Might the capital sin of acedia (also known as sloth) be an underlying cause of one’s incessant and obsessive use of media?
WHAT IS ACEDIA?
St. Thomas Aquinas defines acedia as “sorrow at the good and disgust with activity.” He also says it’s a “sluggishness” of the mind and will “which neglects to begin good” [Summa Theologiae, Q. 35].
Acedia can manifest through the avoidance of the duties in our state in life or a repugnance to do good works. It leads us not to do what one ought to be doing when they ought to be doing it.
Acedia can manifest spiritually as well. It makes spiritual things distasteful to us or view them as a labor too difficult to perform. So, we become tainted with a tinge of sadness because we do not (or falsely think we cannot) do that spiritually good work. As a result, we turn to worldly pleasures and worldly things for satisfaction. It takes work to pick up a spiritual book or listen to a spiritual talk when we’d rather zone out and do nothing; it can be quite an effort to go against our wayward will. It takes work to spend solitude in prayer or go to daily Mass when we’d rather use our busy-ness as an excuse why “we can’t” or “don’t have time.” These can all be masks for spiritual sloth.
However my purpose in writing this post is not to go through all the manifestations of it, but rather how exactly this vice relates to our use of media. By media, I am referring mostly to technology – internet browsing, iPads, computers, laptops, smartphones, iPhones, music, radio, social media, news outlets (good Catholic ones included!), streaming services (Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime), Kindles, TV, texting and all that could fall under those umbrellas.
MEDIA – USE OR MISUSE?
Technology and media are not bad in themselves. They are gifts from God crafted by the reason and intellect with which God endowed man.
The questions are: Are we using it rightly? Or are we misusing it? And where does the vice of acedia come in to play? I would argue that more often than not, large and wide, most people are probably misusing it. And I would also argue that misuse often happens in the name of good things, including religious reasons.
WHAT DOES ACEDIA HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
According to Jean-Charles Nault, a Benedictine Abbot, in his book The Noonday Devil, when we, through our free will, give in to the weakness of our flesh and this “noonday devil” (a name given to this vice from Psalm 91), it leads us to flee the acts which sadden us because we’d rather not do them. Or, it leads us to flee because we know it will cause us work and effort we’re not willing to put forth at the moment. Then, it leads us to compensate by seeking worldly satisfactions and earthly things instead.
Acedia gives us an “itch” for something other than what we ought to be doing. It distracts us and takes us away from the grace being offered through that present moment in the duties of our state in life or spiritual exercises.
There are two words I want to focus on here: Flee and compensate. These are the “actions” of the vice of acedia.
How often do we flick on our phones to look at this or check that – right in the middle of someone talking to us (especially our family members)? How often do we interrupt the task at hand (we flee) in favor of an app or social media (seeking the quick-fix compensation or satisfaction)? Or, we’re tired, but rather than discipline our wayward body to end our day in prayer, we cave and try to escape (flee) our weariness by turning to YouTube, music, Netflix, social media scrolling and the like (compensation). More often than not, several minutes or even an hour or two pass by without us even realizing it. How often are we on the job and rather than perform our tasks and duties, we are tempted to seek a little ease from our work (we flee) by dishonestly spending time on our phone or internet browser because these other things bring us a little pleasure (compensation) compared to the work we ought to be doing? Or we know we should go to Mass but wait! relaxing and staying home to watch a game or relax sounds much easier. “I can pray at home” is the temptation that passes through our mind.
Spiritual reading – or spiritually edifying talks if you’d prefer (no, Church news doesn’t count) – is something the saints tell us we should be doing for at least 10 minutes every day…but watching a TV show is much easier. We flee, we escape. Why? Because the mere thought of what we ought to be doing wearies us or causes us to feel dread about it, and so, we seek compensation or pleasure in a worldly thing.
Acedia very often leads to idle words and idle time – something our Lord Himself cautions us strongly about:
“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” [Matthew 12:36-37, Douay Rheims]
“Wait! You’re saying because I feel weary about doing work and avoid doing it, that it could be driven by the vice of acedia?” Yes – IF you know there are things you ought to be doing and don’t do them. YES – IF you know deep down that time should be better spent.
“But wait! What about when I just need a little time to recreate and rest even though there are things I could be doing?”
Stop. We are not talking about “could;” when discussing the vice of acedia, we are talking about “should.” Should implies duties – be they spiritual or vocational. Besides, did you know that “right recreation” is actually a virtue? St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “eutrapelia.” Just as our bodies need physical rest, so also does our soul. A little humor, light conversation, games, non-sinful books or shows, etc… are all legitimate pleasures that can rightfully and lawfully give order and rest to our soul.
THE VIRTUE OF EUTRAPELIA
As said, eutrapelia is the virtue of right recreation. BUT, St. Thomas wisely cautions us with regard to recreation and pleasures [Summa Theologiae, Q. 168]. The three cautions are these:
- That the pleasure in question is not indecent, injurious or sinful.
- That we not become so “loose” in our recreation that we act against our dignity, right reason and good/tasteful behavior. There is a “time and a place” as the cliché goes.
- That we do not use recreation and the pursuit of pleasure inordinately. That is, we don’t seek entertainment, fun, relaxation, and other pleasurable things as an end in themselves but only seek it out in that we may better serve God, fulfill our duties and refresh our soul. We may recreate, but with moderation, not excess. Our culture, however, seriously tends to excess and is in a constant state of feasting, entertainment, pleasure-seeking and festivity. This is most especially why we need to be wary of our use of recreation and free time.
EVEN IN THE NAME OF GOOD THINGS…
Acedia can creep up on us even in the name of good things. We can be distracted from what we ought to be doing through (what seems to us) good and religious things such as reading religious articles, keeping up with Church news, listening to podcasts, being involved in various activities, etc…
It takes constant vigilance, strenuous effort and deep humility to be watchful about how we spend our time.
St. John of the Cross teaches us that when a Christian grows in devotion to the Lord, they become more wary of staying away from sinful things. Because of this vigilance of the aspiring saint, the devil knows that the way to pull him away from God’s will is not so much through sinful things but through things that are in themselves good, but not what the Lord would have him involved in at the time. These things are also called apparent goods because although it appears as a good thing, in reality it’s a misuse of one’s time, energy and activity. Such are the wiles of the devil! This is why growing in virtue truly takes humility; we would miss this possible temptation otherwise.
I know for myself, to be honest, there have been times when I have easily spent an hour at night – or maybe even more – reading various articles on things going on in the culture, news and the Church and it left me feeling dissipated in spirit, not refreshed. I would come out of that time realizing it was wasted. I would repent because I had realized it was not how the Lord had wanted me to spend my time – it was just me fizzling out because, well, to be quite honest, it was easier to just sit there and get swept away scrolling and clicking. It would often lead me to curtail my spiritual reading and be half-hearted or tired in my night prayer. Or it left me scrambling to prepare for the next day. This can happen also through various activities and works of charity with which we may involve ourselves. We over-extend and then end up neglecting our vocational duties or spiritual life.
Let me repeat: To be on guard against acedia, especially when it comes to the media – which tends to have an instant-gratification effect on us – takes arduous work, constant vigilance and deepening humility.
Editor’s note: Please watch for part two of this post on acedia next week!
Images courtesy of Unsplash.