O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]
While some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.
While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.
Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.
Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”
David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.
In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!