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DEAR FATHER | Joy and striving for great things are remedies for sloth

What is sloth? How can I wake up from my spiritual sleepiness?

Father Conor Sullivan
If you’re anything like me, you may struggle during the winter to stay motivated and energized. Winter is characteristically dark, cold and often gloomy. It seems that especially during these months, we strongly prefer the warm blankets of our beds to the tasks that await us in our professional, family and faith lives. The demands of life can become arduous, annoying and even discouraging. If you’re here, you may be facing the spirit of “Sloth,” one of the “Seven Deadly (Capital) Sins.”

Most people think of sloth as laziness. Granted, sloth often takes the form of laziness, but the words are not synonyms in our Catholic tradition. Josef Pieper sheds light on the topic in “Faith, Hope, Love.” Pieper observes that sloth is really more of a “sadness” or an unwillingness to go where God is calling because one feels the sorrow of having to get up in the first place. It is a sorrow that the Christian life (and life in general) makes demands of us. It is the voice in our hearts and minds that says to God, “I’d rather not.” When we give into the spirit of sloth, then, we might be “lazy” if we choose to do nothing at all. A more pernicious (and likely more common) form of sloth, though, is doing everything else besides the one thing God is calling us to do. Not only can sloth take the form of laziness, it can also take the form of “avoidant busy-ness.”

At this point, it is important to distinguish emotions from sins. Emotions don’t become sinful until there is active, intentional consent to them. Sins must be deliberate to be considered sins at all. For example, a student may become sorrowful at having to write a final paper instead of going out with friends in the evening. Such feelings are common and understandable. It would only become problematic if the student consented to those feelings of sorrow and pushed the paper off his desk, thereby missing his deadline. The underlying emotion of sloth — while not always directly sinful — is important to notice. The sorrow often takes deep root in us before we’re even conscious of it. Under that heavy fog, we begin to forget what we were about, where we were going and even who we are (i.e. sons and daughters of God). We go to sleep.

Moreover, if the shallow definition of sloth as laziness is unsuitable, then so is the shallow remedy. If you’re lazy, what should you do? Work harder, I suppose. What if the problem isn’t laziness, though? What if the problem is the “I’d-rather-not” spirit that flows from sorrow and discouragement? Industriousness will do little to soothe such pain directly.

Pieper says that the remedies for sloth are “magnanimity” (a virtue of striving for great things) and joy. This is an example of that helpful adage: “Work smarter, not harder.” If you struggle with the spirit of sloth, you may do better to spend your effort seeking (and hopefully discovering) joy, meaning and purpose in the work you’ve been called to do. It is quite difficult to say “yes” to meaningless, arduous work. It is much easier to say “yes” to an adventure.

Father Conor Sullivan is currently in residence at Immacolata Parish as he works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Vocations Office and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary as a provisionally licensed psychologist.

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