Because of the fall of our first parents, we come into this world with an inclination to evil, that is, with certain basic tendencies that incline us away from the goal for which we were created - union and friendship with God. The New Catholic Catechism lists these inclinations as follows: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth (#1866).
These inclinations are not sins in themselves, but they give rise to sins when one acts knowingly and willingly under their influence; and one will act under their influence unless disciplined by the practice of the Christian virtues with the aid of divine grace. Those seven inclinations are commonly referred to as capital sins, not because they are the greatest of sins, but because they can and do give rise to many other kinds of sin. For example, the inclination to pride can be the root source and cause of one breaking every one of the ten commandments.
Every sin is an action against some particular virtue, the purpose of which is to direct our actions Godward in accordance with the light of reason enlightened by faith. Among the capital sins there is one, spiritual sloth (also called acedia), which is directly opposed to the love of God and the joy that results from generosity in His service.
Charity is an infused virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourself because they are His children and members of His Mystical Body. It is a virtue which establishes a friendship between God and ourselves. “You are My friends if you do the things I command you” (Jn. 5:14). As a rule one delights in the presence of a friend, and that should be especially true of one whose love for another is motivated by charity, for one of the effects of charity is joy (Cf. St.Thos. II II,28). However, friendship with God has its obligations, and those obligations can in time come to be seen as burdens, as joy-killers rather than sources of joy; and can give rise to a sadness that stands in the way of fulfilling those obligations. “This peculiar sadness,” comments Fr. F. Cunningham, O.P., “which leads to a neglect of the spiritual duties that flow from sharing in God’s friendship is called sloth . . . a kind of spiritual paralysis that leads to the neglect of our duties” (The Christian Life, p. 424). To examine this problem more deeply, it will be useful to look a bit more in detail at the kind of joy that is proper to charity, and the kind of sadness that is proper to sloth.
The saints are singled out for their great love of God, because perfect charity is the essence of Christian perfection; and that love fills their heart with great joy. It is the joy of knowing and experiencing how much they are loved by their divine Friend whose goodness is beyond their capacity to comprehend. It is the joy of being appreciative of the priceless gifts He has bestowed on them, namely: a share in His own divine life through sanctifying grace - bringing the indwelling of the divine Person of the Trinity in their soul; a share in His own divine love and truth through the infused virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit; a knowledge of the eternal beatitude to which they are called if they remain in His friendship; and the divine gifts (the sacraments) He has given them to help attain that end.
Where there is charity, there is joy. And where that joy is found, the divine life of love is lived more intensely. Joy, therefore, is both an effect of charity and an aid in its exercise - whether that charity be exercised by the scrubbing lady or by one in authority, whether it involves failures or successes.
This joy, however, has nothing to do with the feelings. It is rooted not in the body, but in the will, and is compatible even with suffering, as St. Paul declared: “I rejoice in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking in the suffering of Christ I fill up in my flesh for His Body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24).
It is not something experienced only by those who have received the gift of mystical prayer, but all who strive to be faithful to their divine Friend. It is not blotted out by the sorrow of the loss of a friend, or by setbacks beyond one’s power to control, for the will of God is seen and accepted. The more one is aware of God’s love and wisdom and concern for us in the midst of trials, misfortunes and sickness, the more he will be buoyed up and maintain a joyous trust and surrender to his divine Friend. The joy of charity is not insensitive to sorrow and suffering, it is accompanied by a deep confidence and loving trust that God can use every situation for our good and the good of others.However, if one allows this knowledge and awareness to be overshadowed or blotted out by worldly concerns and occupations so that he becomes unmindful of God’s indwelling presence and the priceless gifts he has received, he is gradually deprived of that underlying joy that gives all Christian life its flavor. If his whole attention is fixed on the sorrows, the misery and misfortunes of life, he has not only blocked off the source of Christian joy, but is preparing the way for an actual distaste for divine things that will tempt him to choose what is not compatible with friendship with God.
The human heart must have joy, and if it is not forthcoming from one’s friendship with God, one will begin to look for it elsewhere to fill that need. As Aristotle, the pagan philosopher, declared: “No one can long remain in sadness without any joy” (Ethics, VIII,5). And when spiritual joys are absent because of one’s own negligence, he will not delay in seeking pleasures of a worldly nature. This condition is accompanied by a gradual disdain for the things of God because of the effort and sacrifices they require. Such a one is drawn more and more to the attractions of the flesh, and less and less to the joys of the spirit. In place of those joys that flowed from the love of God and the use of the means of grace, there has developed a spiritual boredom that has brought an actual distaste for spiritual things that formerly brought joy. This condition to which one has drifted is called spiritual sloth.
Sloth, as understood in theology, is a sadness or dejection of the will about the divine good one possesses, and arises from a lack of esteem for that good, and for one’s last end and the means to attain it. It occasions an aversion or repugnance in the will to the output of energy - whether physical or intellectual - in the service of God, and a tendency to negligence, arising from a lack of desire for, and joy in the divine good. To clarify more precisely what is sloth and the sadness it occasions, it will be helpful to see what it is not.
The sadness of sloth is not the same as spiritual dryness, which, in divine trials, is accompanied by true contrition for one’s sins with a fear of offending God, fidelity to prayer, a desire for spiritual progress, and a generous fidelity to service of God. This is vastly different from the depressing sadness of sloth, the result of negligence, bringing a distaste for spiritual things.
Sadness, depression and melancholy that are due to physical or nervous causes, and are not deliberately embraced by the will, do not come under the definition of sloth.
Sloth differs from bodily weariness which is not a moral deficiency but a natural occurrence. However, that weariness disposes one to the passion of sadness, and this in turn may tempt the will to sloth when it concerns duties owed to God.
Whereas true devotion brings a promptness of the will in the service of God, spiritual sloth weighs down and oppresses the soul, bringing a voluntary distaste for spiritual things which become joyless burdens because of the abnegation and effort they demand, leading one to perform spiritual duties negligently, to shorten them, or eventually to omit them under vain pretexts. In spite of Our Lord’s words that “My yoke is easy, and My burden light,” the slothful person finds them unbearable, and closes his eyes to the light.
Sloth is not to be confused with inactivity, for at times inactivity is necessary, either because our nerves demand it, or because charity demands it. A certain amount of distraction and amusement is often necessary, but one has to be on guard lest what is meant to be a medicinal means becomes an end in itself - to the detriment of other more important ends.
Sloth is not mere laziness. It is not the drag that is felt getting up in the morning, nor the slowness with which one operates getting a job done. It is rather a perverted sorrow that moves one to neglect things of the spirit, and holds him back from the one important thing in life that will lead him to life’s goal.
St. Thomas defines a capital sin as “one which easily leads to other sins” (ibid. 35:4). The sin of sloth causes one to shun many things because of the sorrow or unpleasantness involved, and to seek many unlawful things as a means of escape from his depressing state; and because of this it begets many other sins. Thus sloth involves both a fleeing from God, and a pursuit of the world, for as St. Thomas explains, “those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body” (ibid. 4, ad 2). In the light of this we will see some of the sins begotten of sloth as explained by the angelic doctor.
Sloth slows down spiritual progress, and can even bring it to a standstill, and when it does, as we have seen, one’s heart and attention are focused earthward. The reason is because one is saddened by the vigilance, effort and self-surrender that the Christian life entails. How is this inertia overcome?
Sloth has especially weakened three key virtues, and the vigor of the spiritual life will be restored in the measure that those three virtues are strengthened:
The overcoming of the seven vices we spoke of in the beginning, is like making a clearing in a dense tropical jungle. One works hard to clear an area for cultivation, but as soon as he stops working, the jungle slowly tends to take over again. So it is with the innate weaknesses of our fallen nature. It takes persistent effort and prayer to keep them in check. It takes a faith that never loses sight of the final goal in life, and that sees that the Christian life is but a returning of God’s merciful love. It takes a love and fortitude that does not shrink back from the sacrifices to be made, that does not lose heart because of the hardship to be endured and the sorrows to be encountered.
It may be that this root vice does not reach extreme levels in most Christians, but it affects all of us to some extent, and the extent that it does it stifles the growth of grace, for it counters the key virtue of charity. It is important to at least be aware of this subtle tendency in our nature, and take means to keep it in check.
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