7 min read

Sloth’s languid lack of passion

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

In the appropriately last in a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Graham Tomlin looks at what’s lost to life when sloth sets in.
Illustration of unmade bed

Sloth is the most perplexing of the seven deadly sins, and the one that is hardest to define. Most people would probably think first of laziness when they think of sloth. On the other hand, sloth is often related to the older Latin idea of ‘accidie’, which is sometimes translated ‘spiritual weariness’ or ‘despair’. But these two definitions indicate the problem we have with sloth. If it is just sheer laziness, it might be considered as a slight moral failing, but most of us would hardly classify a little idleness as one of the great threats to human life. Sleeping in just a little longer in the morning hardly promises to bring western civilisation to its knees. On the other hand, if it is defined as ‘despair’, that sounds very close to ‘depression’, and we know that depression is usually an illness that afflicts some people without their choosing – it is not a freely chosen pattern of life, an act of disobedience to God or anyone else. By this understanding, sloth hardly counts as a sin either. Sloth is either too trivial to worry about, or too involuntary to blame.  

Clinical depression is an illness that can hit people for no apparent reason and for no fault of their own. The symptoms are similar, but it is important to distinguish depression from sloth. Depression can be caused by genetics, a traumatic event or the misuse of drugs. Sloth is not depression – it is another form of despair that starts with small things, a deliberately chosen shrug of the shoulders, a turning away from someone in need, a switching off of something in the heart. Sometimes it can be caused by disillusionment with life, but it sets in a pattern of allowing yourself to drift towards a languid ‘couldn’t be bothered’ approach that in time becomes a habit of life.  

Once sloth, or spiritual weariness, gets hold of you, it is hard to shake off, and it can lead to disaster. Sloth is essentially a giving up on life, and it leads to finding no pleasure in it, a dull, steady torpor that expects nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing worth getting out of bed for. Dorothy Sayers wrote of sloth:  

“It is not merely idleness of mind and laziness of body: it is that whole poisoning of the will which, beginning with indifference and an attitude of ‘I couldn’t care less’, extends to the deliberate refusal of joy and culminates in morbid introspection and despair.” 

When we lose the passion for life, goodness, laughter and joy, then it may be a sign that sloth has fixed its grip on us. 

Our culture is the most over-stimulated in history. Only a generation or two ago, children had to make do with a football, a doll, a game or two and a few friends. Then black-and-white computer ping-pong was born, closely followed by Space Invaders and we all thought the ultimate in entertainment had arrived. We were never to be bored again. Those games now look stone age. Yet with the arrival of unlimited information at the click of a mouse, games with graphics enabling you to fly the world, fight the Second World War and create your own civilisation, have we eradicated sloth or boredom? If anything we have increased it.  

Peter Kreeft comments:  

“how do we explain the irony that the very society which for the first time has conquered nature by technology and turned the world into a giant fun-and-games factory, a rich kids’ playroom, the very society which has the least reason to be bored, is the most bored?” 

The problem is that however intricate the technology, however scintillating the entertainment, it soon gets superseded by something else. Hence, it’s hardly surprising when we turn our noses up at the triumphs of yesterday, as we have something better today, and when we even get disillusioned with today’s wonders, knowing they will soon be consigned to history as well.  

But to dig a little deeper into the origins of sloth, Thomas Aquinas describes it as “sadness and abhorrence or boredom regarding a spiritual and divine good”. He refers to what happens when through numerous small choices and turning points, a person becomes incapable of being stimulated by anything good or beautiful or wise. Or worse, when goodness, beauty or wisdom evoke a response of disgust or a cynical smirk. When we lose the passion for life, goodness, laughter and joy, then it may be a sign that sloth has fixed its grip on us. It happens when there is nothing left, outside ourselves, to really believe in. 

Looking at the other sins, we might be forgiven for thinking that they are a long list of restrictions, a denial of some of the fun things in life, a restriction on our pleasure-seeking, a dampener on passion. It is the inclusion of sloth on the list that gives the lie to this once and for all. Sloth is precisely a lack of passion, a settled laziness that for whatever reason fails to get worked up about poverty or cruelty or the threat to life on earth through climate emergency. It is a dullness that fails to wonder at green rolling hills, brooding mountains, an act of sheer unexpected kindness, the birth of a baby, Botticelli, Mozart or Taylor Swift (take your pick from the last three, or add more – beauty is naturally subject to taste). It is the spirit that reacts to cruelty, injustice and pain by shrugging the shoulders and switching the channel. Christianity encourages a passion for life and all that is good and beautiful. That is why it is fundamentally opposed to sloth, and puts it firmly on the list of habits to be shunned at all costs.  

According to the Christian account of life, we are beings created with a capacity for immense joy, passion, wonder, inquisitiveness and emotion. The world was created as an arena for all this enchantment. It was made so that we might regularly sit back in amazement at the fact that we get to live this life, this physical/spiritual life on this planet that is our home, a place of sheer beauty, the majesty of a lion, the speed of a hummingbird, the taste of pure water. We were intended to take delight in such things, to explore them and enjoy them, yet most of all we were intended to delight in their Creator, the author of all this goodness, the one from whom they (and we) all come, the most beautiful and desirable one of all. 

In his great autobiographical reflection entitled ‘Confessions’, St Augustine says of the human race: “they choose to look for happiness not in you, but in what you have created.” Now Augustine himself was never quite sure whether taking pleasure in created things was a good idea or not, however, he did at least make this one point supremely well: that our ultimate joy was to be found in God. The joy we find in sunsets, friends and apple tart are tasters, anticipations, to give us a taste for the very best, which is God himself. And conversely, when we lose our taste for God, we are likely sooner or later, to lose our taste for other good things, or even to develop a taste for things that are bad for us, like hallucinogenic drugs or the thrill of theft or even cruelty, that try to imitate the ecstasy of a close connection with God.  

I remember my first taste of Guinness.  The dark, swirling Irish drink had always had a fascination for me growing up, and I remember the first time I plucked up courage to look older than my age, and bought a can in the local store to give it a try. It was foul. I hated it – it tasted sour, bitter and unpleasant. It didn’t help that it was a hot summer’s day and the beer was warm, but that didn’t matter – it was the kind of experience that might have made me never touch the stuff again. It wasn’t until later on, a few years older, after a bit of perseverance that I began to appreciate the hidden flavours, the rich, full wheaty taste. I learnt that just because it didn’t taste like lemonade did not necessarily mean that it was bad. As I learnt to appreciate and enjoy it, Guinness soon became a favourite drink, something I would choose above all others.  

If it doesn’t sound too irreverent, for many people it is a bit like that with God. The idea of enjoying God is about as appealing as that sip of Guinness was for me aged 16. Yet in time, we can learn to appreciate things that have a deeper richness, a more profound taste. Guinness is a trivial example, but the same can be true of God – an acquired taste can take a while to come, but when it comes, it is the richest of all.  

The great past masters of the Christian way advise us that the surest way to combat sloth, the turning away from all that gives life, is to cultivate not just a zest for life, but an unlikely but deeply satisfying desire for the one who gave the gift of life in the first place. 

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7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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