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.
Hope in the Time of Gun Violence - 12/6/2013 7:00:00 AM
Communities are preparing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Among these services, a simple, interfaith vigil for Newtown victims, family members and supporters will take place at the National Cathedral during the week of the anniversary.
Reconciliation and Justice in Colombia's Peace Process - 11/15/2013 7:00:00 AM
The beginning of peace talks last year between the Colombian government and the FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group, signaled a possible end to the violent civil war that has plagued the country for nearly 50 years. This is not the first time Colombians have tried to reach a peace agreement, but these negotiations are being watched with optimism, and there is hope that this time, the talks will be successful and bring peace to the war-torn country.
Saving Lives in 1,000 Days - 10/25/2013 7:00:00 AM
Millions of young children die every year as a result of undernutrition—a leading cause of malnutrition in developing countries. Children under the age of two are particularly impacted and are at a greater risk of developing severe and lasting consequences. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 842 million (1 in 8) people around the world suffer from chronic hunger.
Seeking Good in the Negev - 10/11/2013 7:00:00 AM
The Negev desert, in the southern part of Israel, has long been home to Bedouin communities. Despite holding Israeli citizenship, Bedouins are among the most marginalized groups in Israel. In many cases the Israeli government has failed to provide them with basic services such as running water, health care, or education.
Blessed are the Peacemakers in Colombia - 9/27/2013 7:00:00 AM
There are certainly reasons for hope in Colombia as peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, the largest rebel group in Colombia, continue to move forward. There is a sense of “cautious optimism” that the decades-long armed conflict may finally come to an end.
Why Immigration Reform Can't Wait - 9/13/2013 7:00:00 AM
As immigration reform legislation stalls in the House of Representatives, immigrants continue to suffer many injustices. As legislators encourage “patience” and a “step-by-step” approach, the emails detailing indignity after indignity keep pouring into my inbox.
Power Africa - 8/30/2013 7:00:00 AM
The New U.S. Development Frontier in Africa
While travelling in Africa this summer, President Obama announced a new energy initiative called Power Africa, which he described as a program intended to double access to electric power in Sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. government has pledged to invest $7 billion over the next five years for this program.
Zimbabwe Election Update - 8/16/2013 7:00:00 AM
On July 31, the people of Zimbabwe re-elected President Robert Mugabe. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission declared that Mugabe won 61 percent of the vote. His primary opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, garnered 34 percent of the vote. Although the electoral process was mostly peaceful, many people in Zimbabwe and the international community have raised questions about the legitimacy of the election results, due in part to the wide margin by which Mugabe was re-elected.