Part 4 in our Friday series on the vices.
Our continuing series on the vices brings us next to the vice of “acedia,” sometimes translated as “sloth.” Put simply, acedia is sadness at the idea of doing what we ought to do.
We now come to a vice directly related to ourselves. Gluttony, lust, and avarice (or greed) are about how we relate to physical goods, things. (Lust, of course, involves a person – but viewed as a thing.) The last three vices we will consider, wrath, envy, and pride, have to do with how we view other people. But sloth is about ourselves.
All seven of these vices just show us obstacles to love. We live to love. But we find our love particularly hindered in these seven ways. Strangely, in acedia we find, when we look at ourselves, that we ourselves are a hindrance to love. Acedia is nothing more than our inclination not to love.
Acedia, according to John Cassian, who summarizes the teachings of the desert fathers of fourth-century Africa, has two parts. The first, perhaps more obvious, is simple sadness.
It is useful to distinguish what we mean by sadness. We can quibble about which English words to use, but perhaps we should say there is “sorrow,” where we recognize something as bad; there is “depression,” which is a clinical, chemical problem; and then there is “sadness,” or dejection. Not all sadness is depression.
What the spiritual tradition wants us to see is that sadness – not sorrow or depression, but dejection – is a kind of passivity rooted in selfishness. A coworker treats you wrong. Of course that should arouse sorrow: you don’t want it to be that way, for his sake even more than yours. And okay, perhaps you have something physical going on, either real clinical depression, or you are just tired, or hungry, or whatever. But sadness is when you just give up.
Most prominently, you are saying there is nothing I can do. I will not pray, I will not work, I will not go on with my life. He is so bad, I will do nothing. You view yourself as purely passive, and you fail to take responsibility for doing your part to love and to heal.
More deeply, you are refusing responsibility for love. Love, you are saying, is something the world owes you. If they don’t give it to you, it is not your fault, and there is nothing you can do about it. Sadness, by its very nature, covers itself with such a mantle of passivity that it pretends it is not a choice. But deep down, it is: it is self-worship, self-focus, a simple failure to love.
This is the opposite of sorrow. Sorrow motivates us to action: to pray, to love, to help. Sadness says we don’t have to, because it’s not our fault. Poor me.
The other side of acedia looks like the opposite. The monks call it “the noonday devil” (from a line in the Psalms), and it is that restlessness that refuses to dig in to the task before us. This doesn’t only hit us in the early afternoon, but it does hit especially then. It is like what a priest once told a friend of mine in confession, “you are like the person at a party who is always looking over the shoulder of the person you are talking to, looking for who you’ll talk to next.”
This too is acedia: rather than loving, rather than embracing the task before us, the noonday devil chases us off, and we are always somewhere else. The noonday devil likes the internet and our text messages: always an excuse to be somewhere else.
But though it looks the opposite of sadness – super active rather than super passive – both amount to a refusal to embrace the task before us, a refusal to love. We look inside and find . . . we just don’t want to love, don’t want to give ourselves: to our work, to our prayer, to the people before us.
All of these vices are nothing but obstacles to love. The spiritual life is really nothing but love: to love God, and to love the people he has given us, the people he has called to be his own mystical body, through whom we can better love him.
And so the solution to all the vices is nothing but love. We overcome both our passivity and our restlessness by loving him, and them, ever more deeply.