Acedia (from Latin) has been variously defined as a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world.
Early Christian monks used the term to define a spiritual state of listlessness and from there the term developed a markedly Christian moral tone. In modern times it has been taken up by literary figures and incorrectly connected to depression.
Kathleen Norris writes in “Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life,” “...much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is acedia in modern dress. The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that 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.”
I suspect this condition is widespread in the world even as the good news of declining COVID-19 death rates and cases and increasing vaccinations are more visible every day. This past year has been full of surprises, challenges, terror, loss and change. A different way of going forward is required. Let’s look back for some help.
A desert mother in the third century CE, Amma Theodora, had this to say: “It is good to live in peace, for the wise man practices perpetual prayer … However you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes down and weighs on your soul through acedia, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body … weakening the knees ... It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.”
I think being vigilant is incredibly hard these days. Our challenges are different than the desert fathers and mothers; too much screen time, too much distraction, home schooling, loneliness, and on and on. There are only so many movies on Netflix and Amazon.
The desert monks tried to practice what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” Benedict’s Rule is described as a “little rule for beginners.” He wrote, “Always we begin again.” (Saint Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century monk who laid the foundations of Benedictine monasticism through the formulation of his Rule.)
He thought that if we remember this, “We are less likely to get caught up in our own hubris about the spiritual life.” For Benedict the essence of humility is to remember we are always beginning the spiritual life. The moment we think we have it all figured out, the further we are from the spiritual path.
The desert fathers and mothers of early Christianity believed humility, simplicity and the “beginner’s heart” should be held in the highest regard when dealing with people, be they monks or not. Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning. Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, “Can a man lay a new foundation every day?” It is said the old man (Poemen) replied, “If he works hard he can lay a new foundation at every moment.”
Acedia is not a new concept in Christianity. In the early fifth century the word had become a technical term in Christian asceticism, signifying a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray. Not only monks and theologians spoke of the vice but it appears in the writings of laymen as well. It appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy not only as a sin to be punished in the damned but as the sin that leads Dante to the edge of Hell to begin with. The 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas identifies acedia with “the sorrow of the world.”
Jump now to the 21st century, particularly to NOW. For instance, suicides are way up across America, and in Colorado; talk about sorrow of the world…Our healthcare system, while stressed, has fared much better than other states’, yet suicides and fear and “blaming” continue. Instead of joyfully celebrating the coming end of the pandemic, we waste time with “what if’s.”
I figure, if there is a cure for what ails us these days (and no, it isn’t figuring out the latest CDC guidelines about the number of people allowed in a room and who can fly where), it will be our ability and willingness to “begin again.”
The Rev. Dr. Mike Fay is rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Salida.