The Sin of Sloth
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Sloth: you thought that was a pointy nosed animal hanging by his two toes upside down from the branch of a tree. Actually it is one of the seven deadly sins, along with Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy. They come down to us from the 4th century and a Desert Father named Cassian.
Now I know we are not much on sin let alone lists of them. We prefer something like seven habits of highly effective people. Yet over the centuries these have proven to be a profound diagnosis of the tendencies in human societies which work against our humanity and happiness. However they may seem to fit us as individuals, who can deny that our societies are capable of all these. And in our time maybe sloth more than all the rest.
Deborah Douglas introduces us to sloth in this way. “A monk in the desert is seated at the mouth of the cave that serves as his cell. He is deep in prayer, or at least he is supposed to be, but he is finding it hard to concentrate. The day is hot; he is sleepy and distracted. The sun is high in the sky; and it seems to have stopped moving. He cranes his neck to see if he can see one of the other monks: it would be better to talk to someone-anyone-than to keep up this pretense of devotion. God does not seem to be listening anyway. The monk thinks maybe he will just curl up at the back of the cave and sleep until supper. No one would know, and it hardly matters anyway.
“A middle-aged social worker keeps glancing at her watch. It must be broken; she could swear the hands are not moving at all. She had thought she would use this hour between client visits to catch up with paperwork, but now all the official forms seem even more tedious than usual. In fact, her whole job seems pretty pointless —too many people need help, not enough time or money to go around. Nothing seems to do any good. Frankly, she does not even care about her clients’ problems anymore. She decides to get a cup of coffee and see who is in the corridor. Maybe she will just take the rest of the day off. She deserves a break, and who would notice, or care, if she were not at her desk anyway.
Now these are both good people unwittingly caught in the snares of what the Church Fathers called, “the noonday demon.” The condition the Greeks called “akedia” which means, apathy, indifference, listlessness, lethargy, which means literally “I don’t care.” I dare say that there is hardly one of us who has not felt this tendency at one time or another.
But more seriously it seems to be a broad culture state of affairs in the world around us today, a spiritual malady. Our popular speech is today full of phrases that suggest an indifference and apathy that amount to spiritual and emotional torpor. Hang loose. Play it cool. They have their counterpart in more traditional phrases. I couldn’t care less! What’s that to me? Live and let live.
Dorothy Sayers, the English mystery writer says, “In the world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair. It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing. There is not a trumpet in our lives to call us to our feet.”
The late Henry Fairlie, the social critic, paints with even more dramatic brush, “Children too idle to obey. Parents too sluggish to command. Pupils too lazy to work. Teachers too indolent to teach. Priests too slack to believe. Prophets too morbid to inspire. Men too indifferent to be men. Women too heedless to be women. Doctors too careless to care well. Shop clerks too uninterested to be courteous. Believers too dejected to bear witness.”
Now there are obvious exceptions to this picture. But I leave it to you to decide whether as a people we do not often present a picture of indifference to the larger problems of the poor and the war, uncaring beyond our own hobbies and interests, lack of excitement about the future in general, lack of passion for any causes beyond ourselves, be it political or social or religious. One has to wonder if the emphasis on the tolerance of all points of view, acceptance of all manner of conduct, uncertainty about solutions to all the growing problems, unwillingness to draw any lines regarding acceptable behavior has not led to a certain lack of vitality, lack of ability to any longer care.
Sloth is not laziness, it is the tendency toward sadness and despair when life loses zest and future, excitement and commitment. Does the general lassitude explain the momentary spasms of fanaticism in the baseball park or football stadium? We all enjoyed the Cubbies’ run for the pennant. It certainly added a bit of warmth and excitement to the cooler and briefer days of these past weeks. But to my eye it reached levels of religious fervor for many, fan-naticism in the precise sense of the word. On some Sunday afternoon, enjoying the game as much as any, I do look around in astonishment at the intense fervor. On neighborhood fields parents become frenzied and cruel. And what about extreme sports, or for that matter, extreme religious movements.
The poet Yeats’ lines of long ago seem even more profoundly prophetic. “ Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
But if this be the besetting sin, sickness, sadness, situation for many in our time, it is certainly nothing new. The ancient Psalmists certainly knew the pits of despair, the desperation of loss of spirit. The great mystic, John of the Cross, spoke of the Dark Night of the Soul. Luther knew his dark days. Melancholy pops up in the writings of Wesley and Calvin. Churchill had his black dog. We all struggle with mood swings, down times. Perhaps new is the disposition to believe that there is some pill, or preacher, or program that can easily lift our spirits without discipline and price. We all struggle.
To his Christian friends living in the capitol of the Roman Empire, no doubt feeling discouraged and helpless, wondering if there was any future for the cause of their Galilean Lord, Paul shouts, “Wake up. It is high time for you to wake out of sleep, for deliverance is nearer now than it was. Day is near.”
Surely he is first of all calling for them to take some responsibility for mood and attitude. Clearly some of us are sunnier by nature than others. Clearly there are those for whom it is a truly clinical problem calling for medical intervention. I suspect most of us muddle around in the middle. However much the product of genes and environment we are, this old faith still insists that we have a measure of freedom to fight against our moods, break our apathy, our sadness, our despair. This against the tendency of contemporary culture to insist that we are not only without hope, but there is nothing we can do about it.
I read one of the more classic expressions of this victim mentality recently. A woman fed up, says to her friend, “Ruth, you truly are obnoxious at times.” To which Ruth responds, “Oh, I know and I am so sorry. But there is nothing I can do about it. I suffer from obnoxious personality disorder.”
But what are they to wake up to? What is it that they are to stir to life in their heart of hearts. They are to wake up to the vision that made them who they are as a people. And quite simply what is that? It is a vision of the Kingdom that is coming, the Kingdom we pray for every Sunday morning. The vision and conviction that God in Jesus is subtly but truly invading this sad world to make it his own. Apathy rests in the deadly assumption that nothing particularly exciting is going on in the real world, nothing worth hitching mind and heart to, nothing near as exciting as the Bears or the Cubs … well, Yankees and Bucs. Here is excitement, says Paul. The simple conviction that God has not abandoned his creation, including you and me. But is at work through the kind of patient suffering love we see in Jesus to remake the future. Rome does not have the final say about the future. Nor do the powers, political and economic and social in our time. God is coming, cries old Paul. Wake up.
Perhaps you saw the New York Times report on the decline of Christianity in Europe. Both protestant and Roman Catholic communities seem to be in their death throes. One wonders if it is not because of the tendency we are talking about. The lack of excitement about a future from God. The lack of hope, the opposite of which is sloth, apathy, despair. And one has to worry and wonder about the decline in our country of many of the so-called mainline churches. Is it not a loss of vision, loss of faith in the future.
God is coming. Wake up and shape up. Day is near. Let us throw off the deeds of darkness. The vision of what God is up to, stirs in us a new passion for what we may be up and at, working in our own place and way toward that future. For Paul in that time it came down to very simple things — no drunken orgies, no vice, no quarrels, no jealousies. In other words God’s kingdom begins in us as we demonstrate in our own lives the character of its citizens. We witness to the coming of God by the way our lives exhibit his rule both personally and in the larger world. What does the reign of God look like? Look at us. What an enormous responsibility to wake up to every day. But it gives life passion and direction against the apathy and indifference around. One of the major problems we face, as did they, overwhelmed by the power of Rome, was the feeling that their lives did not count for much. Despair at making any difference. Does the struggle and discipline to be God’s man, God’s woman, really amount to much. But what if doing what we do where we are and with whom we are can provide one small beachhead for the invasion of God’s rule over his whole creation.
That sounds significant, does it not? I must confess that in my struggle to keep myself awake, I am helped most by the inspiration of others whom I observe living with passion and purpose. Some of you are here. Others are out there. But I also read poetry. Partly out of the long ago observation that the old book is mostly poetry. Poetry seems to evoke the vitality and passion of real life in a way that prose cannot do. Indeed, we sing poetry every Sunday in worship do we not. The Wall Street Journal set to music would not do, would it.
One of my favorites is in the judgment of many the finest poet of the twentieth century, author of four collections. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry. Her name is Jane Kenyon. Her husband writes of her, “Jane was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in May of 1947. Her father Reuel played piano all his life … toured with American dance bands. Jane’s mother Polly had sung with orchestras in night clubs, and when her children were born, turned seamstress and teacher of sewing. The family lived on the outskirts of town, on a dirt road opposite a working farm in a house crowded with pictures, books, and music. Jane went to a one-room school through the fourth grade.
During junior high school she began to write poems. At the University of Michigan, where she majored first in French and then in English, she won the Hopwood Award. We met in 1969, courted in 1971, married in 1972. In 1975, with Jane’s encouragement, I quit my university job and we moved to a family place in New Hampshire. Her readers are aware of Jane’s struggles with depression, but also her joy in the creation, in flowers, music, and paintings, in hayfields and a dog. We had almost twenty years together at Eagle Pond Farm, engaged separately in a common enterprise (they both wrote poetry) commonly loving land and house and church and friends. Jane died of leukemia on April 22, 1995.
Through it all, she was sustained by her faith and poetic vision. Turned off on religion by a grandmother who was full of rigidity and hell-fire, she found her way back to faith in a little local church in New Hampshire where she and her husband became active.
But it is her poetry that tells her story, reveals the vision that sustained her. Near the end she wrote a piece she entitled, “Notes from the Other Side. “I divested myself of despair and fear when I came here. Now there is no more catching one’s own eye in the mirror, there are no bad books, no plastic, no insurance premiums, and of course no illness. Contrition does not exist, nor gnashing of teeth. No one howls as the first clod of earth hits the casket. The poor we no longer have with us. Our calm hearts strike only the hour, and God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.”
But before and around and through this vision came a mission of great passion. In an interview once she was asked, “What’s the poet’s job?” She said, “The poet’s job is to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it; to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, yet so difficult to name. The other job the poet has is to console in the face of the inevitable disintegration of loss and death, all of the tough things we have to face as humans. We have the consolation of beauty, of one soul extending to another soul and saying, ‘I’ve been there too.’”
So the mission included the discipline and struggle to truly live with and for others. She worked diligently against her depression, day by day, all the way to the end. After her husband’s second surgery for cancer, she refused to wallow in tragedy. Her enormous resilience of spirit battled back, searching for light. She explained that she outwitted the storm by going outside before it struck and cutting every full-open peony in sight, brought them into the house so that she and her husband could savor their beauty and their scent.
She comments, “We are getting an education this summer in the humanities, I would say – in love despite fear … And daily we grow in the determination to cast off trouble like a garment in the heat and keep going, keep living, and living abundantly, with more awareness of each moment and more joy.”
Here is one human being wide awake to the kingdom, I dare say. But each of us has a poem to write.
Copyright 2003 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.