Sloth & Strength: Lent 2022

The personification of Sloth, from an illustrated Piers Plowman, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104

Today in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, we are thinking through sloth and perseverance. Does my love for terrible reality television make me a practitioner of sloth? What even is sloth? Spoiler: my love for terrible reality television does not make me a sloth, nor a practitioner of sloth. Sloth is perhaps the most misunderstood of the Seven Capital Vices. Let’s dive in.

We think of sloth as laziness, as a bodily kind of sin like gluttony or lust. We treat it, accordingly, mostly like a joke. In what world is laying on the couch, eating potato chips, and watching bad TV a deadly serious sin? Sure, maybe a problem, but truly an awful sin? But this is not the ancient sense of sloth. In reality, say the earliest theorists of sloth, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and their most eminent interpreters like Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a spiritual vice. Its ancient name is “acedia,” but I will still use sloth because it’s fun to say. And before I go further, some people have aligned acedia with clinical depression. I do not, because a vice involves a habitual choice, whereas clinical depression is a disease. Because people with clinical depression are no saintlier than anyone else, I’m sure some of them do struggle with the vice of sloth, but let’s not muddy the waters and conflate the two.

Sloth is resistance to charity, to our true vocation of friendship with God or with our neighbor or even love for ourselves, because it is too difficult or overwhelming. The classic scriptural example of this is in the Hebrew scriptures, when the Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land because they are afraid of how hard it will be. Sloth is a powerful, serious, and common vice. In Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s words, “sloth essentially concerns one’s fundamental commitment to one’s spiritual identity and vocation” (179).

The Book of Vices and Virtues, that medieval penitential manual, calls it “weariness of good deeds” (26). It’s a slackness in love when it should be burning, a pusillanimity or “unboldness” in your deeds and words. It’s the person who dares not to go down a way, says the Book, for “fear of a snail that showeth his horns”—in other words, when we are so daunted by an obstacle, big or small, that we simply choose to go an easier way. 

If you’re like me, burnt out by the pandemic and parenting small children and disastrous cultural discourse and fear about the environment and all that junk, you might be dazedly thinking to yourself, what’s wrong with the easy way? Lord, give me easiness, I beg. My husband and I actually went to an event the other night when we were asked to write down the desires of our heart, really honestly. And, unsurprisingly given my temperament and the last few years, the first thing I wrote was solitude. But then the second thing I wrote was “an easy life, a cozy life like a hobbit in a hole.” What’s so wrong about that? 

In fact, there is nothing wrong with ease itself, or relaxing, or even sometimes being lazy. Full human lives have those gifts. But the cost of valuing ease over all other goods is shockingly high, particularly in relationships. And relationships are what we are called to, as the children of God. DeYoung makes the stakes clear of choosing ease at all costs, through interpreting Aquinas’s account: 

On Aquinas’s relational account of sloth, slothful people want all the comforts of being in a relationship—with the identity, security, love, and happiness it brings—while ultimately resisting or refusing to let love change them or make disciples of them. They are like a married couple who long for a relationship of unconditional love, but who chafe at the thought of disciplining their own desires or sacrificing themselves in order to maintain that relationship and allow it to flourish…

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 192.

Sloth is this resistance towards love and the demands of love in our relationship with our Maker and in our vocations here on Earth. W.H. Auden, in his poem The Age of Anxiety, neatly conveys the bottom line of sloth rooted in pride:

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

Avoiding the cross of the moment, in Auden’s language, can lead to some deep and bitter sadness, even misery and self-contempt, and very often loneliness. This aversion or avoidance is not just felt, but sought out and reinforced. Again, DeYoung is helpful: “sloth is the will’s aversion to our participation in God—that is, our resistance to his making us ‘like-natured’ to him through the Holy Spirit’s presence and work within us, and thus our resistance to the friendship and love grounded in that likeness of nature” (188-9).

Some manuals tell us that obstinacy is a sure sign of sloth, and I think it’s a good one to keep in mind. What is obstinacy? Jacob’s Well aligns it with being stony-hearted. When your heart is hard as stone, you do not weep for those who are suffering, you have no sweetness, no ruth or pity, no love or fear for those in tough positions.

Medieval writers document extensively that laziness and forgetfulness are symptoms (not causes!) of sloth. And they also write that overbusy-ness, recklessness, and burnout are also symptoms of sloth. This makes sense, because according to our temperament we distract ourselves from our difficult calling, and try to control our spiritual lives and vocations as much as we can. For some of us, that looks like avoidance, quietism, and yes, laziness. For others of us, that looks like “too great a zeal,” in the words of the medieval writers, for fasting, excessively volunteering at church, and spiritual practices that end up being us trying to claw our way out of what we are actually asked to do in love and friendship. Distractions and diversions from the difficult way of charity look different for different people. Yet they end similarly: sloth as a sure road to contempt and despair and restless unhappiness is well-documented.

So how did sloth get so associated with bodily laziness, leaving its spiritual components behind? One thing is that the Desert Fathers and their spiritual descendants advised manual labor as a remedy for sloth. This works sometimes, but not exclusively. And I have a hunch that it’s a remedy less as labor itself, and more because you are doing something difficult, and sometimes when you accomplish one difficult thing, you feel empowered to do more difficult things. Especially if you’re doing it outside in fresh air. But medieval people disagree with me on that point. They have some rather unhelpful comments (ceaselessly work, some urge, disregarding their own earlier points about busy-ness as distraction). Jacob’s Well uses a really lame story about a hermit who built his shelter close to a spring so that he didn’t have to walk far to get water, but it turns out angels were counting his footsteps and determining the merit of his hermithood, so he moved further away and that solved both his sloth and merit problem. Cool.

Because of exempla like these, sloth eventually became inseparable from one of its main symptoms, laziness of the body, or lethargy, or a lack of effort. And in the modern West, this was useful, because thinking of sloth this way fits one of capitalism’s main narratives about the world: that work is the way to salvation. That restless busy-ness became a virtue of capitalism. Josef Pieper, the midcentury Thomist philosopher and theologian, writes that sloth has become “a concept of the middle class work ethic. The fact that it is numbered among the seven ‘capital sins’ seems, as it were, to confer the sanction and approval of religion on the absence of leisure in the capitalistic industrial order” (Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture, 54). The industrious worker is just as likely as a couch potato to be under the influence of sloth and its root, pride. So ironically, then, one resistance to sloth is actually rest and quiet contemplation in defiance to the demands of our busy, busy life that offers distractions and diversions and work galore. And let this be a lesson for you—laziness itself is not a sin, but instead usually reveals other things. Are you overdoing it? Are you resisting something that you need to embrace? Are you not taking care of your mind or body or soul?

In the long tradition, the usual remedy for sloth is the gift of strength. The Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime defines strength as “the considered accepting of risks and the longlasting bearing of hardships” and takes Isaiah 35 as inspiration. It invites us to use the remedy of strength: “Strengthen the feeble hands and confirm the weak knees. Say to the fainthearted, ‘take courage.”’ In the classic medieval love of cataloguing and listing, it breaks down strength into several categories. The first is greatheartedness, which is the voluntary and reasonable undertaking of difficult things (ie: conquering your fear of heights and learning rock climbing, not free climbing Yosemite). The second was confidence, which honestly I was delighted to see in a medieval text, because that idea is rather rare for medieval folks. Confidence was defined as “the certain hope to carry to its end a task one has undertaken,” and is closely associated with Jesus’s promises for sanctification and eternal life. The next is composure, “not to be afraid of the inconveniences that lie before us and accompany the task we have begun.” Another is high-mindedness, “carrying difficult and noble things to the end” (238). The last is constancy, “the mind’s stability that is firm and persevering in its resolve.” Note that medieval folks were very aware that doing difficult things was a prolonged process—they assign different virtues to the beginning, middle, and ends of daunting projects under the banner of strength. 

The Book of Vices and Virtues offers a perspective I really like. It defines the gift of strength as “a new heart, a noble heart and hardy—noble to despise all that the world may offer and give him, and of this hardiness speaketh our Lord when he sayeth, “Blessed be they that hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Book). This is a heart that sees value where it is, and where it is not. Then it clarifies the last bit in a way that encourages me greatly: “He sayeth not ‘blessed be they that do righteousness,’ but ‘blessed be they that have hunger and thirst for righteousness’… none of us truly know how to do right, and he knows our weakness, which is why he blesses our desire and not our actions” (Book). Our misguided attempts may go awry. But the Lord sees and blesses our desire. This is the virtue of a valiant friend who comes into the fray to undergo hardship with their suffering friend. It’s described by the very old-fashioned word “doughty”—you’re not picking fights, but you’re undaunted by the obstacles in the way of love. And the way of doughtiness is open to anyone who desires, from the smallest elementary schooler to the elderly grandparent: “the habit makes not the monk, nor arms the knight, but the good heart and doughty works.” 

Strength is allied with good hope, trustiness, patience, and security. What is security doing there? It means one rests in the immutable fact that one is loved by God, and though the waters are deep and frightening, the love is deeper still. Constancy too accompanies strength. I had my youngest at the beginning of the pandemic (April 3rd, 2020, to be exact) and it was a dreadful time. We named her Constance before we knew the pandemic was coming, but it turned out to be the right name at the right time. The road ahead was filled with fear and hard decisions, but her name became a promise of God’s love and a hope that we would not shy away from the hard things. Constance is the “virtue that maketh the heart as steadfast and trusty to God as a tower that is founded upon the hard rock and as a tree that is rooted hard in good earth, that shaketh ne boweth for no wind that may come ne blow, that is to say for no adventure that comes, good nor evil” (168). Never a woman or man comes to victory without constancy, says the Book. 

The manuals urge us to participate in the Eucharist to increase our strength; I imagine it somewhat irreverently like a marathon runner who stops to drink water or Gatorade. They note that remembering Christ’s passion can help to heal obstinacy in sloth. Intentionally soften your heart, cry at the thought of love. I add rest as an antidote to sloth, and slow contemplative time. 

I want to end with this reflection from Julian of Norwich, who believes that sloth—dread and fear of hard things and our weakness—alongside despair, are the sins most difficult to discern and handle. We fear ourselves, that we are too much for God in our sinfulness and inability. 

God showed two manner of sickness that we have. That one is unpatience or sloth, for we bear our travail and our pain heavily. That other is despair or doubtful dread, as I shall say after. Generally, he showed sin, wherein all is comprehended. But in special, he showed none but these two. And these two are that which most travaileth and tempesteth us, as by that our Lord showed me, of which will he we be amended. I speak of such men and women that for God’s love hate sin and dispose them to do God’s will. Then, by our spiritual blindness and bodily heaviness, which are most inclining to these. And therefore it is God’s will that they be known, and then shall we refuse them, as we do other sins. …this unknowing [of love] it is that most letteth God’s lovers, as to my sight. For when we begin to hate sin, and amend us by the ordinance of Holy Church, yet there dwelleth a dread that letteth us by the beholding of ourself and of our sin afore done, and some of us for our every day sins. For we hold not to our covenants, nor keep not our cleanness that the Lord setteth in us, but fall oftimes into so much wretchedness that shame it is to say it. And the beholding of this maketh us so sorry and so heavy that we cannot see any comfort. And this dread we take sometimes for a meekness, but it is a foul blindness and a weakness.

Julian of Norwich, Long Text, ch. 73

Julian’s words remind us that sometimes we confuse sloth with consciousness of our sins and of our own inabilities. It’s almost the flip side of pride. And she reminds us, time and time again, that we are loved as we are. Sloth can’t bring itself to believe that the love is real, that strength is there for us in our hour of need, that the challenges that come our way are often good for our souls and bodies though we can’t see it. 

I will end with her words as a good reminder for my own slothful soul: “For some of us believe that God is almighty and may do all, and that he is all wisdom and can do all. But that he is all love and will do all, there we stint” (ch. 73). I am working on that last bit of remembrance.

Next week we will consider avarice, or greed, and generosity, or mercy. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free monthly Substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. I am also around on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace. I’d love to hear from you!

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