|Johan Tobias Sergel: Plunging into Despair|
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)