Jesus predicted that He would come again. But Jesus also told us that even He, the Son, did not know when he would return.
In the beginning of his ministry, Paul thought that Jesus’ coming would be soon. Some of the early Christians were so sure that Jesus was coming soon, that they stopped working. Paul admonishes them because they didn’t keep busy but went around like busybodies.
Even though Paul expected that Jesus would return soon, he worked hard: “You ought to imitate us… We worked day and night, laboring to the point of exhaustion so as not to impose on any of you.”
Paul’s message is that we don’t know when Jesus is coming but we live in the here and now. At present, we meet Jesus in the here and now.
Why is Paul concerned that people work. What does work have to do with Christ? the Letter to the Colossians tells us: “Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being, for the Lord and not for men, because you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as your reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.…” (Col 3:23-24)
Our attitude towards work may vary from day to day. Sometimes, we do our work with our whole being but we do it for our own satisfaction, to do it successfully. So we have to remember to do it for the Lord.
Sometimes our work can become the center of our life. There are husbands and fathers who concentrate so much on their work, that they don’t have time for their wives and children.
Sometimes, religious can neglect prayers because of work. This is especially true of personal prayers. And even the way we work, we can forget to work with the Lord.
We meet Christ in the here and now, the way that we are, needing His help to keep from making our work the centre.
Sometimes the opposite seems to happen. We lose our enthusiasm for what we are doing, so we don’t really so it with our whole being. In the third, fourth and fifth centuries, monks and the nuns lived in the Egyptian deserts. They talk about the affliction of, acedia, that is, boredom or apathy. The monks and nuns called it “the noonday devil,” because in the heat of the day, their spirits began to wilt. They felt overcome by lethargy and tired of praying or working. We can picture a plant wilting in the sun. The monks and nuns included acedia among the “capital sins,” one of those that lead to other sins.
Maybe everyone has moments or days of acedia. We can imagine a nurse getting tired of caring for sick people or a teacher doing everything required but with a certain emptiness. A married person getting bored with cooking or cleaning.
Priests also lose their fire or zeal. They may forget that God is saying something in the Scriptures and not try to seek it for their people. They can let their personal challenges or difficult experiences get the best of them and so don’t make the effort to speak to the hearts of the believers. They can even be convinced that their efforts won’t make any difference to anyone, any way.
In his Summa Theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas devotes four articles to discussing acedia, which is translated as “sloth” or “spiritual apathy.” Thomas considers acedia to be a sin against charity, that is, “joy in God” (2a2ae. 35, 3). Thomas affirms that acedia is not turning aside from any possible spiritual good but “from the divine good to which we should hold onto” (2a2ae. 35, 3, ad 3).
Thomas describes acedia as “a certain weariness about work” (2a2ae. 35, 1) or “sorrow over spiritual good” (2a2ae. 35, 2). Thomas affirms: “Such sorrow is always bad.” It can be bad in itself when what is actually good, such as a spiritual good, is seen as bad. It can also be bad in its effects when “it drags a person away from good work.” Thomas states: “Acedia or sorrow over spiritual things is doubly bad, both in itself and in its effects and so it is a sin” (2a2ae. 35, 1).
Thomas makes an important distinction related to how we deal with our spontaneous reactions:
The emotions in themselves are not sins. We censure them only when they follow after something bad, just as we praise them when they follow after the good. Sorrow in itself is neither praiseworthy or worthy of blame. Moderate sorrow over true evil is worthy of praise. However, sorrow over the good or immoderate sorrow over evil is blameworthy. Thus, acedia is a sin (2a2ae. 35, 1, ad 1).
There is a difference between the initial reactions and whether we stay with those reactions and cultivate them. Thomas understands that, as with other sins, the initial reaction, in this case, spiritual weariness, is not a serious sin but the deliberate choice by our own reason to stay with such apathy is serious (2a2ae. 35, 3). Thomas reflects that even holy men felt the beginnings of spiritual apathy but did not make them deliberate choices (2a2ae. 35, 3, ad 3).
Thomas explains that a negative attitude towards one’s self is not genuine humility:
Humility means that a person, knowing his or her own deficiencies, does not exalt his or herself. But it is not humility but rather ingratitude for us to disregard the gifts that God has given to us. Acedia follows from such contempt because we are saddened at what we consider to be bad or vile. Therefore it is necessary that we not extol the gifts given to others in such a way that we belittle the blessings given to us by God. This would turn them into sorrow (2a2ae. 35, 1, ad 3).
Many people don’t make efforts because they do not appreciate that they have been given gifts by God just as other people have been given gifts.
Thomas says that some sins are best avoided simply by fleeing; others are resisted by fighting. It is best to run from thoughts about sexual sins rather than to think about them. Other sins can be resisted by thought: “This is so with acedia because the more we think about spiritual goods the more pleasing they are to us. By this means acedia diminishes” (2a2ae. 35, 1, ad 4).
Sometimes we may feel stuck in our negative feelings, which is why we turn to Jesus.
If we look at the psalms, we see many affirmations that go counter to acedia, short phrases by which we affirm that God is our “rock,” our “fortress,” our shield,” our shepherd.” Many people repeat the name of Jesus when they feel discouraged. Paul declares, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:13).
In our Christian life, we cooperate with God. God is always working with us. The Letter to the Philippians declares, “God works both the willing and the doing” but we cooperate and do our part, assisted by God’s grace.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in this case, is the second part of the second part (The second part is divided in two). Then the number of the question is given, which here is question 35 Then the article is given, which here, is the 1st article. If the reference is to Thomas’ response to an objection that he raised in the beginning of the article, the number of the objection is added, with the Latin word, ad, meaning “to.”