive prayer, like the rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet. It might seem useless at first, but it surely can’t do any harm. (Indeed, we have assurance in the forms of dozens of creepy, wonder-working apparitions that such prayer makes a huge difference in the world, but never mind that for now.) Spend more time with nature, even if it comes in the form of a long walk through Central Park. A good meditation to counter workaholic Sloth can be found in the work of Catholic poet Charles Peguy. In fact, the busier you are, the more you should make time to read his beguiling The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. It pictures Hope as a little girl who leads the other, adult virtues of Faith and Love along by the hand. As Peguy writes:
Human wisdom says
Don’t put off until tomorrow
What can be done the very same day.
But I tell you that he who knows how to put off until tomorrow
Is the most agreeable to God
He who sleeps like a child
Is also he who sleeps like my darling Hope.
And I tell you
Put off until tomorrow
Those worries and those troubles which are gnawing at you today
Put off until tomorrow those sobs that choke you
When you see today’s unhappiness.
Those sobs which rise up and strangle you.
Put off until tomorrow those tears which fill your eyes and your head,
Flooding you, rolling down your cheeks, those tears which stream down your cheeks.
Because between now and tomorrow, maybe I, God, will have passed by your way.
Human wisdom says: Woe to the man who puts off what he has to do until tomorrow.
And I say
Blessed, blessed is the man who puts off what he has to do until tomorrow.
Blessed is he who puts off.
That is to say, blessed is he who hopes. And who sleeps.
Still another form that Sloth takes — indeed, the reason it was included in the Seven Deadly Sins — is the rather elusive syndrome called Accedia. The monks who struggled with it called it the “noonday devil,” and spiritual writer Kathleen Norris has penned an instructive book on the subject called Accedia and Me. This condition entails spiritual weariness, even dreariness, and it often afflicts the most pious or industrious souls partway along their journey toward holiness. Those whose vocation is marriage might know it as the “seven-year itch.” For parents, this is the age at which most children cease to be quite so cute. Slowly but insidiously, the good things we have striven and sacrificed for no longer seem entirely . . . worth it. Instead of keeping our eye on the prize, we start to total up the costs a goal has imposed upon our lives and look forward to the unending decades of effort that still lie ahead of us. We realize the stark ugly truth that

At age 50, and again at age 60, I will still be married to this person.
Till the day I turn 65, I will be teaching these same damn books I used to love. Why did those bloody monks have to save them from oblivion?
They’re going to bury me at this desk. Or take me to the taxidermist and have me stuffed and mounted.
At age 35, this kid will still be living in my apartment. Is being a mammal really worth it? At least reptiles can lay eggs, then scurry away.

Day in, day out, the same thing over and over again — we seem to feel that burden all at once, and the theological truth that God will never burden us beyond our strength starts to sound like a pious fable. Our favorite Bible verse becomes the line from Job: “Curse God and Die.” (Which makes, by the way, an imposing bumper sticker.)
Accedia afflicts priests and religious, parents, activists in worthy causes like the pro-life movement (those on the other side never seem to burn out quite as quickly — they have “little helpers” with names like Moloch), dedicated teachers, brave firemen, and honest cops. St. Thomas Aquinas warns that Accedia, unacknowledged and unanswered, is a sure road to despair and can lead even to suicide. It rarely urges us to sin, even by omission, but rather allows us to slog through our daily duties, jaundiced by a sickly tint of dismay and even disgust. Pleasures can start to weary us, and the prospect of Heaven seem not so much unattainable as irrelevant.
Having never really suffered from Accedia, I can’t offer expert advice at how to counter it, but I can draw on my ethnic heritage to help those uninterested in Heaven: Think of Hell instead.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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