Participating in Creation writ large or small, our work, in love, is the pleasure we are made for

March 25, 2016

Giving up the chance to work, to participate in Creation writ large or the small made things around us is a kind of sloughing off of our natures. Sinking into acedia is a rejection of the pleasures we were made for, as well as the responsibilities we owe.  Cross-posted from book reviews in America, the Jesuit magazine.

In the view of R. J. Snell, author of Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, acedia (sometimes translated as a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or sometimes, of being mired in addiction) is a sinful rejection of the goodness of the world. Acedia, more often referred to as sloth, is one of the seven deadly sins, and it’s more than mere laziness. Snell describes acedia not as merely doing nothing but as failing to do a particular something: rejoice in the world, and express that joy through participation in creation.

In giving us work, God is asking us to love the world, and we are less like God if we hold back our approval of the world and all that is in it, including our own dynamic agency. Not willing the things of the world, as [Joseph] Pieper means will, is ungodly, diabolical. And work is how we will.

Giving up the chance to work, to participate in Creation writ large or the small made things around us is a kind of sloughing off of our natures. Sinking into acedia is a rejection of the pleasures we were made for, as well as the responsibilities we owe.

So, what can give us the strength to say “Get thee behind me, Satan”? The answer, Snell argues, isn’t simply practicing ascetic self-denial, especially not if we’re doing it to cultivate a stoic indifference to the world. Acedia can’t be resisted simply by strengthening our will—we also need to train our will to draw us toward the right things. The opposite of acedia isn’t dutiful work, it’s extravagant joy.

Snell writes that “only the lover—the non-slothful—who wills/loves/approves the goodness of the world in comprehensive and ultimate affirmation can celebrate the festival…. Celebration cannot occur without willing the world as God sees it, without loving its goodness; in fact, God’s very nature is celebratory, an endless dance of mirth.”

I need to try to find something active and creative to do and rejoice in, so that I can follow Snell’s advice and offer a physical “amen” to the goodness of God’s Creation. That may take some doing, if the environment around me has been engineered to keep me quietly passing time.

It helps to have people and projects that need you, so that opportunities to build and love are as easy to stumble across as invitations to get back online. Children are one of the most perfect ways to be called out of oneself and back into Creation.  

Snell shows us how, even without outside pressure, we can wind up rejecting these joys on our own. Armed with these cautions, the reader is prepared to choose the real pleasures and responsibilities God offers us.