Religion & Spirituality
Q&A with Kathleen Norris
What is acedia?
I think of acedia as the spiritual aspect of sloth. The word literally means not-caring, or being unable to care, and ultimately, being unable to care that you can't care. Acedia is spiritual morphine, but it does more than mask pain. It causes us to lose faith in ourselves and in our relationships with others.
Why is it so little known today?
In the fourth century the early Christian monks regarded acedia as one of the worst of the "eight bad thoughts" that plagued a monk trying to live and pray in peace. Acedia was right up there with anger and pride. Over the next few centuries, however, as the "eight bad thoughts" evolved into what the church came to define as the "seven deadly sins" acedia was subsumed into the sin of sloth. And as sloth became associated more with physical laziness, we lost the sense of acedia as a deadly spiritual affliction.
Also, for centuries people believed that only monastic people, who were deliberately pursuing a disciplined ascetic life, would suffer from acedia, growing bored with the daily routine and ultimately so discouraged that they could no longer care about what had drawn them to monastic life in the first place.
Read an excerpt from Acedia & me:
The demon of acediaalso called the noonday demonis 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
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."