Christianity was prospering in Rome in the early 300’s after the Edict of Milan put an end to persecution, and yet hundreds of men and women migrated, not to the epicenter of Catholic culture, but to the cruel parched sands of the Scetes desert in Egypt. There in the relentless heat, under the same unforgiving sun their ancestors waited centuries for their exodus, they chose to live, work, pray and seek God.
And out of the deserts came wisdom on the spiritual life that is revelatory for our time. While their degree of isolation, fasting, and service are not entirely relatable for most, they had a timeless understanding of the vices that attack those who embark on a deeper spiritual path, the greatest being the thief of persistence, the disenchanter of God: acedia.
What is acedia? Cardinal Marc Ouellet defines it like this, “Spiritual sloth, sadness, and a disgust with the things of God, a loss of the meaning of life, despair of attaining salvation: acedia drives the monk to leave his cell and to flee intimacy with God.”
While I could perhaps only understand the “desert” of the fathers in a metaphorical sense, this was something I was altogether familiar with. For who hasn’t, upon committing to religious practice, felt the ebbs and flows, consolation and desolation of spiritual strength. Who hasn’t, in the numbing repetition of each day yearned for “water,” spiritual food or escape?
I came across a book by an Abbot Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times, that eruditely and cogently follows the writings of a number of the desert fathers including Evagrius, John Cassian, St. Benedict, St. Antony and others. The accessibility, and transcendence of the writings on acedia deeply resonated with me.
“Weariness, melancholy, feeling overworked, discouragement, instability, activism, boredom, or depression,” Nault explains, “These various manifestations of acedia are enough to convince us of the relevance of an evil that causes a man to lose his relish for life and paralyzes his interior dynamism.”
Our interior dynamism is what makes us human. It’s our imbued nature to contemplate and seek God. To be activated by a desire to find meaning for our existence. Acedia saps us of this initiative.
How do you know if you are struggling with acedia? Evagrius found several principle manifestations. I’ve picked just a few that seem most pertinent for our time.
The first is an interior instability. For the desert fathers this was the desire to “leave one’s cell.” For us it is a temptation to move about, change one’s scenery, or distract yourself from what God is trying to teach you through your circumstances. Evagrius explains, “Acedia depicts this other life as your salvation and persuades you that if you do not leave, you are lost.”
In moments of discontent we may wonder if all we need is a spouse, collar, employment, or different residence to live life better. And on a micro level, we may be tempted by a moment of anxiety to seek mindless noise and distraction. The desert fathers believed encounter with God came from “staying in your cell,” or the circumstance God has placed you in and setting your ear to God in perseverance to understand why.
Another manifestation of acedia was an aversion to manual labor. Work in the desert was not rewarding. They spent days weaving baskets to sell in town, only to unweave any leftover baskets that evening. It would seem that work for the father’s was purposeless. But they had a holy consciousness of the purpose of work: it was the work of their souls. Our society venerates production output over a process, and thus, work becomes yet one more empty passage with which to flee God.
A final manifestation was a negligence in monastic duties. The desert fathers’ schedule was regimented. Any shirking of duties was conspicuous. For those of us outside of monastic life this neglect is less apparent. It may start with falling asleep before saying an evening prayer. It may be repeatedly rescheduling an Adoration hour. The nature of acedia is that those suffering with it are numbed and unaware so, if we aren’t intentional about our own “monastic duties,” it is likely we are neglecting them.
The spiritual dormancy acedia brings is rightly battled with spiritual action. Evagrius employs numerous remedies, again I’ve picked just a few.
The first, are tears. Tears are a bodily manifestation of a deep desire to be saved, to be freed of temptation and free of acedia. And this simple admission is enough to conquer that demon. They are a humble plea to God for mercy. Evagrius explains, “Sadness is burdensome and acedia is irresistible, but tears shed before God are stronger than both.”
The second is the method of contradiction. A spiritual “talking back.” Equip yourself with Scripture verses that rebutt your most stubborn temptations against persisting in your path. When lacking a verse, John Cassian prescribes the repetition of Psalm 69: “Oh God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.”
Lastly, in the words of St. Benedict, “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” Some religious orders keep skulls on their desks. Others meditate on death each morning. For the desert fathers it wasn’t morbid, on the contrary it was a simple tool for vigilance, a reminder of why they ever went into the desert in the first place. They believed present anguish could be dispelled with thoughts of Heaven. Apathy dissipated with knowledge of an eternal end. And acedia vanquished under the weight of the glory to which we all are called.
While acedia deprives us of volition towards heavenly encounter, the tools of the desert fathers arm us with tactile, grounding measures that place us in the present moment and deprive us of unhealthy self-reliance. They deeply reinforce a channel to God to grasp during drier periods when we’re tempted to flee relationship with him. Fr. Nault puts it beautifully, “Everything happens in God’s light: the tears are tears in the presence of the Lord; the work is closely bound up with prayer; the battle against wicked thoughts is waged with the word of God; death is not simply the end of our human life, it is the encounter with the Lord; perseverance, finally, is not stoicism but, rather, long patience in God’s sight.”
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