Monday 10 March 2014

Ten-Toed Sloths

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

The longer I reflect on the spiritual life, the more I realize the problem of holiness has a certain elegant simplicity to it:
  1. God is a Person who desires a relationship with me.
  2. I am a person who desires a relationship with God.
  3. A good relationship requires persons spending quality time with each other.
  4. I don’t spend enough quality time with God. 
As the inscription in a pub once read: Lost is the simplicity of old times / the world abounds with laws and teems with crimes. All too true, yet the dominant vice of our time is not lust or gluttony or any of the obvious ones. The great sins are all relatives of each other, but major sin today, I believe, is actually sloth.

Sloth is a vice that subtly enters and takes up residence in our lives. The medieval philosophers had a name for it, calling it acedia. The dictionary definition of acedia describes it as spiritual ennui; apathy, indifference. It’s a spiritual lethargy, in which my own deepest desires have become buried in a mire of my own making. Thomas Aquinas wrote that it is “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good... [it] is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds.”

The reason I believe sloth is to blame is because it is largely what keeps us starting to pray. When we pray, we can overcome the other vices, but if we don’t, we remain in their bond. So sloth becomes the entry-level inhibitor. Most people, for example, find it excruciatingly hard to take ten to twenty minutes per day for focused, silent, reflective prayer, yet have no problem blowing hours surfing YouTube videos that are stimulating in the moment, but ultimately mindless and unsatisfying. Our electronic media devices are often the main culprit preventing us from having a regular prayer life. This is why many Catholic take a media fast during the Lenten weeks. The other epidemic sins of today – overeating, pornography, etc. – are merely the ways in which we compensate for not having the intimacy of God that comes from prayer. That is why overcoming acedia may be the crucial first step.

The cute, but aptly-named animal can help us understand this vice. The sloth has a small brain. It lives mostly in the comfort and safety of a single tree. Because it is so slow, it accumulates a great number of parasites, including moths, beetles and cockroaches. It only eats leaves, which provide it with very little nutrition (sloths in captivity have also been documented eating human feces out of latrines. Sorry, but it was worth noting for the sake of its symbolic value). They eat, sleep and even give birth hanging from tree branches. Sometimes baby sloths will fall off the mother and onto the ground. Usually they survive the fall, but will die from other causes, since the mothers can't be bothered to leave the tree. A sloth generally descends to the ground just once a week, in order to defecate.

Like the sin, sloths do not have a big problem with predators, since sloths blend into trees and are so slow they do not attract attention. Like the sin, sloths can be (temporarily) vicious if attacked – it has three large claws on each hand, and when cornered, will swipe in order to scare or maim any attackers. Once identified, however, a sloth can be quickly overcome.

Perhaps there is an area of sloth-infestation in our lives that is preventing us from the union with God we desire. Let’s name it, watch for the claws, and take simple steps to eliminate it. For we are "the branches", and we might do well to remember the drastic destiny of branches that bear no fruit. I believe Christ was concerned about the slow but debilitating nature of a certain vice (he said something similarly drastic about "lukewarmness"), and used the strong language to remind us of it forever. The three-toed sloth was created for good measure.


  1. Wow. I would have said pride, gluttony or lust, but sloth? We as a society have probably never been busier. We're working ourselves to death.

  2. You're right about our epidemic busyness. But my central point is that acedia -- understood as a mental laziness -- is often the stumbling block to our becoming persons of prayer and discernment, which in turn helps us overcome the more obvious sins. The "indulgent vices" AND chronic busyness are often just anesthetics to spiritual emptiness. It's our acedia that keeps us in those cycles, until enough grace is given or we choose to break free. -John

  3. Hitting the nail, On.The.Head! The only thing I find hard though (and I tell God this) is, why does it have to be so hard to reach Him, to really commune with Him? Why does it seem as if He hides Himself from us? I suppose it goes back to my own slothfulness! If I spent more time in communion with the Lord, maybe I wouldn't have to ask that question. Now excuse me while I exit the internet, and pray the St. Joseph novena (which of course, I left to the end of the day...erg...)

  4. Agreed and guilty as charged. However, I would add that the symptoms are sometimes (note I said SOMETIMES) medicalized and referred to as depression or dysthmia. The treatment for it is anti-depressants and sometimes anti-anxiety. Of the top five selling pharmeceuticals, these are two.

    I am not saying that laziness and depresssion and anxiety are the same thing but they do appear similar. Nor am I anti-medication. I am just saying that there are social and cultural factors that impact us (e.g. loss of sense of agency, growth of institutional bureacuracy and loss of community, corporatism, media messages. etc.) and these too are contributing factors or proximate causes or whatever psychological or theological term you want to use.