The word of the day is “slumber.” Most of us have times when the fervor of our faith dies down, and we find that we are just going through the motions of religious practice. In those times of spiritual lethargy, we are sleepwalking in the Spirit. Today’s reading of Proverbs 6:3-20 includes a warning against the lethargy that rests and sleeps when it is time for activity and work.
The sage writes, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man” (NKJV vs. 10). Today, we will apply this admonition to the spiritual vice of “sloth.” We will compare sloth to spiritual slumber and suggest how we can wake up from this fundamental malady.
The Prayer of Ephrem the Syrian
For the Orthodox, the “Prayer of Ephrem the Syrian” lies at the core of our Lenten prayers. This prayer asks the Lord to remove from us the major vices of spiritual disease. Then it entreats the Lord to replace these infections of the Spirit with the virtues of repentance.
It is appropriate that the first vice that the prayer mentions is “sloth.” The first thing we must do on our Lenten journey is to get out of bed and pack our bags for the trip. Unless we are roused from our indifference and lassitude about our life in the Spirit, Lent will be just another 40 days on the calendar.
Passivity at the Root of the Passions
Sloth may seem like a trivial fault compared with sins against the Ten Commandments or impure thoughts and atrocious deeds. But the Philokalia names laziness, forgetfulness, and ignorance as roots of the passions. According to this handbook of ascetic practices, laziness so darkens the intellect, the “eye of the soul,” that it no longer can see or follow the ways of God (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 335).
The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote that sloth is “a strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us ‘down’ rather than ‘up’” (Schmemann 1990, 34). Thus, sloth is a sign of a suppressed spirit. The depressed soul feels that rousing the Spirit would not be worth the effort (Schmemann 1990, 34).
Sloth, therefore, is a type of despair. That hopelessness saps the soul of spiritual energy (Schmemann 1990, 34). It gets to the point where the sufferers of spiritual listlessness neither want to nor are able to pray, worship, or concentrate on the things of the Spirit.
The Course of the Disease
The beginning of sloth is a creeping sense of indifference to the spiritual life. Once joys and delights, the practices of devotion to God become mere habits. Next, we rush through spiritual activities as quickly as possible. Finally, whatever piety we can muster is like walking in one’s sleep or dozing in front of the television. The vice of sloth has put us in a state of spiritual slumber. In the imagery of Proverbs, spiritual poverty has attacked us “as an evil traveler” or as a “swift runner” OSB (vs. 15).
What, then, is the remedy for this spiritual drowsiness? In today’s reading, the sage urges the sluggard to consider the industriousness of the ant or the honeybee (OSB vs. 9-12. And the wise poet asks the slothful if they will waste their time in idleness (OSB v. 13).
How to Deal with Sloth
However, rousing our souls from their sluggishness would be like waking ourselves up from a deep sleep or crawling out of a ditch that we have dug for ourselves. If we are to arise from our spiritual slumber, the Spirit must be renewed in us. But how is the Spirit to be enlivened in us when unresponsiveness is at the bottom of our condition?
The first thing we must do is to come to terms with our spiritual sickness. We must stop pretending in prayer, worship, study, and almsgiving. The Church has provided the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Confession for this very purpose. Confession is the renewal of our Baptism and Chrismation. We may not feel it, but we must trust that the sacrament will give the cleaning of sin, the rebirth of the New Life of Christ, and the restoration of the seal of the Holy Spirit in us.
Persistence in Spiritual Disciplines
As the grace of the sacrament works in us, we should not discontinue our spiritual disciplines. But before we engage in any spiritual activity, we should ask the Holy Spirit for His aid. More than His help, we should ask that He pray for us and in us. Accordingly, St. Paul said, “Likewise, the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (NKJV Romans 8:26). The same thought applies to the other practices of the spiritual life. We should pray that the Holy Spirit might worship for and in us, study for and in us, and work in us as we care for others.
Then too, we should address the sense of the futility of engaging in the life of the Spirit. The Lord taught that we should “pray always and not lose heart” (NKJV Luke 18:1). Moreover, the Lord promised, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (NKJV Matthew 7:7). Accordingly, we should trust God to answer our prayer (1 John 5:14) and grant that the devotion we show to Him will produce a rich harvest. When we apply it to the spiritual life, the Book of Proverbs promises the same: “But if you are diligent, your harvest shall come to you as a fountain (OSB vs. 16).
Enlivened By Hope
Finally, to replace our despair with hope, we should recall all the blessings that God has promised for those who are faithful and do not lose heart. The Philokalia instructs us to “think of the blessings which await the righteous, how they will stand at Christ’s right hand, the gracious voice of the Master, the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, the gift which is beyond the intellect’s grasp, that sweet light, the endless joy, never to be interrupted by grief, those heavenly mansions, life with the angels, and all the other promises made to those who fear the Lord” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 25). These pledges motivate us to shake off our spiritual drowsiness. As the ant and honeybee toil ceaselessly to provide for themselves, so we too will labor spiritually for the provisions of the Spirit.
Today’s comments on overcoming sloth depend on the Orthodox doctrine of “synergy.” Human persons must rely on God’s grace for salvation and its benefits. “Synergy” is the human “cooperation” with that grace; It is our necessary response to divine benevolence. In its essence, sloth is a disease of unresponsiveness to the work of the Spirit. In this view, the vice of sloth has varying degrees of severity. The sluggard’s condition depends on the ability of the person to respond in synergy to God’s grace. In the end, those who slumber spiritually are almost totally unresponsive to the work of God. In that case, God must provide in large measure the responsiveness that the slothful lacks. In many cases, God does so through the support of the Church, its sacraments and teaching, and the fellowship, care, and support of its members.
G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber
Schmemann, Alexander. 1990. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Maybe I’m mistaken (am often) but one of the 2 hebrew words for sloth seems to contain the hebrew word for tree + a letter implying toward, which pictures one leaning on a tree — transferring weight or responsibility to another(s), and/or taking for granted the cross (at worst).