This post is about the sin of acedia. It is known by a lot of other names, none of which entirely capture or circumscribe this sin; ennui, anomie, alienation, despondency, carelessness, boredom, but the Fathers who describe it called it by its Greek name, acedia. It is an old word. meaning literally “carelessness”. When it came West, it got subsumed into that most comfortable of all the Seven Deadly Sins; stultia or Sloth. But acedia is far more than just laziness or inaction. Indeed, laziness is a symptom of acedia much more than the res in se. A person suffering from acedia can also exhibit furious activity, but all of it without any discernable purpose. It is also much more than simple depression, which often has a physical component and can be treated by medication, exercise, and diet. The best definition of acedia I have yet found comes from the manual of a video game:
Accidie: rejecting life… is a Middle English word, retrieved because the usual word, “sloth,” now only expresses a trivial laziness. Accidie is a form of spiritual despair, a refusal of grace, a bargain with nothingness that shuts out God’s gift of the new possibility. Usually called sloth, laziness, dejection, passive-aggressiveness, despair or spiritual depression nowadays, accidie is a spiritual listlessness or depression, a reluctance, and finally a refusal, to respond to God.
Accidie begins at the center, at our relationship with God, and it stems ultimately from a refusal to live toward God as dependent creatures made in His image. It is a passive shrinking from creative existence. The style of accidie would be to dampen down one’s inner life, living at a minimum level of mind and heart, letting thoughts and feelings die down.
It is the ultimate in spiritual minimalism.
Accidie is a partial consent to non-being, striking a bargain with insignificance. Another way to sin by accidie is to empty out one’s self in idle worship rather than growing toward God, seeking significance in some other human being or cause or circumstance, scrabbling after a sense of self-worth. Self-abdication offers a temporary refuge both from God and from the nothingness that stalks creative life. The fruit of accidie is despair. In its terminal form it finally rejects God’s new possibility. It rules out grace, shutting any opening to the divine life.
Accidie has its full effect when one puts oneself intentionally beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Spiritual withdrawal and depression often start with dishonest prayer, refusing to raise some issue with God, rejecting a summons, getting tired of God’s silence and walking away. It chooses to live and die on the margins of nothingness rather than launch out further into the abyss of God. It leaves the self independent from God and in control, even at the price of self-minimization. Those who strike bargain with nothingness can avoid surrender to God.
Scary words, aren’t they? No wonder the Fathers put pride and acedia together on the same level of toxicity with lust, gluttony, greed, envy, and anger lower and less dangerous. If pride is the unGodding of God by usurping His place, acedia is the unGodding of God by abolishing His place. Alas, there is no psychiatrist out there with a pill for acedia.
Acedia is a covenant with non-being, a descent into willed insignificance, Hell on the installment plan. Acedia is the husband and father who has been unemployed for three years and is watching his family disintegrate while he refuses to budge from the couch where he is playing World of Warcraft. Acedia is the jilted single woman who refuses to climb out of bed in the morning months after the breakup, not because she feels bad, she doesn’t , really, but just because she refuses to believe that the day can bring her anything worth the effort. Acedia is that Christian yawning over his chotki, or his Rosary, or his Bible early in the morning, mumbling his prayers with no inner fire, no desire for any inner fire, no memory of there ever having been any inner fire. Eventually, he discounts any report of an inner fire as subjectivism or fanaticism
Perhaps the finest cinematic portrayal of acedia I have ever seen is Bonjour, Tristesse, starring David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Jean Seberg from 1958. It is a psychologically complex little movie, maybe not as psychologically complex as Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom, or Winter Light, but I’m an incorrigible middlebrow. The story is very sparse. Well-to-do womanizing widower Raymond (Niven) and his sexually loose sixteen year old daughter Cécile (Seberg) live together on the French Riveria. Raymond and Cécile spend their days doing little more than drink, swim, and fornicate, which suits Cécile just fine. Raymond, though, is having misgivings. His life lacks the gravitas, significance, a man his age should project. Anne (Deborah Kerr), a divorced friend of Cécile’s mother, comes into their lives. She is a smart, competent woman, and as Raymond begins to court her earnestly, she begins to resurrect him from the living death in which he has entombed himself. Cécile hates this and conspires with one of her father’s mistresses (they are interchangeable) to break them up. She succeeds, and Anne commits suicide. Father and daughter seek to escape from their guilt by submerging themselves anew in their previous hedonistic life. Raymond’s and Cécile’s residual guilt what makes Bonjour, Tristesse a ‘fifties movie instead of a ‘nineties movie. If I had been making the movie today, I wouldn’t have added that disgusting little sop to the prevailing morality. I’d have had Raymond continue his gigolo ways, getting tanner and leaner and more distinguished looking until his inevitable Catholic funeral, and Cécile wildly successful as a hedge fund manager.
Most of the people with whom I have discussed this movie want to cast it in terms of Cécile’s Elektra complex, but I think it goes deeper than that. Both Raymond and Cécile see something in Anne that they cannot abide; a chance to engage the world, to live for something more permanent than their momentary distractions. David Niven is a great actor, and you can actually watch his Raymond exhibit surprise at himself as he moves away from his non-life with Cécile and starts to gain substance in his relationship with Anne. The tragedy of the film is not so much that Cécile succeeds, but that Raymond wants her to succeed. He sees what his daughter is doing, but is too morally paralyzed to take any action to prevent it. He thinks that be not acting, he will not be judged culpable, but his inaction is an embrace of non-being. It is pure acedia, and it is culpable, even damnable.
Chaplain Mike wrote something astounding in a post last week that hit me like a man striking a bell. I took a few liberties with it and want to reproduce it here:
Most of my dissatisfaction is about me. I can’t stop “shoulding” on myself. I should lose weight. I should take more walks. I should use my time better. I should order my daily life and schedule more wisely. I should pay more attention to my wife. I should have a more disciplined prayer life. I should remember birthdays and anniversaries. I should eat healthier. I should clean up my clutter.
The list is endless.
I envy those souls that seem to be content, their hearts and minds at rest. [They're] so damn responsible and fulfilled. They planned their lives, and somehow it’s working out. They [married the right people, studied the right major in college, made the right connections,] built the nest egg, paid for the kids’ college, have the cabin at the lake or in the mountains, go away to the beach on Spring Break and come back all tanned, send out the glowing Christmas letter. They seem to have safely and successfully negotiated whatever minefields they faced with little trouble. I can hear some of them saying, “Well of course we went through some tough times when we didn’t have much. But we worked hard and stuck to it and, with God’s help, it panned out.” Life is good. [Worse than that, they are doing good; planting an organic garden, adopting orphans from the Philippines, mentoring in a mens' group, while I am doing nothing, hamstrung by the disorder in my life for which I alone am responsible.]
Mike’s “shoulds” are so reasonable. I would be so much better off if I could fulfill them. Others would be better off if I could fulfill them. I would be so much more useful, so much better a Christian. Let me gird up the loins of my mind and I’ll get right on them. Right after I check my email, or eat that last lemon bismarck, or watch this episode of Battle Spirits Sword Eyes Gekitouden, or listen to this latest EP, or google that search term, and click on the first few results. You get the idea. The Internet, for me at least, is to acedia what gasoline is to fire. So why is it so hard for me to get down to the serious business of knocking out these “shoulds”? Let us listen to St. John Cassian on the subject of acedia and its symptoms:
And when [acedia] has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell near him, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading. He often groans because he can do no good while he stays in that place. He complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society.
He considers himself cut off from spiritual gain, useless in his place. He feels he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none by his teaching and doctrine. He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; and besides this he paints the intercourse with the brethren there as sweet and full of spiritual life. In contrast, he says that everything about him is rough, and not only that there is nothing edifying among the brethren who are stopping there, but also that even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty.
Lastly he fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell (in which he is certain to die if he stops in it any longer) and hurries away from there as quickly as possible. Then the fifth or sixth hour bring him such bodily weariness and longing for food that he seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey, or some very heavy work. He looks about anxiously this way and that, and is irritated that none of the brethren come to see him. He goes in and out of his cell, frequently gazing up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting.
So a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness. This makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work. Finally, in a fit of pique, he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found anywhere except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone.
He believes he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities to the brethren, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks about some dutiful and religious offices; there are kinsfolk who ought to be inquired after, and he ought to go and see them oftener. He meditates that would be a real work of piety to go more frequently to visit some religious woman, devoted to the service of God, who is deprived of all support of kindred; and that it would be a most excellent thing to get what is needful for her who is neglected and despised by her own kinsfolk; and that he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly and with no profit in his cell.
St. John Cassian is, of course, occupied with the struggles of monastics, but acedia is just as much a danger to married people living ‘in the world’. If I believe, and I do, that the goal of marriage is the union of a man and a woman to reflect the Union of Christ and His Church, then I will be judged on the level of separatedness that obtains between my wife and myself when I appear before “the fearful judgement seat of Christ.” All of the times I blew off my wife because I wanted to attend to some fleeting distraction on the computer screen, or the television, or on the playing field will rise against me on that Day. The ‘world’ which I profess to love starts there, with her, and with our children after that, and in concentric circles flowing out from there. Acedia would have me position my wife in the world of objects, as just another object in the world of objects.
I don’t know if I’m alone, but I’m going to risk some censure here. I noticed a marked increase in my dissatisfaction life when my wife went through menopause. There are certain circadian rhythms to which men connect through the women in their lives. This is one reason why it is important to stick with one woman for the duration of your life. Your chemistries merge. For this reason I always read Walker Percy with a grain of salt. The acedia of his characters always seems to clear up when they start sleeping with a younger woman. If you have to recalibrate yourself to compensate for a different woman every few years, you’re going to miss stuff. Important stuff. I don’t know firsthand, but I suspect that the inverse is true for women as well.
This discovery links the sin of acedia intimately with the ascesis of marriage. Marriage rolls along relatively easily when you are young and full of sap. The desperation of the childbearing years can cause you to view your wife as an ally, and this can blind you to the discouraging fact that no real union is being effected. Once the dust settles, though, the real struggle begins. Marital acedia moves in with its fog-like tendrils, and every defect seems magnified a thousandfold, and real intimacy, not just the fireworks of sex, seems farther away than ever.
So, maybe I started out wanting to score some points against the much-maligned Christian Right, and how their electoral reverses increases their danger to the savaging of their souls by this ruinous sin, but hell, I have met the enemy and he is me. This demon does not want to be named. I felt like I was running uphill in hot sand writing this post (and probably reads like it). You don’t know how many distractions I succumbed to; the stupid clicks that took me to stupid sites to read stupid things about people and issues I care nothing about. I am in mortal danger, as Screwtape said to Wormwood, of ending my life doing neither what I should nor what I enjoyed. Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
The Fathers are unanimous on the cure for acedia. It is surprisingly New-Agey-sounding: “Be Here Now.” The Fathers called it nepsis. “Wakefulness, sobriety.” Nepsis is supposed to be the attitude captured when a saint is depicted in the holy icons. My daughter thinks the icons ought to be smiling. I once tried to explain to her that they didn’t because they were grown-ups, and serious. They are awake, and vigilant.
Man is called to pray and to work. What are you supposed to be doing right now? If prayer, attend to that. If work, attend to that. Don’t think about what you would rather be doing or what you will be doing once you finish the prayer or the work. Be Here Now. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I’m sure Sisyphus’ task sounded easy to him when Hades first proposed it to him. Nevertheless, let me be about my Father’s business, despite my distractibility, and even my own desire to be distracted. The alternative is to go step after soundless step down a long dark stairwell into a pond of leaden water upon the surface of which not even the wildest hurricane of grace can raise a single ripple.