I pause from the 24/7 dog-and-pony show organized by the Washington establishment for our entertainment to bring you a brief message from our sponsor. It concerns Lent, which began this past Wednesday. Many people, I suspect, regard the season of Lent — to the extent that they regard it at all — as a time of gloominess and privation. My friend Rev. George Rutler, Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York, provided a useful correction to this popular misconception. “Lent,” he wrote in his column for February 26, “is a time for serious thinking. That does not mean morose thinking. Quite the opposite. Melancholia and even despair issue from living life superficially without engaging the profound mysteries that God sets before us. Serious thinking means that we take people seriously, and that means we take God seriously because He takes us seriously.”
Fr. Rutler’s column put me in mind of a splendid little collection of essays about the seven deadly sins that was organized by The Times (the real one, in London, not the silly New York avatar) in the early 1960s. Angus Wilson, Edith Sitwell. Cyril Connolly, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Sykes, and W. H. Auden weighed in, respectively, on Envy, Pride, Covetousness, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, and Anger. Ian Fleming, he of the James Bond novels, had the idea for the series and provided a foreword to the volume, the critic Raymond Mortimer an introduction.
All of the contributions are worth reading, but I thought in particular of Evelyn Waugh’s observations about Sloth when reading Fr. Rutler’s column. As Waugh notes, we modern folks seldom mention the word sloth. If we think of it at all, it is as “a mildly facetious variant of ‘indolence,’ and indolence,” Waugh continues, “so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the most amiable of weaknesses.” Indeed, “most of the world’s troubles seem to come from people who are too busy.”
But Sloth is not indolence. The Latin equivalent, acedia, is defined by St. Thomas as tristitia de bono spirituali: sadness in the face of spiritual good. In this sense, Sloth betokens not so much indolence as rejection. Waugh makes the essential connection:
Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty . . . but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair.
The other melancholy Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, dilated early and often on the insidious nature of despair in cheery volumes with titles like The Sickness Unto Death and The Concept of Dread. But Evelyn Waugh, like Fr. Rutler, touches on another dimension of the subject: the animating center of Sloth, which is the primal refusal of the good. (Not for nothing did Milton make non serviam — “I shall not serve!” — Lucifer’s most memorable expostulation.)
It is often thought that Lent is a time when Christians deny themselves pleasures and “give things up.” Maybe so. But often the most difficult thing to abandon is the dubious pleasure of saying no to joy. Lent, as Fr. Rutler says, is a time for serious thinking, which is not the same as gloomy or morose thinking. On the contrary: cf. Genesis 1:31 “God saw everything he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”