Owe no one anything but to love one another.
Last year in the Student Bible Studies, the focus was on the virtues – four cardinal virtues, and the three theological virtues. When they finished that series they started to look at the vices, and so I thought I would preach on Sloth, the last Bible study you had last year. (Next Tuesday students will decide about the coming year and I will be interested to hear what you choose as we may follow your themes).
Two things motivate us, make us move – love and fear. Fear, moves us to fight or to flight – the spirited or irascible aspect of our souls. Desire, or love, moves us to seek the object of our desire – the appetitive aspect of our souls.
But what if we have neither fear nor love? What if we are stuck in our pilgrimage into the kingdom of heaven?
Sloth can manifest itself as inactivity, maybe being afraid to do something in case we mess up, but also not really desiring anything either (a kind of depression of spirits).
Sloth can also manifest itself as ceaseless activity, but with no real purpose or direction. If we just fill our lives with work and, when we are not working, with entertainment or with a kind of busyness that leads nowhere, a carelessness about what we think about, we have succumbed to sloth.
Accidie is the ancient Greek word for this. It is described in the ancient texts from the Desert Fathers of the 4th century as a kind of continual discontent and stagnation. Cassian describes a hermit who has committed himself to staying in a cell to seek the kingdom of heaven but is now restless and begins to continually look around to other things:
AND when this has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work … He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; …he says that everything about him is rough, …he seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey… he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone. [Cassian, Institutes, Bk 10, Ch. 2]
We can imagine the same in our own lives as a sort of disengagement where we are always thinking that we should be doing something else, living somewhere else, maybe even with a different spouse. We surf through the internet, scanning page after page with no real direction, just filling in the time, perhaps playing video games, or solitaire, where we are simply trying to beat our earlier record – it is activity, but being dead to any spiritual ascent. We are not engaged in something we know to be wrong, but neither are we taking one step towards the kingdom of heaven.
What are the reasons for this state of soul in the Christian pilgrim?
Think of the person who has one goal in life – to make a million dollars by the time they are 30 years old. They put all this energy in – working long hours for this vain goal. Or think of the person with an addiction – lots of energy spent in trying to satisfy the addiction. Think of the seekers of fame – of what hoops they might jump through to be famous. In one sense all these people are full of life – doing lots, there is great energy behind their actions, but to the wrong ends.
Paul asks us to think about the times past when we failed to show some restraint of our passions – whether it was an excessive appetite for the good things of this world, or whether it was a perverted love – like pride, vainglory, dejection or anger. Whatever the failure in love that was besetting us, we came to a point where we saw its destructive effects and we sought help from God to deliver us.
When you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness. What fruit had you then in those things whereof you are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. [Rom 6:20-21]
Paul says, “you offered your bodily members to serve uncleanness, and to iniquity after iniquity”. [Rom 6:19] For each one of us there is a different story, different ways in which we have misspent our love. But we recognized that there was a problem with this – there was a lack of freedom in that kind of giving of oneself over. We felt alive in one sense and that is a good feeling. But because the love was misdirected, the end of our actions did not build us up or build up others. We may have felt shame, and there was something of the experience that had in it the taste of death. But by the grace of God, we pulled back, we were awakened to another way by God.
It is not wrong to want to feel alive – but we came to see that some of the ways we were expressing ourselves needed to be put to death, some of them needed to be curbed.
But if we just restrain ourselves from following iniquity after iniquity, if we are no longer experience the thrill, even of misplaced love, we can become stuck, no longer moving towards what is destructive, but also not yet moving towards what is good. And this too is a failure of love – it is sloth. In the book of Revelation, God judges one of the churches because their love has become lukewarm: you are neither cold nor hot: I wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue you out of my mouth! [Rev 3:15-16]
Supposing we have come to see that desire has led us into trouble, and so we think, as some do (the Buddhists?), that the solution is to stop desiring anything. Paul encourages us not give up – that would be a kind of death that God doesn’t intend for us. We are not made to give up desiring, that would be nihilistic, to give up on life itself – it is God who gave us desire to seek him out and enjoy him forever. As Christians our death to misdirected desire is something different – it is followed by a resurrection to eternal life.
But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Rom 6:22-23]
Just as we truly had a sense that we had tasted death when we followed a misplaced love – and it frightened us – so now we can get a taste of eternal life even now – and be much encouraged.
But this transition is not so easy for us to perceive. When we lived following disordered passions, when we were carnally minded, it was easy for us to experience something – the physical senses screamed out when they were stimulated – but our spiritual sense was dulled at the same time. It was easy to know we were alive – the thrill of pushing of limits, the excessive appetite, the pleasures of the body, the ice water flowing through our veins when we fed on anger [Mary Gordon] or the nurturing of hatred inwardly, or the satiety, the swelling we felt when filled with pride.
How will we make this transition from spending our energy on, directing our love towards, what is destructive, to spending all our energies on seeking out what is good?
We need to learn new pleasures and to desire them more than anything!
How? All of the spiritual disciplines are helpful in this transforming of sloth – regular prayer, turning inward, going to Church, learning to forgive, Holy Communion, Bible reading, generosity and fasting.
Our second reading today – what held back the wicked slothful servant? [St Matthew 25:14-30]
‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
The Master’s response seems hard! But it is the nature of God to be creative and fruitful and he wants us to enter into that activity!
With every vice there always some virtue that is being hinted at.
The soul that has succumbed to sloth does not desire to do anything, or is engaged in a busyness that is not in the least moving heavenward. But there is an aspect of the giving up outward activity that is in fact a godly instinct – the desire for holidays, for laying on the beach, for rest from all the busyness of our lives, is a longing for something that is in fact our soul’s highest end. Leisure is a great good – it is the foundation of culture [Joseph Pieper]. To rest our minds from our normal way of thinking is to make our minds available to higher thought. Resting from the busyness allows space and time for self-reflection, an activity that God does outside time. It allows us to look to the higher things, to recall our purpose, our end in God. It’s not sloth to have a holiday, but in the way we spend it is it really a “holy day”? Have we looked up? Have we self reflected?
In Genesis we learn that God created the heavens and the earth and rested on the seventh day.[Gen 1] In the Law of Moses, God commanded that humanity rest on the seventh day and to hallow it – keep it holy. [4th Commandment] God gave us this law not because he needs our adoration, but out of love, so that we would not become so absorbed in our work that we forget God’s eternal purposes in creating us – that there might be more joy, and to adore God gives us joy.
We take time to rest and look back on the one who made us and all things, in a loving grateful beholding. In one sense it is inactivity, because we have ceased from our labours outwardly, but in another sense it is the perfection of activity. This is the activity of the Triune God: the Father looks upon the Son in Love, the Holy Spirit; the Son looks upon the Father in Love, the Holy Spirit. This is the activity of the angels, this is the activity of the life of heaven, and this is our end and our true joy. [Heb 3 and 4] From that love God made all things and redeems them and sustains them.
Perhaps for us a part of our call is to enter into that rest in this life (holidays, contemplative prayer) is precisely so that we are moved again by love to activity, but now an activity that is truly creative and fruitful. [see also John 10:9]