Thursday, March 1, 2012

Acedia and us, and our Lenten Effort

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

My soul, my soul arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is approaching and you will be confounded. Awake then, and be watchful, that you may be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere and fills all things. (Kontakion, Canon of St. Andrew of Crete)

The season of Great Lent is the time of the soul’s awakening from the sleep of sin, or from sheer indifference, apathy, or what the saints call acedia, a condition of spiritual torpor or unsatisfied restlessness. Is this a term from our spiritual vocabulary that you are familiar with? I have a book stored in my library that I am (finally) beginning to read this Great Lent, entitled Acedia & me – A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. The author is Kathleen Norris, who has developed a strong reputation as an insightful writer on religious themes through such books as Dakota: A Spiritual Biography; and The Cloister Walk, to name just two of her more prominent titles. (She also has a book with the intriguing title of The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”) which is a series of lectures based on discovering the sacred in what are considered mundane domestic chores). Her career began as a poet, and she is now usually described as an oblate of the Assumption Abbey in North Dakota. This series of books on religious themes, beginning with Dakota (1992), trace her growing Christian Faith and her contact with certain Roman Catholic monastic communities in North America, especially the Benedictine one mentioned above.

In Acedia & me (2008), she has chosen to write about the “passion” of acedia in its contemporary understanding and setting and its almost universal affliction of the “modern” person, usually as the condition that we now call depression. A very Orthodox theme, to be sure. This passion was discovered and written about by the Desert Fathers in the earliest years of the monastic movement, who analyzed this passion together with offering guidance on how to overcome it. This was the “noonday demon” mentioned in the Psalms that the desert ascetics had to do battle with before they could grow spiritually. By far the most famous description is found in the writings of Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), from his work The Praktikos:

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.

Here we find boredom, tedium, restlessness, impatience, a lack of care; all making prayer undesirable and impossible. In this condition, we are seemingly overwhelmed by the futility of our efforts. No wonder that this passage is often quoted today, for it remains quite a penetrating psychological and spiritual analysis of a malady that can easily be transposed from the world of the desert ascetics into the world as we know and live in today. This is basically the purpose of Kathleen Norris’ book. In fact, Norris writes the following about the passage from Evagrius: “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” (p. 4). She begins by relating modern definitions of the word acedia which has remained in our vocabulary over the centuries, though not readily used:

The ancient word acedia, which in Greek simply means the absence or lack of care, has proved anything but simple when it comes to finding adequate expression in English. Modern writers tend to leave the term untranslated, or employ the later Latin accedie. A few examples may help the reader comprehend the broad range of meaning of the word, as it is currently understood.

accedia: heedlessness, torpor … [a] non-caring state -Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989

: a + kedos care, anxiety, grief + ia, iea – more at HATE
1. the deadly sin of sloth
2. spiritual torpor and apathy
-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, 1976

acedia: a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia -Online Medical Dictionary, 2000

Interestingly – and I would add, unfortunately - I could not find the word in the dictionary I have at hand, which is the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, 1997. (And my computer is underlining it every time I write the word). Perhaps the editors did not envision college students looking up acedia! Bustling and energetic college campuses may just offer enough superficial relief from acedia so as to leave it undetected until later in life. And a computer culture has a very restricted spiritual vocabulary.

Be that as it may, Kathleen Norris is determined to get to the roots of this condition in both its historical and modern expressions. As she puts it at the beginning of her exploration:

… 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 … (p. 3)

If acedia in the original Greek (usually spelled akadeia) literally means “lack of care,” it may do well to understand the simple but deep term “care” that we readily use. Here again, is a probing paragraph from Norris:

The person afflicted with 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 you 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 routine that acedia would have us Suppressor deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother. (p. 3-4)

In closing her opening chapter, entitled Somewhere (as far as I gotten so far!), Kathleen Norris offers a summary of what I would imagine are themes the book in its totality may explore:

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 determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. (p. 6)

I wonder: Do we stay so busy so as to unconsciously flee from the noonday demon of acedia? Do we fill up our time and our lives with endless activity because we feel that dreadful acedia creeping up on us? Or is it the acedia that drives us forward so restlessly to always being doing something – anything - because we no longer have the ability to be still, to truly “rest” in God as the saints described a life of prayer and stillness/hesychia?

I am hoping to make some real inroads into this promising book as Great Lent unfolds. Perhaps I will share some more of the book also.

The lenten prayer of the Church, so deeply focused, as in the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete, is one weapon that we have to do battle with the “demon” of acedia and other forms of spiritual torpor and apathy. There is one more opportunity this evening to be present for the fourth and final part of the Canon as it has been distributed through this first week of Great Lent. In the darkened and prayerful atmosphere in the church that signifies the Lenten season, we are able to concentrate and “be still” at least to some extent, as the moving words of repentance and compunction move over us and actually plant themselves in our hungry and thirsty souls that can only be filled by God.

The Canon of Repentance will begin at 7:00 p.m.

1 comment:

  1. Father Bless
    I always have, in my own mind, translated this word as despondency. Perhaps there are some subtle differences in the two words.



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