Many Avatar 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.
Today the 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.
The soul 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.
Most 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.
At the 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.
If a 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.
Fortunately, 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 one’s work.
This is 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” (Matthew 11:28-30).
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.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.