One of the more misunderstood of the deadly sins is sloth. In the wider culture sloth is often equated simply with laziness.
But sloth has a lot more subtleties than simple laziness. In fact, sloth can sometimes manifest as workaholism and other frantic worldly activities and busyness.
This is because sloth is most fundamentally defined as a “sorrow or aversion to the good things that God offers” such as a moral life, and deeper spiritual fruitfulness etc. There are some who find such things unappealing, and instead of joyfully accepting these gifts, they are sorrowful toward them or averse. One way to avoid God, and to avoid engaging in spiritual practices is to busy one’s self with the world, to dive into career and become a kind of a workaholic. Thus one simply says, “I’m far too busy to pray, or to spend time reflecting, or to read Scripture, or go to church etc. Such a person is not lazy but they are slothful.
Other forms of sloth do more consistently manifest in the form of a kind of laziness. Some people permit themselves to be mired in laziness or boredom, and a kind of tiredness such that they cannot rouse themselves to prayer other spiritual activities.
Yet another form of sloth, a form that is subtler, is a kind of discouragement that sets in once one has embarked on the spiritual path or vocation, and been at it a few years. And thus, one may get married, or become a religious or be ordained a priest, and after four or five years, when the newness worn off, a kind of Discouragement and boredom set in. And this boredom tempts one to think they made a mistake or must leave the path simply because the thrill and newness is gone.
The secular world often refers to this sort of sloth as the “five-year itch.” And usually applies this expression to marriage. And it is a very common thing that after four or five years of marriage, the greatest danger for divorce arises. The same is true of the priesthood and religious life. Four or five years into a vocation is a critical time period. The newness and thrill have worn off and now it comes time for the daily living, without the previous emotional intensity.
CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters has “Uncle Screwtape” explain the slothful discouragement to Wormwood in this way, and instructs his “student demon” thus:
Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming….It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it 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! (Letter 2)
And by this form of discouragement (a subtle form of sloth) one is tempted to give up one’s current course of action and run off to something new and seemingly more thrilling. Grave becomes the temptation at this point to stray from, or end marriages, leave the priesthood or religious life, or some other spiritual course. One is no longer thrilled and excited of the gift that God has given. But now there is sorrow and a kind of aversion to it. This is sloth.
The Desert Fathers of the Church, based on Psalm 91 referred to this type of sloth as the “noonday devil.” (Psalm 91:6 in the Latin Vulgate spoke of a morsu insanientis meridie – the scourge that bites at noon, i.e. the “noonday devil”).
Indeed, most of us experience this noonday devil, at least from time to time, between noon and 3 PM as a kind of sluggishness sleepiness that sets in on us. Many cultures, rather than battle this, have introduced an afternoon siesta.
Whatever the case, shortly after lunch, a sleepiness and boredom sets in. The newness of the day is gone and the day now seems to drag on and cannot end fast enough. The eyes are heavy and one longs to sleep. Yes, the noonday devil is upon us.
And this noonday devil which besets us is also a symbol of the discouragement that often sets in when one has embarked on a vocation or spiritual path that is no longer new, and now requires the daily work which may no longer thrill. Early afternoon in ones vocational or spiritual walk is a dangerous and tempting time.
One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus (A. D. 345-399) writes as follows:
The demon of acedia (sloth), also called the “noonday demon,” is the most oppressive of all demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour and besieges his soul until the eighth hour….He makes the sun appear sluggish and immobile as if the day had fifty hours…. Moreover the demon sends him hatred against the place…. and makes him think he has lost the love…. and stirs the monk to long for different places…and to flee from the race-course. (On Eight Evil Thoughts, Acedia)
A pretty clear description of the kind of temptation besets many, both in their vocations and in their Christian walk.
Beware of sloth, beware of the noonday devil. See it for what it is; name it; know its moves. Understand too, that the noonday devil manifests for only a time. If one will persevere through the midday hours of life and the Christian walk, one will also find that the noonday devil eventually departs, as one settles in to a proper and steady rhythm of the Christian walk or vocation.
However mystifying, disconcerting, and discouraging the noonday devil may seem, most who are able to persevere are glad they did, and that they stayed the course.
Always remember, the devil is a liar. Life cannot be and should not be thrilling at every moment, or lived at a 1000 miles an hour. Such a pace and intensity cannot be maintained. Slow, steady and organic growth is ultimately what is best for the human person.
Stay the course and ignore the noonday devil who taps into the subtleties of the wound in our soul called the deadly sin of sloth. Presuming that one has properly discerned the Christian walk and particular vocation, one should trust in the Lord and stay the course.
Whatever the emotional state steady as you go, Age quod agis – Do what you are doing! Rebuke the noonday devil in the Name of Jesus.