The challenge to stay where you are: Overcoming sloth (Sermon for 22 January, 2023)
Those must have been exciting days for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. As they went about their daily work as fishermen, frustrated with the tearing nets or the lack of fish, something new and exciting breaks into their lives. A person so compelling, who so arrests their attention, with an attractive force so powerful that all it takes is a simple invitation: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men,” and they walk away from it all to follow this stranger who has captured their hearts in such a mysterious way.
And then, Matthew’s Gospel continues, people start coming from miles around, bringing their sick and wounded, who experience miraculous cures in front of their eyes. They’re fighting to break through the crowd just to get a glimpse of this man, the one who sought them out and invited them by name to follow Him – unheard of for any Jewish rabbi, let alone for this one who attracted so many who would have loved to be in their place.
The first four Apostles have been called on an adventure, to something radically new and different than what their lives have been up to that point. That “yes,” that total abandonment of everything to follow the Lord, inspires us but perhaps also intimidates us. What if the Lord called you in the same way? What if He asked you to give up everything and follow Him?
Maybe there are times in your life, though, when it actually wouldn’t be that hard. Maybe it really sounds great. Maybe there are some tough situations you’d like to walk away from. Maybe you’re bored, and you’re ready for a new adventure.
Certainly there are those called in this way. In our midst, there are young men and women being called to leave everything behind to serve the Lord as priests, religious, or missionaries. But it often happens in life that what we imagine following Christ would look like turns out not to be what He’s asking of us – not because it would be too hard, but because it would be too easy. Usually, the invitation to be His disciple, to follow Him completely and give your whole life to Him, means being right where you are.
When that happens (and, I would contend, it’s precisely what happens to the great majority of Christians whose vocations consist in being Christ’s disciples within the world), when that happens, the chief obstacle to accepting the Lord’s invitation to follow Him is not fear of the unknown (as we can imagine might have been the case for Peter, Andrew, James, and John), but rather fear of the known – the detestation of that which has become all too common. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” the old saying goes.
Thus the chief obstacle to following Christ for many people can be the vice of acedia, or sloth. We think of sloth as laziness, but it is a lot more than that. It is sorrow in the face of a good. The slothful man beholds something good, but imagines it to be too difficult to obtain, and sorrows in his seeming inability to attain the good.
Sometimes that does look like inactivity. It is present in spirit of “I just cannot,” which we saw last month on the III Sunday of Advent: “I cannot be bothered to leave my house, I cannot summon enough energy to care one way or another, and I cannot understand why anyone would. I. Just. Cannot.”
But even more often, the slothful person can look quite busy. “Listlessness, distractions, avoidance of duties, frenetic busyness and underneath it all, a coruscating sense of boredom and disgust; these are hallmarks of acedia or sloth.” The slothful person struggles to commit to one course of action, struggles to pay attention to the task at hand, and so occupies himself with a thousand little petty concerns, checking items off an artificial to-do list, while ignoring the most important work of all.
We have absolutely no lack of things that can distract us. One tiny moment of boredom, or when we are finally alone with that one task that must be accomplished, whatever is most important, and we reach for something to distract us. All of a sudden, you wonder about that family member or friend whom you haven’t seen in a while, and you look her up on social media. Or you pull up the news, or whatever digital distraction seems most appealing. Or you perform tasks that aren’t bad in themselves but all of a sudden seem more appealing than what you really ought to do.
So what do you do about this vice of acedia or sloth that is keeping you from following the radical invitation of Christ to be His follower? First, confess it. When we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Confession, not only does God forgive us through the sacramental presence of Christ, but His grace heals and strengthens our souls to resist sin in the future and grow in holiness.
Fasting also has a great power to help us defeat the vice of sloth. Specifically, fast from whatever it is that you tend to distract yourself with, particularly, from those things that are superfluous to your life – like social media or constant consumption of the news.
We conquer vice in our life most thoroughly by growing in virtue. The virtue opposed to the vice of acedia or sloth is perseverance. Like any virtue, you grow in perseverance principally by asking God in prayer to grant you an increase of that virtue. “God, I struggle with the vice of sloth. Help me to persevere!”
These are called the infused virtues – when God through His grace infuses a virtue in our soul, helping us to grow in virtue beyond the power of our own efforts. There are also, though, acquired virtues. This is when we intentionally practice a virtue, and through this effort, assisted always by God’s grace, we develop good habits that make it easier for us to do good than evil.
Right after New Year’s, I arrived at the gym and found it quite full – people making good on those New Year’s resolutions. Two weeks later, it was back to the three people who are always there. Developing a human habit of perseverance will help us to persevere in the search for spiritual goods as well. Pick a way that you will persevere in the search for an authentic human good, asking God to help you to be faithful and to grow in desire for spiritual goods as well through that natural virtue of perseverance.
Another virtue that serves as a remedy for acedia or sloth is “eutrapalia” – the virtue of good recreation. Here it’s important to distinguish between the goodness of true recreation and mere amusement. Rather than merely entertaining yourself, if you want to remove sloth from your life, you need good leisure that re-creates you, that builds you up rather than leaving you exhausted. This good leisure or recreating is also important in training yourself not to choose those things that merely distract us.
For example, if you’re just starting out on establishing a prayer life, it can be hard to choose to pray the rosary instead of watching a show on Netflix. You recognize the good of praying the rosary (especially as a family), but sorrow in the face of that good (sloth) sets in when you think about persevering through all the distractions you’re likely to face (or, through all the resistance your children might present). Or, you set a goal of reading instead of watching shows, but you pick the autobiography of the mystic St. Teresa of Avila, and it’s just so beyond you that sloth sets in and you pick up the remote after two pages.
In those kinds of circumstances, we need to make it a little easier for ourselves by finding some good recreation with which to replace the negative influences in our lives instead of biting off more than we’re ready to chew. Choosing a rosary over watching the next episode of the latest craze on Netflix might be difficult for you to do right now, so find a book that’s entertaining but more wholesome than whatever show you’d otherwise be watching. Or read a classic adventure novel together with your children instead of settling in front of three different screens to watch three different shows. Then you can start adding a decade of the rosary. Brick by brick!
It’s likely that if we try to respond to Christ’s calling here and now, the calling to remain where we are, to be focused and diligent in the tasks He has entrusted to us, the Evil One will tempt us to think that we’re not doing enough, or that what we’re doing isn’t worth the effort since it’s so small and unimportant. But this is a temptation to the vice of acedia or sloth, the temptation to sorrow when faced with the possibility of growing in holiness in our everyday lives, the temptation to distract ourselves or busy ourselves with anything except what we ought to be doing. But just as He called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to a radically different life, so too is Christ calling you to radical fidelity. Today He invites you to repent of the ways in which you have given into the vice of sloth, and to consider how He wants to help you grow in perseverance. Doing so will fill your life with joy and hope.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
22 January, A.D. MMXXIII
More ideas for overcoming acedia, especially as regards the use of media: