"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

13 May 2007


I've been reading Tony Esolen's translations of Dante, which are not only remarkable poetry but worth the cost for the introductions alone. I finished Inferno the other day and was browsing through the appendices, which include quotations from various influences on Dante. Among the quotes from Thomas Aquinas is this one on acedia (sloth):

"It is written: The sorrows of the world worketh death (2 Cor. 7:20). But such is sloth, for it is not sorrow according to God, which is different from the sorrow of the world. Therefore it is a mortal sin.

". . . Mortal sin is so called because it destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us. So any sin which by its very nature is contrary to charity is a mortal sin per se. And such is sloth, because the proper effect of charity is joy in God, . . . while sloth is sorrow about spiritual good . . .

"Sloth is opposed to the precept about hallowing the Sabbath-day. For this precept, insofar as it is a moral precept, implicitly commands the mind to rest in God and sorrow of the mind about the Divine good is contrary to that."

We tend to think of sloth as mere laziness, but it is more like ennui, a weariness that arises from having no purpose, no hope. Baudelaire describes it in "To the Reader" from his Flowers of Evil. The person suffering from ennui (the link gives several translations; some call it ennui, some boredom) can't even rouse himself to do evil, he has so little energy to act. This is the greatest sin of all, to Baudelaire; great evil would be better than inaction. One of my students this year commented that the poem reminded him of the Lord's statement that one should be either hot or cold, but never lukewarm. A different context, but a similar idea.

I like the Aquinas quote because it brings sloth into much clearer focus than any other description I've read. One is to rest in God and not be discouraged about the divine good. This suggests that sloth is born of not trusting God -- God is not here, He doesn't care, He ignores evil and doesn't do good . . . and so I lose all incentive to do anything myself.

But trust in God allows for joy even in the inevitable sorrows of a fallen world (not sorrow because "God isn't here"). And that reminds me of the hope that holds me together so often -- no matter how I feel on any given day, no matter what my circumstances are, He does love me and works for my benefit at all times. I fear that sloth will be my temptation this summer, as it often is. May I remember to look on Him and take courage.

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