Lenten Lessons: The Deadly Sin of Sloth
This is the text of a talk I gave on March 6, 2015 at Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore, MD as part of a Lenten series of talks on the Seven Deadly Sins. I gave the talk on Sloth.
I’d like to open with a prayer I learned many years ago. Many people I know use it to start their personal meditation. I’ve adopted the practice of saying this prayer at the beginning of my work day, and its companion closing prayer at the end of the day.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, and that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence. I beg your pardon for my sins, and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My Immaculate Mother, St. Joseph, my Father and Lord, my Guardian Angel, intercede for me.
Several weeks ago I mentioned to Abby that I was planning to put a different spin on my presentation than she might have expected. Always the quick wit, she asked if it was going to involve liturgical dance. Well, contrary to any rumors you might have heard, I can put you all at ease and tell you… No. There won’t be any liturgical dance tonight. At least by me. I can’t speak for anyone else here.
Decisions and Mistakes
I have to admit that I have a rather cynical sense of humor. This poster shows a beautiful picture of a rusty old derelict ship with its bow sticking out of the water. The caption reads MISTAKES. It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others. It’s in that spirit that I offer these thoughts on the deadly sin of sloth.
I chose to talk about sloth because I figured it would be the easiest one. I mentioned that tongue-in-cheek several weeks ago, and some people laughed. But there’s a sense in which I mean it very seriously. Sloth is the deadly sin I know most about from personal experience.
Sometimes you remember a moment or a decision from years earlier for no apparent reason. It just sticks in your mind. I think God does this sometimes so that in retrospect you can recognize the significance it had in your life, and either give thanks for his Providence, or express your sorrow for failing to love him as you should.
I clearly remember a time in 5th grade when I hadn’t studied for a test. I don’t remember why I hadn’t studied, but when I got my grade, I was pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t failed. I’d gotten a C+! But the thing that really sticks in my mind is that I was pleased that I’d done “so well” without any studying, and thought to myself, “This is great! I didn’t have to study at all! I’m gonna do this all the time!” And I did. I ended up graduating from high school with a C+ average. I put in just enough effort to get a C+, even though I knew I could do better.
My life would have gone on that way, except that God loves me too much. He wanted me to see how sad and pathetic my choice had been. So he introduced me to Fr. Ron Gillis, a very wise, kind, holy, and apostolic priest. Fr. Ron had a gift for awakening in young men a love for God and others. He’d give retreats, evenings of recollection, and spiritual direction, and two or three times a year he’d recruit a few slightly older guys to take about 10 or 15 of us college guys to a farmhouse on the Eastern Shore for a study weekend. He’d give a meditation in the morning, say Mass for us, hear confessions, and the older guys would cook for us. We’d play football or soccer, say the Rosary, and one of the older guys would give us a talk on some spiritual topic. Built into the schedule for the weekend was about 5 hours of study each day.
Sometime after dark, we’d crowd into the little chapel we had set up. It would be perfectly quiet, and the only light would be from the flickering candles on the altar, and perhaps the moon shining through the window. We’d all kneel on the hardwood floor, and Father would reverently take the Blessed Sacrament out of the tabernacle, place It on the altar, and we’d sing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name. Lord of all, we bow before thee…. After the first verse, he’d say the prayer I said at the beginning of this talk, then sit at a small table with a little desk lamp shining on some books and his notes.
Then for the next half hour or so he’d teach us things he himself had learned from living with St. Josemaría Escrivá. He told us that we could be saints! That the whole purpose of our lives was to become saints. He showed us how Christ is Passing By in the most ordinary moments of our day. He showed us how sanctity isn’t achieved despite our ordinary activities, but rather, precisely through them. That saints aren’t made of any special “stuff”. That the “stuff” that makes up our daily lives is the very “stuff” that can make us saints.
He taught us about the importance of doing little things well. He taught us to turn our work and our play, our studying and football, putting up with a headache, getting out of bed in the morning, making our beds, ironing our clothes, dealing with disappointments, eating lunch, going on a hike with our friends, adjusting our plans when they go awry, looking for a parking space, “wasting” time with friends, dating girls, how all of these things could become prayer, and an opportunity to bring others to Christ. He taught us to take a piece of paper and write three or four people’s names on it, and to offer up an hour of study as prayer for them. An hour for this one, then an hour for that one, then an hour for the third one. He taught us to work especially hard from noon to 3:00 pm as reparation for our sins and the sins of others, because that was when Jesus hung on the Cross.
One thing I remember especially well is that he taught us that most people will have at most one or two opportunities in their lives to do something truly heroic, as that word is usually understood. He said all of us have a dominant defect, and for most of us that dominant defect is pride, sensuality, or laziness, and that the heroism God is asking of us is to fight that defect for the rest of our lives.
When he was finished teaching us all these things, we’d finish the hymn we had started at the beginning and he’d bless us with the Blessed Sacrament. We’d recite the Divine Praises and finish by chanting the “Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes”. Then we’d go downstairs for a snack and fellowship.
I thought back to that decision I had made in elementary school and repented. I decided to fight my laziness. I wish I could say I’ve been completely faithful to that new decision, but while beauty may be only skin deep, laziness goes clear through to the bone. Still, through the grace of God, I have waged war against it, at least to some degree, and after almost four decades of struggle, I think I may have even had some small measure of success. At least I look forward to the time when God will reward me for the struggle, if not for the victory, and I can finally rest and not have to fight it anymore.
About 35 years after that moment when I had made a clear and conscious decision to embrace mediocrity, my son was a sophomore in high school. He was quite busy with school work, music, and track. Now that my kids are grown, I can tell you with confidence that it’s a VERY good thing to keep your kids, especially boys, very, very busy in high school. It prevents all sorts of spiritual dangers if they just don’t have time to get into them. It gives them confidence and focus, and teaches them time management.
Anyway, it would take me about half an hour to drive him to school in the morning. In the evening I’d pick him up and we’d have another half hour in the car, when he would usually sleep. But every now and then he’d open up and we’d have a great conversation about something deep. One day he said “Dad, let me ask you something… What does it mean to do your best?”
When the kids were in grade school we always emphasized that we didn’t care what their grades were. We only cared that they had done their best. When they’d get their report cards, we’d make a big show out of hiding the column that showed their grades, and only look at the column that showed their effort. After they’d gone to bed, we’d look at their grades in case there was some academic issue we needed to address.
So my son’s question “What does it mean to do your best?” was coming from a kid who always did his best. It was deeper than it seemed on the surface. What he was really asking was “I know that if I put even more time into studying I can get even better grades than I’m getting. Is that what I’m supposed to be doing?” So I did my best imitation of Mr. Miagi in The Karate Kid, and said “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance, everything be better. Understand?”
I told him what I had learned from Fr. Ron, who had learned it from St. Josemaría–that God had given him many gifts besides intelligence. It’s true that he’s good with mathematics and writing and music, and God obviously wants him to develop those talents to the best of his ability, but within the bounds of common sense and reason. It’s not reasonable to spend 80 hours a week studying. At least not on a regular basis. He needs rest, too. In fact, God commanded us to rest 1 day out of 7. And if you add 8 hours of sleep for each of the other 6 days, you find that He wants us to rest for at least 72 out of the 168 hours in the week. That’s 42.9% of the time! At a minimum. And that’s pretty much a direct order from God Himself. Sounds like like a pretty good plan, doesn’t it?!
But he also wants us to spend time in prayer and in recreation, to work to bring others to Christ, to exercise, to “waste” time with our friends. In other words, to engage in the ordinary things of daily life. These other obligations are at least as important as the obligation to study and work. Some of them are even more important. So no. Doing your best does not necessarily mean spending more time at work or study. Rather, it means putting in the right amount of time, and when it’s time to work or study, to give it our full attention and effort.
When considering spiritual topics, it’s always important to keep in the forefront of our minds the answer to the question “Why did God make me?”
The Baltimore Catechism teaches us that “God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next.”
This is expressed so eloquently in each Mass here at Mount Calvary when the priest summarizes the law: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the LORD thy God will all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
So right there is the reason sloth is such a deadly sin! A slothful person can’t do any of that! He doesn’t love anything, much less God, certainly not with all his heart, mind, and soul. He simply can’t fulfill the law, and is therefore spiritually dead. He just doesn’t care enough about anyone or anything to get up off his butt and engage them. He’s utterly indifferent to God, to others, and to the world.
It’s been said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but rather, indifference. I don’t know if that’s exactly true from a philosophical perspective, but it really strikes a chord with me. If someone’s indifferent to you, then you just don’t matter to him. You’re insignificant. Why would anyone who thinks you’re insignificant bother to interact with you in any way, much less love you? At least a person who hates you recognizes that you matter. And if you matter to him, for good or for bad, then there’s always the possibility that he’ll engage with you at some point and come to love you over time. Think of St. Paul before his conversion. But if you’re so insignificant to him that he won’t even entertain a thought of you, what hope is there? Where’s the starting point for a relationship? Why would St. Paul have bothered to become a Christian after being knocked off his horse if Christians were insignificant to him?
If you love or hate, God has something to “grab hold of” to work with you. But if you’re indifferent, if you just don’t care, then there’s nothing for Him to work with.
In Revelation Chapter 3 Verses 15 and 16 God says to the Church of Laodicea: I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, nor hot, I will vomit thee out of my mouth.
Wow! Strong stuff!
But sloth looks so pleasant, doesn’t it?
I mean, look at that leopard! Wouldn’t you just love to have a couple of afternoons like that?! It sure doesn’t look bad to me! How can it look so good to us and be so repulsive to God that he will vomit us out of His mouth?
I think it’s because God sees the heart, and not the outward appearance. Sloth is different from the other 6 deadly sins, in that it tends to be less visible to others.
Lust makes itself public in the form of pornography, babies born out of wedlock, sexual jokes and conversation.
Greed becomes public through conversation about money and material goods or on bumper stickers that proclaim something like “She who dies with the most shoes wins.”
Anger is visible on a person’s face, and heard in the tone of voice and words used.
While I’ve never actually seen this happen with my own eyes, people are said to “turn green with envy!”
These other deadly sins are both more visible to others, and they tend to show the person in a bad light.
But sloth? Only the slothful person–and God, of course–ever knows if he’s done his best. And when it is visible, it often just looks like a nice restful afternoon lying around in the sun. When we see it we’re more likely to say “lucky guy!” than to cluck our tongues and say “tsk, tsk”. At least I am.
Sloth is easily hidden. It can even be made to look like the virtue of industry. Sometimes it’s conscious deceit on the part of the sloth. Not to judge him, but I once knew a guy who would tape a pencil to his right hand, as if he was writing, and then rest his cheek on his left hand. When you passed his cubicle it looked like he was thinking and working, but he was really taking a nap!
One reason sloth is such a deadly sin is that the sloth lacks the spiritual energy to do the self examination necessary to see either it or any other sin. It makes the very idea of struggling against any sin, including itself, seem monumentally difficult. It makes it almost impossible to progress in prayer, in apostolic activity, in virtue, and in service to others.
Sometimes sloth takes the simple form of procrastination, but often it’s craftier than that. Sloth frequently disguises itself.
A slothful person habitually and subtly gets others to do his work for him. He won’t research a problem without first interrupting others in their work to ask them for help. He’ll ask how to do something he knows perfectly well how to do, hoping that the other person will just offer to do it himself.
Other ways sloth can disguise itself is for someone to be genuinely busy, but only with what they want to do, rather than what they should be doing. Or they might avoid their boss so he can’t ask them to do something. Or they’re always too busy to help others. Or they always leave the difficult task to last, hoping they run out of time to do it.
Outside the workplace sloth can appear as junk drawers containing receipts from 2003, messy workshops, clean clothes that remain unfolded, having to search for tools or keys or other items, household repair jobs that never get done, unnecessary late charges on credit card bills, an unkempt personal appearance, last minute shopping, broken light bulbs that remain unchanged for weeks, paint cans from 15 years ago stored in your garage, messy cars, birthday cards sent late, unfinished household projects, homework assignments handed in late or not at all. All of these things, if they are habitual, may reflect a general indifference to our duties and to our family. Only an honest examination of conscience can tell for sure, but they are signs that should be looked at carefully.
The Great Commission
There are numerous places in the Gospel where Our Lord condemns the slothful. The parable of the foolish virgins, the men who were given different talents. We can all understand how those parables relate to our laziness.
But I want to point out another part of the Gospel where I think the danger of sloth is often overlooked. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 28, verses 19-20, as if punctuating his final instructions, Jesus gives us the Great Commission. He says “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world.”
If we’re honest with ourselves we see that we often fail to carry out Our Lord’s commandment to spread the Good News. Why? Perhaps we just can’t be bothered. Or we say others will do it better. Or that we don’t have the time or the knowledge or the personality. Or we’re afraid of what people will say. But really, we all need to be involved in some concrete way in winning souls for Christ. Whether it’s by having serious conversations with our friends who don’t really know Christ, or by teaching Catechism, or by providing background support for the apostolic activities of others.
The more we love God, the more we’ll be be on fire to win souls for Christ in whatever way we can. But we’re often indifferent to the salvation of souls, even our own. We’re indifferent to prayer, which is the very Soul of the Apostolate. We’re indifferent to our relationship with God, The Tremendous Lover who hounds us with His love. We’re indifferent to the sacrifice of Our Lord on Mount Calvary. We’re indifferent to the beauty, excellence, and Truth that God reveals to us through others and through the world.
And what’s sadder than unrequited love? The sloth is the epitome of unrequited love. He just doesn’t care that God loves him. He doesn’t care about his own salvation so why should he care about the salvation of others?
So what’s the antidote for this deadly sin? I think St. Josemaría hit the nail on the head when he wrote “Love of Our Lady is the breath that will kindle into a living flame the embers of virtue that lie hidden under the ashes of your indifference.”
For many years, until I started preparing this talk, I failed to see that the phrase “Love of Our Lady” can be understood in two ways, both of which are true. It can mean OUR love for Our Lady, or it can mean Our Lady’s love for us. With both of those meanings in mind, let’s read it again: Your love for Our Lady, and Our Lady’s love for you, is the breath that will kindle into a living flame the embers of virtue that lie hidden under the ashes of your indifference.
So the solution to this deadly sin is the same as it is for the other six, and it’s remarkably simple. It’s one word: love. At its core, sloth is a failure to love. It’s love that gives a man reason to get up and do something. How many times do we need to see a young man mope around and waste hours and hours playing video games or watching TV, seemingly uninterested in the world or in anything worthwhile, just to see how he comes to life when he meets a girl and falls in love. Suddenly he seems alive again and the world opens up to him. He discovers beauty and Truth. He’s interested again. He’s motivated again. His indifference melts away. He wants to be better than he is. He’s reborn.
But doesn’t that seem a little too easy? A little too trite?
It’s not, really.
Love is hard and it’s shown in deeds, not sweet words. So in this love story we need to fight. Here are some weapons we can use not only to demonstrate our love, but to enkindle it:
1. Get out of bed each morning on time. Each night decide what time you will get out of bed in the morning and do it without giving into even a moment of laziness. This is a heroic minute that will win you many graces. Get down on your knees and offer the day to God. Of course, this means that you need to get to bed on time, too, so that when the alarm goes off you can actually get up.
2. Plan your day. Not necessarily every minute, but at least the general outline of the day, and stick to the plan as well as circumstances permit. Offer up your commitment to the “Daily Plan” for some friend or other intention. Make sure the plan includes a significant amount of time for formal prayer, such as daily Mass, meditation, saying the Rosary, reading the Scriptures or doing some other spiritual reading. Talk to a priest for guidance on how much prayer and what kind. You can’t love what you don’t know, and it’s through prayer that you’ll get to know God.
3. Offer up each hour of work for some intention. When you’re tempted to give into distraction, remember the person for whom you’re offering up that hour and say a quick prayer for them, then return to work. This turns your work into prayer, for as St. Paul tells us, we should “pray without ceasing” .
4. Examine your conscience. At noon every day, consider how you’ve given into laziness that morning, make a concrete resolution for the afternoon, and then say an Act of Contrition. Take note of the specific, concrete ways in which you were lazy, even writing them down in a notebook. Do the same before bed every night, making a resolution for the next day. Bring the results of these daily examinations to confession, confessing the specific, concrete ways you gave in. It’s good to go to confession frequently, and to the same priest. Tell the priest you’re concentrating on this specific sin so that you can progress in your spiritual life, and ask for his assistance. That’ll give context to your confession and he won’t think you’re being scrupulous when you confess something like “I slept in for an extra 5 minutes 2 times this week.”
5. Learn to distinguish the difference between “important” and “urgent”. Give first priority to those things that are both important and urgent, and second priority to what is important, but not quite so urgent. Let the unimportant stuff go, whether or not it’s “urgent”, because it’s, well,… um,… unimportant. Remember that feeling overwhelmed can lead to a kind of paralysis. When that happens, make a list of the things that are most important and urgent, and work only on them.
6. Each week pick one thing you’ve been putting off, and schedule when you’re going to do it. Make sure you select a realistic date and time. Anticipate what may get in the way of being able to keep that commitment, and do whatever it takes to be free at the scheduled time. Consider this thing to be the most important and urgent thing you have to do that week.
7. Finally, there’s something so important and so urgent that it should be part of every day, without fail: winning souls for Christ. Each day you should do some specific, concrete thing to bring at least one soul a little closer to Jesus. It might be a phone call to a friend you know is struggling with discouragement or illness. Or inviting someone to come to the Stations of the Cross, or to go to confession. You might see that a friend is heading down a dangerous path, so you spend some time praying for him and asking God how you can help bring him back. It might be giving someone a spiritual book to read, or asking them if they’ve ever considered becoming Catholic. Or it might simply be cooking a pot of soup for the fellowship we have here at Mount Calvary, or planning a chat with one of your children about how they could improve in some virtue. But in any case, being an apostle is something that’s simply too important and too urgent to leave out of your daily plan, even for a day. It should be an explicit part of each day. So at an absolute minimum, you should pray and make a small sacrifice each day for the people of Mount Calvary, for the fruitfulness of all the apostolates of our parish, and for the people on the parish’s prayer list.
So fall in love. With Jesus. With Mary. With Joseph. And fight. Love will give you the motivation to fight and to never give up. And if we’re faithful to the end, we’ll be able to say with St. Paul in 2 Timothy Chapter 4 Verse 7: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
Let’s conclude with a prayer:
I thank you my God, for the firm resolutions, affections, and inspirations you have communicated to me in this time of prayer. I ask your help to put them into effect. My Immaculate Mother, St. Joseph, my Father and Lord, my Guardian Angel, intercede for me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.