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Sloth, Part 1
BY Melinda Selmys
fans experienced a kind of emotional deflation as they left the cineplex. The
blockbuster film, shown widely in
state-of-the-art 3-D, portrays a world they found so realistic, so beautiful
and so affecting that it made the real world seem dull by comparison.
Is the real world really dull? Only
if we’re infected with the quiet-est and the most lethal of the seven deadly
sins: a sin that has been mostly forgotten. We call it sloth, but Tradition
since the Desert Fathers has called it “acedia” — a kind of melancholy that is
closely wed to aversion to effort.
Acedia’s place in the culture of
death is often overlooked. How, after all, could a culture obsessed with
“efficiency” be a culture afflicted with sloth? Yet acedia is one of the
defining vices of our age.
Work is supposed to be a panacea
against sloth. Writing about “The Spirit of Acedia,” St. John Cassian (d. 435)
notes that, “without manual labor a monk cannot stop in a place nor rise to the
heights of perfection.” Unfortunately, when work ceases to be a context in
which “the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his
nature” (Catechism, No. 2428), it loses its ability to lift the soul.
laborer, the clerical worker and the professional are subjected to a system
that tries to elicit from them the maximum utility without respect for the
dignity of their labor. Employers use scripting, sur-veillance,
minute-by-minute scheduling and micromanagement to counteract the unpredictable
possibilities of human creativity. The goal is to make sure workers produce a
uniform product at a uniform pace.
In such a
system, man naturally withdraws from his own activity. He cannot remove his
eyes from the clock; he entertains himself with idle gossip or simply retreats
into his own thoughts to distract himself from the tedium of his tasks.
thus becomes conditioned to think of all hard work as drudgery, which leads to
tacit despair and moral lethargy. Other areas of life which require effort —
family, leisure pursuits, community — are abandoned in favor of cheap pleasures
and vacuous entertainment.
importantly, the spiritual life is neglected. Many lack the self-discipline
required for prayer, while the demands of the moral life come to seem onerous
and arbitrary. Most believe that some sort of God exists, and know that there
is joy to be found in spirituality, but they want something quick and easy.
In such a climate, drive-through spiritualities
abound, and Christ-ians are not immune.
end of the day, faced with the possibility of spending a half hour in silent
meditation with the Almighty, most of us can find something “better” to do. For
the truly diligent, this will be a thousand Martha-like domestic tasks, but the
average Christian, when it comes right down to it, thinks that watching a movie
will be more relaxing than practicing the presence of God. Many fall into the
habit of thinking of spiritual duties as a kind of dry, flavorless porridge
that we have to choke down in order to earn our heavenly dessert. The sadness
of acedia inevitably ensues.
The irony is: We have all had the experience of
being happier when we actually live in the present, and in the real world. If a
student writes about a subject he feels passionately about, he is more likely
to do a good job, and he will gain a sense of real satisfaction from his work.
sales assistant breaks the monotonous script and actually talks with the
customers, she will find that she is creating a series of small but satisfying
relationships, many of which will probably develop over the course of her
employment. If anyone turns off the television and engages in a real creative
pursuit, he will find himself revitalized by his leisure time. Everyone knows
that this is true, but we often don’t do it. On the most fundamental level, we
are not very committed to being happy. This is the heart of acedia.
no system can force the human person to be empty and bored. As Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn so poignantly shows in One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich, even in a Soviet gulag it was possible to be creative,
to make moral decisions, to form community, to give gifts and to take joy in
why acedia is a sin, and not merely an emotion or an involuntary mental
illness. The “structures of sin” that demean human life and labor may reduce
culpability for acedia, and they certainly go a long way towards explaining why
it is so widespread in this culture, but they do not remove human free will.
Acedia cannot be stricken from the human heart
merely by avoiding the trials and adversities of our age — much less by
escaping into utopian unrealities in 3-D. The good news: Acedia generally makes
the obstacles on the road ahead loom larger than they actually are. It proposes
an endless drudgery, ceaseless servitude to Sisyphus’ rock. Yet Christ has
reassured us that it is not so: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”
Next time, we’ll look at busyness
and how acedia manifests itself not merely in lethargy or inactivity, but also
in a flurry of activity that distracts the soul from its own real good.
Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.