Here’s A Thought . . . for Lent

. . . the destruction that wastes at noonday . . . (Ps 91:6)

ACEDIA (a.k.a. Spiritual Sloth)

To begin, questions to ponder:

* Sometimes referred to as the “noonday devil”:  What is it exactly?

* Considered by some to be among the greatest modern-day stumbling  blocks to the spiritual life: Do I have it?
* When inundated by distractions and having lost the ability to care about work, faith, life itself: How can I overcome it?

Acedia is not a household word for most – well, unless your house happens to be a monastery or a department of medieval literature. It is worth noting, however, that the word acedia has persisted, that is, coming and going from the English language over the centuries. The term was most recently reinstated in the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary that appeared after World War II – after being marked obsolete for many years. Language has a logic and wisdom all its own.  And it seems that the word acedia has made a return because we have a need for it.

At its Greek root, acedia means a state of physical and/or mental inactivity or lethargy – an extreme sluggishness, stagnation, or inertia.  It is a state of being that includes an unconcern or dissatisfaction with one’s position or condition in the world – all of which is governed by an absence of care. And it is exactly this latter element which distinguishes acedia from sloth.  At their core, they are not the same.

As one author puts it: there is even a lack of care that the person doesn’t care. There exists here a deep-seated despondency.

The term acedia was used first in Christianity by monks and other ascetics who lived solitary lives and were tempted to become listless and inert (like matter, when it becomes inert, it is lifeless and spiritless); or who began longing to be elsewhere or doing something other than what they were doing.

In the late 4th century, a Christian monk from Constantinople by the name of Evagrius of Pontus [or Evagrius Ponticus (345-399)] drafted a list of eight fundamental thoughts or passions – oftentimes referred to as “wicked thoughts.”

Evagrius describes them as generic thoughts because according to his understanding not only are all other negative thoughts generated from them, but these specific eight are themselves interwoven in many various ways. And when one looks at the list, it begins with the most sensual of the passions and moves in the direction of the most immaterial.  Underlying the eight is the unlisted root vice – love of self.

Each “wicked thought,” in the view of Evagrius, is practically identified with the demon that inspires it. The “thoughts” are:  gluttonylust(fornication), avarice (greed), sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory (inordinate/excessive vanity), and pride. If these sound familiar – they should.  Approximately two centuries later, St. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) will take this monastic version of the eight wicked thoughts – with acedia being considered one of the most treacherous – and develop the seven capital (or deadly) sins.

What bears noting at this point, however, is that acedia is replaced by sloth, or, at most, is linked secondarily to sloth – something which becomes an unfortunate occurrence.  Ultimately, a depth of meaning is all but eclipsed in this substitution of terms. In the popular imagination and parlance, sloth becomes further reduced to being equivalent with laziness.  And both the richness and nuance of meaning originally found in the term acedia is for the most part altogether lost.  Acedia and sloth are not equivalent terms.

But, in fact, under St. Gregory the Great, the list of deadly sins becomes: pride, avarice (greed), envy, wrath (anger), lust, gluttony, and sloth. However, the Eastern Christian Church continues to enjoy a much richer understanding of the meaning of acedia.

Returning to Evagrius, acedia is understood as the “noon-day demon,” something that attacks the believer when the sun is at its highest and the heat is unbearably oppressive. It is more than a flaw of character.  Rather, it is a force that drains the person of energy and life, ultimately leading to spiritual death, and at times, in its most extreme form, to suicide.  In the monk’s own words: “tearing the soul to pieces as a hunting dog does to a fawn.”

Bearing this in mind, a particular character from scripture comes to the forefront – a possible victim of acedia. Consider the Samaritan woman from John’s Gospel.  Remember her?  She is the one who encounters Jesus at Jacob’s well.  (Cf. John 4:4-26)  She might be dubbed the patron saint of those who suffer from acedia. Recall the words: “Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.  It was about the sixth hour.  A woman of Samaria came to draw water” (Jn 4:6-7).  This woman comes to the well at the “sixth hour” – other translations suggest “at noon” – in other words, right at midday.

Is it not an altogether unusual hour to draw water?

At the hottest point of the day?

This woman is entangled in the web of acedia.

Why does she come at an hour like this?

Truth be told – she does not want to be seen by others – because of the life she is leading.

The woman is torn.  She is not living serenely.  Humanly speaking, everything is a mess.  She has had five husbands.  She deeply desires love.  But she realizes on this day that nothing she has gone in search of has fulfilled her.  Although this “sixth hour” is the brightest hour because the sun is at its zenith, the Samaritan woman is in a terrible dark night.

But now, precisely at the moment when all hope seems to have disappeared, the Samaritan woman allows Jesus to meet her. And precisely at the moment when she thinks that nothing can change any more – when it seems that she has come full circle in her life – her meeting with the source of Living Water becomes possible and everything is renewed for her.

According to the writings of Evagrius, it is as if acedia makes it impossible for the other passions to operate – so pervasive is the gloom.  For this reason, Evagrius identifies acedia as “the most oppressive of all the spiritual demons.” On the day that it strikes, no other thought follows but that of despondency:
– first because it persists
– and then additionally because it consumes in
itself nearly all the other thoughts.

Hence, it is one of the most dangerous of the vices and the most difficult to combat, especially if it settles into a more or less permanent condition.  The frustration of desire, inevitably accompanied by anger, fuels the deadly stagnation.

“A despondent person hates precisely what is available,” Evagrius writes, “and desires what is not available.” The person is thus reduced to a state of irrationality, “dragged by desires and beaten by hatred.”

It is important to note that a characteristic time factor may be added here as well.  While the other evil thoughts – the ones other than acedia – come and go – at times even very rapidly. In contrast, the thought of acedia – because it is complex in nature, uniting in itself the most diverse other thoughts – has the characteristic of lasting for a long time.  During that duration, an entirely atrophied state of mind – and spirit – can arise. When it is not recognized in a timely manner – or rather when a person refrains from applying the appropriate remedies – it can become more or less manifest as a permanent condition.

At this point, the word depression might come to mind.  And certainly, there has been some attention given to the point where the spiritual vice of acedia ends, and the clinical state of depression begins.  However, much more thought and discussion are needed on the topic.

Thus, in the life of the soul, acedia represents a type of dead end.  The individual has a distaste for what is available, namely the spiritual, and this is coupled with a distorted longing for what is not available.  This in turn paralyzes the natural functions of the soul to such a degree that no – single – one – other – thought can gain the upper hand.  Not surprisingly then, Evagrius observes, the resulting lethargy leads to the neglect of prayer and the despising of all things spiritual.

In the course of his writings, Evagrius provided a list of the five principal manifestations of acedia. So, before moving on to the consideration of what modern-day acedia can look like, the list is provided here.  Bear in mind, however, that this is a fourth century monk writing for monks and other ascetics of his day. But his insights still maintain a certain relevance for people today.

The principal manifestations are presented here in order of increasing intensity and gravity. They are:

1)  A certain interior instability

This is characterized by the need to move about – to have a change of scenery –  there is an increasing restlessness. Evagrius uses the image of a deserter who flees from the spiritual battlefield.

2)  An exaggerated concern for one’s health

This pertains to physical health (a type of  hypochondria), but can also spill over into a preoccupation with the conditions of one’s environment – to the point of fearing a lack of the essentials one needs for living.

3)  An aversion to manual work

a) Understood properly, even though manual labor can become monotonous and boring, such repetitive work,, when done precisely, can leave the mind free to devote itself to the Lord. So here he first focuses on an aversion to labor.

b) Evagrius then goes on to discuss an equally destructive way of being – namely, activism (the other extreme in this case) that consists of fleeing ahead – a flight from God – and from oneself.

This form of activism brings about bitterness. Always seeking more – never content with the work at hand – becoming ever busier – believing contentment and a sense of fulfillment will result.

4)  Neglect in observing the rule

While this refers to negligence in carrying out one’s monastic duties, the same can apply regardless of one’s state in life – be it ordained, consecrated, married, or single.  Here, the temptation of “minimalism” creeps in, whereby everything seems to be “too much.”

5)  General discouragement

In this category, Evagrius writes that if the monk will not abandon his cell, that is, abandon the monastery – then acedia will manage to provoke a state of general discouragement that can go so far as to call his whole vocation or state of life into question. Discouragement can thwart us on our journey to holiness and to God. When it exists in pervasive and insistently present ways, it can paralyze the individual. Common to many spiritual writers is the belief that discouragement is perhaps the most dangerous threat to the spiritual life.

[Sidebar: The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides some insights into the topic of acedia as well.  If the reader wishes to explore the Catechism further, read numbers 2094 and 2733.]

So, with a bit of history and theology as a foundation – along with insights from the monastery – what does acedia look like to the modern eye???

Here are several simple, basic, plausible scenarios – a potential seedbed where acedia might creep in:

* When the person has frittered away the morning, letting himself/herself be distracted from the tasks at hand whatever they may be – and it hardly seems worth trying to salvage the rest of the day;

* or when one’s energy levels are low – perhaps the Lenten fast is irksome and one is tempted to break it by foraging in the refrigerator;

* or when the person is facing the monotony of the daily routine and when a creeping spiritual inertia and indifference starts to undermine the person;

– that is when the noonday demon strikes!!

Realizeacedia is a supreme form of indifference – a kind of spiritual morphine as one writer states it.  “You know the pain is there, but you cannot rouse yourself to give a darn.” In the mid-twentieth century, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) called acedia the primary affliction of his age – and its “menacing influence still sours our relationship to society, politics, and our families.”  Are his words any less true today?? Now there’s a mouthful – look at our society – look at the current state of politics – look at the condition of the family.

Kathleen Norris describes acedia as “manifesting both as boredom and restlessness – inertia and workaholism – as well as reluctance to commit to a particular person or place because of a nagging sense that something better might come along.”

She goes on to write: “In this hyped-up world, broadcast and Internet news media have emerged as acedia’s perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce, and the latest advance in nanotechnology.  But the ceaseless bombardment makes us impervious to caring.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia states: “Acedia – akin to the sin of sloth – is the most overlooked but widespread illness of the modern age; the emptiness under the mask of the world’s frantic energy.”

So, how does one respond to – or better yet, counter acedia?

What we see from the earliest stream of Christian spiritual guidance on this topic – starting with Evagrius, to his pupil St. John Cassian, on to St. Benedict, and then to St. Thomas Aquinas – is the sense of stabilitas – or “sticking to your post” – as the best remedy for acedia.

Being faithful in our regular times of prayer, study, office tasks, cleaning the house, changing diapers, and other works that we may be called to each day can seem dry and discouraging. But they are the ordinary places where God is waiting to be found.  And they provide for us opportunities for grace.

The writer Amy Freeman insightfully unpacks the ancient guidance that lies behind the famous Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora” which is at the heart of Benedictine spirituality – to pray and to work.  It provides helpful tools in defeating the destructive nature of acedia.

FIRSTbe faithful in the ordinary, daily work that God’s love calls us to do.
Both St. John Cassian and St. Benedict urged their monks to do manual labor – things like “harvesting crops, caring for guests, performing various crafts, and doing whatever was needed to keep the monastery in good order.”  Due to the close relationship between body and soul, such work addresses two symptoms of acedia: lazing around and welcoming needless distraction.

* “Physically working our bodies can help us break out of an idle spirit; also, focusing our bodies in a coordinated effort can help us work out our psychological distractions.”

* Furthermore, “faithfulness requires us to give good attention to the work at hand since, hopefully, we do it all for the glory of God.”

To do our work attentively, we must avoid becoming overly busy, even with good things like healthy exercise, worthy tasks, Bible study, ministry, etc. “When we are consumed by a spirit of productivity, we become too focused on our own affairs and overemphasize their importance. We may even lose track of the ultimate purpose of all that we do, which is ‘to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven,” a basic premise found in the old Baltimore Catechism.

SECONDbe faithful in worship.

Though it is often called sloth, acedia is actually a refusal to rest – not in the sense of resisting inactivity but resisting to embrace fully the enjoyment of our proper activity as creatures, which is worship. With various tactics and ploys, acedia tries to cloud our thinking about regular Sunday worship, for instance.  It leads us to think we are too busy – or worship is too boring – or other activities are more important – or I do not need to go to church to be and speak with God, etc. In many ways, the darkest side of acedia is its distaste for worship and prayer. Sometimes this aversion strikes at a very advanced stage of the spiritual life, but for most of us, it shows itself early on, after the euphoria of conversion or the sweetness of prayer wears off. We avoid God – just when we need God most.

THIRD, put work and worship together.

Monks learn habits of praying while tending to the ordinary tasks of their daily life. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) invites all believers to join him, advising laypersons that “when your ordinary work of business is not especially engrossing – perhaps such as washing the dishes or doing yard work – let your heart  be fixed more on God than on the task at hand.”

When our work demands our full mental attention, St. Francis de Sales suggests we occasionally pause from work to mentally place ourselves beneath the cross, or to think on the Lord in some other way. Whether or not we are able to pray (aloud or to ourselves) during our practical affairs, it can be a helpful practice to offer all of our work as a gift to the Lord in prayer.  We do this by remembering that our part is only to do faithfully and as best we can the specific work God has given to us.  We entrust the rest to Him. Recall, for instance, the practice of the Daily Offering at the start of each day.

In the final analysis, permit the words of Dorothy Sayers to unsettle you as she describes acedia in this way:  It is “a sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

So, when the noonday demon strikes – it is at that moment we must grab a rosary, go for a walk, force our minds out of the swamp of despondency, perhaps take up one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy – or some other activity that gets us outside of ourselves.

Remember Colossians 3:23-24:  Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being.  Do it for the Lord rather than for men, since you know full well you will receive an inheritance from him as your reward.  Be slaves of Christ the Lord.

For further reading:

1)  Jean-Claude Nault, OSB:  The Noonday Devil:
Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times  (2013)

2)  Kathleen Norris:  Acedia & Me: A Marriage,
Monks, and A Writer’s Life  (2008)

3)  R. J. Snell:  Acedia and Its Discontents:
Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire

– As compiled by Reverend Jeffrey S. Grob
January 2019