“The ultimate and principal good of— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 23, 7
man is the enjoyment of God.”
I imagine that if you are like me, it is one thing to agree that our goal should be the attainment of bliss in heaven with God (and an easy thing to agree on, at that), but quite another thing to live our lives with our eyes fixed on God rather than on ourselves. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, we’ve all had a battle against sin on our hands. Sin takes our eyes off our heavenly goal and redirects them toward far less worthy things.
St. Thomas wrote that “inordinate self-love is the cause of every sin” (I-II, 77, 4). “Inordinate” means disordered, unrestrained, and inappropriate. It means love of the lower, bodily, animal self over one’s spiritual soul; love of simple pleasures, of money, of false gods of every sort in place of love for God.
The Deadly Sins & Our Gaze of God
All sins remove our gaze from God and place it on ourselves in one way or another. Lust, for example, has always been very good at tempting us to accept far less than the best. Through lust we fixate on people’s bodies and remain blind to the souls within them, made in the image and likeness of God.
Through gluttony we live to eat, rather than eating to live. Through greed we obsess about obtaining worldly things. Through anger we lash out at those who keep us from our sensuous and worldly goals. Through envy we are saddened by the thought that others may have more things or more fun than we do. Through pride we most directly and deliberately shift our goal from serving God to serving ourselves, doing everything our way.
All six of the classic seven deadly sins mentioned above divert us from our ultimate end. As I peer over Thomas’s broad shoulders, I see him writing about yet one other deadly sin most relevant to our first lesson: “Sloth is not an aversion of the mind from any spiritual good, but from the Divine good, to which the mind is obliged to adhere” (II-II, 35, 3).
Sloth then, is the sin that provides the most direct obstacle. It takes our minds off the divine good, which is God. This may seem a bit surprising to some. In our day, sloth probably first calls to mind “laziness,” as can be found in many dictionary definitions.
Acedia, the Root of Sloth
We’ll have a true grasp of sloth if we understand it through the word St. Thomas himself used for it — acedia, the Latinized version of the Greek word akedia, meaning “without,” and cedia (or kedia, if you prefer the Greek) coming from kedos, meaning “care” or “concern.” The deadly sin of sloth is a spiritual sloth that says, “I don’t care — about the things of God.”
Thomas further defines “sloth” as “an oppressive sorrow” and as “a sluggishness of the mind which neglects to do good” (II-II, 35, 1). Sloth is a spiritual apathy, a sadness or boredom about the divine good of God. This lack of passion for serving and enjoying God is the antithesis of our first life lesson, and yet it is, in some sense, the first life lesson of the popular culture around us.
We can see this in the culture, and within ourselves, when we look at the sins that accompany, serve, and flow from sloth. St. Thomas, borrowing from St. Gregory the Great, notes that each deadly sin has a bevy of “daughters,” so let’s look now at sloth’s sorry brood.
Wanderings Towards Unlawful Things
Sloth’s daughter running rampant in our culture is that of “wandering of the mind after unlawful things” (II-II, 35, 4). Thomas agreed with Aristotle that “those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures have recourse to pleasures of the body.” In our day of extreme “separation of church and state,” observe how the vast majority of the most heated political debates involve precisely the “pleasures of the body.”
So many minds in our culture have wandered so far toward unlawful pleasures of the body, rejecting God’s laws, that it is quite fitting to see this as a worship of false gods, and unfortunately, the chief false god appears to be Molech, who relished the sacrifice of innocent children (Lev. 18:21, 20:1-5; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35).
Hopefully our minds have not wandered far from spiritual good in pursuit of bodily pleasures, but we still need to examine our consciences to track down and bring home our own wandering, prodigal minds. Spiritual sluggishness is not for the lazy alone. If we become overly obsessed with our work or some hobby or special interest, or even our cell phones or social media accounts, we might be extremely physically active, while mired in spiritual sloth.
Other Daughters of Sloth
Thomas names other daughters of sloth. It would do us well to see if they lie lurking lazily in our souls.
- Sluggishness regarding the commandments. To keep our eyes on the goal of God, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing the specific kinds of things He commanded us all to do, such as honoring His day by going to Mass every Sunday.
- Faintheartedness regarding spiritual obligations. Do we give our full effort and attention to spiritual obligations, in things as simple as speaking to God in prayer as well as in things as difficult as publicly standing up for the right to life?
- Despair. Are we spiritually apathetic and despairing because we doubt that God could show forgiveness and mercy to sinners such as ourselves? To do so is to doubt God’s loving power and mercy and to accept not the best but the worst as our lot.
- Spite toward those who lead others to spiritual goods. Have we been spiteful to those who stand up boldly to do God’s will? Have we disparaged the priest who dares to give powerful sermons on controversial topics or our neighbors in the pew who are willing to take a public stand to pray at an abortion center and offer counsel to women in crisis?
- Malice. Hopefully we do not openly detest the spiritual goods of God, as do some of the most virulent “new atheists” who describe a Christian upbringing as child abuse, but do we do anything to defend the Faith when it is attacked in our presence?
If sloth or any of its sinful, self-serving daughters have a home in our hearts or are expressed in our deeds, it is time to root them out and pulverize them to dust, because they are keeping us from our ultimate goal, and they might well be hindering our loved ones, too, as they look to us for guidance.
The Sloth of Secularism
Alas, sloth has other powerful allies that quite directly strive to remove our eyes from the goal of God and bring them down to gaze upon the world. One term for this worldly view that champions sloth in our time is the ideology of “secularism.” The word derives from the Latin saecularis which means “of an age, or a generation,” and it has long referred to “worldliness” in Christian usage. Secularism is a worldview with no place for religion and, therefore, no place for God. Those with a thoroughly secularist worldview will certainly spend no time trying to conquer sin as a first step toward loving God.
The influential philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that it is not sin, but rather the sense of sin, the very notion that it is possible to behave in a way that is contrary to God’s will, that leads to man’s unhappiness.
By 1973, the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger would come to write the book Whatever Became of Sin?, arguing that increasing societal problems, the growing incidence of mental disorders, and increasing unhappiness had resulted from the growth of secularism and the rejection of the concept of sin in modern culture. Four and a half decades have passed since then, and our problems continue to mount, as more and more people seem to flounder, having lost track of the meaning of life.
Although I hope and pray that every one of my readers still has a zest for life, we might also ask ourselves how a downplaying of the dire importance of sin in acquiescence to the social winds of the times has grown within the Church herself, not to mention within our own souls. To root out key obstacles that keep us from the enjoyment of God, we must pulverize not only the sloth that would turn our hearts from God but also the secularism that seeks to divert and poison our minds and our Church as well. When we refuse to accept sloth into our hearts and secularization into our minds, we ready our souls to accept only the best, the things that lead us to God.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Vost’s latest book, 12 Life Lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas: Timeless Spiritual Wisdom for Our Turbulent Times. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.