As he continues his journey up the mountain of Purgatory, Dante encounters a large group of the slothful. These souls, who in life were slow to pursue what they knew to be good, are now running as fast as they can toward Heaven, and one of them is encouraging the others with the cry, “Mary ran to the hills!” The reference is to Luke 1:39, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah.” Having been informed by the angel that her cousin was in need, Mary wasted no time in doing the good things that she saw needed doing. I often meditate on this when praying the second Joyful mystery of the Rosary. Mary responded immediately when there was something to be done. Why then do I procrastinate?!
But the problem of slothfulness actually goes much deeper than mere procrastination. What we generally call “laziness” falls well short of the concept of sloth (acedia in Latin, about which St. Thomas Aquinas writes most eloquently in his Summa: ST II, II 35). Sloth is more than just “not feeling like” doing something: it is seeing something that is good, realizing that it is good and desirable, and then choosing not to pursue it despite its goodness. This gets right to the heart of the mystery of human sinfulness. Why do we not pursue the things we know are good?
In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (not a novel I particularly recommend, but it is illustrative) the character of Peter Keating has an on-again, off-again relationship with his longtime girlfriend Katie. This relationship is more off than on because Peter always puts his career ahead of his relationships. But one day, reflecting on his life and how miserable he often feels even when he succeeds in his job, he realizes he is only happy when he is with Katie. He realizes that he wants to marry her. So, he asks her to tie the knot. But not right away:
“In a year or two,” he said holding her hand tightly, “we’ll be married. Just as soon as I’m on my feet and set with the firm for good.”
“I’ll wait, Peter,” she whispered. “We don’t have to hurry.”
“We won’t tell anyone, Katie…. It’s our secret.”
That year passes, but nothing changes: there was always something to get in the way, always a “but first…” that kept Peter from acting on his desire to marry the only person who made him happy. Eventually, Katie confronts him about it:
“Peter, I want to be married now, tomorrow, as soon as possible.”
“Katie!” he gasped, regaining his voice. “What happened? Why as soon as possible? […] You know I’d marry you tonight if you wanted me to. Only, what happened?”
“Nothing. I’m all right now. I’ll tell you. You’ll think I’m crazy. I just suddenly had the feeling that I’d never marry you.”
“Look, Katie, we’ll get the license tomorrow morning. […] I’ll come for you at ten o’clock tomorrow morning and we’ll go for the license.”
But when that morning rolled around, Peter had second thoughts. He told Katie that his job was particularly stressful at that moment, but that the difficulty would be over soon:
“And I thought…I thought that if we waited…for just a few weeks…I’d be set with the firm […]. But, of course it’s up to you.” He looked at her and his voice was eager. “If you want to do it now, we’ll go at once.”
“But, Peter,” she said calmly, serene and astonished. “But of course. We’ll wait. […] No, it’s much better. You see, to tell you the truth, I thought this morning that it would be better if we waited, but I didn’t want to say anything if you had made up your mind.”
“Well…” he muttered. “Well, all right, Katie. We’ll wait. It’s better, of course. I…I’ll run along then. I’ll be late at the office.” He felt he had to escape her room for the moment, for that day. “I’ll give you a ring. Let’s have dinner together tomorrow.”
“Yes, Peter. That will be nice.”
He went away, relieved; and desolate: cursing himself for the dull, persistent feeling that told him he had missed a chance which would never return.
Things ended up not working out between Peter and Katie. There was always ‘just one more’ delay. This story illustrates why sloth is more than simple laziness, but is in fact something so radically opposed to our happiness that it constitutes “the beginning and root of despair.” (Josef Pieper, On Hope, in Faith, Hope, Love, San Fransisco: Ignatius, 2012, p. 117) Because we often wrongly identify sloth with “laziness” in the sense of inactivity, many people try to overcome the despair born of sloth by making themselves busy. Peter Keeting was always busy with work, but he went away desolate because the despair that comes from sloth “is not destroyed by ‘work’ […] but [by] magnanimity and that joy which is a fruit of the supernatural love of God.” (Pieper 118, 122)
The Church knows that we often have difficulty in making the leap between seeing what is good and actually doing it, and so she prays as follows in the Collect in the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time: “O God, from whom all good things come, grant that we, who call on you in our need, may at your prompting discern what is right, and by your guidance do it.”
Fr. Mottola is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester. He holds a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies and a Licentiate in Canon Law from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is currently serving as Parochial Vicar at St. Louis Parish in Pittsford, NY.