The Capital Sins: “Sloth”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


Our dictionary defines sloth as “an aversion to work or exertion; laziness; indolence.” These words reasonably arouse the scorn of anyone committed to making a productive contribution to society. They may likewise excite our indignation when we observe a co-worker or family member failing to bear a reasonable share in a common enterprise. However, this definition does not penetrate the spiritual reality of the sin we call sloth.


What distinguishes the sin of sloth from merely wasting time playing video games or watching the tenth rerun of a television series is the part sadness plays in it, and its rejection of God’s love. These distinguishing characteristics require some clarification, so let us turn, for a moment, to our Scripture, where the author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus urges us to

Put [our] shoulder under [Divine Wisdom] and…do not fret under her bonds…when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you. (Ecclus. 6: 27)

In the Latin text, “fretting” is described as acedia, which means moroseness or sadness, even peevishness. None of these should be confused with the mere laziness of the dictionary definition – or with clinical depression, which, because it is a physical/ psychological illness, is not sinful. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to some unnamed sources “who say that sloth is a sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.” (ST, II-II, 35, 1) He adds,

Since, then, spiritual good is a good in very truth, sorrow about spiritual good is evil in itself. And yet that sorrow also which is about a real evil, is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses a man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds.


This means the lassitude of sloth is a two-fold sin. First, because it rejects a spiritual good – God’s love – and secondly because it encourages us to refrain from employing that good in our relations with God and one another. Our Catechism observes,

Faith in God’s love encompasses the call and the obligation to respond with sincere love to divine charity. The first commandment enjoins us to love God above everything and all creatures for him and because of him…One can sin against God’s love in various ways…acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness. (CCC, No. 2093, 2094)


One might reasonably shirk some of the more onerous responsibilities of our Christian vocation, simply because, occasionally, at least, they seem so difficult and challenging. Doing nothing might seem a far more attractive option than practicing some of the works of mercy. However, why would anyone turn from God’s love and willingly embrace spiritual sadness in its place?

The Church’s classic theologians offer a number of answers. One is succumbing to simple physical strain. Psalm 90 (91) describes the happiness of the individual who trusts in God, and, as a result, has no fear of – among other ills – “the scourge that lays waste at noon.” Early religious writers interpreted this “scourge” as sloth, the ho-hum midday weariness that besets someone who has been fasting. Although this manifestation of sloth was historically identified most frequently among hermits, and others committed to the contemplative life, any of us may find our prayer life boring or unproductive, and this can lead to our grumbling “What’s the point?” If we allow the question to go unanswered – unchallenged – we may easily find ourselves turning aside from prayer and wallowing in a sea of self-pity.

Another cause of sloth is allowing ourselves to get so caught up with the demands of our everyday lives that we feel we “have no time” for the deep intimacy our faith tells us we must cultivate with God. This “busy-ness” may seem to contradict the notion of sloth as a form of lethargy, but if we allow our work or other responsibilities to impinge upon our spiritual life, we may find ourselves turning away from prayer, unhappily identifying it as simply one more tiring claim upon our already over-booked calendar.


Sloth triumphs when we remove or omit God from our moral landscape. The Third Commandment tells us

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath day to the Lord, your God; in it you shall not do any work….

This is not an invitation to do nothing; it is a command to imitate God, who rested – not from being God, which would have been impossible, but from the work of creation. This is far from the unhappy lassitude that identifies sloth. To surrender to a Sabbath rest is to take advantage of the opportunity to embrace the hallowed leisure of the Lord’s Day, and to find one more source of joy in our relations with God.


Our Catechism lays blame for acedia on “lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart.” (CCC, No. 2733) Embracing the discipline of spiritual reading is one way to attack these ills, and we might begin by approaching the Scripture. Modern media also come to our assistance in this quest, and we can find “on line” copies of our Holy Father’s reflections – as well as the teaching of other Church authorities – with very little difficulty.


Study is an unquestionably valuable undertaking, but the modern Catholic may be pressed to find time for little more than a casual glance at a missal to learn what readings will appear on the following Sunday. Challenging ourselves to be more diligent in prayer is another way to fight sloth, and prayer has the advantage of being accessible at any time. Kevin Vost, author of The Seven Deadly Sins, quotes St. John Climacus, who addressed sloth thus

“You there! You crass and sluggish creature…Who are your enemies? Who can destroy you?” And tedium may be constrained to reply…”The singing of psalms and manual labor are my opponents by whom I am now bound…what really slays me is prayer backed by a firm hope in the blessings of the future.” (The Seven Deadly Sins, Ch. 8, “Slashing Sloth”)

Ora et labora, “prayer and work” are keystones of the monastic vocation, and the monastic schedule clearly sets aside time for each. If it is faithfully embraced – especially if it is embraced as a sign on earth of the life we may look forward to in heaven – the monastic vocation should put sloth to rout. We have seen that this is not the case, however. If those called to the exalted planes of religious life can fall prey to sloth, what benefit shall the average lay person derive from Climacus’ words?


Making time for prayer may seem as daunting a task as setting aside time for study – not to mention manual labor – so Vost adds,

Does even the time, energy and focus required by the Divine Office or the Holy Rosary leave you with feelings of listlessness and fatigue? Then why not start with simple prayers? Even a prayer as short and simple as the Sign of the Cross, if prayed with an earnest heart, can start to send sloth into retreat. Indeed, some of the most zealous saints prayed it and signed it many times throughout each day. It is hard to let your mind wander after unlawful things when you are repeatedly praying that all of your thoughts, word, and deeds may be done, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Ibid.)


We may not immediately identify prayer with justice, but our theology teaches the virtue of justice is giving to others what they deserve. Prayer is one of the acts that is God’s due; to pray not only draws us closer to God – and further away from sloth – but enables us to practice one of the Cardinal Virtues, those good habits that are opposed to the Cardinal Sins we have been considering for the past year in these reflections.


Our author suggests that seeking out the confessional is the frosting on the spiritual cake that delivers us from sloth. Sloth encourages us to do nothing, to care about nothing, to behave as if nothing matters but our own discontent. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an opportunity to address, and triumph over, each of those temptations. The reason for this is quite simple: the Sacrament of Reconciliation demands our active participation. To enjoy its benefits we must bestir ourselves, abandon our lethargy, and approach the confessional. If we are to receive the sacrament worthily, we must engage in at least a cursory examination of our life: what have I done, what have I failed to do? What do I wish I had done differently? Finally, we must be willing to embrace the challenge to change. We may not be the most enthusiastic of penitents, but seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to take a giant step away from the mire of sloth.


Ronald Knox, a spiritual writer from the last century, composed a retreat in which he asked individuals to consider the calm, the quiet, and the serenity of the Virgin Mary. As we consider these qualities while meditating in church, they may seem very positive recommendations, but in these days of immediate, electronic gratification, quiet and calm people can often be mistaken for depressed, lazy lethargic – or slothful. So Knox helpfully points out the calm individual’s “knack of putting first thing first.” And here we might think of our Blessed Mother. After St. Luke describes Gabriel’s telling Mary she is to be the Mother of Our Savior, he describes Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and tells us she paid her visit “in haste.” What is important here is Mary’s paying her visit “in haste,” but not “in a hurry.” Our dictionary defines “haste” as speed, but adds that it is speed combined with a certain purpose or dispatch. This echoes Knox’s observation, “Calm people don’t need to be in a hurry, because they hasten at the right moment, about the right things.”


In the “Purgatory” of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the slothful souls repent of their sinful indifference by racing up the Mountain of Purgatory with “good will and right affection.” (“Purgatory,” XVIII, 96ff). Two souls in the lead cry out the passage from St. Luke, “Mary…went with haste into the hill country.” They accompany these words with the admonition, “Haste, haste, lest time be lost through little love.”

We make a mistake if we imagine the gospel is a record of things that happened to other people, somewhere else, a long time ago. In fact, the gospel is a story told about us, here and now. Each of the individuals we meet in the gospel accounts is a reflection of us, and each of them illustrates what we ought to be doing – or what we ought to avoid. Mary is the model for the Church, so she is our model in all things. She is the Church’s first tabernacle and its first evangelist, an individual willing to leave behind all the comfort and security of home to proclaim the Good News. And she is willing to do it “in haste.” Our Baptism calls us to do the same.

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