Dealing Life: A Review of Manalive by G.K. Chesterton
“What does ‘literature’ have to do with saving one’s soul?” This question surely has a long and distinguished lineage, all the way back to the Church Father Tertullian, who asked a similar question about the value of pagan philosophy for Christian study: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Far from being an obstacle to a spiritual life or even a harmless accessory, reading the right kind of stories can be critical to moral formation. The successful parrying and defeat of sin is too adventurous a thing to be fully described in a catechism or completely prepared for by paging through a spiritual writer. Catechisms and spiritual writers are important, but men need stories too. One such tale is Manalive, one of G.K. Chesterton’s most joyful novels and a battle-cry against a deadly sin.
The deadly sin in question is acedia, or “sloth,” as it is most commonly known. While the Fathers of the Church—from the first desert hermits to St. Thomas Aquinas—have always understood and taught that acedia could manifest itself in many more subtle ways than mere “laziness,” the nefarious nature of this sin has been less appreciated by most spiritual writers since the middle ages. Recently, however, prescient writers have begun to look more closely at acedia again. Among these scholars is the Abbot of Wandrille, France, Fr. Jean-Charles Nault. While Fr. Nault’s book on the subject is itself a useful work on the spiritual life, I want to consider the parts of St. Thomas’s thought that he highlights. Fr. Nault points out that St. Thomas gives two definitions of acedia: “Sadness about spiritual good” and “Disgust with activity.”
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