Spiritual boredom is closely tied to one of the famed deadly or capital sins, which are so named because they tend to beget other sins. Hence, they quickly become a toxic poison in the spiritual and moral life. They are typically listed as follows: pride, envy, wrath, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth (for an overview, see my John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again).
The deadly sin most closely tied to boredom is sloth, which the Christian tradition understands not as laziness, but as a sadness at the difficulty of a spiritual good (see St. Thomas Aquinas ST II-IIae, q. 35). It is a form of sadness that has become indifferent to the good and thereby indifferent to authentic love.
The person beset by sloth still recognizes the good as good, but finds it too difficult to pursue. Because the mountain seems too high, the person becomes sad and tends to wallow in their own perceived ineptitude, thus increasing their melancholy state. For this reason, sloth typically results in a restless sense of unfulfilment, boredom, and bitterness. And in this bored and bitter state, one often turns to outlets as a sort of “compensation” or “distraction.” This could be excessive drinking, pornography, restless hours on social media, seeking inappropriate emotional connections or affirmation; or it could manifest in excessive busyness—thus one can fall prey to sloth and still be a work-a-holic.
Thus, sloth is a deadly sin because it is inimical to authentic love and begets other sins or disorders in our life, as the sadness of sloth seeks compensation and distraction in the pleasures of the flesh, entertainment, or over-activism—all of which are attempts to numb one’s sadness and frustration with life.
Reflection on sloth has a long history; it was known by the ancient monastics as the “noonday demon.” Here is a famous passage from Evagrius, a fourth-century monk; notice how relevant the temptations are for us today:
“The demon of acedia [Latin for sloth], also called the noonday demon is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour [10 a.m.] and besieges his soul until the eighth hour [2 p.m.]. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour [3 p.m.], to look this way and that [for one of his brothers to distract him]. And further, he instills in him a dislike for his state of life itself, for manual labor, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him. And should there be someone during those days who has offended the monk, this too the demon uses to add further to his dislike. He leads him on to a desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive …. He joins to these suggestions the memory of his close relations and of his former life; he depicts for him the long course of his lifetime, while bringing the burdens of asceticism before his eyes; and, as the saying has it, he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee.”cited in Jean-Charles Nault, Noonday Devil, 28-9
According to Evagrius, this noonday demon afflicts the monk as he approaches midday, after he has been at his task for a while but not yet near the day’s completion; the day seems to drag on and the monk looks for distractions—“constantly looking toward the window,” perhaps not unlike our temptation to constantly check our phone at every spare moment! Like us in this state, the monk becomes averse to hard work and self-exertion.
Temptations Caused by Sloth
Notice also the temptation of increasingly disliking one’s state. This could have any number of applications for us, but perhaps most grave is the dissatisfaction with one’s vocation—say, one’s spouse or one’s commitment to religious life. Here, the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola (which comports well with that of these ancient monks) is quite helpful: the time of sadness and dissatisfaction is decidedly not the time of sober discernment—it is the time of the lie, when the evil one is likely to step in and deceive us in a time of vulnerability.
As Evagrius recognized, the monk often develops an increased sensitivity to insults to his ego. In our sadness, we are quick to be offended—and we are likely to hang on to this wound, continually holding it over the offender’s head.
No person can live with such sadness. For this reason, sloth orients us toward other paths, other outlets by which we seek a sort of “compensation,” as noted above. In our sadness, we often tell ourselves that we “deserve” this or that comfort—whether it’s an extra dessert, or a pseudo-justification for pornography. Thus, this sadness of soul doesn’t stay put—it is a poison demanding something to offset it.
In the above, Evagrius mentioned a pining for one’s old life. Especially in our age of social media, we have to be on guard against utilizing electronic means in order to seek out emotional connection and gratification in ways that are not appropriate to our state in life. This could be a husband or wife developing emotional intimacy with someone other than their spouse—often under the cover of electronic secrecy. Or, this could be a priest or seminarian fostering an emotionally saturated relationship with someone of the opposite sex that is inappropriate (as a check, all one has to ask is whether or not such conversations or actions would be appropriate if one were in a married state, espoused to someone else). Of course, the same temptations can beset religious sisters.
How Do We Overcome Sloth?
First: Recognize the truth of the Creator and his providence.
As we hit the “ten O’clock hour” in our spiritual lives—after we’ve been pursuing the Lord for a while and have come to be disenchanted with our state and role—it’s easy to look back at our past decisions (whether they be marriage or religious life) as if they were simply made on account of this or that influence—this or that sociological pressure. But this is to view one’s entire discernment through naturalistic lenses. The truth is God’s providence was at work in the past, guiding us to where we are now. If we firm up our trust in God’s providence, especially as it concerns the past, it will be easier for us to “remain in the cell” when sloth hits, as the ancient monks counsel—to remain at our post.
Second: The combination of prudence and magnanimity
Prudence, as Aquinas defines it, is right reason applied to action (see ST II-IIae, q. 47); it’s the virtue that enables us to make sound moral decisions—to see what should be done and to do it. “Magnanimity” literally means “greatness of soul.” This virtue is part of courage and enables us to really go after something. These two together—prudence and magnanimity—can be a great help to overcoming sloth: we can’t go after everything (hence, the need for prudence); but if we’re discerning with prudence, then we can really pour ourselves into select things.
When we resist the initial movement of sloth, we’ll often find ourselves catching a spiritual second wind, as it were. Resisting these initial movements makes them eventually subside; and conversely, giving into them actually makes them worse. R. J. Snell captures this dynamic well in his book on sloth:
“Sloth’s cure is staying in the cell, remaining yoked to the work God has given … the task of our particular vocations as individuals, and the various disciplines of a life well-ordered. We stay in the cell in very concrete ways—keeping the prayers, finishing the report, paying our bills on time, wiping away childish tears, doing the dishes, cleaning the car, caring for our tools—through staying in the quotidian, the mundane ordinary work. While perhaps unromantic, this settling into our cell allows for virtue, since natural virtue requires habituation …. In part this is because virtue, as a firm characteristic, demands a training of taste, including developing a discriminating palate through experiencing good things which we may initially find off-putting and distasteful. We try again, in time refining our dispositions until we take pleasure in fine and beautiful things …. We become the people we are by what we choose to do again.”Acedia and Its Discontents, 118
Fourth: Sweat—both physical and spiritual
A good sweat from either a physical workout or vigorous labor can transform one’s experience in a given day. Because we are a body-soul unity, physical exertion can jumpstart our spiritual lives as well. However, we should be on the lookout for disorders in terms of physical workouts: working out merely for the cult of physique and sex appeal will have a negative impact on our spiritual lives. That said, a vigorous sweat is good for us. And what is true physically is also true spiritually: we have to pour into prayer, not merely go in half-way. Anything we do with a half-baked effort invariably leaves us disappointed—why should our spiritual life be any different?
Fifth: Recover a sense wonder.
Modernity has bequeathed to us a disenchanted view of the cosmos; we tend to see nature as simply a bunch of molecules in motion. But the classical Christian view is that nature is the embodiment of a divine idea—the natural order is the embodiment of divine wisdom (it was in fact this view that led to the development of modern science as we know it). For many of us, this is exacerbated by living in a manner more and more remote from nature—surrounded by cement and sometimes virtually oblivious to the real connection between the farmer’s crops and livestock and what we buy at the grocery store. Recovering a sense of wonder at creation, e.g., at the stars—at reality—helps us reconnect with the real, which is the first step to encountering a God who transcends what we can see and touch. Sloth, on the other hand, tends to incentivize a flight from the real—either “to flee our cell” and dream of life “elsewhere,” or turning to virtual reality (online) as a way to assuage our pain and frustration.
Sixth: Be festive.
Only those who love can be festive.
“Festivity gives up the usual expectation of reward or yield or profit.”Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents, 99
In order to be festive, one gives up the “rat race” for a moment and recognizes that friendship and joy is even more important. This is not to say that some issues are not pressing—something all the more evident as so many have been laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, being festive recognizes that the Creator—not Wall Street—is the one who truly provides. Our Catholic tradition (and the same is true of earlier Jewish tradition) is marked by times of fasting and feasting. These punctuate the rhythms of life, both naturally and supernaturally. When we don’t truly enter into times of feasting, we make the situation of sloth worse, even though this may seem paradoxical. For the person beset by sloth is strangely neither truly productive nor at peace, suffering from the inability to work and yet not being able to truly rest.
Seventh: Pray and practice the presence of God.
Really praying, with heart and mind, is the only way to invigorate our spiritual lives. Praying is to the soul what breathing is to the body; if we stop praying, we can expect our interior life to wither. By recommending prayer, we are not recommending the endless multiplication of devotions, as our situations in life are all very different. But no matter how busy we are, we can continuously live with the recognition that God is always present.
From Sloth to Resentment
In his book Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla draws a distinction between sloth and resentment (and he does so with reference to the virtue of chastity). The difference is this: sloth still recognizes the good as a good, but one which is too hard; “resentment,” on the other hand, denies the goodness of the good. “Resentment” leads one to declare that chastity is not even good—which becomes a convenient move for justifying oneself for not making any serious effort in this regard.
At the beginning of St. Augustine’s Confessions, he speaks of God this way:
“All who look for him shall find him … By praying to you … I shall believe in you.”
Similarly, toward the end of the Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis points out (through a discussion of Uncle Andrew) that the kind of person one is affects what one is able to see.
Fighting through sloth—with God’s grace—enables us to take in the wonder of creation and the joy of authentic relationship with God and others. Succumbing to sloth, on the other hand, turns us inward, making us more and more sad and self-absorbed—disconnecting us from others, from God, and from reality. The person beset by sloth becomes both depressed and narcissistic.
During this trying time of quarantine, let’s we reconnect with the real, with what truly matters and especially with the One Who truly matters. As St. Teresa of Avila taught, the one who has God has everything.
How can we avoid sloth in these times and live life in a more fulfilling and truly human way?
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Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension, and host of the Bible study Romans: The Gospel of Salvation (and author of the companion book), also by Ascension. Andrew is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_swafford.