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Avoiding Sloth and Embracing Leisure: A Lesson From Dante

Written by Ty Fischer
Avoiding Sloth and Embracing Leisure: A Lesson From Dante

I am at the mid-point of life if I live to be 104. That is unlikely, but this time of life helps you think of Dante. He ended up at the midpoint of life in “a dark woods.” The Italian is more poetic. He is in a “selva oscura.” Oscura means not just dark but the kind of darkness that is strange, obscure, gloomy, and foreboding. “Selva” also has Latin roots that show up in English. People from Pennsylvania know what selva means. Pennsylvania means “Penn’s Woods,” or the forest that belonged to William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder. If you have ever wandered around in an obscure, dark, trackless woods, you know what he felt. Dread. He’s not young enough to think all losses have time to recoup. He is in exile. His enemies have won and have chased him out of his beloved city, Florence.

We think of poets as people concerned with the aesthetic, not the practical. Of course, that hardly describes David, who was a warrior, a king, and a giant slayer. It also doesn’t fit many great Greek poets who were generals and deeply involved in politics. Dante was a political leader whom his enemies exiled while he was on a political mission to confer with the Pope. He was tried in absentia and was never allowed to return to his home.

It would have been easy to fall into despair, depression, and resentment. Instead, he wrote the most incredible poem ever conceived of, and he completed it. Many of Dante's likenesses show him wearing laurels. These laurels were bestowed at the old church in Florence. This church is now the famous Baptistry of St. John the Baptist. It is octagonal. It is built on the foundation of the temple of Mars. When the people of Florence recognized the greatness of their poets, they would bring them to the church and crown them with laurels. Dante’s Comedy was an attempt to convince the Florentines to ask him to return and be crowned with laurels. It never happened. He died in exile, and his massive tomb in the church, Sancta Croce (Holy Cross), is empty.

Dante could have sulked. He could have thrown up his hands in depression and frustration. He could give way to bitterness. Instead, he wrote the most demanding, rewarding, and beautiful poem.

Today, I wanted to think through the sin Dante avoided and the virtue he embraced. I can tell you that this was only a theoretical blog post. A woman accosted C.S. Lewis after he gave a lecture on temptation. She exclaimed, “You must have overcome so many temptations to know so much about it!” Lewis answered, “Madam, there are other ways to grow acquainted with temptation.” I have seen the dark woods. Like the poet, I have wandered. Likely, you will, too, someday. So, let’s have a primer on escaping the dark woods and practicing the virtues that will allow us to do great things.

Understanding Sloth and Leisure

First, we need some definitions. I want to compare the definitions of two words in English that some might think are synonyms but are pretty different: sloth and leisure. Sloth is a sin. The word that Dante used for it was acedia. It didn’t mean sloth; that is what we might call “laziness” in our day. Acedia is a darker word. This kind of inactivity evidences a heart that has lost faith in God’s power, goodness, and love and decides to do nothing. The servant that buries the talent in Matthew 25 displays acedia. He did not invest the money. His motive becomes clear as he explains his actions. He says (in vv. 24-25), “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” He did not try to earn a return because he believed that the master was an evil man. Just so, the sinner trapped by acedia does nothing, not because of joy in taking it easy but because they are convinced that God is either too weak to protect them or because He is wicked and that nothing good will happen.

Leisure is sometimes seen as a sloth, but it is far from it. Leisure is a brighter word. While Americans often use this word to mean that you can do whatever you want if you are “at leisure.” The older meaning is much richer. Leisure is the point of life, but it is not just a time to do nothing or to nap, but it can be. Leisure means time without necessity. In a sense, how we use leisure is the measure of a person. If you could do what you want, what would you do? Too often, in our day, leisure equals wasted time. This doesn’t mean that using leisure time to play a video game or watch a movie is wrong, but it does mean that if that is all you do, you don’t know much about the deep pleasure God means for you to have when experiencing leisure.

The Advanced Tutorial Against Sloth

Dante hates sloth (acedia). In Hell, the slothful sink in the mire. Hell is a place of hopelessness. We learn more about overcoming sloth in Dante’s Purgatory. In Purgatory, believers are being taught to love righteousness and hate sin. (Just to be clear, I don’t believe in Purgatory, but I believe that in this life, God is teaching us to hate sin and to love Him through suffering and sanctification.)

In Purgatory, Dante has those suffering from acedia joyfully suffering and learning to hate the hopeless acedia. Proper attention to this part of the poem helps us see what Dante believes is the cure for acedia. Those learning to hate sloth learn to get up and run. They run from morning until night. They run together. At sunset, they sing, pray, and rest. Dante’s cure for acedia is getting up and pouring yourself into your work in a way that believes that God has a purpose in your work. a

This effort has one other critical characteristic. It is communal. They run together, sing, pray, and rest together—sloth isolates. When Christians work, usually, they work in community with others. This does not mean that working alone is always wrong, but Christ calls us into a body, the Church. We are joined together. Sloth flourishing in the lonely hours of the night and the mind of a worrier. Leisure longs for relationships.

The Heart of Leisure: Peace with God

Leisure rests on the firm foundation of peace—authentic leisure starts with peace with God. Leisure, like marriage, harkens back to the Garden. Adam worked in the Garden, but everything was infused with leisure. He was at peace in all things….until the Fall.

Leisure is undoubtedly a time for rest, but for Dante, the leisure he had because of the loss of his work in his native Florence was used to write beautiful poetry that explored sin, sanctification, and redemption. Our fight against sloth ends in leisure. This affluent leisure can be used to feast, to revel in good discussion, to play pickleball, or to practice an instrument. A free person using leisure well is beautiful and ends in peaceful flourishing.

The Fruit of Leisure: Sabbath, Feasting, and Friendship

God is so good that He breaks up time with mandatory work stoppages. We call this “forced leisure” the Sabbath. The Sabbath is for rest. We need it. It is also for worship. It provides time for worship and great motivation because God has given His children time to be with Him, explore, and enjoy all He has made.

Sabbath-izing Each Moment

Our challenge is to put away acedia and to welcome leisure into as much of life as possible. We find leisure when doing something, even work, in an atmosphere of playfulness, joy, and community. We need the rest and worship of the Sabbath, but as much as possible, we should let the peace of the Sabbath invade and inhabit all parts of our lives.