Perhaps you’re wondering what you can get out of this column on the vice of sloth. Somehow sloth conjures up messy: Isn’t sloth your 14-year-old son’s bedroom? Your college daughter’s dorm room at the end of the semester? Is it that neglected garage?
None of the above. Sloth is perhaps the most difficult of all the vices to understand, and probably because it, like some of the other vices we’ve looked at, is another old-fashioned word.
From my limited reading about this, my take on it is that sloth is best described as a vague dis-ease and sadness that you cannot really put your finger on, but that takes the joy out of faithful living. It leaves you discontented and perhaps sluggish in spirit.
One Catholic writer, Father Paul A. Duffner, points out that sloth is not tiredness or laziness. Neither is it spiritual dryness: when you are going through a tough time and you just can’t seem to pray or worship. It is not the same as mental depression or melancholy due to physical or brain diseases. It is more spiritual. None of these things in and of themselves is a sin. The problem is what the attitude leads to. Duffner says that in attempting to feel better, to heal the dis-ease of spirit, people seek all kinds of feel-good help: the bottle, promiscuous sex, buying things, seeking power or prestige, trying on other religions or philosophies.
The good news is that it is perhaps easier to combat this vice than it is to define it. Father Duffner points to three ways to deal with sloth.
You know the good feeling you get when you go out of your way to help someone else, and especially if they didn’t ask for or expect your help? The act of helping others, which brings deep down joy, is a sure inoculation against the vice of spiritual sloth. Sloth is closely tied to its opposite virtue, charity, which as we discussed in a previous column, is generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering. Charity is self-giving love, not romantic or family love. So if you engage in acts of charity, you prevent sloth, or the sadness and discontent I discussed earlier.
Mission trips to other countries and even to needy areas of the U.S. or Canada are very frequent and popular these days and very often when people return they say, “They gave far more to me than I was able to give to them.”
The trick here is not to do acts of mercy or charity for the express purpose of “feeling good.” It is a by-product, but one must not think too much about it or it does become purely selfish. On the other hand, it is useful to examine one’s motives in any activity, especially if you are almost frantic with “do good” activity, what unmet need is this fulfilling, and am I doing this just for me? If your husband or wife complains and says “You’re never home. Why are you always going off to help others when we’d like you here a bit more?” perhaps it is time for a heart to heart discussion.
Another way to combat the dis-ease of sloth is to put more energy into one’s spiritual life, beyond just acts of charity and love. Writer Elizabeth O’Connor talks about the “inward journey and the outward journey.” If acts of charity are the outward journey, one has to also pay attention to the inward journey, taking time to be quiet, meditate, read words of inspiration, pray.
Finally, if all of this is just not working, Duffner points to fortitude, a virtue we’ll explore further in a few weeks. Jesus himself underwent terrific agony in his last days on earth, in the Garden of Gethsemane where he wept “tears of blood” and finally on the cross where he cried out the most agonized prayer perhaps ever uttered: “My God, my God! Why have your forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46). Yet he hung in there, literally, and did not give way to sin or reject God’s ultimate plan. The same with us: if we are feeling joyless and desolate, hang in there. Do something good for someone else. Take time to meditate, focusing on God. You will combat the dis-ease of sloth and vague sadness. Fortitude is hanging in there through a tough time or period. (“Light and Life Vol. 52, No. 2, “The Vice of Sloth, Paul A. Duffner, O.P., http://www.pacifier.com/~rosarweb/ntrll.htm )
If helping others is an inoculation against joylessness, then fortitude, knowing you conquered an extremely difficult trial brings back the gift of deep, lasting joy.
A Problem Deeper than Politics - 4/11/2014 7:00:00 AM
When I came to Washington and began my internship at the beginning of February, I was new to the immigration conversation. In just two months of researching and working on issues surrounding immigration, I have encountered too many stories about unnecessary family separation to be able to simply write them off as anecdotal outliers. This is not a call for trite emotional sympathy. Our country has an immediate and real humanitarian, economic, and judicial crisis.
U.S. Aid Should Support Peace in Colombia - 3/28/2014 7:00:00 AM
For many in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Colombia is likely “violence”. However, after decades of conflict, Colombia is entering a second year of peace talks between the government and FARC-EP, the largest and most active guerilla group in the country. Using a 6-point negotiating agenda agreed to in August 2012, the talks have thus far settled questions of land and rural development and political participation for the former armed movements. The latest round, which resumed in late February in Havana, Cuba, focuses on the problem of illegal drugs.
Building Bridges with Iran - 3/14/2014 7:00:00 AM
Last month I was able to visit Iran for the first time. It is a beautiful country, with mountains and deserts. Isfahan is a particularly lovely city, with arched bridges.
US Food Aid to Reach More People - 2/28/2014 7:00:00 AM
The U.S. has a rich history of providing food assistance to countries experiencing severe food shortages. This history dates back to 1954, when Congress passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act. At the time, the U.S. was enjoying big surpluses in agricultural commodities. Therefore, the law enabled the U.S. to send these food surpluses to countries in need.
Seeking Justice and Mercy in Sentencing Reform - 2/14/2014 7:00:00 AM
On January 30, 2014, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill containing much-needed reforms, but also some harmful changes, to the U.S. criminal justice system. In a 13-5 vote, members across the political spectrum supported the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), a bill introduced by Senators Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lee (R-Utah).
A Call for Justice in Haiti - 1/31/2014 7:00:00 AM
Another year has gone by and another commemoration of the Haiti earthquake has also passed. For a brief moment the world remembered that terrible day of January 12, 2010.
While there are certainly many success stories of rebuilding and reconstruction in the last four years, the unfortunate storyline of this year’s remembrance is the continued state of crisis faced by many Haitians.
Longing to be Home - 1/17/2014 7:00:00 AM
Many people travel to spend time with family or friends over the holiday season. This year, my family logged more than 1200 miles and was thwarted twice by automobile-related mechanical difficulties and once by winter storm Hercules. However, these inconvenient but relatively minor delays were nothing compared to the obstacles many faced in seeing family this Christmas.
Occupied Bethlehem - 12/20/2013 7:00:00 AM
In our Christmas carols the town of Bethlehem takes on a mythical, peaceful quality. What could be more idyllic than the miraculous birth of a baby heralded by angels?