The answer to this question may, at first glance, seem simple, but it requires its own discernment. We’re not wrestling here with a simple polarity of Sloth versus Diligence. If that were true, then questions of how much energy to put into pursuing natural and spiritual goods would end with the simple answer: “More is more.” But the virtue of Diligence (like all the others) can be caricatured. Move far to the right of the Golden Mean, and you’re liable to the neurosis of Fanaticism. It isn’t always easy for outsiders to distinguish heroic efforts of Diligence from unbalanced zealotry. At some point, we have to judge things by their fruits.
We can also gauge intentions: If a person or group’s public statements seem more grounded in hatred of an evil than love for a threatened good, it’s time to be suspicious. Even obvious, almost metaphysical evils such as Communism or Nazism can goad us to oppose them in the wrong way, overzealously, in a way that can corrupt us. According to Catholic historian (and eyewitness) Thomas Molnar, at the end of World War II, outrage at the evils of the Vichy regime gave the French Left the cover it needed to simply massacre thousands of its enemies, most of them innocent Catholics, under the cover of de-Nazification (épuration). There were countless Americans like W. E. B. DuBois who joined the Communist Party because it was the strongest group fighting Jim Crow — overlooking mass famines and purge trials, the better to integrate lunch counters. Conversely, the U.S. government was all too ready to lend support to “anti-Communist” dictators over the years — and to Islamist guerrillas in places like Afghanistan, one of them named Osama bin Laden.
It’s easy to spot zealotry in others, of course, much harder to know when we’re slipping into it ourselves. I’ll speak for myself here. I’ll never forget the day back in 1994 when I realized I was a fanatic. Overwhelmed with grad school research, a part-time job, engaged with a wide array of pro-life and pro-family projects and groups, I heard the following run through my head: I can’t seem to conquer my own sins, but at least I can change the world.
If that kind of crazy-talk is running in your head — if you’re rushing about trying to save other people’s souls so you can offer them to Christ as a dried-flower bouquet on Judgment Day — it’s time to tune out, turn off, and drop in. If you want to keep on being Martha, you’ll need to spend some time with Mary. Replace one of your most exciting activist projects with serious, silent time spent before the Blessed Sacrament, and look into making a real Ignatian retreat. (These are rarely offered by Jesuits, by the way — I’d try the Fraternity of St. Peter instead.) Remember how the 9/11 hijackers spent their last days before murdering thousands for Allah: in strip joints, drinking beer.
And now to the test, which will diagnose where you fall on the continuum from “Thomas Edison-style workaholic” to “Belgian Army soldier on strike.”
You have a worthy charitable work that’s both intrinsically good and compatible with your vocation. You have made the time to do it through some sacrifice — less Twitter time, not so many episodes of House on Tivo, fewer rounds of drunken miniature golf. You’ve embarked on the project and already burned through the fun part. Now you’re slogging through the tedious detail work, encountering frustrations, maybe starting to miss the Miller Lite and mini-golf. Let’s say you volunteered to help maintain a homeless center, and you’ve already planted all the flowers that will fit, then gotten the lawn nice and spiffy. But now it’s time to help with cleaning the bathrooms — something you only reluctantly do at home. When the nice lady in charge hands you the toilet brush, you:
a) Feel an overpowering heaviness that can only be answered by taking a long, much-needed nap. You start to total up how few hours you might have left on earth and wonder whether God really wants you to waste them cleaning up after strangers — some of them druggies or drunks who got themselves into this mess, or are so out-of-touch with reality that they won’t even notice how clean are the toilets they think are telling them to kill the president, and anyway it doesn’t matter because this is the limit — you’re going home. This decision fills you with energy and hope.
b) Nod grimly and focus on all the spiritual benefit you can obtain by offering up your valuable time in such a grimly squalid cause. Imagine the purgatory time you’re burning off here — and remember all the dire warnings of Holy Souls who appeared to solitary, malnourished nuns, to report that purgatory is only a little better than hell (my favorites appear in the bone-chilling Read Me or Rue It). Compared to that, hobo toilets are child’s play. Too bad, you observe as you clean under the rim, the Church stopped just selling indulgences.
c) Shudder, and remind yourself of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” If you feel a little resentful, even humiliated, you try to remember occasions when you were praised beyond your merits and chuckle as you think of this as balancing out the scales. If you’re deeply pious, you might imagine that Jesus has stomach virus and you’re cleaning up for Him. But then, if you were that pious, you’d be off reading some improving author instead of . . . me.
d)Squelch, cauterize, crush your natural feeling of repugnance, and wonder whether it wasn’t sinful pride that made you feel it. That must be why God has chosen to humiliate you. You’re a sinner who always returns like a dog to its vomit, so why shouldn’t He send you to the toilets? Afraid your proud, proud spirit will try to shirk this part of your necessary purgation, you volunteer to do more of the vilest duties around the shelter — and promise yourself that by sheer force of will you won’t burn out and drop the project. Or drown yourself in the toilet.
If you picked:
a) Man up (even if you’re a woman) and clean those toilets. The monks who diagnosed this deadly sin say that Sloth can only be conquered by blundering straight through one’s tasks, however intolerable it seems. So make it your personal project to see to it that these toilets are the cleanest in human history — so sparkling and pristine that the addled people they’re meant for will think they’re kitchen equipment and be afraid to use them. Picture that scene, using the Ignatian Composition of Place: It will cheer you up.
b) If the only reason you can think of for helping desperate people is to lighten your sentence on Judgment Day, that’s better than nothing — like going to Confession just once a year, as the rules demand. But the more tasks you think of this way, the harder you’ll find it to do them, and the less joy you’ll find in this existence. Remember this: If God really meant earthly life to feel like taking the SATs, then why are we so reluctant to admit when our time’s up and turn in our booklets?
c) Your attitude doesn’t need adjusting, and good for you. Now don’t give the credit to your naturally upbeat personality, or the wisdom and goodness you’ve attained through all your previous Diligence. It’s Grace, which you got for free, so it’s bad taste to boast about it — especially in peppy little e-mails you send your inertful friends. Which only depresses them.
d) You probably need to find some other project — one that doesn’t provoke you to such exhausting and unsustainable extremes. The frenzy of self-laceration you’re starting to feel has a technical name in Catholic theology: It’s called a “scruple,” and what it leads to is despair. If you do decide to continue at the shelter, remember that if each of these homeless folks is an image of God, then so are you. He isn’t trying to grind you into mush so He can reshape you into a cosmic ashtray. There’s a spirit who does that, all right — he’s called “the accuser” — but he plays for the Other Team.