Sloth is something people think they know when they see it, but there is more to it than meets the eye. You see, it is more than just mere inactivity. After all, not doing anything except "contemplating the universe" has its rewards. Contemplation is an activity which puts us in tune with the world around us, making our golden thread to our Triune God ever stronger and more resilient as we observe his truths in ourselves and in nature. It gives us true leisure from the workaday world, where we can rediscover ourselves in the God who created us. Sloth, more than inactivity, can be understood as a kind of boredom of human existence. The ancients called it "accidia".
St. John Cassian divides this vice into two parts: dejection and listlessness. Of dejection he says that it "obscures the soul's capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works." He goes on to say that this demon "instills a hatred of every kind of work," including the monsatic profession. Notice that this is no passive sin: the one who suffers from dejection is very active in his opposition to all good works. The soul afflicted with this kind of sloth is fuled by hatred towards his neighbor, since it has deluded itself into believing that people are the cause of his problems, rather than looking inward. This hatred so paralyses him to the point of hatred towards anything relating to prayer and good works. It is a hatred of life itself.
To the soul thus afflicted, St. Cassian gives a remedy-a recognition that the source of the malady is not external, but internal. This vice "suggests to the soul that we sould go away from other people, since they are the cause of the agitation." It fools the sould into thinking that the source of the problem lies with other people (I can't help but to think of Jean Paul Sartre's startling but logical conclusion in his play, No Exit: "Hell is other people"). This leads to a sense of melancholy, a stiffling of all good work, since this person can't see the real root of the problem: himself. He withdraws from all human company, only to find that his hatred of life gets ever more intense, bringing on a greater sense of melancholy.
Listlessness, on the other hand, is the kind of vice that falls upon a monk "at the sixth hour" (12noon), "making him slack and full of fear, inspiring him with hatred for his monastery, for work of any kind, and even for the reading of Holy Scripture." He calls this the "noontide demon", since it attacks the monk at the time of day when most folks (especially in southern European countries) take a break from the noontide heat and take their customary naps. This is accompanied by a great hunger. This is the hour where a greater vigilance must be maintained, with the full awareness that one has a limited time on this earth, and must therefore take up the weapons of ascetic struggle. Rather than engage in the struggle against his passions, the listless soul is content to fill his belly and sleep in idleness. Commenting from St. Paul's injunction to avoid the company of men who do no work, becoming busydbodies (I Cor. 9), he portays a natural progression that attends this vice: "from laziness comes inquisitiveness, and from inquisitiveness, unruliness, and from unruliness, every kind of evil." Taking his cue from the monks of Egypt, he provides a simple remedy: work. By this he does not mean constant business, but the kind of labor that is offered as an acceptable sacrifice to God. A person working in this spirit brings forth a great degree of charity and a hearty and sober love of life. Such a one, according to St. Cassian, may be afflicted by one demon, "while someone who does not work is taken prisoner by a thousand demons."
Perhaps this is why St. Cassian categorizes slothfulness (dejection and listlessness) above wrath in the list of vices. A wrathful man loves life, so much so that he thinks there are things to get riled up about (whether the things he chooses to b e angry about are worth it is quite another matter altogether). The murderer loves life; he just thinks some are not worthy of it. The slothful, on the other hand, are possessed of a boredom with life, not taking joy in any kind of work. Such a person may be continually busy, but still slothful, in that he hates life to such a degree that he sees no value in any kind of work. He suffers from dejection in that he suffers from melancholy, and such melancholy leads him to listlessness. The listless man's life thus becomes parasitic, for in addition to robbing himself of the joy of life, he sucks in others into his maliciousness.
In the cornice of the Slothful in Purgatory, Dante has the souls work out the effect of this sin through ceaseless activity done with godly zeal (Canto XVIII). But he precedes this cornice by having Virgil discourse about love. Dante the pilgrim asks his master to "Define me love, to which thou dost reduce all virtuous actions and their contraries." To which the master responds:
Fix then on me the luminous
Eyes of the intellect, and plain I'll prove
How, when the blind would guide, their way they lose.
The soul, which is created apt for love,
the moment pleasure wakes it into act,
to any pleasant thing is swift to move. (Canto XVIII, 16-20)
This, perhaps, is the key to the soul's remedy from this particular vice, and is embedded in St. Cassian's counsel that his monks undertake zealous activity as a meaningful sacrifice to God. Love is the central reality of all activity done to the glory of God, since it is what moves us to all good work. It lightens our load, so that we can more swiftly undertake such works with a joy and eagerness that characterizes any activity that a lover does for his beloved.
As Lent draws to a close, and we enter into Holy Week, I am reminded of how the lightness of Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday in Lent), with its joyful, celebratory character, announced by the theme of the introit-"I WAS glad when they said unto me, / 'We will go into the house of the Lord" (Psalm 122:1)- rolls into Passion Sunday. On Laetare Sunday, and the rest of that week, we experienced the "Elim" of our Lenten sojourn, for like the children of Israel, we too expereinced a small respite from our journey. With Passiontide, we are roused yet again from our slumber, taking up the weapons of our struggle for holy freedom. The Church bids us now to take up the royal banner of the cross, and go forward, to labor on with love and devotion to our true rest. The words that began our Lenten journey-Remember, man, that dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return-spur us on to action with holy zeal towards the goal of resurrection.