Looking ahead to a special ecumenical service for Thanksgiving, I figured, “Well, at least I know what my theme is!” For some people, the holiday of Thanksgiving is mainly about the history. For others, it’s about the turkey, the pumpkin pie, the (fill in the blank). And for some other very sad souls, it’s about football—especially the Dallas Cowboys!
Still, focusing on the theme of thanksgiving, of gratitude, while avoiding some of the clichés—it’s not as easy as it would seem at first. I’ve found that sometimes the best way to understand something is to look at its opposite. Having said that, thinking of the opposite of “thankful” as “unthankful,” and the opposite of “gratitude” as “ingratitude,” might not be much help after all!
I want to bring up something we don’t often hear about in sermons or Sunday school, and that is, the seven deadly sins of the medieval church. Can anyone name them? We have envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. There’s one of them, sloth, that a lot of people think isn’t so bad. But that would be a mistake!
The original Latin word for that specific deadly sin is “acedia.” Over time, it became lost in the term “sloth.” Most of us think of that as laziness. (Plus we have the image of those cute critters hanging from trees!) It is laziness, but not simply the kind meaning you’re a couch potato.
Acedia literally means a “lack of care.” In early monasticism, it was called the “noonday demon.” It’s a condition of spiritual apathy, a state of sluggishness, in which the afflicted person is unwilling or unable to care about much of anything at all—at least, it ends up that way.
Fred Craddock, the well-known preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), describes it this way. Instead of mere laziness, he says it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’ It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.” I don’t care. But it can manifest itself in ways other than some obvious lack of caring.
If we can rouse ourselves enough to study sloth, then I think we’re getting close to the opposite of gratitude. In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris goes into great detail at how she has seen the noonday demon at work in her own life. As I read her book, I felt like some of my theories were being reinforced. For a long time, I’ve believed that of the seven deadly sins, sloth is the deadliest!
Norris quotes Soren Kierkegaard from Either/Or. It’s like a strange twist on Dr. Seuss. “I do not care for anything. I do not care to ride, for the exercise is too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous. I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either… I do not care at all.”
Has anyone else ever felt that way? It’s almost like all the color of life gets washed away, and all that’s left are blah shades of gray.
There’s a passage in Norris’ book that reminds me of a line from the movie The Usual Suspects. It’s when Kevin Spacey says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” In the movie, he’s referring to the notorious criminal, Keyser Soze, but it’s clear he means more than that particular villain. The quote ends, “And like that…he’s gone.”
This is what Norris wrote: “I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia… We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available ‘twenty-four/seven’ and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible. But when distraction becomes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feeling itself… Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own? How can that be, when so few know its name?”
Obviously, we don’t need to know the name of something for it to control us. We can even forget that it exists. Are we too “slothful” to identify and resist acedia?
In our scripture text, St. Paul urges Timothy “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” including those in authority (vv. 1-2). None of those items are on Mr. Sloth’s “to-do” list. None of those look very attractive to Ms. Acedia.
Something the apostle urges Timothy to do, as well as us, is to look outward. No one can do the things in that list while constantly focusing inward. It’s impossible to live a life of supplication, prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving that way.
Paul’s expressed desire in verse 2, that we “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” may lead some to say we should leave well enough alone. Let the world outside take care of itself. But guess what? That’s another way acedia raises its slothful head!
Perhaps the greatest sin of sloth, the worst assault of acedia, is the effect on the imagination. Its biggest crime is what it does to creativity. As Norris says, “Acedia can flatten any place into a stark desert landscape and make hope a mirage.” It can make our world “obscenely small.” That’s a compelling statement. If we believe the lie that we have nothing to offer—that we aren’t creative—then the problems in life will start to feel too overwhelming. We will lose our ability to care.
“To someone in the grip of acedia, the beauty of sunlight, and of life itself, can only reinforce a bitter ingratitude.”
What’s the opposite of love? Is it hate? Could it be indifference? As the saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate. But where indifference resides—where the lack of caring reigns supreme—the vitality of life gets drained away. And that is a sin. And that is deadly.
So, in a few days, pray for the gift of thanksgiving. Ask for the grace of gratitude. (Actually, that’s not a bad prayer every day!) Let it lead you into the world “in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (vv. 3-4).
 Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 115.
 Norris, 16.
 Norris, 45-46.
 Norris, 39, 85.
 Norris, 202.