STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/30/2012

Essay: The Jerusalem and Athens Forum Tackles the Seven Deadly Sins

Each year STILLPOINT sponsors an essay contest for students in the Jerusalem and Athens Forum. This year’s topic? The Seven Deadly Sins. Tala Strauss wrote the winning essay, "Acedia" (below). Kyra Sliwinski and Mark Whitfield received honorable mentions.

The first time I had a conversation about the deadly sin acedia, or sloth, was one early June morning in the woods. As an unemployed student home for the summer, I was trying to appear busy by going for walks with my mother. Stepping from the writhing streets of traffic outside our door into the green forest felt like entering nature’s cathedral. Awake to witness the morning, light streaming through the trees, I was filled with joy.

My mother had been reading Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, and was telling me about the noonday demon, which is the strike of depression in the middle of the day. Norris writes of the monk Evagrius, who described depression as the thought that "depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of ascetic struggle."

Out of the woods and back to school in the fall, I quickly forgot that early morning walk. But acedia came up again one day while I was reading Josef Pieper. According to Pieper, acedia is that state when "man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him."

That this sin is called "deadly" is not strange. Sloth is a deep-seated death wish. Thomas Aquinas said that "mortal sin is so called because it destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us." Acedia poisons our inner well of joy with apathy. It is more than dropping out—of college, of work, of daytime—and more than laziness. Acedia is saying "no" to the "yes" that God said when He created us and called us good. It is suffocation of God’s living breath in us, and rebellion against God’s interaction with His creation.

Dante Alighieri’s poems tell of Dante’s journey, beginning "in a dark wood," going through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven. It is remarkable that Dante managed to write an epic poem so detailed and fantastical. But it takes the brilliance of a poet to reveal the reality of sin in vivid imagery.

Dante’s medieval morality mystifies post-Enlightenment man. In an interview titled "A Student’s Guide to the 'Whole Big Ecosystem' of Culture," Ken Myers said, "Modern culture assumes we can know the world without any apprehension of the whole of things, because modern thought denies the existence of any order shaping the whole of things." But "to know cosmic order is, in a sense, to know the totality of things—not, that is, to know everything that exists, which must be the prerogative of God, but to know what we do know as part of a meaningful totality." He adds, "An appreciation for the poetic structure of reality is an essential antidote to the various disorders championed by the Enlightenment."

The assumption that every part is connected to the whole drives the structure of Dante’s narrative poem. He writes with the medieval architecture of a moral universe in mind, and his structured vision of Heaven and Hell reveals an underlying belief in the coherence of reality. Instead of abstract theology, which takes sin out of context, Dante creates a concrete world of images and conversations, depicting sin in order to define it. His "systematic poetry" and imagery signifies truth in a way easier to translate for our own lives.

On the central terrace of Purgatory, the one for the slothful, Dante’s guide, Virgil, defines sin. The three terraces below, he explains, are inhabited by those guilty of pride, envy and wrath, which are sins of loving the wrong thing. Those who are guilty of avarice, gluttony, and lust, which are sins of loving excessively, inhabit the terraces above the central terrace. According to Dante’s Virgil, love is the "source" of all human action. Sin is inordinate or inappropriate love. The "summoning force" of love "fills the trapped soul" such that love can "never rest short of the thing that fills it with devotion."

Sloth is the sin of loving too little. As Aquinas wrote, "[Sloth] is an oppressive sorrow, which … so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing." It is directly opposed to God’s command to love. On the terrace for sloth, the souls now run for love to redeem all the time they lost on earth.

It may seem silly, but it does get the point across. But a larger point can be deduced from the structure of Dante’s poems: only with guidance can human beings navigate through the pitfalls of sin. Through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, Dante was guided by reasonable Virgil and loving Beatrice. Dante learned from the souls he encountered and discussed each stage of the journey with his guides. He never would have made it out of the "dark wood" by himself.

This brings me back to the walk in the woods with my mother, my guide that early morning. The joy of being loved in community inspires action—not busyness, but liveliness. According to Pieper, "the opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God—of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action." Someone redeemed from acedia echoes e. e. cummings: "i thank You God for most this amazing day."

Tala Strauss is a philosophy and political studies double major and a serious tea lover. She is a native of Bloemfontein, South Africa, and, most recently, also a citizen of Canada.


Honorable Mentions:

In her essay, "Sloth," Kyra Sliwinski notes that "the failure to engage our minds as an act of worship is sloth—intellectual sloth—and does a great disservice to the life and witness of
the Church."

Kyra Sliwinski, from Copley, Ohio, graduated in 2011 with a degree in linguistics. She considers her experience in the Jerusalem and Athens Forum one of the highlights of her time at Gordon.

Mark Whitfield, in "Too Busy for God?" also poses a challenge: "If running and striving is the cure, do our 100-m.p.h. lives keep us safe from falling into the sin of sloth? Not necessarily. Dante’s slothful are not simply inactive or lazy, but those who failed to show sufficient zeal in their pursuit of the good." 

A bit of a latecomer to higher education, Mark Whitfield spent over 20 years as a mapmaker in the UK before God called him to the liberal arts. Married to Kristin (Robbins ’93) and with two young daughters, Mark will graduate with a political science major in 2013 at the tender age of 45.

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