Acedia

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Talk for Faith Formation Seminar for Young Adults
Bishop’s House, 11 January 2014 

Introduction

This talk was advertised as being on sloth, one of the seven deadly sins of the Western tradition. But the idea of this series is to go behind the Western tradition to its Eastern sources and to go behind vices or sins to their sources: the passions, the demons that lie behind them – what our 4th c. guide, the monk Evagrius, calls thoughts / logismoi. So tonight we will look at another of Evagrius’ thoughts, the one behind sloth.

The key word here is acedia – Greek a-kedia, sometimes also Englished as accidie.

We’ve already looked at gluttony, lust, avarice and anger. The first three link to our ‘concupiscible appetite’, our love of pleasure, especially physical pleasure. The fourth connects to our ‘irascible appetite’, our instinct to fight. These ‘thoughts’ represent these appetites misdirected or in over-drive.

But with acedia we enter deeper water. It doesn’t stem from one particular aspect of ourselves. Nor does it have a clear contrary virtue, as lust has chastity, for example. It is too broad and pervasive. It’s rather like an oil-slick. It is the most oppressive, the heaviest, says E, of all the logismoi. It ‘envelops the whole soul’ (Evagrius); it ‘takes hold of every faculty’ (Maximus the Confessor). It is not simply identical with laziness or sloth, though these can be symptoms of it, and it is sometimes called spiritual sloth. Nor is it the same as the psychological affliction, depression – though there is a kinship; it is a kind of spiritual depression.

A key point: it attacks particularly those seriously committed to the spiritual life. This is central to all that follows.

I

So, what is it?

Etymologically, acedia means ‘carelessness’, the ‘don’t care’ attitude.

Here are several one-word synonyms – in alphabetical order. Not everyone of these, in terms of the game of darts, scores a treble-20, but they are all, I think, on the board. Some perhaps are more like moons of the planet than the planet itself. But cumulatively they help give a picture. Thus:

  • Anxiety, apathy
  • Boredom
  • Carelessness, cowardice
  • Demotivation, discouragement, disgust, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, dissipation, distaste, distraction, drowsiness, drudgery, dullness
  • Helplessness, hopelessness
  • Inconstancy, indifference, insensibility
  • Languor, laziness, lethargy, listlessness
  • Negligence, numbness,
  • Oppression,
  • Paralysis, pointlessness
  • Restlessness,
  • Slackness, sleepiness, sloth, sluggishness
  • Tepidity, torpor,
  • Weariness

One could add a French word, engourdissement, and a German one, Weltschmerz. This brings us to 40!

To repeat, these words are to be linked to what is primarily a spiritual condition, even if it has psychic and physical repercussions.

After single words, here are 20 descriptive phrases from various sources:

  • A vague, general dissatisfaction with no precise cause
  • Expecting nothing of anything
  • Time hanging heavy
  • The noon-day demon (Ps 90)
  • A thick wet blanket inhibiting all energy and purpose
  • Enfeeblement of the soul
  • Weakening of the heart
  • A hatred of one’s place and companions
  • Fretful inability to find any sense of purpose in our daily routine
  • A kind of listless boredom which saps vitality and paralyzes the will
  • A strange mix of listlessness and restlessness, indifference and irritability
  • ‘The soul of the sluggard craves’ (Prov 13:4)
  • The deliberate frittering away of time in the attempt to escape choice and commitment
  • Pootling in a meaningless way round supermarkets, distracted by choice, flicking channels on television
  • A form of depression due to lax ascetical practice
  • A drowsiness of the rational soul, a neglect of the virtues and of the knowledge of God
  • A fading of the inner light
  • A failure to keep the sabbath
  • A refusal of the joy that comes from God
  • A sense of repulsion before the goodness of God

After words and phrases, two pen-portraits, one from each end of the spectrum of Christian life.

For the first, transport yourself into the Egyptian desert, imagine you are a solitary there and the pitiless sun is reaching its zenith. You have not eaten yet; the meal is not due until 3pm. Here is Evagrius describing what can happen:

‘The demon of acedia…launches his attack upon the monk at about 10 in the morning and besieges him until 2 in the afternoon. He begins by giving him the impression that the sun is hardly moving, or that it has stopped altogether, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he urges the monk to gaze repeatedly through the window and to go outside his cell to scrutinize the sun to see whether 3 o’clock has yet arrived, and finally to survey every possible direction in the hope of being visited by a brother. He instils in him a hatred for the place where he lives, a hatred for his very way of life, a hatred for manual labour. He puts the thought into his head that charity has ceased to exist among the brethren and that there is no one on whom he can rely for encouragement. If someone has recently upset him, the demon uses this to add even more fuel to his hatred. The demon persuades him to long for somewhere else where he can get what he needs more easily and practise an easier, more lucrative craft…He arouses within him memories of his family and of his former way of life. He makes him aware of how long life is and how hard the ascetical life’ (Praktikos 12).

‘The eye of the monk besieged by acedia often stares at the windows, and…he fantasizes about visitors. If the door creaks, he jumps up at once; if he hears a sound he leans through the window and peeps out, and he won’t sit down again until he’s stiff from standing there. When he reads, he often yawns, and is easily weighed down by sleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; he takes his eyes off the book and stares at the wall. Returning once again to the book to read a little, he indulges his curiosity by jumping to the end. He counts the pages and calculates the number left. He criticises the lettering and the decoration, and finally he closes the book, puts it under his head and falls asleep – but not a very deep sleep, because he is soon woken up by hunger and the concerns it causes’ (On the Eight Thoughts 14-15).

For the second, imagine you are a priest or a religious or a lay person fully dedicated to the apostolate, living and working now. Then what Pope Francis calls ‘pastoral acedia’ lays hold of you. These are some symptoms he mentions: you will be unwilling to persevere in a work over time. You may be obsessed with protecting your free time. You will undertake activity ‘without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable’. You will experience ‘a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, intolerable fatigue’. You will lack patience, expect immediate results, be unable to wait. Your work will undergo a depersonalisation. A grey pragmatism will occupy everything. ‘Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions” (Bernanos). Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate’ (Evangelii Gaudium 81-83).

All this lays it on thick! But perhaps some of it resonates…

Clearly we are dealing with a serious threat to any form of committed Christian life. There is here an undermining of one’s sense of personal vocation, an erosion of inner certainty. ‘Acedia is not just one temptation among many, it is quite simply the temptation, the calling into question of one’s entire existence, the major identity crisis, in which the very foundations of everything are severely shaken’ (C. Joest).

II

At this point we can begin to turn things round.

A key teaching of these sessions is that these demons / thoughts are part and parcel of human life and of the committed Christian life. In other words, we will certainly meet them, and if we meet them well will grow as a result. This seems to be particularly true of acedia. If it is met and faced and faced down, a great peace and joy follow, says Evagrius. It is ‘the most oppressive demon of all, but it leaves the soul proven to the highest degree’. Once defeated, a ‘deep peace and inexpressible joy’ arise. ‘To come through sloth is not only to believe in the goodness that God holds out to us but to know it in body, mind and heart’, says Angela Tilby.

This demon comes upon the desert hermit in the middle of the day. Does it perhaps come upon the Christian in the middle of his life? Is it perhaps not unlike the mid-life crisis?

Here’s a possible pattern: a person discovers Christianity and commits themselves to the Christian way of life, and as a Catholic. One accepts the teaching and discipline of the Church. One goes to Mass and confession, one prays, one tries to live according to the moral teaching given, whatever be the circumstances of one’s life. But gradually joy is eroded. Drip by drip something inside one is worn away. Fidelity doesn’t seem to bring tangible rewards. Bad things happen to one or those one loves. One may have negative experiences of people in the Church, especially of her representatives. One becomes increasingly aware of ‘the human dimension’. Some of the Church’s teaching begins to seem ridiculous, even inhuman. One feels the force of the objections of those who don’t accept it. One might find oneself getting caught up in protest movements or lobbies for change. Certainly one becomes spiritually and ecclesially discontent: on the one hand untouched, uninflamed by the things of God, on the other restless. And gradually one’s mind is darkened while being apparently ‘enlightened’ and true faith is undermined. One may throw it up altogether, or become critical, or just draw back from the brink and wearily plod on in a numb, disheartened way.

Isn’t this the victory of acedia?

And a final scary thing: the Fathers say that acedia has the knack of being imperceptible.

III

What then is the remedy? The Fathers were keen on remedies!

Here, Evagrius says a remarkable thing: divide your soul in two. In other words, stand back within yourself and see this condition of acedia for what it is, recognise the discouragement into which you have fallen and encourage yourself out of it. He quotes Ps 42: ‘Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise him still, my saviour and my God.’

The more familiar remedies are:

          – perseverance, patient endurance, staying in the cell, ‘hanging-on in there’ (a good if free translation of hypomone!), remaining faithful to one’s original commitments and discipline: ‘perseverance is the cure for acedia, along with the execution of all taks with great attention’ (Evagrius);

  • the revival of hope;
  • a reawakening of sorrow for sin, something that acedia dulls;
  • the memory of death.

(Could one say, regarding those last three remedies that they represent a rediscovery of eschatology? Of the last things? As a result of this revived awareness, life loses its dullness. Everything becomes sharply focussed again, zeal returns).

  • a turn to manual work, much emphasised by John Cassian with reference especially to 2 Thess 3: 6-13. (Why should this be so? Is it a matter of getting out of one’s head? Of doing things that have to be done, and so rediscovering reality? Could practical service of others, of the sick etc., be part of this?).
  • a return to or refreshing of prayer, a prayer which asks for the grace of deliverance, a fresh contemplative focus on the Lord, psalmody (liturgy?). This underpins the other remedies.

Wonderful wisdom from Evagrius, combining the last two remedies: ‘Set a measure for yourself in every work and do not let up until you have completed it. Pray with understanding and intensity, and the spirit of acedia will flee from you.’

Conclusion

These remedies prepare the way, I think, for what Fr Tomas Halik calls ‘second-wind Christianity’. He even suggests that contemporary Western Christianity is experiencing a phase of acedia, a collective mid-life crisis, a season of lethargy and drowsiness. Original faith, e.g. our inherited Christianity or our first fervours, even the excitement of the new movements, can all be shaken, leading to a loss of previous certainties. This is what he calls the ‘first shock’, akin to that undergone by the disciples on the road to Emmaus after the death and burial of Jesus, the debacle of his life. But to that can succeed a second shock, a recognition that Christ is alive. ‘The second tremor is confronting and overcoming the despair and resignation that one is tempted to fall prey to at moments of debacle, thereby finding an assurance of a different order, which slowly pierces – as a ray of hope – the darkness into which the shaken are plunged’ (Night of the Confessor, p. 198).

Most of all, surely, it is a matter of rediscovering the joy of love, gaudium caritatis.