For the last few years I’ve been thinking about a deadly sin, acedia or sloth. Friends and family joke that I must be working or studying whenever I happen to catch a ball game or invent some reason to avoid painting the shed. Others promise to read my newly released book on sloth when they can muster up enough energy or get around to it.
Fair jokes, I’ll grant, especially those told by my wife. (I think she was joking.)
Sloth is not really about laziness, though, or at least it would be odd to identify acedia as a besetting sin of our age, culpable for pornography addiction and the decadent future of America, if that were so. Whatever else we are, we aren’t lazy.
As I explain in Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, laziness is a relatively new interpretation of acedia. It had been understood by earlier Christians as a “hatred of place and even life itself,” as one desert father put it. For the monk ensconced in his cell, acedia struck in the long hours of the afternoon, when time moved slowly and any task other than prayer seemed desirable.
So afflicted, the monk would sink into a torpor, sometimes manifesting itself as listlessness, but just as often driving him into a frenzy of action, anything to escape the awful work of prayer. Whether indolent or busy, the slothful monk refused his task, hating work, place, and form of life.
I suppose we’ve all experienced frustration at work or the tedium of a religious duty, but it seems to me that acedia has become something more than an occasional temptation on a warm afternoon. Sloth, rather, has nestled deeply into the roots of our cultural understandings. It is foundational to our way of life, and we have grown to hate our work, our place, and even life itself.
Take work, for instance. While we have diverse and sundry tasks, every human is charged to fill, to subdue, to till, and to keep the world (Gen. 1–2). Work is not a curse but a blessing, a way to discover our agency, to give of ourselves, and to honor God by filling his cosmic temple with every good and beautiful thing, as John Paul II, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and Abraham Kuyper have all noted. We bear a heavy responsibility for the world, and Adam is formed from the dirt in order to render nature personal, free, responsible, and eventually capable of bearing the divine in gifts of bread and wine.
Of course, human ingenuity and freedom are ordered by the true, good, and beautiful, for even while we subdue the garden we are to keep it (shamar), not in some pristine and unchanging way, but within the form and limits provided by God. As Joseph Ratzinger once articulated, God’s “directive to humankind means that it is supposed to look after the world as God’s creation, and to do so in accordance with the rhythm and the logic of creation. … The world is to be used for what it is capable of and for what it is called to, but not for what goes against it.”
Undoubtedly this has implications for creation care, but much more than the environment is suggested. All creation is given a rhythm and logic, and all things bear a deep weight, for the glory (kabod) of God is deep down things and we have a responsibility to maintain a deep amazement at the splendor of form possessed by all that is.
Sloth, however, does not respond in deep amazement; sloth hates the work, place, and life given by God. Sloth loathes reality, feels disgust at any limits on freedom. Governed by sloth, we want to be unchecked, untethered, free floating. We wish fervently for an unbearable lightness of being, and if reality’s weight—the truth of being—confines us, we batter and abuse, we place reality on the rack until it submits. As John Paul II warned, freedom without truth would eventually claim the right to crimes against human dignity.
Abortion, the rejection of marriage, the hatred of body, the destruction of place and community, our witless abuse of contraception, severe threats against human dignity in the name of science, these are all sloth’s hatred, a refusal to tend the garden in keeping with the limits of its nature, or our own.
Cormac McCarthy provides a suitable image for our slothful age in the character of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. A member of a posse terrorizing the villages of the Southwest in search of Apache scalps, the Judge is a strange and satanic figure. A child abuser, he keeps a mentally handicapped man on a leash like a pet before discarding him in the desert; he stalks the clement, ruins the righteous, and destroys all he can find.
In a memorable scene, he justifies sketching birds and artifacts before destroying them. Whatever exists without consent, he says, enslaves, and “only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” Nothing, he continues “must be permitted to occur … save by my dispensation.”
For the slothful, like Judge Holden, the depth and weight of reality is an insult, it must be routed out, made to stand before us as nothing more than resource and entertainment. Creation is a burden, bearing as it does the divine Word through whom all things were made, and so creation must be overthrown, even destroyed in a pique of freedom.
As Josef Pieper once noted, not everyone is capable of real festivity and joy, for such requires a kind of existential richness, a capacity to recognize and approve the goodness of things. God does this in a preeminent way, of course, for God not only creates the world but delights in it and names it good.
Sloth, though, which infects many of us enthralled with power and freedom, refuses to recognize goodness if doing so means ordering ourselves to the richness of the Creator. Rather than joy, sloth feels only disgust at being, living in acedia rather than delight. Learning to delight, and to work well, cures acedia.