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.
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