With “shelter in place” orders, travel bans and various restrictions, do you have that sense that our whole country is being asked to do something like practice Lent together? The goals may differ but, there is something familiar about it. Perhaps, The Church—in her wisdom—has championed Lent throughout the centuries knowing that there will always come a time when everyone is asked to “go without.” Because of Lent, The Church would then be prepared to lead the way in times such as this, offering practical help and Holy Hope. Below, Dave Meserve writes about a virtue that helps us navigate today’s challenges.
|“Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.”
“But the precious possession of a person is diligence.”
The DEADLY VIRTUE of DILIGENCE
Like most on our list of Deadly Virtues, the words Mike and I have chosen don’t necessarily carry the meaning today of their original intent. Our latest virtue, DILIGENCE, is no exception.
When I hear “diligence” my picture is of an auditor obsessed with attention to detail in order to honor “due diligence,” the most common use of this word. It’s as if diligence is only about satisfying some legal requirement. Hardly makes the heart beat faster.
The original idea of diligence is far more captivating. Our English word arrives to us from the Old French meaning “attention, care” and carries the sense of “taking delight” in something. It is “love and care through being attentive.” Now that quickens the heart.
Our Greek New Testaments offers something which is interesting for its stark contrast to the Deadly Sin of Sloth. Diligence “speeds up” something within us, moving us to action and effort. Putting this all together, diligence is “love and care through being attentive” where our care is in earnest. This is a foundational virtue.
We learn from the Epistles what we are to earnestly care about: the poor (Gal. 2:10), keeping spiritual unity (Eph. 4:3), confirming our calling (2 Peter 1:10) and especially being diligent toward one another (2 Cor. 7:12). It is all about a having a heart that deeply loves and cares.
Other things to note from our Scriptures:
- When Paul attaches virtues to the spiritual gifts, he specifically attached the virtue of diligence to the gift of leadership (Rom. 12:8). Spiritual leadership demands love and earnest care.
- Paul says that earnest care was produced by the church’s “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:11). A heart that can repent is a mark of a heart that can love and earnestly care.
- Peter writes a beautiful progression that begins with faith and ends with love. He says that we must speed all of these virtues along by “applying all diligence” (2 Peter 1:5). Diligence is foundational to fully exhibit all the other virtues.
Diligence is deadly to the sin of sloth. We might call it laziness today, but it is deeper than how we tend to use the word. The heart of what it means to be lazy or slothful is not caring. In the early centuries, it was called acedia which literally meant to be “without care”. It was seen as a core sin as it strips away the very soundness of our soul. It has been called “the sin of the empty soul … a weariness of the soul.”
In this sense, the slothful person refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. To live with this, as one writer put it, is like being “on spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” Not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about it.
My favorite reference for this condition comes from ancient monks who called this “the noonday devil” as it came upon them most intensely in the heat of the day. They would see this as an attack by the “demon” of sloth. We may refrain from that language but can appreciate their diligence in the face of this foe.
They believe that these “demons” could not act directly on the intellect and so, instead, they aroused bad thoughts by working on the memory and the imagination. For example, “nostalgia” — remembering the past far more fondly than reality suggests — was one way those “demons” would create sloth in the soul. If the best days are behind you, why care in the present?
Similarly, to subvert the imagination by obsessing over a “grass is greener” future also removed your soul from being attentive to others. You cannot love and care for others in the present when you are infatuated with your future.
When young monks needed help with sloth they would seek out an elder. Their elders resisted the modern advice of recommending a change of scenery or to go “treat yourself”. Instead they would insist on the virtue of diligence.
Let’s end with some of that ancient wisdom to help us strengthening diligence as a means to fight sloth. Most of this comes from Evagrius, a 4th century monk. I’ll add my paraphrases in bold.
- When sloth came upon him in the desert, Abba Anthony prayed to be delivered and was shown that any physical task, done in the right spirit, could free him. Do something physical to help get you out of your bad thoughts.
- When a young monk faced sloth in the repetitiveness of his work and scenery, the counsel would be to not look without but within; “Go, sit in your cell and your cell with teach you everything.” Your listlessness should not be avoided simply by continually changing scenery. Face yourself in the place you are.
- “What heals sloth is staunch persistence… Set a measure for yourself in everything that you do, and don’t turn from it until you’ve reached that goal.” Make small, manageable goals throughout your day and stay with them until done.
- “As far as we are able, exalt the mercies of Christ” to battle the despair of sloth. The reading of Scripture was essential to reorient them to reality along with “praying intelligently”. Read your Bibles out loud and sit with the words for a few minutes everyday. Talk to God about it.
I honestly love how practical those ancient monks were. As for our hopes of loving and caring through being attentive, there is nothing better to shake us out of care-lessness than fostering the deadly virtue of diligence.
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
If there is a time we need to earnestly care it is now. May our eyes be open and our ears attentive to the world just around us. And, as we face the challenges of our times may we also learn to face ourselves.
Keep us from nostalgia that refuses to look forward with hope and from a corrupted imagination that doubts You are at work in our present.
Help us, O Lord, to see Your love through attentiveness toward us — every single day — that we may be diligent ourselves to the things You so deeply care about. Amen.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Diligence
- Reflect on the definition of diligence as “loving through attentiveness”. Who has modeled that for you? In particular, how are they attentive and to what are they attentive?
- The heart of diligence is to care deeply about something/someone. What do you care deeply about right now? What moves your heart to action? Has anything begun to shape your heart during this time of a global pandemic?
- Have you had a season that might fit the description of sloth/acedia when nothing much seemed to matter in life? How do you describe it? Do your remember what helped you move on? Are you in that kind of season right now?
- Depression v. Acedia. Writer Kathleen Norris* puts it this way: Depression generally has an identifiable and external cause whereas acedia arises out of nowhere, emerging from inner depths without warning nor reason. Depression is more amendable to treatment. It will disrupt life so that, eventually, you cannot fail to notice and take action. Acedia is more subtle when it wells up and “only the venerable practice of spiritual discernment is of much use.” Reflect on these distinctions. Where does it take you?
- Of the four practical responses listed above, which are the most natural for you? Which are the least? Is there one you that is calling to you?
|For Fun and Exploration:
There was a very diligent man who was overweight. He decided that he had some excess pounds to lose. Since he was very diligent, he stuck to his diet earnestly. He even had a new route to work so that he wouldn’t drive by his favorite bakery in the morning. However, one day, he came into work with a big coffee cake. His coworkers started to scold him because they all knew he was dieting. The diligent man said that he could explain. “You see, I accidentally drove past my favorite bakery today and I saw all these delicious coffee cakes through the window out on the display case. So I prayed. I prayed to God and said, “If you really think I should have this delicious coffee cake, please have an open parking spot right in front of the bakery.” Then the man paused for a moment and added, “Soon enough, there was one on my eighth time around!” ——————————————
A sloth was reporting he was robbed by two turtles, when the officer asked for the details on the scene of the crime the sloth replied, “I’m not quite sure…It all happened so fast.”
The Sloth is a South American animal which sleeps about 80% of the time. When awake, it barely moves because its metabolism converts food to energy so slowly. Their speed is somewhere between a garden snail and a giant tortoise. A fun picture of a sloth comes from the recent animated film, “Zootopia”. Do a YouTube search of “Flash Zootopia” and watch a sloth (named “Flash,” of course) work at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles)
|* Dave is reading a book on this subject: Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris (2008). It is not short (336 pages) but, if you are intrigued by the concept of “acedia,” this is a great read. Norris is a wonderful poet/writer who came back to the faith in her 30’s when she moved from NYC to S. Dakota.