Sloth or Slacking?
By Audrey Stallsmith
I’ve recently been reading Kathleen Norris’s book on acedia, a medieval term that means sloth. Acedia is not quite the same thing as laziness, however. Many of the people most guilty of it definitely aren’t loafers. On the contrary, they are very busy--too busy to give attention to what really matters.
Although I haven’t progressed very far into the book, I’m already seeing myself a little too clearly. A couple years back, when I lost the job that helped support my writing, I abandoned my fiction to write gardening articles, at which I could actually make some money. Not much money, granted, but more than I’d been making on my fiction as of late! When I have a little extra time, I work on my flower photography.
This all sounds very industrious, but—although I enjoy writing the gardening articles--they aren’t what I originally felt called to do. They and the photography are actually much easier for me than fiction, especially so since I leave my camera on the automatic setting most of the time! I can almost cruise on automatic for the gardening articles too, since they are largely how-to pieces which require lots of research, but little “digging deeper.”
The fiction came much harder since it required a constant fight with other personalities. Fictional personalities, granted, but they can be as obstinate as real-life people! At the time, I could say with Dorothy Parker that “I hate writing. I love having written.”
I turned to the gardening articles almost with relief, simply because I didn’t have as much “blood, sweat, and tears” invested in them. I told myself I would get back to the fiction once I was making enough money to do so. That, of course, hasn’t happened. I simply haven’t had the time.
As Frederick Buechner puts it in Wishful Thinking, “A slothful man. . .may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell. He knows something's wrong with him, but not wrong enough to do anything about it. . .He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.”
As Norris points out, acedia often appears very close to depression, with some elements of cynicism and boredom mixed in. In my case, I really don’t feel all that depressed or bored. My actual interest in the plants about which I am writing keeps me from the former and worry about finances keeps me from the latter! As Eugene Ionesco points out, “Boredom flourishes. . . when you feel safe. It’s a symptom of security.”
Fortunately, I have never felt secure enough to be bored unless—as Paul Tillich contends—“Boredom is rage spread thin.” Before falling into this slump, I was beginning to feel very fed up with my lack of progress.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one of the demons advises “In every department of life it [disappointment and anticlimax] marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. . .(Careful, my dear Wormwood, If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt!)”
Since I am very much a plodder, it may have taken me longer than many to get to the disappointment stage. But, if you throw a commitment over in disgust after 30 years, you have still thrown it over. “God,” as G. K. Chesterton points out, may be “strong enough to exult in monotony.” Most of the rest of us aren’t!
Norris points out that acedia is a dryness, a failure of love or passion. Not necessarily romantic love or passion. One of the groups most likely to experience that listlessness was, in fact, monks who had lost their initial love for God.
We generally lose passion when we feel it is unrequited. In a marriage, one partner may feel that he or she is the only one giving to that relationship. In our relationship with God, we may feel that we are the ones doing all the work with no response at all from Him.
That is ridiculous, of course, since none of us could even survive without God’s constant attention. It is largely a matter of perception. When we are angry at another person, we tend to think along the lines of “I always” and “he never.” Since we are prejudiced in our own favor, we conveniently forget all that the other party actually has done for us.
This too is a failure of love since, if we really cared for that other person, we would be prejudiced in his or her favor as well as our own. When we discover that we don’t have enough love for—or faith in—God, we conclude in despair that we are actually regressing in our spiritual life. The fact that we can see our deficiency, however, may simply mean that we have come far enough to hit the wall.
In running terms, marathoners hit the wall when they feel as if they have used up all of their strength and can’t go on. This, of course, is more likely to happen in the middle or towards the end of a race than at its beginning.
Although we may think there is no way beyond that barrier, Karl Rahner contends that “the petrifying visage of hopelessness is only God’s rising in your soul.” It happens when we come to the end of our own stamina.
Runners who reach that point often seem to draw additional strength from the encouraging shouts of loved ones or other spectators. We too can derive help from other Christians, both living and dead. As Paul adjures, “Since we have such a huge crowd of men of faith watching us from the grandstands, let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back. . .and let us run with patience the particular race that God has set before us. (Hebrew 12:1 TLB)”
Ultimately, though, we must stop putting our faith in our own efforts and put it instead in what God—through Christ—has already done for us. “If you want to keep from becoming fainthearted and weary, think about his [Christ’s] patience as sinful men did such terrible things to him. After all, you have never yet struggled against sin and temptation until you sweat great drops of blood.” (Hebrews 12:3-4 TLB)
When we begin thinking that God doesn’t really care about us, we need to get that image of Christ on the cross back into focus. We can also take courage from the example of people like Mother Teresa, who often had difficulty feeling God’s presence or approbation too. “I am told God lives in me,” she wrote, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. I want God with all the power of my soul — and yet between us there is terrible separation.”
She persisted in carrying out her calling despite those feelings. And, even if she couldn’t sense God with her, other people could sense God’s love flowing through her.
She stands in sharp contrast to Henry Beecher, about whom I have also just been reading. An extremely popular preacher in his day, he was a highly talented orator, who did much good by shifting people away from the perception of an angry God toward the perception of a loving one.
But Beecher eventually swung too far in the other direction, dropping all belief in hell and judgement. He apparently had good reasons for not wanting to believe in divine punishment. Like many other performers he was a highly emotional guy, whose moral stands on issues like slavery ebbed and flowed with his feelings. He was eventually accused of having an affair with a woman in his congregation and the evidence suggests that it wasn’t the first time.
Beecher, we can say, was too lazy to resist what his emotions wanted him to do. He also had little interest in the daily grind of pastoral responsibilities. So, although he was a great speaker, he was never even an adequate minister. It actually seems to have been his quieter but more persistent sister Harriet, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who turned the most people against slavery. (It’s hard for me to hold to my excuse that fiction makes little difference anyway, after seeing how much difference that particular novel made!)
Whether our own sloth springs from too little emotion or too much, if we continue doing the work we are called to do, God will continue supplying the strength for it. If we quit, though, He can’t help us anymore, since he refuses to force love and/or obedience from us.
A runner who hits the wall can probably convince himself that finishing a foot-race isn’t all that important anyway. The race in which we are involved has much larger consequences, however. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”
Although our actions don’t buy our salvation, they do prove—or disprove—our commitment to God. Like Christian who fell into the Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress, when we get stuck we should struggle to get out of the swamp on the side furthest from which we came, so that we are still making progress towards the Celestial City. Although we aren't promised that we will reach that destination, we are promised that as long as we keep pulling for God He will keep pulling for us.
So we should heed the admonition of one of Ray Bradbury’s characters whom Norris quotes in her book. That character (from Fahrenheit 451) says, “Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away.”