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Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth or 'Acedia'

By Jeri Holladay
March 18th, 2009
Catholic Online (

A sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.

WICHITA, Kansas (Catholic Online) - At the beginning of Mass, we ask forgiveness for “what I have done and for what I have failed to do.” A bad act is usually obvious, but those omissions are hard to detect. Sloth is the black hole among the Seven Deadly Sins – a nothing where there should be something.

Dorothy Sayers describes sloth as “a sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.” Sloth can masquerade as tolerance. It can also be very busy, but the activity of the slothful leads nowhere, simply marking time in a life that has no ultimate purpose. Many of the slothful end up in despair, a hopelessness that is distinct from clinical depression requiring medical attention.

The Catechism describes sloth as a culpable lack of physical or spiritual effort that can actually refuse the joy that comes from God. The slothful person is lukewarm towards, perhaps even repelled by, divine goodness and spiritual practices (Catechism #1866, 2094, 2733). The loss of one’s spiritual moorings manifests itself in flight from God and apathy in the service of one’s neighbor.

How can we overcome this most deadly vice? Mass society engenders a sense of powerlessness, but size need not leave us apathetic. It is possible to carve out a more human scale of life. Begin with your family, your parish, your neighborhood, your child’s school. Get involved. Contribute something,

In the midst of New York City’s millions, for example, a humanly sized community lived in my apartment building. We knew one another, knocked on doors when a neighbor had not been seen for a few days, brought chicken soup when one was sick, and had Christmas parties in the lobby.

The darkest side of sloth, however, is its distaste for worship and prayer. Sometimes this aversion strikes at a very advanced stage of the spiritual life, but for most of us, it shows itself early on, after the euphoria of conversion or the sweetness of prayer wears off. We avoid God, just when we need Him most. This can be a tipping point in our spiritual lives. Either we grow in faith, hope and love, or we collapse into sloth and, perhaps, ultimate loss. What can we do to change this?

Resolve to spend time in prayer, at least a half an hour every day. If you find it distasteful, know that this is the deadly vice of sloth. Pray anyway. St. Jerome said that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of God. Set aside time for prayerful study of Scripture. If you find this too burdensome, know that this is the deadly vice of sloth. Study anyway. The Cardinal virtue of Fortitude, “the virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (Catechism #1808) is absolutely essential to your spiritual survival, especially when in the deadly grip of sloth.

Above all, do not skip Mass or forsake the Sacrament of Confession. It is precisely these life-giving Sacraments that sloth most tempts us to abandon. Those who attempt to live without them often sink into the despair of doubting whether there is a God, whether He loves them, whether He can forgive them, or whether life has any ultimate meaning.

The spiritual and corporal works of mercy lift us out of ourselves and into the work of God’s Kingdom. They are listed in the Catechism (#2447). Ask God to show you what your personal contribution should be to the work of the Church. Then do it faithfully and let God attend to the outcome.

Finally, the theological virtue of hope dissipates the lassitude of Sloth. In the classic movie Marty, a small group of friends hang out under the street light on Friday nights, each one asking in turn, “What do you want to do?” “I dunno. What do you want to do?” “I dunno.” The conversation, like their lives, is a closed circle turned in on itself, until Marty chooses to break the cycle by seeking the company of a plain young woman with a view to marriage and family life. The gift of self is a powerful act of hope that overturns the futility of milling around on the street corner.

Ultimately, hope in God and in eternal life makes our lives here and now meaningful, filled with purpose and joy. Hope is the preeminent virtue of the pilgrim Church, calling us to participate in God’s work of bringing streams forth in the desert as we make our way to the heavenly city.

Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas, where she has been Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita, Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department and founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University. She teaches moral theology and church history and is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.

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