At Long Beach, California, tnere is a section called Signal Hill. Some years ago two lots and a house were for sale on that hill. A man and his wife were looking for a place to live. Here was an ideal location. Here they could look down over the picturesque city of Long Beach stretching along the Pacific. And the price was most reasonable - only $1500. They were on the point of purchasing the place, when his wife objected: "I don't want to climb that hill every day."
As a result they did not purchase the property. Imagine their regret when they heard a short time later that oil had been discovered on Signal Hill. They had lost a golden opportunity; they had passed up a chance to be millionaires.
Their regret only grew as the fame and productiveness of the spot increased. Everyone of its 1350 acres yielded 322,000 barrels of oil. Since 1921 Signal Hill has produced upwards of 435 million barrels of crude oil, which would be valued at about the same number of dollars. The black gold gushes in streams from over 890 producing wells.
The man who had failed to buy the house and two lots at the paltry price of $1500, later estimated that at the lowest figure he had lost at least two million dollars.
And the wife who had refused to walk up that hill? Who can describe her feelings of remorse at her unwillingness to make that little effort to climb the hill? How miserable she must have felt ,when she saw that "black gold" gushing so profusely from the spot which might have been hers. Too late she realized that she would not have had to climb that hill very often. They could have leased the lots and lived in luxury elsewhere. But that chance was gone - through her refusal to climb a hill, through her selfish sloth.
Many another treasure has been missed through this sin of sloth, the seventh of the capital sins. Many a blessing of soul and body has been lost through spiritual and physical laziness. Many will never get to heaven because they are unwilling to climb the hill that leads to our home above.
This story is particularly fitting during Lent when we walk the way of the cross with Christ and follow Him as He climbs a hill, the cross on His bruised and burning back. Our Savior gave His all to climb that hill, so that we might all share the unlimited riches that gush forth from the gashes in His hands and feet and side. Sloth has kept many from climbing that hill, just as sloth kept the couple of our story from climbing a hill to material riches.
1. What is sloth? The sin of sloth means an excessive love of ease and idleness, an unwillingness to exert the body or the soul. Sloth means a laziness that leads to neglecting either our physical or spiritual duties.
Sloth, the seventh capital sin, is a distress of soul at the thought of what one has to do in order to secure or to keep the friendship of God.
2. Since we intend to emphasize spiritual sloth, rather than physical laziness, as the former is more important, we should point out at the very beginning the difference between sloth and lukewarmness. Lukewarmness or tepidity, as it is sometimes called, is a decided distaste for religious and spiritual things in general. This dislike causes a person to perform his religious duties in a careless, indifferent, lazy manner.
Sloth, on the other hand, is a disgust for spiritual practices, so strong that it makes a person disregard and even despise the friendship of God. We must not confuse either of these sins with what is usually called dryness, that is, a certain difficulty or drag in performing our spiritual duties. Sloth and lukewarmness are voluntary, and hence sinful; dryness is involuntary, and hence not sinful.
3. How serious a sin is sloth? Sloth is seriously sinful for two main reasons:
A. It makes a man neglect the principal purpose of his life, the one thing necessary, namely, the salvation of his soul. Accordingly, it is a sin against the charity he owes himself, the love he should have for his own soul and salvation.
B. Sloth is directly opposed to the commandment that we love God with our whole heart, and our whole mind, and our whole strength, and our whole soul. In other words, sloth is opposed to the first and principal commandment, that of loving God.
C. Accordingly, sloth is a mortal sin, when it is fully voluntary, fully willed, and when it makes a person regret or neglect serious duties and obligations or even less important ones. It is a venial sin when it is not entirely voluntary.
D. Tepidity or lukewarmness, which means a careless, lazy performance of our religious duties, is not in itself seriously sinful, but it is extremely dangerous. It often leads to sloth. Our Lord used some strong language about tepidity or carelessness.
"I would that thou were cold or hot. But because thou are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I am about to vomit thee out of my mouth." Apocalypse, 3:16.4. Sloth betrays itself in many ways:
A. In avoiding as much as possible all manual labor or physical effort. The wife in our story, by refusing to climb that hill, showed her physical sloth and laziness. Of course, in a day when people aro heart-trouble conscious, the wife might have feared that the climb would be harmful to her heart. She may even have had heart trouble. But the story does not say anything about that. However, we must be careful in judging people who are physically slow and even apparently lazy.
B. In seeking bodily ease and comfort. Look at the Catholic who slouches and lounges at Mass, and you are looking at a slothful person. To be at ease at times is good for the body and the mind, but constantly to seek the easiest position and the softest chair is definitely harmful to both body and soul.
C. In a dislike for concentrating the mind in some mental effort, or the soul in some spiritual act. Physical laziness is more or less evident, and is more or less ugly and repulsive. But mental laziness is not always so evident, yet it is even more common. You have all met the man and the woman who cannot be aroused to take in a new idea. They regulate their lives and their thinking by some out-worn formula, by some rule or fad that was in vogue in the distant past. Such people might even be energetic, hardworking as far as their bodies are concerned, but their minds are inactive, sluggish, lazy. They will never change their viewpoint. They will never fit in their thinking with changed conditions, with newly discovered facts, and with a new approach to old problems.
Among such, I class those Catholics who never read a good Catholic paper, magazine or pamphlet, and least of all a good Catholic book. Their religious ideas are those of mere beginners. They do not know, for example, that there is a Christian, Catholic, and thoroughly scientific explanation of evolution. They are too lazy to learn what the Catholic Church teaches on questions like labor and management, the Pope's points for world peace, and similar questions of the day. They are mentally lazy. According to your time and ability you should continue studying your religion.
D. In putting off things that must be done. Such procrastination has been called "the thief of time," and rightly so. Those who live in "Put-off Town" are the sons and daughters of sloth. They will put off answering a letter. They will put off paying a bill. They wil1 put off visiting a sick person. Yes, they will put off doing the dishes and finishing the washing, wasting precious minutes and even hours.
The worst citizen of "Put-off Town" is the Catholic who puts off going to the sacraments, who puts off saying his prayers until he is too sleepy to center his mind on them, who puts off changing his ways for the better in religious matters. His eldest children are called, "Plenty of Time," "No Hurry," and "Wait a While."
E. In giving up before a task is completed. How many lack this sterling stick-to-it-iveness. They start mowing the lawn, but quit when they are half finished. They paint one side of the garage and stop before they even see the other side.
But the worst quitters, for such we must call them, are the spiritual quitters, men and women who start out Lent, for example with the determination to attend Mass every day, or to perform some special penance. How long do they last? The least lazy excuse makes them give up their resolution. During Lent pareticularly slothful souls must watch our Lord closely see Him persevering for forty long days in the desert, must watch him as He perseveres through the bitter tortures of His passion, must watch and follow Him as He sticks to His task of saving us, stays with it to the bitter end-on a cross.
F. In habitual tardiness, starting late and coming late to every kind of activity. They are late in rising, late for work, late for appointments, late with meals, late with assignments whether in the office or at school, and late with almost everyone of their daily duties.
Chief among these are late-comers to Mass. Coming late to the Holy Sacrifice is a positive sign of laziness, a capital sin. They are too lazy to get up a few minutes earlier; too lazy to get things ready the night before; too lazy to make an extra effort, or even an ordinary effort, to be on time for the greatest Action, the Holy Sacrifice. Such sloth is a sin, don't forget.
G. In excusing oneself for neglecting duties. You have met the type. He forever has an excuse for failing to do little tasks about the home. The wife, in turn, is forever explaining why she did not sew on that button. Appoint them to some parish society work. They fail to come through. But will they admit any fault in this? Not on your life. They have always an apparently excellent excuse to offer. Such sloth is sinful and sickening.
H. In wasting effort on useless activities. There is the ironing waiting to be done, but mother listens to a radio program, reads a bit in the paper, talks on the telephone - anything except get down to the task at hand. Wea re almost all guilty in some way or other of this "dawdling" and "doodling." It springs from sloth.
Another form of useless effort is staying up too late at night, making it difficult or impossible to rise at the proper time, and making a person unfit for his work when he does get up. From childhood on human beings want to stay up late - listening to the radio, watching television, and listlessly lolling over the pictures in magazines. A certain amount of social life is necessary for health of body and soul; some need more recreation than others. Nevertheless it is a sign of sloth when we give all our time and energy, or most of it, to useless pastimes.
I. In too much chatter. Here, again, conversation is an important element of normal life, but long telephone conversations, endless and aimless talk about things of no moment, "jawing" needlessly with workers while on the job, are signs of sloth or dodging duty.
J. In neglecting the particular duties of our state in life. The doctor who is slow and indifferent in answering a call; the nurse who neglects any care of her patient; the worker who is slipshod; thu mother who gives as little time as possible to her children and home: tho head of the house who fails to be a father as well as a bread-winner - all are slaves of sloth.
5. Sloth has many evil effects:
A. It brings on poverty, physical as well as spiritual. It drives out all desire for spiritual things. Sloth explains the dislike many have for religious practices, which they either neglect entirely or hurry through as quickly as possible. One example of this is the Catholic who comes late to Mass and who hurries away before, or as soon as, Mass is over.
B. Sloth causes cowardice in meeting problems and difficulties. In smaller or larger form, setbacks and trials come to all. The lazy man folds his hands, twiddles his thumbs, and groans about his bad luck.
C. Sloth suffocates the soul. It chokes off essential grace, the life of the soul, by neglecting prayer, the sacraments, and other spiritual duties.
D. Sloth causes a person to waste talents, opportunities, time and effort, the very things that will help him to climb the hill to heaven.
E. The slothful person is abnormally curious about the doings and sayings of others. He is tempted to idle gossip and unkind talk.
F. The slothful man turns to dangerous diversions, like bad company, drinking, gambling. How true the saying: "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."
6. Any Catholic who can see will readily realize the remedies for sloth. May I suggest a few of them:
A. Learn the duties of your calling or state in life. Actually write them down, putting the principal obligations first, listing them in the order of their importance. Then try to take care of them in that order. Whatever your main work is, do that well.
The story is told of Ethel Barrymore, of the famous family of actors. She was once playing in Kansas City. In the audience was Sinclair Lewis, who remarked after the performance: "Ethel, I don't believe you did as well as you could this afternoon. You let us down."
The grand old lady of the stage bristled: "No Drew or Barrymore," she retorted, "ever goes on the stage, no matter how he feels, or how large or small the crowd is; no matter whether it is New York City or some small town; that he does not give the best that he has to an audience. For we have learned through four generations that we get back just about what we give."
What a stirring principle, not only for the actor, but for those who play on the real stage of life!
B. To overcome sloth, stop and think. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Here one of the best incentives is the daily good intention, the offering up first thing in the morning of all the thoughts nnd words and actions of that day. Nothing puts meaning into daily duties, nothing gives more zest to humdrum tasks and labor, like the offering of the entire day to Almighty God. The more frequently and fervently one repeats that good intention, the more interesting and profitable life becomes, the more you will develop the virtue opposite the vice of sloth, namely, zeal.
C. Make a daily or weekly list of duties that must be performed, even of such simple tasks as patching clothes or answering letters. A popular magazine some years ago carried an article by a housewife who always seemed swamped by the tiny tasks and big jobs of her home. Finally she hit upon the plan of writing down what she had to do, what she wanted to do. Then she worked down the list, item by item, checking off each as it was accomplished. She came out from under her pile of duties with surprising ease and speed. Try it.
D. Have some sort of daily schedule. In our complex, modern life this is difficult, but necessary. It gives peace and balance. The Catholic, for example, who has a regular time for saying his prayers, for doing some religious reading, for receiving the Sacraments, will get them done faithfully and fervently.
One could scarcely find in all history a busier man than Leonardo Da Vinci, who was not only one the three greatest painters the world has known, but who was also a remarkable success in five other fields of activity. It was he who declared:
"O God, thou givest everything for the price of an effort."
Yes, and that everything includes heaven. God gives heaven for the price of an effort.
E. Fan the love of God in your heart. If you really love God, you will make the best use of your time, your talents, your energies, according to His plan. You need not wait for this fervor. The Christian who waits for feeling before he does something is like the woodsman on a frosty morning standing with his axe leaning against his knee.
"Good morning, my friend," asks a traveler, "what are you going to do?"
"I am going to cut down this tree," he replies.
"Why don't you get at it?" inquires the traveler.
"I'm waiting until I begin to sweat," declares the woodsman.
If he started chopping he would start to sweat. If you start doing things for God, you too will begin to feel the fervor of God's love in your heart.
F. Recall the labors of Christ for you - His long, laborious years as a carpenter, His preaching and teaching, and above all the taxing, fatiguing labor of His passion and death. All of it was done for you.
7. There is no better time than Lent to root out the vice of sloth and plant the virtue of zeal and diligence. May Christ, the Worker, inspire and help you to work for the welfare of your body, but above all for the good of your soul. Amen.
Adapted from Lent and the Capital Sins
by Fr. Arthur Tonne, OFM (©1952)