Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Slow, Silent Killer of Souls

There are certain sins that kind of shake us in our boots.  The second we commit them, we feel these sins in our very being.  Betray a trust, commit adultery, steal, unjustly destroy the reputation of another . . . sins such as these (and others too) are the spiritual equivalent of some traumatic medical event. When a person has a heart attack or is wounded by a bullet, they know that it is time to "Call 911."  Similarly, when a Catholic commits a grave sin, Catholic conscience kicks in and says, "This is an emergency. Repent immediately and get to confession."

Not all sin, however, presents itself in such a traumatic and forceful way.  Like certain medical conditions, there are spiritual maladies that do not present major feelings of distress. When we commit them, perhaps we do not feel all that different. We've all met people who, for instance, knew that there was something not right in their bodies, but who simply decided to ignore the symptoms.  Since the symptoms weren't killing them outright or causing enormous distress, they learned how to live with them.  Maybe deep down they knew that these symptoms were serious, but it was possible to continue on as though things were fine. 

Similarly, in the spiritual life, there is a silent killer. It is known as acedia or sloth. Unlike the sins that tend to shock us when we've committed them, acedia tends to lull us. When we commit sins of acedia, we might only be surprised by the fact that the result doesn't seem all that bad. A good example of this is failing to worship God on a Sunday. Perhaps a person has been attending Mass his or her whole life, but then decides to "skip" Mass on a particular Sunday.  Perhaps they feel a little bit of guilt over this, but they realize that no lightning bolt has been sent down from heaven. In fact, they remind themselves that, "I go to Mass more than most people and I am basically a good person."

Now, missing Mass on a Sunday without serious reason is already an objectively grave sin which destroys the life of grace in a soul.  The Church clearly teaches that failing to worship God on a Sunday is a grave matter. So, the person who commits this sin already is in a spiritually serious condition. But, acedia acts like a cancer.  It spreads. It begins to weaken a person's entire spiritual life, leading them to abandon his or her spiritual duties.  Prayer, Mass, Confession, all begin to be left aside.  In their place, the person throws himself or herself into one of two possible positions.

The first is to become sluggish and lazy. Sundays, for instance, are spent laying around watching television or surfing the Internet. Hour after hour of doing nothing. While the Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered in parishes, the soul suffering the sickness of acedia is morbidly doing nothing at all.  They know what they should be doing, but each time they ignore that truth, the more difficult it becomes for them to break free from the heavy chain of acedia; a chain whose other end attaches them to re-runs of "Law and Order" rather than to the Eucharist.

The second possible reaction is to become an activist.  It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a symptom of acedia or spiritual laziness is to become an activist, but it is the reality. Increasingly distant from a relationship with God, the person throws himself or herself into a thousand other things. Aware that they are not keeping their primary obligation in life (to worship God), they come up with other important activities; signing their children up, for instance, for a thousand sports activities or filling their own time up with political advocacy, exercise, or even volunteer work.  None of these things are bad. In fact, they are all good things. But, no matter how good they are, they are not the best thing, nor are they any person's primary obligation.  For the person suffering from acedia, these activities merely mask a serious spiritual malady.

The more one yields to acedia, the more difficult it becomes to overcome it. They might feel some spiritual sadness, but they lose a sense of just how great their peril is. Other sins can shock a person and make them realize that they are in deep trouble. Acedia just draws the person into a spiritual hole from which the person feels incapable of escaping. Maybe they know that their soul is in serious spiritual jeopardy or perhaps they are not aware of it. After all, even though they don't go to Mass or pray, no lightning bolt has struck them down. They begin to think, "One of these days, I will straighten all of this out. There is plenty of time."

If you are a Catholic who is not going to Mass on Sundays (presuming you are capable of doing so), then your spiritual sickness is serious. Don't treat it lightly. The only way to overcome acedia is to act forcefully against it.  Shut the television off and pray. Set the alarm clock on Sunday and go to Mass. Get to confession. The only way acedia wins is by allowing it to win. The only way it is conquered is by fulfilling our duties, no matter how we feel at a particular moment.

As we approach the Solemnity of Christmas, let us not sit in darkness any longer.  Instead, let us go out to meet Him. Let us leave the lethargy of acedia behind and make our way to Bethlehem.  A Savior who is Christ and Lord awaits us.  

Three simple things to be freed from acedia:

1. Go to confession this week. No excuses. Just go.
2. Go to Mass on Christmas Day and be resolved never to miss Sunday Mass again.
3. Spend five minutes each day praying in front of a manger scene. Go to Bethlehem.


  1. This is excellent! Maybe you can write another post and speak of how spiritual laziness can be detrimental to seminarians and priests.

    1. Thanks! I guess when I wrote it I was thinking about all of us--lay, seminarians, priests, religious, whomever. The examples may have been more lay oriented, but the general themes apply to all of us. Happy Epiphany.