In the rain forests of Central and South America dwells a small ugly looking mammal called a sloth. This little creature is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. When it moves—which is rarely, since it spends 20 hours a day sleeping—it travels at a top speed of 0.15 mph.
When we think of the sin of sloth, the image of this creature is what probably comes to mind, hanging from a tree branch with its three toes, or possibly that of a beer guzzling slob sprawled out on a couch in front of the television set in his boxers with everything around him going to pot. The sin of sloth, however, does not necessarily mean inactivity, which is often necessary, but encompasses a host of things from being lethargic to being too busy.
Fr. John Hardon, in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary, defines sloth as the "sluggishness of soul or boredom because of the exertion necessary for the performance of a good work. The good work may be a corporal task, such as walking; or a mental exercise, such as writing; or a spiritual duty, such as prayer." The definition provides a good place to start.
We are physically slothful when, like the three-toed sloth, we begin to do things in slow motion or not do them at all. P. Evans in The Man Behind the Mask tells of this incident that reveals a truly slothful person. One afternoon, the doorbell rang in Peter Sellers' London flat. As Sellers was busy in his study, his wife Anne went to the door, where she was handed a telegram. The message? "Bring me a cup of coffee. Peter."
In western nations the cost of labor is so high that not many people have servants to help them. Not so in the east, especially Asian countries, where labor is so cheap, some families employ two or even three servants to do chores. If this frees them to better utilize their time, that is fine, but not if it just serves to make them laze away their time.
Here is a passage from the book of Proverbs: "How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior" (Proverbs 6:911).
Here is another: "Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest" (Proverbs 6:6-8).
This instruction may have inspired the famous Greek author Aesop to tell his famous tale of the Ant and the Grasshopper.
The Ant worked diligently all summer working up a sweat as it gathered grain under the blazing sun. His neighbor, the Grasshopper, however, just spent his time singing and laughing at the Ant's labors. Then winter came and with it came a scarcity of food. The Grasshopper had nothing to eat. He peeped in into the Ant's house and saw mounds of grain stacked in one corner.
"Could you please spare me some food," pleaded the Grasshopper. "I don't have any."
"Why?" asked the Ant. "What did you do all summer?"
"Oh, I sang," said the Grasshopper.
"You sang," said the Ant. "Now you dance!"
The Ant was perhaps not very Christian in its attitude, but the main moral of the story is obvious. We reap according to what we sow.
God has given us bodies and we need to look after them by getting proper rest, eating the right things, and ensuring we have enough exercise. This isn't so that we have perfect bodies, but that we have fit bodies so that we have the energy to do the things we are required to do. This last statement contains a truth vital to our understanding of the sin of sloth, because although sloth is generally revealed in sluggishness, it can also disguise itself in busyness; we may not always be required to do the things we do. A good example of this "busyness" can be found in Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, and a dear friend of Jesus.
One day, when Jesus was in Bethany, Martha invited Him to her home. She promptly went into the kitchen and busied herself with cooking something for Him, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus's feet, listening to the things He had to say. Martha wasn't too pleased with this and finally, unable to contain herself any longer, went out to Jesus and said to him: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." To her shock, Jesus gently chided her: "Martha, Martha," he said, "you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (cf Luke 10:38-42).
Martha failed to realize what was really important. When Jesus was around it was more important to be with Him, rather than do things for Him. There is a lesson in this for all of us, especially those who keep trying to show their love for Christ by engaging in different works of ministry rather than spending time with Him in prayer. Which brings us to spiritual sloth.
St. Thomas defines a capital sin as "one which leads to other sins". Spiritual sloth leads to other capital sins, making it the most dangerous of all the capital sins. As St. Thomas says, "those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body." When we don't make place for God in our lives, we will make place for other things, and these, despite our best intentions, can end up very sinful.
Spiritual sloth creeps in slowly, but unless corrected, can lead to a repugnance of all things spiritual. We can recognize the signs when the time we spend in prayer begins to decrease or the quality of prayer diminishes. The speed with which we head south can be blistering. I speak from experience.
As much as I can, I spend time in prayer. A typical day would involve going for Mass, doing the Divine Office, engaging in a spot of journaling, interceding for the needs of the world, and trying to spend some personal time with God. One morning, I decided to skip Mass so I could sleep a little longer. I had gone to bed very late the previous night and reasoned that God wouldn't mind if I had a little extra shut-eye; besides, I was spending a lot of time with Him, anyway. The following day I didn't journal because I had somebody come for counselling and she ate up my journaling time. The third day I didn't do the Divine Office because I had to drop my daughter to school.
Excuse followed excuse and by the end of the week I discovered that my prayer time had come crashing down from three hours to less than thirty minutes! The week after, I found myself spending time on pursuits other than prayer, and though they were innocent, before the week was out sin had me sprawling to the ground. That's how it goes. The only way to break free was to get rid of spiritual sloth and get back into solid prayer. If there is sin in your life, it is because there is spiritual sloth. Guaranteed.
What are the other indications of spiritual sloth? We'd rather go for a party than a prayer meeting. We'd rather read John Grisham than John Ortberg. We'd rather watch NBC than EWTN. This isn't to say that we shouldn't go to parties, read Grisham, or watch NBC; but we definitely need to examine our priorities because one of the deadliest things about sloth is that it can interfere with God's plans for us and for the world. If I am spiritually slothful then I am definitely not attuned to His will; if I am not attuned to His will then I don't know what He wants me to do; if I don't know what He wants me to do chances are high that I may do something totally contrary to what He wants. And that gets me—and Him—nowhere!
In his book My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, Jack L. Warner, the one time head of Warner Brothers, narrates this incident. While crossing the Atlantic aboard a steam ship one summer, the director Mervyn LeRoy noticed that dozens of his fellow passengers were reading Hervey Allen's bulky bestselling novel Anthony Adverse. Intrigued by the book's popularity, he fired off a cable to Warner, who was a notoriously lazy reader. Warner had once admited that he would rather take a fifty-mile hike than read a fifty-page book. The cable read: PLEASE READ ANTHONY ADVERSE. WOULD MAKE GREAT PICTURE FOR US. He soon received a reply from Warner: READ IT? I CAN'T EVEN LIFT IT!
Intellectual sloth is the reluctance to do anything to improve one's mental condition, be it through reading or other intellectual exercise. An intelligent person wastes his God given gifts if s/he doesn't spend time in activities that are challenging. And this means more than solving Sudoku puzzles!
Taken in combination with spiritual sloth, intellectual sloth results in a poverty stricken soul. The Bible is God's word to His children, but there are many Christians who have never read it in its entirety even once. Christians who wish to progress in their spiritual life are told they need to read at least one new book a month; few do. Consequently there is very little of the mental nourishment required for spiritual growth. God did tell us to love him with all our mind, too (cf. Luke 10:27).
Sloth of the Will
In addition to the types of sloth already mentioned, we have a sloth of will, whereby we don't do things, either because we get distracted from the tasks at hand or don't take our responsibilities seriously. Do you get distracted from your work?
Lou Cannon in his biography President Reagan The Role Of A Lifetime narrates this incident. Secretary of State James Baker once gave Ronald Reagan a briefing book to study before the next day's World Economic Summit in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the morning, Baker was dismayed to learn that the president had not even bothered to open it and frankly asked him why. "Well, Jim," Reagan replied, "The Sound of Music was on..."
We all have responsibilities that we need to take seriously. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) Jesus told of a man who gave three of his servants a varying sum of money before he left on a journey. In his absence, the first servant, who was given five talents, immediately put his money to work and made five more. The second servant, who had been given two talents, likewise doubled his money. The third servant, however, buried the one talent that he had been given into the ground.
When the master returned he was very pleased with the first two servants. He said to each of them: "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."
But he was furious with the third man who tried to justify his action saying, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." But his master answered him, "You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest."
And then he goes on to deliver sentence. "So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
While this parable refers to a talent as a monetary measure, the lesson holds good to talent as a gift too. All of us have been endowed with varying talents, but many of us never put them to good use. We are going to be questioned about it one day and we better have a good answer with us.
Sloth of the will also impacts relationships. Consider a husband and wife sitting a the dinner table for what should have been a peaceful meal, except it erupts into an argument about some nonsensical thing. The rest of the meal is completed in silence after which the couple go to separate corners, like boxers after a bell goes off. They sit sulking, after which time they go to bed sulking, and wake up sulking. They could, if they wanted, kiss and make up, but that would, of course, require more effort than either of them is willing to expend. That's sloth. How do you plead?
The Virtue: Diligence
Samuel Johnson once said: "What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence."
Diligence is the disposition to think and act with a proper sense of urgency and zeal. Not only does this virtue help us fulfil our calling as Christians by keeping us away from sin, it also leads us into caring for others.
Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians states that even as we excel in faith, speech, knowledge and love, we should also strive towards diligence—or earnestness—in everything that we do (2 Corinthians 8:7).
Peter, in his second letter, speaks of how God has given us everything needed for life and godliness. However, he says we need to "make every effort" towards growing in holiness (2 Peter 1:5-7).
Timothy, too, tells us to "do our best" to present ourselves to God as one approved by Him (2 Timothy 2:15).
We are all required to do the best we can, put in all the effort we are capable of, exhibit sincere earnestness—be diligent—in everything we do. Not only would we become better individuals, we'd also make a better world.
The Gift: Knowledge
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). To discern the will of God—what is good, acceptable and perfect, we need the gift of knowledge.
The gift of knowledge helps us to have the mind of God, and it's a powerful gift to have because we can see things in the light of what they actually are. We usually do so with the blinkered glasses of judgements that we have formed through our learning or our experiences that, while sounding wise, may actually be utter foolishness. Paul learned this the hard way. As he, himself, says: "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:4-6)
"Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish ..." (Philippians 3:7-8).
What happened to him? He suddenly had a glimpse of himself through God's eyes and He realized that everything that he held to be important was only so much more rubbish to be thrown into the trash. What are we in comparison to Him who created us? The advancement of the sciences has led us to believe that we are masters of the universe, but are we, really?
Pope John Paul II says, "We know that modern man, precisely because of the development of the sciences, is particularly exposed to the temptation to give a naturalistic interpretation to the world. Before the manifold magnificence of things, their complexity, variety and beauty, he runs the risk of absolutizing and almost divinizing them to the extent of making them the supreme purpose of his very life. This happens especially when it is a matter of riches, pleasure and power, which indeed can be drawn from material things. These are the principal idols before which the world too often prostrates."
In plain English that means we value the created more than the creator. "In order to resist such subtle temptations and to remedy the pernicious consequences to which they can lead, the Holy Spirit aids people with the gift of Knowledge. It is this gift which helps them to value things correctly in their essential dependence on the Creator. Thanks to it, as St Thomas writes, man does not esteem creatures more than they are worth and does not place in them the end of his life, but in God."
May the Spirit be with you.