SEVEN: COUNT 'EM! As previously noted, I come from a religious background that didn't focus overmuch on sin. I first learned about the seven deadly sins in a novel I was reading. I was only young at the time---11 or 12, say---so I was surprised to find that there was a list of sins that were considered "deadly." I wasn't sure why that was supposed to be so. Deadly how exactly? I didn't know.
Nowadays, of course, I could simply google "the seven deadly sins" and all my questions (more, or sometimes less, authoritatively) would be instantly answered. Here's a whole website devoted to the seven deadly sins, for example. The pull quote at the top of the page remarks rather jovially, "The Seven Deadly Sins are those transgressions which are fatal to spiritual progress. You probably commit some of them every day without thinking about the rich tradition of eternal damnation in which you're participating. Welcome to your source for information for history on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues."
DEADLY VIRTUES. About the same time I first read about the seven deadly sins, I also learned about the seven deadly virtues, which is what they were called in the song. My parents (and I at age 11 or so) were fans of any musical by Lerner and Loewe, and Camelot was a family favorite. In that original Broadway version (Julie Andrews as Guinevere, Richard Burton as Arthur, Robert Goulet as Lancelot), adorable Roddy McDowell starred as Prince Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son by his own half-sister (though this isn't mentioned in the play), and a bastard in more ways than one. I fell in love with him based strictly on one tiny photograph inside the album cover. (Even as a child, I knew that Lancelot was an insufferable prig, despite my mother's swoonings over Robert Goulet.)
In Camelot, Mordred's malice seems to come from out of nowhere; they don't delve into his miserable childhood and Oedipus complex or the rest of it; for that, you have to read The Once and Future King (the book on which the play was based). His one number is called "The Seven Deadly Virtues," and it goes like this (and this is from memory because I so adored that song as a child that it's permanently seared into my brain):
The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps:
Oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me.
The seven deadly virtues were made for other chaps
Who love a life of failure and ennui.
Take Courage: now there's a sport!
An invitation to the state of rigor mort!
And Purity: a noble yen!
And very restful every now and then.
I find Humility means to be hurt.
It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt!
Honesty is fatal and should be taboo;
Diligence: a fate I would hate!
If Charity means giving, I give it to you;
and Fidelity is only for your mate...
Which is pretty much how I learned the names of the seven cardinal virtues. I was intrigued by Mordred's version of adolescent rebellion---"Let others take the high road; I will take the low/I cannot wait to rush in where angels fear to go!"---but I didn't really understand at age 11 how to emulate him. I wasn't even sure what some of the words (diligence, for example) meant. Those were (comparatively) innocent times, the Seventies. Too innocent, for example, to permit a character in a musical to sing with malicious merriment about the Seven Deadly Sins.
SINS OF BEING. The seven deadly sins are in order of importance: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. According to the aforementioned website---my source for everything sinful or sevenful---we owe the number seven to Pope Gregory the Great. In addition to limiting them to seven, he also prioritized them. Though it might come as a shock to some the so-called "Christian" Right, pride was regarded as a far more serious sin than lust. For that matter, sloth and gluttony are more serious than lust. I'm not sure what "more serious" means in this context, because I'm not sure whether I'd prefer less to be broken on the wheel (pride), thrown into a snake pit (sloth), or smothered in fire and brimstone (lust). None of them really appeal to me.
The one thing you can't help noticing is that the deadly sins are all states of being or feeling rather than specific acts. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust aren't things you do; they're the states of mind or being that lead to the wrongful conduct. The sin, therefore, is a fault in the person's being. This is very different from the way contemporary Christians view sin.
Of the deadly sins, I'm most interested in sloth because it relates to conduct which is at the root of many contemporary problems, but is the sin which contemporary christians are LEAST likely to regard as seriously sinful.
"Sloth" considered as a deadly sin isn't exactly equivalent to laziness, though laziness comes into it. The definition of sloth---quoting again from my trusty sin site---is, according to Thomas Aquinas:
[quote begins from "The Sin of Sloth" at www.deadlysins.com]
"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."
This definition frames it really broadly and puts the sin in terms of its consequences. The website sums sloth up as follows: "the avoidance of spiritual and physical work." At the Wikipedia entry on the seven deadlies, sloth is defined as follows:
[quote begins from Wikipedia entry on the Seven Deadly Sins]
More than other sins, the definition of Sloth has changed considerably since its original inclusion in the list. It has been characterized as what modern thinkers would describe as apathy, depression, and joylessness — the latter being considered a refusal to enjoy the goodness of God and the world he created. Originally, its place was fulfilled by two others, Acedia and Sadness. The former described a spiritual apathy that affected the faithful by discouraging them from their religious work. Sadness (tristitia in Latin) described a feeling of dissatisfaction or discontent, which caused unhappiness with their current situation. When Aquinas selected Acedia for his list, he described it as an "uneasiness of the mind," being a progenitor for lesser sins such as restlessness and instability. Dante built on this definition, describing Sloth as being the "failure to love God with all one's heart, all one's mind and all one's soul." He also describes it as the middle sin, and as such is the only sin characterised by an absence or insufficiency of love. Modern interpretations differ from either of these, and portray Sloth as being simply a sin of laziness, of an unwillingness to act, and of an unwillingness to care. For this reason Sloth is now often seen as being considerably less serious than the other sins.
Is that a good thing?
IS SLOTH A DEADLY SIN? I didn't used to think so, but I'm beginning to think otherwise. The older and truer definitions of sin had to do with actions and states of mind that prevent people from living fully and well, and that kill or warp the soul. Early Christians were more concerned with the relationship between individuals and God, I think. I understand Jesus to have clearly stated that the precepts he taught fulfilled and therefore superseded the ancient laws and rules set out in Leviticus and so forth. Clearly, that was the view in the very early church, since the Gospel taught to the Gentiles didn't include the law of Moses.
Now that I've begun to think about it, I remember my priest (Episcopalian, of course; not Roman Catholic) teaching us during confirmation that true definitions of sin focus on states of mind that separate individuals from God. "Do you know what sin is?" Father Walker asked. "It is separation from God."
Sloth in any respect is a serious matter, I think. Since I believe it is my own particular cardinal sin, I feel qualified to speak about it. One aspect of my own slothfulness is the admission into my life (and into the lives of anyone who has to do with me) of the elements of chaos and entropy. And if I don't fight them, they are debilitating indeed. Before Christmas, the sight of the disorder around me could bring me to tears.
It didn't happen because I'm lazy, but because I was extremely busy. But you can be hard-working, and slothful, I think; the definitions don't preclude it. You rush in; toss your clothes on top of the other piled up clothes; throw down the mail unopened, open up your laptop and pick up right up where you were when you left work. And if you repeat this every day for a couple of weeks, the mail doesn't get dealt with; you have no clean clothes and no place to walk; and in addition to the work you have to do for work, you have all the undone work you didn't do at home. I looked around in the midst of a 15 hour day and I felt unspeakable despair. It took days to get the entropy back to manageable levels.
It's interesting to learn that sloth includes the plague of our times, depression, and its little brother apathy. I've seen firsthand what those can do as well.
I've seen what happens to other people who avoid mental, physical, or spiritual exertion. If you don't resist gravity, it sucks you down. If you don't get up and move around, after awhile you'll find you can't; and if you don't force yourself to take an interest in the world, ditto.
The parts of the body, brain, and soul you don't use become soft and unresponsive. If you give in to gravity for too long or too often without mixing it up with intervals of resistance, your muscles forget how to contract and your brain forgets how to work. Consciousness requires something to react to; to remember who we are, we need to interact with the part of the environment that is not us. Sloth starts to erode the qualities that distinguish us from other animals, such as consciousness and free will.
The "deadliness" of a sin, I suppose, is in its effect on your ability to relate to God and to others in a constructive or loving way. I'm remembering now that I told a beloved young person who wanted to drop in on me before Christmas that it just could not be---the house was too much of a mess and I was in a state of complete bedraggledness. He didn't disguise his disappointment all that effectively and I felt terrible about it afterward. And that is but one example of many from my own life I could give.
Another young person I care for stayed in her marriage for the simple reason that she likes sleeping late and prefers anything at all to going to work. She stayed until he actually went after her with a board. In the interim, she didn't do a good job of taking good care of her young children, so they're in the custody now of a relative. She doesn't think of her laziness as a fault, let alone a cardinal sin, so will she ever feel bad enough about where it's brought her to do anything to get her life on track? She's young, so I have some hope that the answer will be yes. In her case, the consequences are so extreme. And there are plenty of other examples of what happens to people who don't feel motivated to find something productive to do with their time.
Anyway, here's to diligence, the counteracting cardinal virtue, and to mindfulness, which is the part of it that makes you pay attention not only to what you're doing but to how.
It's taken me awhile to work out my New Year's Resolution, but I think "Fight tendency to sloth" is is the one that is most likely to change the parts of my life that make me feel sad, hopeless, and overwhelmed.