Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Portrait of Sloth: The Tumble into Despair

Johan Tobias Sergel: Plunging into Despair

 Sloth, often considered one of the lesser deadly sins in our day, needs to be unmasked so that we can recognize the terrible marks it leaves on our souls. Entire nations have been inoculated with this death-producing vice and we cannot fight an enemy that we can't even see. For this reason, we bring it into the light of God.

All the deadly sins are capable of producing despair but there are two especially noted for it. I always thought pride was the vice most likely to lead to despair and pride certainly can be the breeding ground for despair, but the top two vices that spawn despair as its offspring are lust and sloth.

St. Gregory the Great says that sloth gives birth to six daughters: malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, and wandering of the mind after unlawful things (see Morals on the Book of Job, xxxi 45). All the vices have "daughters" but St. Thomas Aquinas states that sloth gives birth to despair in a special way. It even beats lust as the top producer of despair. That, not one, but two Doctors of the Church considered sloth to be very deadly indeed should cause us to stand up and take notice.

What is it about sloth that leads people to despair? What is it about sloth that makes it so lethal to the soul? Can we elaborate on St. Thomas' words "in a special way"?

I think we can. When we understand how each of the deadly sins works, it opens a path to a greater awareness of how they operate and what we can do to prevent them from embedding their roots into our souls. In the case of sloth, we know that it slowly drains you of your love for the Lord. Imagine a siphon whose sole purpose is to draw out the love of God in your soul and inject it instead with sadness and hopelessness and you'll get a grasp of sloth's  "job description in the unholy annals of Hell", to put things bluntly. As this love is leached out it draws along with it the joy and awe which are the companions of  holy love. Soon the soul, instead of experiencing joy in the Lord and for the things of the Lord, feels sadness (or repulsion). Left unchecked, this sadness leads to the loss of hope, which, when taken to its full measure, results in despair. This is how sloth has gained the top, albeit blighted, honor as the number one architect of despair.

It helps if we keep in mind that the Seven Deadly Sins oppose, either directly or indirectly, the Three Theological Virtues and the Four Cardinal Virtues. They seek to strip the virtues from us and replace the "holiness" of the virtues with the "hellishness" of the vices. The virtues, when firmly in place, protect us from the onslaught of the deadly sins. But we have to do our part.

In the battle against sloth, the key would be to pray for an increase in the virtues of hope and charity while practicing diligence in the things of God. Hope opposes despair, and since spiritual joy belongs to charity, these counteract the sadness in the presence of eternal or spiritual goods and God Himself.

What may be useful, is to understand that sloth directs its opposition against the top three of The Ten Commandments, the commandments that form the basic structure of a loving relationship with God. When these are broken, the entire edifice of a holy life tends to collapse in on itself, enabling other deadly sins entrance into the temple of our souls. So, in the case of this particular vice, your counterattack would be to firmly resolve to honor God by keeping these commandments and loving the Lord  "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37).

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.   (The Catechism of the Catholic Church)

(Other posts in this series: The Seven Deadly Sins in the Moral Decline of America and A Portrait of Sloth - Pt 1)


  1. This post proves why we must always be on our guard and pray. Thank you Mary.

    God bless.

  2. By giving us the first thee commandments as the first three and not ordering them elsewhere among the 10, God is surely telling us that He must come first for our own good. We can endure anything, no matter how difficult, if we are closely tied to Him, putting Him first in our lives, remaining tied to Life itself.

    I think where sloth easily sneaks in, for it comes by stealth, is in the all too rampant idea that feelings are the measure of everything. I must fulfill the first three commandments whether I feel like it or not. And the rest, also, but I'm addressing your point here. How often do we hear, or say ourselves, "I feel this" or "I feel that" when we really mean, "I think this" or "I believe that"? We must be vigilant not to be ruled by our feelings but rather, no matter how we feel, do what God has asked of us. The act of the will strengthens us and God will reward us with the grace to overcome temptations to sloth. We must mind our language - the choice of words - to avoid the traps set by focusing on feelings as opposed to will.

    These posts are really thought provoking. Thanks, Mary.

  3. Hi Barb,
    Exactly! Our faithfulness in following all the commandments is tied up in following the first three. I agree that that we must master our emotions because if we don't they have the tendency to master us, unfortunately. I am guilty of "I feel this" or "I feel that" and you are right to say we really mean "think".Your words got me thinking about all the different ways we misuse human language these days.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. Mary, you write as a doctor of the church would write. Thank you!

  5. Thank you, Mallory. My ears are ringing with St. Thomas' laughter even now :) Ooops, St. Gregory just chimed in as well...

    I hope you feel better quickly, Mallory. Praying for you and your daughter.

  6. It's a wonderful post, Mary - you've actually changed my vision of sloth. It used to bring to mind pictures of cuddly balls of fur hanging from trees and, now, I discover it's that thing that keeps harassing me when I'm trying to cling on in faith (I love the psalm that says 'since he clings to me in love, I will free him' - you know the one? It's in the bible).

    The need to pray more for hope keeps coming to mind, now - when I'm hanging from my branch, saying my prayers ;-)

  7. Thank you, Vicky - they are rather cute! And your comment cracked me up! When you come down from that branch don't forget to check yourself for those nasty Australian spiders. Please, we don't want to lose you when we just got you back ;)
    Though I suppose coming into contact with a few of them would be a very quick cure for sloth...

    No, that doesn't mean I want you to send some my way :)

    (Is it impolite to read someone's mind like that? Lol)

  8. Gosh, Mary, I hope your head's not bleeding something fierce for having hit the nail repeatedly - almost every line! This was a supremely powerful article; God's voice came through unhindered.
    In a simplistic summary of this in-depth piece, I understand that sloth seeks to birth and root sadness at all things of God. If you're in need of another noun, "emptiness" might help. In my experience, as sloth began to wrap its vicious whip leash around us, some of us tore around madly from one pursuit to another. Every stop produced initial euphoria that rapidly metamorphosed into emptiness, followed quickly by despair when the perceived gold of that pursuit turned out to be mud.

    Barb Schoeneberger simple antidote is the miracle cure - Steadfast obedience to the first three commandments, or as you reminded us, to love God "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37).

  9. Hi Caitlynne,
    Your comments are always extremely insightful - I think you've "captured" the malice and purpose of sloth very well in your comment. Growing up, I saw similar things in my own family and in myself as well.

  10. Mary, I've linked this post to my latest blog posting in response to the sorrow in France. Just wanted to say thanks.