I’d like to speak this Laetare Sunday about sloth, one of the seven capital sins. Sloth fits the occasion for two reasons: 1) it’s suggested by today’s readings, and 2) it may be the sin where there is the widest gap between the popular understanding (laziness or lack of ambition) and the Church’s understanding (spiritual sadness).
1) The theme in the readings that sloth touches on is the sin of the “lost sabbaths.” According to 2 Chronicles, God permitted Israel’s exile in order “to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: ‘Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,/ during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest/ while seventy years are fulfilled.’” God had commanded Israel to keep not only a Sabbath day, but a Sabbath year. Every seventh year, the land was supposed to “rest” in the Lord, to lay fallow and uncultivated (Lev 25:2). Apparently, Israel had been working their land during the Sabbath years, and God was not pleased that they were not resting. Israel, according to the popular understand, was not being “slothful” enough. Strange.
2) Something stranger still: the great Christian tradition classifies sloth as a sin against the Sabbath command (ST II-II 36.3). Here it becomes clear how far the Christian understanding of sloth is from the popular notion of laziness. But it makes sense once you understand what the great tradition means by sloth: namely, “sadness” at the “divine good within us.” And this sadness—when yielded to—naturally prevents us from resting in God, from partaking of Sabbath joy. Hence, the connection between sloth and the Sabbath command.
Why would the “divine good within us” make us sad? The “divine good in us” is simply of talking about our upward calling, the spiritual greatness for which God has created us. But since this spiritual project is ongoing, since it calls us to die ever more to our old selves and to imitate Him more closely, the greatness of our calling can actually become a source of sadness.
A familiar example: imagine that you’ve just fought with your husband/wife for the hundredth time about the same old thing. The honeymoon is over. Living together now requires effort and swallowing one’s pride. Hurtful words were said, and you’ve sulked off to the opposite side of the house. And as you sit there alone, you know you need to apologize, to change for the relationship, to resolve to die to yourself—and the very thought turns your stomach. You know what love requires, and you avoid it. That’s sloth at the human level. In our heads we might “know” that marriage is a great good, but contemplating the transformation it requires may still fill us with sadness.
If we replace that husband/wife with God, we have a pretty good approximation of spiritual sloth. As our second reading reminds us, we were “created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” Because we were “created in Christ Jesus,” to love as He loved, the Christian life is one of ongoing conversion. We were not created with good works, but for the good works that we must grow into. Sometimes we reach a point in our relationship with God where going forward requires change, parting with an old pleasure, confessing and repenting the same sins for years. Again, in our heads we “know” that our relationship with God is a great good, but, when we envision what cultivating this divine friendship will cost, we are nonetheless filled with sadness.
But isn’t this just laziness? Well … yes, and no. Laziness is often a symptom of sloth. Let’s return to the married couple. If neither wants to address the core problem of the relationship, they might simply stop investing in it. They might agree to live as strangers or to separate. This would be like the “lazy” response to sloth. But many more people first respond with a burst of energy, a burst directed at everything but the change in themselves they need to make. The husband might paint the house, remodel the kitchen, ramp up the exercise routine—any project that provides a distraction from the sadness yet doesn’t require fundamental change.
It’s easy to imagine how this might apply to our relationship with God. We might not quit the practice of our faith altogether, but we’ll put all our real energy in other projects: constant amusements, workaholism, rote prayers hastily said etc. He who cannot enter into joyful rest, must stay busy. The psychiatrist Victor Frankl coined the term “Sunday Neurosis.” It referred to the “vacuum of meaning” that people find when they are given a chance to rest rather than work. Older people go into a tailspin after retirement, depression spikes around the holidays, younger people get drunk to fill their weekends. If we have been using busyness to distract ourselves from a state of sloth, we will have problems with stillness, silence, rest.
Are there remedies for sloth? The tradition doesn’t give any magic bullets. It tells us that the key is basically to stay the course. St. Ignatius Loyola says that when we’re in spiritual desolation, we must never change our spiritual routine. As in a marriage we keep doing those dishes and keep kissing our husband or wife goodbye when leaving for work, even when the feelings lag; so in our relationship with God, we must be faithful. To daily prayer. To Mass. To confessing those same old sins.
But the given the basic shape that sloth most often takes in contemporary society—frantic pace, channel surfing, endless amusement, overwork—I would recommend one other thing: reclaiming our “lost Sabbaths.” Perhaps we could dedicate our Sundays more to prayer, to works of charity, to fasting from media, and to entering into the joy and rest of the Lord. Laetare—“Rejoice”—Sunday, would be a great day to start.