I wonder how many people reading this title have ever heard of the word, "Acedia"? It was a word I had never heard of until about fifteen years ago.
I was a Protestant faculty member working at a Catholic University and, early on as a junior faculty member, I experienced many moments of trying to find my footing vocationally, socially, and spiritually. Thank the Lord for kind mentors who took me under their wings!
One person, who probably has no idea how much of an impact she had on my life, was a faculty member a few years from retirement. She was in a different department, and I would often sit near her as I tried to wrap my mind around the fascinating social situation that is a faculty meeting. Often before the meeting started, she and I would chat. She had the lovely gift of drawing out more from others than talking about herself (Would that others would be that way! Would that I would learn to emulate that more!) and somehow found that she and I had a common interest in historic Christian approaches to prayer and meditation. She said I reminded her of an author she liked, Kathleen Norris, who was a Protestant who loved contemplative practices. She lent me Norris' book, The Cloister Walk, and it was a game changer for me.
This book opened up for me what Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline had whetted an appetite for earlier. Shockingly, even for Protestants, church history doesn't start with the Reformation! We harm ourselves intellectually and spiritually when we cut ourselves off from the first fifteen hundred years of Christendom. Connecting more to the breadth of what has been historic and orthodox Christianity has been life-giving to me. And, based on what I read now about modern contemplative movements, it has been life-giving to many others. I wonder whether those who are currently "deconstructing" their faith and are disenchanted by the selfish mess of what often passes for religious belief would have their eyes and hearts opened by learning from great writers in the Christian tradition and experiencing the disciplines and practices that have historically always been part of the Faith.
Anyway, this was at the start of my academic career. Later on, I developed many friendships with my Catholic colleagues. One friendship was with the chair of the theology department. Some semesters we taught back-to-back in the same classroom. I'd lift up the screen and find a quote from John Calvin winking back at me! He had long recommended another Norris book to me, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, given my background in depression research. Not really understanding what "acedia" was, I never got around to reading it until just before the pandemic.
Folks, this is a book for our times.
Talking about sin has fallen out of favor even within the church itself, let alone the wider culture. Talking about the seven deadly sins probably brings to mind, for many of us Gen Xers and Millennials, the Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman film, Seven (cue Pitt's iconic cry,"What's in the box????!!!").
The seven deadly sins (there originally were eight, actually), like so many ideas, probably became problematic over time. One issue is that we humans so readily develop checklists to know who is "good" and who is "bad" and we put our emphasis on the bad sins that we don't do and judge others who do them (seeing their sins as being part of who "these people" are), and then we let ourselves off the hook for sins that we do (because we reason that it's not our fault--it's situational), and we perceive these sins as being not so bad. This is fundamental attribution error at its finest, which I've written about before.
But, the point to the Desert Fathers (like Evagrius of Ponticus and his student John Cassian) originally compiling lists of sins and virtues was to help themselves and their fellow monks with their Christian walks. As humans, we need help to be vigilant against the various internal forces that can shipwreck a faith.
We would do well to revisit these, in an era where we get pretty incensed and angry at all the "evils" outside of us and all around us, and are pretty negligent about the evils within.
Later on, Thomas Aquinas revisited the list in his Summa Theologica and the finalized list became:
Lust/Illicit sexual desire
Gluttony (includes drunkenness)
These seven are "deadly" because they were thought to spark a host of other sins and problems. Common sense alone would support that premise. Just look at these and think of all the societal and personal problems that stem from these sins.
I'm taking a detour from my usual musings (lately, on the Names of God) to home in on Acedia (Sloth). This is because, in studying El Shaddai, as described in Psalm 91, we see mention of the "noonday demon" there (see https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/shelter). We can call on God to protect us from this demon, which was thought in early Christian circles to refer to Acedia. This involves so much more than procrastination!
It's a complicated word, such that John Cassian left the word in its original Greek (see a description here: https://www.1517.org/articles/the-demon-of-acedia), because the Latin just wouldn't do justice to the multi-faceted nature of what Evagrius had identified.
Why is Acedia the noonday demon? Here's a great description, from the above source:
It was the demon that struck at the time of day when it became too hot to work outside in the monastery and when the monks would habitually return to their cells for prayer and the study of Scripture. In his Praktikos, Evagrius describes the assault of this demon in a way that hits too close for comfort.
He describes a gnawing boredom with one’s living situation, a general contempt for one’s brothers, a disdain for the hard manual labor outside, and an overwhelming sense of listlessness and inertia. He notes a deep lack of motivation for reading and studying the Scriptures alongside despairing of oneself in light of others’ great success and piety. He further describes a mindless craving for food and heavy exhaustion despite not having done anything strenuous or toilsome. He depicts monks sitting in their cells looking blankly out the window, watching the passage of time by the sun, desperately hoping to see another brother walking by so they might strike up a conversation to distract themselves from their spiritual practices. And when finally the monk is overwhelmed by all of these, attempting to find solace in sleep.
Yes, indeed. Sounds like modern life, minus even the semblance of attempting to live out a well-ordered existence.
Philip Bartelt, at the blog above, continues:
They are spiritually numb and completely inert. In practical terms, this looks like indifference, boredom, avoidance of responsibility, self-indulgence, or sluggishness. It feels like discouragement, being unfocused, withdrawn, jaded, hopeless, irritated, and worthless. In biblical terms, this is like the Church of Laodicea described in Revelation 3, which is “neither hot nor cold,” but spiritually apathetic and inert.
The reason why Thomas Aquinas wrote about Acedia (as did Martin Luther) was because he realized this wasn't just an affliction for monks. It's a temptation for all of us. My father often preaches on how if you are truly in Christ, no force can separate you from Christ and His kingdom (see Romans 8:38-39). However, he says, you can be sidelined, and placed on the bench per se, so that you're not actively contributing toward the kingdom in a fruitful way. Acedia has an incredible ability to do this to us, to wipe someone out from being wholly present in their lives, spiritually and emotionally.
The danger is apathy.
We often look at externalizing problem behaviors like drug use and violence as being worse than internal ones. It's partly understandable, given that these behaviors can harm other people so easily. And yet, we do harm and violence to ourselves and others with internalizing problem behaviors as well (just look at that list of seven deadly sins and how much damage the more invisible ones can do). Acedia is an internalizing problem behavior. And it is pure selfishness.
Dorothy Sayers puts it this way:
Acedia is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and only remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die. We have known it far too well for many years, the only thing perhaps we have not known about it is it is a mortal sin.
We think that if we are busily rushing about and doing things we cannot be suffering from Sloth. Gluttony offers a world of dancing, dining, sports, and dashing very fast from place to place to gape at beauty spots. Covetousness rakes us out of the bed at an early hour in order that we may put pep and hustle into our business; Envy sets us to gossip and scandals, to writing cantankerous letters to the paper, and to the unearthing of secrets and scavenging of desk bins; Wrath provides the argument that the only fitting activity in a world so full of evil doers and evil demons is to curse loudly and incessantly, while Lust provides that round of dreary promiscuity that passes for bodily vigor. But these are all disguises for the empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul of Acedia. In the world it calls itself Tolerance but in hell it is called Despair. (From Letters to a Diminished Church...)
We may look at other sins as being so much more, well, sinful. And yet, I think Sayers' pointed statements are spot-on. This hits particularly close to home for those of us who are Gen Xers, whose entire existence has been characterized by this word: Apathy. For most of our lives, we've lobbed a halfhearted, "whatever" (in some decades, even making a "w" symbol with our fingers), in a snarky, sarcastic way whenever life gets too tough. And this has certainly trickled down to younger generations.
And now, through these pandemic years, it seems that this collective meh is everywhere. It's almost palpable, visceral. Some authors even identified this near the start of the pandemic (see https://theconversation.com/acedia-the-lost-name-for-the-emotion-were-all-feeling-right-now-144058) let alone where we find ourselves now. It's understandable, really, that the world is emotionally reeling after the past few years. And numbness is a very, very typical response to stress, change, and trauma.
So, there's nothing very unusual there. Collective trauma is a thing. This is just uber-collective, affecting a large swath of people simultaneously.
But we would be unwise to ignore the spiritual dimension. If we go along with Acedia's siren call, we will experience dissonance and disconnect from God, others, and even ourselves. We will just go through the motions of life, work, relationships, and spiritual activities without any heart in them. We would be the living dead.
As much as I love zombie movies (and I do!!!), I have no interest in joining the living dead. I hear the still, small voice of the Lord reminding me to put my gaze on Him.
What did Christians in the past recommend for what to do about acedia? I'll explore this more next time...