So as I mentioned in my last post, the sin of sloth is not one I often struggle with, except as a result of my gluttony (or the other two or three of my favorite Deadly Sins, which I’ll get to later). But whether you’re like me in that regard or whether sloth is the biggest challenge to your spiritual life, there’s always hope. And, as promised, we will look to this guy to find it.
I was reading recently about some of the things St. Thomas Aquinas said about virtue, and I became painfully aware of just how much I have to learn from that man. I tried to find the source text for the idea I’m about to use (and, coincidentally, couldn’t), but instead found myself eyeballs deep in thoughts on “infused virtues”, ignoring my hungry children and angry wife so I could read more about the virtues I was failing at that very moment to practice.
Anyway, and even though I couldn’t find this idea I read about in Aquinas’ own words (maybe one of you could direct me?), I wanted to talk about it anyway.
The idea was that when developing virtue, it’s not only necessary to have the self-control needed to do the virtuous acts, but it’s often just as necessary to stir up your emotions towards the act as well.
Now, this caught my attention right away, because it seems to fly in the face of something I’ve always believed (and still do, as I will explain): we don’t need to apologize for how we feel.
The one time my wife got mad at me, she didn’t have to be sorry for that. It’s just how she felt. When I feel sad, I don’t have to feel guilty; that’s just the way it is.
Now, if in her anger my wife pulls a knife on me, an apology might be necessary. Or if I decide to just go to bed when I’m supposed to be watching the kids because I’m feeling down, there is some definite culpability at hand.
But we don’t have to say sorry for how we feel.
So when I read about Aquinas, I had to wonder, if we can “stir up” our feelings, does that mean we choose how we feel?
To answer this question thoroughly would probably take a thousand page treatise on the effects of the Fall and the interplay of the different powers of the soul, and quite frankly I’m not the most qualified to do that.
But I think it’s important to acknowledge that we can be inspired. What do we mean when we say we were inspired by a speaker or a song or a video? I think we mean that we feel differently than we did before, that even though we weren’t disposed to do something or care about something before, now we are.
And I think Aquinas is telling us we don’t have to wait for our favorite motivational speaker to come to town. It’s possible to do this for ourselves.
If I’m feeling particularly slothy (not a word) one day, I don’t have to apologize for my apathy; but I don’t need to be controlled by it either. The feeling doesn’t even need to stay for long if I don’t want to.
I can think about the spiritual battle at hand and the consequences of failure. I can think about the man I want to be someday and the path necessary to get there. I can think about what Jesus did for me on the cross, or what my mom did for me growing up, or the moments of courageous commitment to prayer I’ve seen in others, and suddenly my spiritual apathy, my sloth, might start to dissipate.
And so we find that our feelings don’t always have to come first. Most often for me, they should be last. If our soul can know, choose, and feel (intellect, will, and passions), then maybe I should think about the good and choose it before worrying about how I feel about it.
While we can’t always control how we feel, we don’t need to let our feelings be in control.
Again, returning to the idea of being addicted to our sins, alcoholics and other addicts talk about this phenomenon often: they don’t feel like walking away from their drug or getting themselves out of a tough situation or saying no for the thousandth time, but they remind themselves of the importance of their sobriety, stir up the courage to fight, and then after the moment has passed, good feelings sweep in and replace the angst and temptation and agony from before.
This can work for our more easily-hidden addictions as well.
And when we can’t, when this just won’t work for us, we go back to the engine that powers the 12 Steps: surrender. If we can’t seem to stir up the feelings on our own, we give up…and ask God to do it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s whole job, for goodness’ sake! To be Spirit is to be wind and breath, to be “breathed-into” (in-spiritus in the Latin); that’s Who the Holy Spirit is!
And so, the alcoholics get it right again. The key is to ask God to take over, to admit that He is in control, because our feelings are out of control and in danger of taking control.
That’s hard to do when you struggle with sloth because it’s sloth that makes us not want to pray in the first place, but the simplest prayer can be the most effective. The saints are full of phrases to be uttered in moments of temptation, so I won’t offer any here. But even quoting Carrie Underwood can work.
Jesus, take the wheel.
Or if quoting a pop star seems out of place in your prayer, just tell Jesus you want Him to be in control. He won’t let you down.