Religion & Spirituality

 Acedia & Me

Read an excerpt from Acedia & me:

The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon——is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.

—Evagrius Ponticus (345–399), The Praktikos

1. Somewhere

One of the best stories I know is found in The Institutes by John Cassian, a monk who was born in the fourth century. Cassian speaks of Abba Paul, who, like many desert monks, wove baskets as he prayed, and subsisted on food from his garden and a few date palms. Unlike monks who lived closer to cities and could sell their baskets there, Paul:

"could not do any other work to support himself because his dwelling was separated from towns and from habitable land by a seven days' journey through the desert . . . and transportation cost more than he could get for the work that he did. He used to collect palm fronds and always exact a day's labor from himself just as if this were his means of support. And when his cave was filled with a whole year's work, he would burn up what he had so carefully toiled over each year."

Does Abba Paul epitomize the dutiful monk who recognizes that the prayers he recites during his labors are of more value than anything he can make? Or is he the patron saint of performance art, methodically destroying the baskets he has woven to demonstrate that the process of making them is more important than the product? Paul's daily labors may have been designed to foster humility, but the annual burning had another, greater purpose. Cassian notes that it aided the monk in "purging his heart, firming his thoughts, persevering in his cell, and conquering and driving out acedia."

Acedia may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. The word has a peculiar history, and as timelines on the Oxford English Dictionary website reveal, it has gone in and out of favor over the years. References to accyde cluster in the fourteenth century, then disappear until 1891; accidie appears in 1607, and then not again until 1922, in a citation from William R. Inge's Outspoken Essays. Reflecting on the cultural shock that followed the Great War, particularly in Europe, he writes that "human nature has not been changed by civilisation," and discerns "acedia . . . at the bottom of the diseases from which we are suffering." In the 1933 OED, accidie was confidently declared obsolete, with references dating from 1520 and 1730. But by the mid–twentieth century, as "civilized" people were contending with the genocidal horror of two world wars, accidie was back in use. A four-volume supplement to the OED published between 1972 and 1986 instructs, "Delete Obs.," and the current 1989 edition includes references from 1936 and 1950. Languages have a life and a wisdom of their own, and the reemergence of the word suggests to me that acedia is the lexicon's version of a mole, working on us while hidden from view. It may even be that the word has a significance that stands in inverse proportion to its obscurity.

The scholar Andrew Crislip writes that "the very persistence of the term 'acedia' betrays the fact that none of the modern or medieval glosses adequately conveys the semantic range of the monastic term." He cites a French monk, Placide Deseille, who describes the word as "so pregnant with meaning that it frustrates every attempt to translate it." I believe that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as "apathy," "boredom," or "torpor" do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for

what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer. Christian teachings concerning acedia are a source of strength and encouragement to me, and I hope to explore its vocabulary in such a manner that benefits readers, whatever their religious faith or lack of it.

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning "to cry out," as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.

Why care? I can answer that only by relating my personal history with acedia, telling stories from my infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and from a marriage that flourished for nearly thirty years until my husband died, after a lengthy illness, in 2003. In a sense I have been writing this story all my life. But I can also say that it began more than twenty years ago, when I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. Across a distance of sixteen hundred years he spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it "[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long." Boredom tempts him "to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour]."But Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy, be it a troll, a demon, or an "issue," puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free. "He's describing half my life," I thought to myself. To discover an ancient monk's account of acedia that so closely matched an experience I'd had at the age of fifteen did seem a fairy-tale moment. To find my deliverer not a knight in shining armor but a gnarled desert dweller, as stern as they come, only bolstered my conviction that God is a true comedian.

I did laugh then, and also later, when I encountered another passage from Evagrius, recognizing myself in the description of a listless monk who:

"when he reads . . . yawns plenty and easily falls into sleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that."

The desert monks termed acedia "the noonday demon" because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself ("training" being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one's life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia's assault is not merely an occupational hazard—it is a given. It is also an interfaith phenomenon. When I asked two Zen Buddhist monks how they defined the boredom that is endemic to monastic life, one replied that as her community was founded by an Anglican, they call it acedia. The other was unfamiliar with the Greek term, but readily identified torpor as one of the Five Hindrances to Prayer.

We might well ask if these crazy monks don't have it coming: if your goal is to "pray without ceasing," aren't you asking for trouble? Is this a reasonable goal, or even a good one? Henri Nouwen tells us that "the literal translation of the words 'pray always' is 'come to rest.' The Greek word for rest," he adds, "is 'hesychia,' and 'hesychasm' is a term which refers to the spirituality of the desert." The "rest" that the monk is seeking is not an easy one, and as Nouwen writes, it "has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle." Acedia is the monk's temptation because, in a demanding life of prayer, it offers the ease of indifference. Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married "for better for worse," anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. When I complained to a Benedictine friend that for me, acedia was no longer a noontime demon but seemed like a twenty-four-hour proposition, he replied, "Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere."

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