Posted by: Thomas Richard | May 6, 2015

Acedia: Spiritual Sloth and the Church of Laodicea, U.S.A.

Acedia. The dictionary defines the noun “acedia” (əˈsēdēə) as spiritual or mental sloth (reluctance to work; laziness); apathy. The origin of the word is the Greek akēdia ‘listlessness,’ from a– ‘without’ + kēdos ‘care.’ Thus, “without care” – lacking engagement, concern, commitment, zeal. Modern manifestations of acedia, or spiritual sloth, could include apathy toward God, boredom with the truths of God, indifference toward the will of God, unconcern for the intentions of God. Associated with acedia also is a kind of sadness, a lack of the joy of spirit that accompanies a sharing in the holy love of God.

Acedia – in this religious context – is a sin. It is among the sins called “capital sins”:
Catechism 1866 – “They are called “capital” because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia.

There are two Bible passages I would like to focus on, to suggest a sense of this sin, acedia, or spiritual sloth. Scripture uses the Greek word “oknēros” translated in the RSV Bible as “sloth,” used together with the word for “wicked,” for a servant who did not use the talent with which he had been entrusted.

The Parable of the Talents

Mat 25:14  “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;
Mat 25:15  to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
Mat 25:16  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more.
Mat 25:17  So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more.
Mat 25:18  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
Mat 25:19  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
Mat 25:20  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’
Mat 25:21  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’
Mat 25:22  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’
Mat 25:23  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

Mat 25:24  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow;
Mat 25:25  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
Mat 25:26  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed?
Mat 25:27  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
Mat 25:28  So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.
Mat 25:29  For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
Mat 25:30  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’”

Our Lord said to him, “You wicked and slothful servant” And then, for his judgment, “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” Clearly this trait of sloth, or acedia concerning the works of a servant of the Lord – apathy, boredom, indifference, unconcern – is no trivial thing! Also, notice the (wrong) opinion the slothful man had of his master. He rightly knew his master was just, but he wrongly understood the master’s justice as a hardness: that the master was “a hard man.” Did he rightly understand his master? Did he know his master?

A second passage that is instructive in understanding acedia is this one, from Revelations:

To the Church in Laodicea

Rev 3:14  “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
Rev 3:15  “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot!
Rev 3:16  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
Rev 3:17  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
Rev 3:18  Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
Rev 3:19  Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.
Rev 3:20  Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Rev 3:21  He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Rev 3:22  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'”

This church of Laodicea is composed of lukewarm – tepid – members, nether hot with zeal for the Lord and His mission nor cold in opposition against Him. This church of Laodicea is indifferent about God, apathetic, unconcerned about the Gospel, about truth, about holy love, about the work of saving souls for Jesus Christ. This church thinks, believes, that it is rich and prosperous, and thus it does not need or lack anything of importance! They say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing”! God sees something very different: this church is “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”! Clearly this love for the riches of the world alongside its apathy toward God, this unconcern for the things of God, is gravely wrong. Clearly such spiritual impoverishment ought to be of grave and urgent concern for the church – as it is for the Lord.

The ugliness of acedia in the sight of God challenges us to realize that it is more than mere “lukewarmness”. A slothful man is more than merely “lazy.” A slothful man is unmoved in his heart by the holy love of Christ who suffered and died for him. A slothful man has no interest in meditating upon the Crucifix or the Passion of Christ, nor in entering into God’s presence in prayer as he sits in his pew awaiting Mass to begin – he looks at his watch, concerned with how long the Mass will last if and when it finally begins! He is concerned with getting to his car as quickly as he can when Mass is over, to beat the rush of others eager to return to their “real” lives. He is concerned that the announcements are not too long. He is concerned that the homily is not too long and boring, and that Father moves the Liturgy along as he is supposed to.

The slothful man has no patience with the appeals to become a vibrant and active living member of the Body of Christ! He only grudgingly responds to calls to share his “time, talent and treasure.” He understands well only two of those three: his time and his treasure. His precious time, and his precious money. The slothful man thinks, “The Church is a business, and businesses need money, but how much?” For the slothful man, the bishop is a CEO and the local priest is a manager – and both are all about the business of Religion. The slothful man has only a mild disgust in his heart for matters of the Spirit, a cynicism in his heart that admits only the concerns of this world: concerns of parish property, building maintenance issues, parish budget matters. For him, concerns of the spirit and matters of salvation, of holiness, Catholic doctrine, the grace of sacraments, the importance of authentic prayer – these spiritual matters he avoids and turns away from as quickly as he can.

The slothful man is bored and saddened by that which ought to engage and enflame his spirit. For him, God is a “hard man” as the servant who was given one talent believed. The slothful man shuts his ears to the truth that God is Love, that God suffered and died that all men might be saved. The slothful man is bewildered by talk of communion with God in Christ, by a call to holiness and to love as Christ loves. The slothful man knows only the “hard man” God to whom his own time, talent and treasure must be accounted for, a God who demands his church presence, his donations, his hour at Sunday Mass. In this barren soul, a sadness permeates where divine light ought to be.

Jesus came because of love; He came to love; He came to save. Even now He continues to cry out to hearts that reject Him:

Rev 3:18  “Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
Rev 3:19  Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.
Rev 3:20  Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Rev 3:21  He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Rev 3:22  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

That which bores the slothful man is that which would save him! That which he wrongly seeks, longs for, and values – the man’s “gold” of this world – is worthless: it is fool’s gold, counterfeit, glass beads. But the gold that would enrich him is not so cheap: it requires refinement in fire, and refinement by fire brings suffering. The real gold demands attention and donation of the heart; it calls for perseverance and endurance. It is free, but it costs everything. It is a gift, but it entails a life-long labor of love. All that the slothful man has rejected has deprived him of his own soul as well: he has lost himself in fears, in self-protection. But in Christ awaits all he seeks, all he needs: the gold, the white garment, the salve to give him sight. It is so very simple! He is so very close! Can this man listen, and hear; can he know what is in his reach, waiting?


Responses

  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks for giving this explanation of “Acedia: Spiritual Sloth” – which gave me a far deeper understanding of this sin. Your references to the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew and to the Church of Laodicea in Revelation helped me to put the capital sin of sloth into a better focus and to help me see how this sin has penetrated into the culture of the USA in our present day.

    How very important it is for us to guard ourselves against the temptations we face, by fervently praying to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised would bring us into complete truth! How we need to mean the words we pray in the prayer Jesus taught us, asking our Father to deliver us from evil! In this month dedicated to Mary, our Mother and Model, let us ask her intercession that we may not only pray but actively search for the Truth by listening more to God’s Word and then, by His Grace, to do the Truth we hear.

    Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your Faithful, kindle in us the Fire of Your Love.

    Mary, Mother of the Church, intercede for us

    • Thank you, Deborah, for this addition – how much we need the Word, and the Spirit, and the prayers of intercession of our Mother Mary! This is a time of strong temptations, which would deflect our eyes and heart and actions away from holy Truth and charity, to our own loss and harm. We must resist them, and the evil one who seeks to use them against us. We must remain true.

  2. Aha, this culture of individualism. Obviously the Church in Laodicea had such a culture, much as we do here in modern life. Seems to me that any time we are more concerned with ourselves, we must be less concerned with God. Individualism’s measure of achievement: “I am rich, I am successful and I need nothing.” are the rose-colored glasses that blind us to our spiritual poverty, sloth and need. What a dangerous trap. Thank you for your article, Dr. Richard!

    • Hello Charles, thank you for your comments. I agree, of course, that the disordered love of “self” is the motive behind acedia – a love for “self” that is lacking the salvific life-giving faith that rightly guides “self” to its fullness in Christ. The Church rightly sees the radical difference between “individualism” and “personalism.” We are persons, not merely individuals, persons made for communion in holy love.

  3. In Evangelii Gaudium pp 81 and 81 we find the Holy Father’s concern with this evil.
    No to selfishness and spiritual sloth

    81. At a time when we most need a missionary dynamism which will bring salt and light to the world, many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time. For example, it has become very difficult today to find trained parish catechists willing to persevere in this work for some years. Something similar is also happening with priests who are obsessed with protecting their free time. This is frequently due to the fact that people feel an overbearing need to guard their personal freedom, as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than a joyful response to God’s love which summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive. Some resist giving themselves over completely to mission and thus end up in a state of paralysis and acedia.

    82. The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable. As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness. Far from a content and happy tiredness, this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue. This pastoral acedia can be caused by a number of things. Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can. Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven. Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of success. Others, because they have lost real contact with people and so depersonalize their work that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself. Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.

    • Thank you, James, for these teachings of Pope Francis – they add very helpful concrete examples of acedia that affect us in the Church in real and specific ways. And as he points out, our time is “a time when we most need a missionary dynamism which will bring salt and light to the world”! This is not a time for naps and taking our ease! This time is calling us to commitment, to zeal, to generosity – even to heroism, as some of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East have shown us, in their blood.

  4. It is no longer appropriate to blame the person with this acedia or unproductive sloth for he has had no model. Pray that God will bring about something from totally nothing.

    • But there are models! Scripture has models of faithful and courageous men and women, and Catholic history has many examples of heroic, virtuous and fruitful saints. The challenge is to be faithful, I think – faithful, and true, not counting the cost.

  5. I tend to depression ( off and on most of my life) and I fear I let it slide into acedia. It is so difficult, takes so much energy to motivate myself to care about anything but I go through through the motions.
    I worry I am stuck in this sin; I confess it, and slog on with daily duties hoping God will eventually snap me out of this.

    • Hello Adrian,

      I hope this blog article offers you some possibilities for countering acedia, or sloth, in your own life. A very brief summary of what I hear as God’s remedy is this: encounter Christ! Meet him; come to know Him. None of us can ever grasp the reason and meaning of our life, until we find both reason and meaning in Him. He made us; He has purpose for us; the mystery of life for each of us is in Him.

      • I have. Encountering Christ; meeting Him, I know him. He is reason and meaning in my life. I know he has a purpose for me. Just because you know Our Lord doesn’t mean you life is any easier, actually it often means it will get a lot worse, because we know He will not test us beyond our strength.
        I do what I can.
        And still I have acedia.

    • Did you read this blog post? If you did, please read it again, slowly. I think you are mis-diagnosing yourself. There is a radical difference between depression and sloth, or acedia. I recommend you find a trustworthy helper to talk with, face-to-face, to find ways to deal with what I suspect is depression, not acedia.


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