The latest Taonga magazine is out. There’s an article of mine in it on acedia. Especially for those who cannot get hold of the Taonga magazine, this is what I wrote:
The sun beats down unremittingly from a cloudless sky bleached ashen. The monk, alone in the desert, finds every minute of the day excruciating. Pointless. The zeal and passion of his early years in the wilderness have faded in the relentless desert sun. The devotional practices he once relished he now finds oppressive, wearisome, and dull. His spirit has desiccated. He just doesn’t care. Vanity of vanities! Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
The early desert monastics were among the first to identify this visit of the noonday demon. They called the demon, acedia – derived from the Greek, to not care.
How often have you heard a sermon on acedia? We’ve all heard of the seven deadly sins, and can probably list off most if not all of them. But the list used to be eight. Evagrius Ponticus, in 375 AD, developed a list of eight patterns of deadly “thoughts”. Two centuries after Evagrius, Pope Gregory I did us a disservice in my opinion. He combined acedia with tristitia (sorrow) as part of developing the idea of the seven deadly sins that are more commonly known about today. The combination became sloth.
Evagrius describes the monk at the middle of the day finding the day dragging endlessly. The monk keeps wondering how long until the next meal. He hopes to spot someone to talk to and spend time with. He hates this place, this way of life, his work. The people here are no good. If anyone has upset the monk recently, the demon reminds him of this, just to increase his revulsion. He starts to fantasise about other places where things will go better, where God can be more worthily worshipped. He thinks of better times past, and is anxious about the endless years still lying before him.
Acedia is hard to translate. I suggest restlessness, purposelessness, meaninglessness, aimlessness, a lack of caring. Having acedia (post-Gregory) as a subcategory of sloth is confusing, as acedia can manifest itself not only in idleness, but also, in fact, in meaningless, frenetic activity, in pointless busyness.
Sooner or later we can all encounter acedia in our repetitive activities: our paper-pushing desk job, laundry, dishes, and other housework,…
Many in contemporary society look at monasticism and the desert tradition of spirituality and ask, “What is the point of a life like that?” In fact this is the very question that they do not have the nerve to ask of all that absorbs us. In our culture there is feverish activity which generates its own momentum of creating further exertion. We can be readily swamped with a false sense of urgency. So many of us fill so much of our lives with instant inconsequential communication. This generates its own momentum of sometimes-ill-considered, inane, immediate responses. Some fill much of their time producing or demanding pointless reports that everyone secretly realises are little read and even less ever acted upon. Then when we are “relaxing” from our exhausting labours we fill our time with pointless distractions. We are a culture, a society suffering from acedia.
And the church, rather than being counter-cultural, often unreflectingly fits in and embodies, and gives in to, the same demon of acedia.
Individuals move from community to community, from worship style to worship style, from prayer approach to prayer approach, from relationship to relationship, marriage to marriage, restlessly seeking the perfect community, the latest worship song, the latest teaching or trendy preacher, the perfect denomination, the perfect partner.
I often get emails to my liturgy website in the form of, “Our community used ashes last Ash Wednesday, can you please give us ideas for a different way to celebrate Ash Wednesday this year?” Different is better. We avoid monotony and boredom as the new sins. For centuries clergy and laity prayed Daily Prayer, the disciplined praying of the psalms and meditating on the scriptures that goes back through the desert monastics and on into our Jewish roots. But in the 1980’s General Synod and all diocesan synods put energy into passing legislation removing this requirement from clergy. Too boring, I guess. We are a culture, a church suffering from acedia.
And so we lose our very vocation as church. We lose our sense of perspective. We forget that we are signed with the cross. We overlook that we are called, not to gain anything but to lose everything; not to be first, but last; not to live, but to die.
The monastic solutions include perseverance, fidelity to our liturgical discipline, and community. Few know of the Western monastic vow of stability. “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything” the desert monastics taught. Stay in your marriage, your parish community, pray the Daily Office daily, celebrate liturgical life and discipline day by day, week by week, year by year until these wear away our false self, and the true self in Christ is manifest.
Know that when you hit acedia, as most of us do, that thousands, millions have been in this place before you.
Evagrius has a promise if we overcome acedia. It is a promise born from the concrete experience of the numerous people he was drawing his insights from. Conquer acedia and you will have “deep peace and inexpressible joy”. If nothing else keeps us going, maybe that promise can be something we hold on to.