Monday, December 29, 2008

sloth's gnawing little teeth

A good friend gave me Fr Ronald Knox's book Pastoral and Occasional Sermons last year. I was reading it yesterday, specifically a couple of homilies on Cardinal Newman. While I was googling today to see if I could find them online, I found this (HT: Infused Knowledge):

To-day, we have substituted the word "sloth"; a failing from which we all suffer, and one which none of us ever admits. I think the best way of examining your conscience, if you want to discover whether you are an idle man, is to leave on one side all the things which interest you and concentrate on some side-line of your daily habits which doesn't interest you....

Idleness, with most of us, doesn't mean lying in bed and doing nothing; it means giving priority, always, to the things which interest us, and leaving our other duties to queue up and take their turn, if they ever get a turn. Watch idleness; it can become a sort of creeping paralysis.

Ouch. So, then, I am definitely an idle man...... in the generic use of the noun. Anyway, though it bit me quite sharply, I am glad to have made acquaintance with it. Not that I need to make acquaintance with the thing itself, I know it quite well already, but having it described so clearly will help me keep a lookout for the nasty creature's appearance and put a jar over it and get it out of my interior castle quickly, with the help of God's grace of course; because on my own I would take the little thing in and it would be like the fox in the tunic of the Spartan boy and gnaw at my vitals until I died.

Sloth is also known as acedia, of course, and Kathleen Norris, in Acedia and Me, uses the task of the miller's daughter in Rumpelstiltskin as a metaphor. The remedy for sloth is to spin straw into gold, or rather, to take the dreary repetition of daily life, confront it, and make it into gold.

10 comments:

Stephanie said...

I think there may be a flaw here, though, Willa. What if we understand that to mean that enjoyment of things is the opposite of duty? That's wrong-headed, it seems to me.

Instead, what if we enjoy things that are ours to do? What if we do them, not "because" we enjoy them, but because they are what we are good at? And so, that's what we think is at least a part of what God put us here to do? Made us to do? Then ... do those things we work at and derive satisfaction from and do on a regular basis fall into the category of things we should avoid?

Prioritizing by way of enjoyment only is not right, obviously. But prioritizing away from enjoyment? That seems just as wrong. Does that make sense?

Also, I think that there are some types of folks - and I think you're probably one of them - who feel guilty when they're taking needed refreshment and rest. It's not necessarily holy to live in a state of perpetual fretting over "duties" or worrying that you're not doing what you're "supposed to" be doing.

I just think love is the measure. Not pleasure. Pleasure may or may not be a by-product, but it's not the measure of good or ill.

Stephanie said...

Oh --- and I love Newman's sermons, by the way. I find them so utterly refreshingly bracing somehow.

Willa said...

According to St Thomas Aquinas, you are right, Stephanie. ... but I can't find the exact place where he said it. But it was to the effect that if we enjoy doing what is right it is in a sense better than doing something right with distaste. And sure, our inclination can be a guide to what God wants us to do. I love to write, as you do; for another person it would be distasteful to write a lot. That other person probably shouldn't plan a career as a writer, but for people who love to write, it could be that God is calling them to do something with that.

I took Knox to mean, however, that if we find our inclinations leading us in a disorderly way to choose always what we prefer, then we might want to check our balancing scale and even it out a bit.

So I think I am trying to find a way to discern when a good thing becomes "too much" -- when I'm letting it become a disordered attachment rather than the good thing it ought to be.

Thanks for helping me process.... it's something I'm trying to work out right now as you can probably tell!

Stephanie said...

Yes, I do see where you're going with this -- the path is the one my feet are on, so I recognize the foliage here! lol!

The thing that I am starting to finally lay my hands on is the plain bald fact that "he knoweth our frame. He remembereth that we are but dust," and we keep forgetting it. I'm starting to find a kind of internal sensor so that I can tell the difference between straining at a burden I ought to leave alone and the honest labor I am meant to be doing.

You know what I think it is? I think it's the psycho/spiritual equivalent of muscles. Exercise can make us stiff or sore on the way to better health and strength ... or pain can signal that we have been doing something improperly or excessively. And the only way to learn to tell the difference is to cross the line between the two sometimes so you know where it is.

Anyway ... it's a feast season. To be honest, I will be glad when the fasting gets here again because I'm tired of this already. I'm no ascetic, but indulgence makes me all gloppy headed.

Willa said...

Anyway ... it's a feast season. To be honest, I will be glad when the fasting gets here again because I'm tired of this already. I'm no ascetic, but indulgence makes me all gloppy headed.

Ha! Me too! I suppose that's a big part of it! It's great.... for a while, but back into the fray ;-)

Mama Monkey said...

Interesting discussion!

lissla lissar said...

Drat. Stephanie already said it, and said it better than I can. :) It calls to mind, in my scattered mind, the bit in Surprised By Joy where Lewis talks about the friend who taught him to enjoy the quiddity of any kind of weather- to enjoy the balmy weather for its pleasantness, and the rough, wild, and cold as a kind of rough-and-tumble, a joke.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to enjoy everything? I think that might be sainthood.

Willa said...

I was thinking about that, Lissla. To be truthful, I think I could enjoy everything if I only weren't there to spoil it. You know the Chesterton line: "What's wrong with the world? Me."

I think the saints must get past that somehow -- they may not trust themselves but perhaps they lean on God so radically that their own inadequacy doesn't loom so large.

Reverse pride, I guess. Not sure how to remedy it though!

Laura A said...

Coming into the conversation quite late--I wonder if you get e-mail notifications on old posts?

I like what you said about the saints trusting so radically in God that their own inadequacy doesn't loom so large. I would think that a constant, constant emphasis on self as sinner could be false humility instead of a needed acknowledgment, but a sort of talisman, a false humility. But I guess it depends on the person.

As for sloth, I think of a properly used day sort of like I think of the right physical exercise. A good day has a bit of a stretchy feel to it, but it doesn't leave you sickly tired or injured. In the long run, it genuinely is more pleasant to do some things that are easy and some that challenge you. That said, I struggle with sloth, too, and the computer seems to be a culprit. If I stay on too long it feels icky, and isn't even fun. That, I think, is sloth.

Laura A said...

Oops, that sentence about false humility needed some editing. I only meant that some people say they're sinners as a sort of talisman, and it's false humility. An extreme instance of this trait would be Uriah Heep. Real humility is more focused on God than self, I think, but I guess we all need the reminder of our own sin because we tend to justify self at the expense of others.