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Scared of Silence

I once taught a class (Community Psychology) that was part of my school's Gen Ed requirement called Contemplation and Action courses. I loved working with a group of faculty and figuring out how to connect content in my discipline to contemplative practices. I opened each class with inspiring quotes, sometimes set to music or with times of quiet and silence. We had common readings and common assignments and one assignment had to do with students engaging in silence for a long period of time. Some of us also asked our students to give up access to their phones and social media for a period of time.

One year, I had my students do this for one measly hour. To make sure it happened, we did it during class! We went to the library where they had to sit quietly and do nothing else. I gave them various prompts and guidance on how to approach sitting in silence. They were also allowed to walk around inside or outside the library as long as they kept to themselves in solitude.

They then wrote a paper on the experience. I've taught on some pretty tough topics, from Nazi human experimentation, abuse in mental institutions, and the experience of grief. No topic or assignment ever brought as much student consternation as this one. The students basically experienced the hour of silence like it was torture! And, this despite my preparing them for weeks with readings and teachings on silence and solitude.

They could read about this intellectually, or listen to me talk about it. But it was so unfamiliar in their lives that their experience of it was almost beyond what they could bear.

This was about seven or so years ago. I think my students (and, let's be honest, their parents!) now would have an even harder time. Do we even know what silence is? When is the last time you experienced it? What do you do in moments of boredom? Do you ever endure more than 5 minutes alone without turning to your phone, a book, the TV, or a person?

What happens to a human mind when it experiences constant distraction?

The reflections on Acedia that I'm doing are directly connected to these questions. We're well aware of the dangers of social media addiction. There are studies and shows (like the Social Dilemma) that give us specific details on how we're harming ourselves. And, it's not just a kid thing. Middle-aged and older adults may be just as bad (e.g.

We have no inner space, no "I" separate from the cacophony we access with our hands since we don't allow more than a few scattered minutes of quiet before filling our mind with some distracting tidbit or video to watch.

Is much of this our attempt to hold at bay the "noonday demon" (i.e. Acedia)? Alas, what looks like a solution really isn't a solution. We distract but never deal with the underlying spiritual and emotional barrenness.

I ended the last blog ( asking what we could do about this.

I love the fourth century desert fathers' (abbas) and mothers' (ammas) go-to rule about what to do about Acedia and a host of other problems. If you ever read accounts from this era, you'll see that whenever a younger, newer disciple was struggling and asking their teacher for advice, they'd inevitably be told, "Go sit in your cell!"

It's such wise advice, though, because we can actually use spiritual things as distractions as well. We can avoid "working out [our] salvation with fear and trembling]" (Philippians 2:12) by just rushing through our daily devotional or pushing through our prayer lists. We can avoid encounters with God by keeping ourselves busy spiritually. There are many ways to both avoid meeting with God and avoid directly dealing with your thoughts. Deep down inside, we know this.

So, sometimes the abbas and ammas would tell someone, depending on the particular situation, to not even pray just yet but just sit alone in silence for starters. Because what Acedia does not want you to do is stay in place and be still. It pushes us to keep busy, to keep productive, to keep occupied. Because secretly we're afraid of what happens when we're alone with our thoughts, just as my students were afraid. Truly afraid.

Kathleen Norris, in Acedia & Me..., writes,

Monastic communities have considerable expertise in recognizing acedia, and any director of novices knows that the vice is expressed in both physical and psychological symptoms, and can lead to extreme behavior at either end of the spectrum. A monk might demonstrate a sullen and resentful laziness toward his assigned work as well as the daily chore of meditative reading. Contrarily, he might push himself too hard in these areas to demonstrate that he is more committed than his brothers. A nun may willfully ignore her sisters, or she might obsess in her efforts to care for them, almost preying on those in need.

Norris later quotes David of Augsburg (13th century) who said that there are three kinds of acedia:

  1. "The first is a certain bitterness of the mind which cannot be pleased by anything cheerful or wholesome. It feeds upon disgust and loathes human intercourse...[and] inclines to despair, diffidence, and suspicions..."

  2. "The second kind is a certain indolent torpor which loves sleep and all comforts of the body...[and] flees from whatever is hard, droops in the presence of work, and takes delight in idleness. This is laziness proper."

  3. "The third kind is a weariness in such things only as belong to God, while in other occupations its victim is active and in high spirits. The person who suffers from it prays without devotion...He hastens to rush through the prayers he is obliged to say and thinks of other things so that ye may not be too much bored by prayer."

The scope seems too big, perhaps! Acedia involves a kind of repressed bitterness and anger, laziness for sure, and/or a particular laziness toward the things of God. No wonder there are so many warnings against it. We even have this section from Dante's Inferno, describing the final resting place of the slothful:

Once we were grim

And sullen in the sweet air above, that took

A further gladness from the play of sun;

Inside us, we bore acedia's dismal smoke.

We have this black mire now to be sullen in.

At its core, acedia shows a dissatisfaction with the ordinary, the human, the incarnational. We are discontented with our humanness and seek to avoid and maybe even supercede it, but on our own terms. And yet this is why the ammas and abbas said that the remedy is to be certain to not to give in to acedia's demands. The body wants meaningless distraction; don't give it. Turn to silence. The body wants something new and novel, perking up at the slightest distraction so that one doesn't have to stay in prayer. Stay in prayer. Repetition and spiritual disciplines are the remedy for retraining our minds, learning to tolerate and even come to love stretched out periods of silence, solitude, and time with the Lord.

We often see repetition and monotony as something to avoid. And yet, G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, muses that,

Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

We think, perhaps subconsciously, that we are escaping the confides of our boring human existence when we turn to the dopamine-enducing rewards of social media or the myriad distractions that involve us focusing on gossip, controversy, heated debates and dissension, greed, etc. But these distractions make us less human and more monstrous. We say the unfortunate phrase, "we're only human," but fully human is exactly what God wants us to be---beautified, glorified, and delivered from all that entraps. All these distractions that seem like escaping our confines are but literal traps. And yet, in Chesterton's musings, God may have no problem repeating the morning sunrise and not finding a bit of boredom in that.

I found myself explaining to a new friend who recently moved to Western Pennsylvania from a sunnier place (well, nearly everywhere on this planet is sunnier!) that I truly enjoy watching the gradations of grey when I look out the window in the morning. I meant it! I particularly enjoyed one recent January morning where the bare black branches from the small forest in my backyard stood out starkly against a slate grey sky shrouded in rolling, morning fog. I loved it. It was just lovely to pray that morning and direct my gaze outside while I did so.

No morning is exactly identical. There are no identical grey mornings, not even in my grey Western Pennsylvanian winter landscape.

I think this picture is actually from New York, but my point is the beauty in the repetition (with subtle variation) of each gray morning. It's one reason why mindfulness and paying attention are such big emphases in all contemplative traditions.

I'll conclude with this section from Acedia & Me (emphasis mine):

The early Christian monks staked their survival on their willingness to be as God had made them, creatures of the day-to-day. They regarded repetition as essential to their salvation, and valued perseverance in prayer and manual labor as the core of their spiritual discipline. When acedia tempted them from these tasks, they were admonished to make their way back as quickly as possible. It is all a matter of falling down and standing up again, no matter how many times. Typically, the desert fathers provide a gnomic commentary on this aspect of their lives: 'Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, "Can a man lay a new foundation every day?" The old man said, "If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment." '

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