More Than You Think
I love gummy bears. They are without a doubt my favorite candy. There was one particular stretch of my life (identified by a notable increase in weight) where I had at least a bag a day for nearly four weeks. The candy is utterly manufactured--definitely not found in nature; the product of ground up horse bones and hooves infused with untold quantities of sugar. Even still, I’m beginning to salivate. Now imagine freshly picked red-ripe strawberries. I don’t think I had any fruit in my four week bender, but if I did, I certainly don’t remember. When you consume gummy bears like I did, even the best strawberries begin to taste unbearably dull. Normally, on their own, hardly anything compares with strawberries. The natural taste can be exceedingly sweet, but in its own greenly way; on the converse, there is something wrong with the processed sweetness of gummy bears. In the presence of the manufactured, however, the sweetness of the natural is hardly perceptible, even tedious or wearisome. The Good begins to lose its appeal as I settle for the lesser. This is the mortal danger of acedia, otherwise known as sloth.
“In all of our hearts lies a longing for a Sacred Romance,” begins Brent Curtis in his essay entitled “Less-Wild Lovers.” While we may generate different names and find it in unique places, each of us embodies this pursuit of this Romance in our very being. This is the call of the Good, the pull towards beauty, harder to name than to feel. It is the Good (think of the idyllic strawberry). It’s the draw of virtue, the call to walk with God in a Noahic immanence. To embrace this Romance is to have communion with God, to experience the joy of “spiritual good.” This Romance is also the feel of adventure and love. It’s present in nearly all the stories we hear and tell. All this may sound too poetic or impossible, but if you spend some time thinking with me, you may feel what I’m attempting to describe.
Think of the child you used to be and the world you used to inhabit. For some, memory may be difficult (or deeply painful) to recall; for others, the thoughts of childhood are sweet and hazy with time. I remember running around the woods surrounding my house, chasing my brothers with toy lightsabers. I remember pretending to be vikings and assassins. There is something idyllic in the potential of childhood. Kids imagine that they can be anything and pretend to be everything; what will be is yet to reveal itself. There is a thirst for adventure (and trouble) that begins to fade with the unfortunate (but deeply necessary) incursion of developmental awakening. We begin to realize we are naked. While tragedies of life can strike early and often, childhood contains the Adamic excitement of potential energy. It’s the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the deep. The divine Romance has only just begun to be reenacted, and the earth of new life begins to take shape. Part of this shaping brings with it the death of innocence and the emergence of the self. It’s the phoenix of a developing consciousness; what is must give way to what will be. This is the story of Adam and Eve, and it’s our story too.
Remember the pulse of your earliest encounters with this Romance. Perhaps it was the love of your father, mother, or grandparents. Perhaps it was a friend or your first romantic interest. Perhaps it was a book or a film. Maybe it was an experience with God. Remember the draw and the pulling toward. It was directional and persistent. When we look back at these memories we can feel their haunting.
At one time or another though, most of us forget the Haunting, or try to; for it often threatens to cripple us, leaving us bent over and unable to deal with the everyday things that life requires to be done. We all to some extent, take that shining something in us that felt magical and passionate as children, that something that later swirled amidst the confusion of sexual passion and our longing for heart intimacy--we take it and push it through the loneliness, ache, and turmoil of life...a kind of resignation.
It is this forcing of the eternal and limitless into the narrow definitions of our blind, emerging existence as those who have lost their innocence that leads us to the anemic life of suppressing the great Romance. We begin to settle for the easy path, for the natural road. This flattening of existence has long been the concern of the Church and traced with watchful eye under the names of “sloth” and “acedia” particularly. Far beyond mere apathy or a laissez-faire disposition, the deadly sin of sloth is the mortal enemy of Being, birthed from the harsh realities of life lived as a human being, but empowered by our own failures to sacrifice; it’s a sort of rejection of beauty and Being itself. It culminates in what Aquinas calls “sorrow for spiritual good.” But how does this sorrow come about?
Take the example of pornography. Most of us are aware of the un-reality that pornography presents. Sex, in reality, is altogether different than its common portrayal. But we are drawn to its manufactured sweetness and lies of unconditional acceptance nonetheless. That’s the thing with love--it’s infinitely exclusive. We trade this difficult truth with the great un-truth of pornography, and in doing so, we begin to lose our ability to respond in kind to Love, to the Romance. Pornography has the potential to entirely rewire our reward circuit, making us more and more dependant on its artificial stimulation. It can quickly become a cycle spinning us away from true intimacy.
When we open ourselves to Love we open ourselves to pain. It’s to step into the unknown to begin to love someone rightly; we trade the comfort of the understood for the chaos of the potential that is felt most prominently by children (in many ways, it is the responsibility of adults to reclaim the lost childlike regard for Love and adventure). We have begun, in the language of Curtis, to pursue “less wild lovers,” all the while growing in our un-capacity to sense the more subtle and natural call of the Author of the great Romance.
The damaging effects of substances such as cocaine also illustrate what is contained in the domain of sloth. “Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that interferes with the reabsorption of dopamine, a chemical messenger associated with pleasure and movement. This resulting buildup of dopamine contributes to the high that characterizes cocaine use.” The addiction cycle is bound within the existence of the drug--it is a sort of artificial meaning-maker that curves in on itself in a masturbatory mockery of genuine satisfaction honestly obtained. It can serve as an escape when what must be faced is darkly difficult or truly malevolent. The results, however, can be truly devastating, as the overstimulation can greatly impede the natural processes of dopamine release.
Sloth is a holistic term to define patterns of concession and allowances that lead to the destruction of the spiritual life. As gummy bears dull the sweetness of strawberries and pornography twists sexual appetite, the lesser things each of us pursue have the potential to silence the call of what is better. When we continue to gratify our acedic impulses, we weaken our will and lessen our resolve--and this to our great detriment. While poor eating and drug use can not only illustrate but also constitute slothfulness, sloth has the potential to touch almost every aspect of life. While it may at first appear benign or even understandable, sloth will not rest until we are utterly consumed, angry at God and hateful of Being. When life gets hard and things don’t go our way, sloth is at the door.
The archetypal story of Cain and Abel demonstrates a central truth of sloth: it is realized and encouraged by persistence in the wrong sacrifices. As with gummy bears, pornography, and cocaine, the sorrow for the Real in the face of the pseudoeuphoric engenders not the passivity often erroneously associated with slothfullness, but a holistic resentment of Being itself--resentment of the Good, of the Real. It is no mistake that Gregory the Great assigned six daughters to sloth: malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, and wandering of the mind after unlawful things. We are beginning to see how this might be the case. The apathy of sloth exceeds beyond laziness, extending to the sorrow of Goodness itself. The character of Cain is an illustration of the potentiality of acedia for the destruction of the ideal. This is the killing of Abel.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.
- Gen. 4:2-7 ESV
We are not told what it is about Cain’s sacrifice that causes God to reject it. This may appear a frustrating omission; however, it is the ambiguity surrounding the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice that opens up the story to us all. We all settle for easier (and therefore lesser) sacrifices. We are ever looking for shortcuts, for simpler means of passable displays of “love:” We avoid conflict by withholding truth; we don’t work to cultivate proper sexual intimacy with our spouse; we fail to confront injustices in our workplaces; we ignore healthy living; we refuse to integrate our darknesses, settling instead for suppression. We might even do the dishes, but we grumble. We watch with Cain as he grows in resentment at God. We watch him be judged by the very ideal he seeks to destroy. We see resentment grow fangs.
“If you do well, will you not be accepted?” asks God. This question can be seen as an invitation to return to the divine Romance. When the calls of lesser sacrifices begin to fill our imaginations, God often reminds us of the good that might exist if only we would repent and pay attention. This is the Haunting Cain suppresses as he decides instead to follow the devolving passions of spiritual sorrow to its natural conclusions. He feels wronged by the Good represented in the character of his brother Abel. Rather than adjusting, than fixing what was wrong and accepting personal responsibility, Cain seeks to take vengeance against both Being and God. His mind drifts to unlawful things.
“And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” The second half of God’s divine warning to Cain is just as true to us. Persisting in the wrong sacrifice always has ramifications beyond the borders of the altar. Sacrifice is never really about the thing being sacrificed, but about something bigger and greater. Even about the Jewish sacrificial system the Psalmist states,
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
You will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
- Psalm 51:16-17
It is in the heart of sacrifice that God truly delights. “You must rule over it,” cries out God to Cain, and this by the sacrifice of contrition. When we give of ourselves, we follow the example of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is the ultimate rejection of acedia. In Christ, the path of ease is utterly rejected for the Via Dolorosa. The cross signs to us that to follow Christ is to intentionally and willfully suffer for what is right. The cross is the “x” where I and Being intersect so terribly. While Cain let his failures to make proper sacrifices consume him in his quest for the destruction of Being, we are met with the person of Christ who demonstrates what someone possessed by the divine Romance might do to bring about the kingdom of God.
As we look more and more to Christ’s example, we begin to understand what awaits those who put away what is easy, choosing instead to make truly great sacrifices. Paul continues his epistle to the Philippians, “Therefore”--because Jesus made the ultimate and right sacrifice--”God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
All this is very large, but the battle against sloth starts very small. Put away those things which draw you away from making the right sacrifices. This could mean getting rid of your phone or your gaming console or beginning to confront the chains of addiction. It could mean confronting your significant other and beginning to address resentment that has been quietly brooding the demise of your relationship. What is killing you? What is overstimulating you and muting the voice of God? All these things, if not specifically and honestly addressed, will lead to the sorrow for spiritual good, and God only knows where that might lead. Follow the draw of the divine Romance as it pulls you away from the less wild lovers and look to Christ as the goal and hope of your longings.
 Brent Curtis. “Less Wild Lovers.” Mars Hill Review 8 (1997).
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II, ii, Article 2.
 Dr. Grant Brenner MD. “”When is Porn Use A Problem?” Psychology Today (19 Feb 2018).
 “Cocaine Use Disorder.” Psychology Today (4 April 2019).
 Gregory the Great, Moral, xxxi, 45.
 Phil. 2:6-8. ESV.
 Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Penguin Books, 2019), 27.
 Phil. 2:9-11. ESV, Interjection added.