With acedia we enter the realm of the afflictive thoughts which disturb the peace of our soul – so, while it is the sixth in our series, it is the first afflictive thought of the soul. That said, it also influences how we think and the rational and irrational judgments which we make, and so acedia seeks to afflict the mind as well.
It is, more than the other afflictive thoughts, a peculiarly monastic thought, and can be traced throughout the stories and sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. It is an affliction with which they wrestle constantly, both teachers and disciples:
A brother asked Abba Poemen about acedia. The old man said to him, “Acedia is there every time one begins something, and there is no worse passion, but if one recognises it for what it is, he will gain peace.
Amma Syncletica said: “There is grief that is useful, and there is grief that is destructive. The first sort consists in weeping over one’s faults (compunction of heart, effectively) and weeping over the weakness of one’s neighbours, in order not to destroy one’s purpose, and attach oneself to the perfect good. But there is also a grief which comes from the enemy, full of mockery, which some call acedia. This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody”.
As can be gathered from what we have already said, the term acedia is almost impossible to render exactly into English. It seems to embrace a host of ideas and feelings, but all of them cluster about the notion that acedia has to do with a spiritual sloth or spiritual listlessness, an overwhelming feeling that one wants to give up, or at least give up what one is presently doing. It’s the feeling that I have come to a stand still in my life, and in fact everything around has come to a standstill as well. In this sense, acedia indicates a sort of fatal stagnation in my deepest being, but one which comes from feeling that all I have been doing so far has been useless – and I know better, and so feel it’s time to move on.
It seems in the tradition that acedia above all attacks those who are already well progressed in the practice of the spiritual life. Perhaps they have attained many of the spiritual tools and practices about which we read and teach and at which we toil. Perhaps they have become themselves well recognised teachers and even have disciples sitting at their feet. At this point they have reached a dangerous juncture, since it is foolish to believe that we have nothing more to learn. At this point the person suffering from acedia says to themselves: What use are these practices and tools to me, this living in the cell, or living in the community? What use is it to rise to pray the psalms with others, or fast on this and that day, or to come together with others for common prayer? This sort of life is really going nowhere! All this, frankly, is quite useless. Time for me to move on, branch out on my own – I know a better way to go about this spiritual life!
So, the one who is afflicted with acedia, above all, is tempted to give up what they are doing and, in a sense, go about re-inventing the wheel. And if the wheel was a fairly important development in the history of work and industry and transport, so perseverance in the spiritual life which has been handed down to us and which is practiced still is equally important if salvation is to be a reality for us.
Evagrius of Pontus, who did so much to lay before us the scheme of the eight afflictive vices, offers some description of the one who is suffering from acedia: they tend to be people who point to the pointlessness of the monastic life and ascetical practices, and look for something easier and more readily attainable; they have a hatred of any kind of work which asks them to persevere and go beyond their comfort zone; they dislike any kind of suffering and want above all to avoid it. The acedic person can often be marked by a sense of discouragement, even a feeling of helplessness and grief, and will be given to grumbling about their circumstances and what they have to put with. They have a hatred for their brothers in community – those with whom they live and work – and especially their superior. In this regard, no one knows better than the one who suffers the acedia thought, and especially not a superior! Taking all this into consideration, it’s little wonder that the acedic person will want to jump ship and take to flight as quickly as possible – there is, therefore, an overwhelming desire to leave the cell, the place of spiritual consolation, learning and encounter, and go somewhere a good deal more comfortable, even, indeed, to go off and start one’s own community!
It should be obvious that acedia, this devastating spiritual sluggishness and weariness, is a very sad condition. There is something of dejection about it, and undoubtedly the two are linked in many ways. Acedia discourages the sufferer from seeing and experiencing the consolations of the spiritual life, consolations which may have been very readily accepted before by the same person. There is an overwhelming pull to ignore one’s spiritual practice and give oneself over to hopelessness. One begins to question one’s very motivation for living this kind of life – why did I come here and why am I doing all this? What’s the point?
Acedia is not only dangerous for the person who has given in to it – it can also spill over into the community in which the person lives. This hopelessness, listlessness and desolation can become a group activity and can pull a community down. From time to time one sees communities which have been taken quite unawares and been smitten by acedia – their life in common lacks a bite and dynamism, it lacks commonly discerned goals, and there’s a feeling that these men or women are ‘dead on their feet’. And perhaps, given their discouragement, that is the only thing that they are waiting on – their own death, and the inevitable death of their community.
So, is the afflictive thought of acedia a one way street to disaster?
It needn’t all be doom and gloom! Often acedia can be seen as a time and experience of transition, and perhaps should be seen so. For those who are serious about the practice of the spiritual life there are always moments coming, and often unforeseen, when they have to ‘start over’ in order to keep growing. This feeling that, in the spiritual life, we have the chances and perhaps even the duty to keep ‘beginning again’ is a powerful antidote for tackling spiritual tiredness or weariness:
Abba Poemen said concerning Abba Pior that every day he made a new beginning.
Every day! And this a great spiritual athlete of the desert! Why? Because he knew that relaxation which could become overconfidence wiping out humility might just be round the corner. Perhaps this lies at the heart of all that we can say about acedia, and it lies at the heart of all that we can say about the spiritual journey – we have to bow our heads in humility knowing that our spiritual life, and our holding tight to it, are fragile enough realites. Add to this the fact that God is profligate in giving us his grace – he gives us exactly the grace we need to live as fully as possible each day, so each day it’s good to begin by asking for that grace, and accepting what he gives us freely.
Acedia, then, issues a sort of invitation – to keep going back, rediscovering, reclaiming and re-applying the spiritual tools that we have learnt, that perhaps have become a little tarnished or rusty, and kick start them into action in our lives.
At one stage, St Aelred of Rievaulx, that Cistercian father who, of all of them, had his feet most firmly planted on terra firma, reminds his monks that they should frequently recall the tools of the monastic life which have served them well and which they should keep laying hands to (Sermon 8):
It seems to me that there are six general exercises that are provided for us. Three are physical: work, watching and fasting. These pertain especially to those who are still assailed by physical passions and are still, as it were, outside the Promised Land. Three, however, are spiritual: lectio, prayer and meditation… In time of temptation each person should take refuge in that exercise in which he finds the greater grace. We must therefore continue in our labours, fasting, and watching until our earthly members are truly mortified, until we bear in our flesh the death of Jesus, so that we can say with the Apostle: With Christ I am nailed to the cross. But there is also a mortification of the spirit. And so we also must continue in the spiritual exercises. Just as the flesh is killed by wicked passions, so the spirit is killed by depraved thoughts.
Since acedia also attacks the desire to continue on the way of humility, that conformity to Christ which lies at the heart of the disciple’s search, it’s good to set in place again the formative practices of manifestation of thoughts to a wise elder or director, and the frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the former I lay out the difficulty of the journey and commit myself to laying distance between spiritual sluggishness and my true desire. In the Sacrament I seek that grace for the moments when hopelessness and self-centeredness have moved me to squander grace and set aside the duty of love of God and neighbour.
Above all, we seek out the consolation and work of the place and way of living which we call the cell. Again, it is good to say, that, while my cell should be a physical place given over to the desire for and work towards the encounter with Christ who reaches out to me in his life-giving word, the cell is also the place of the heart and the attitude which craves and works for purity of heart, the undivided heart. For this it’s good to recall that two virtues – patience and perseverance – are needed in my life if the Holy Spirit is to be given room to manoeuvre. So, for this, we should close with a teaching from Isaac of Stella, in his First Sermon for Sexagesima, on the parable of the Sower:
It is obedience that welcomes the seed of the Word, patience that makes it fruitful, perseverance that reaps it. What the Apostle said of athletes – “the race is for all but the prize is for one” – holds good of the virtues: they all bring us on the way of God’s kingdom, but only one enables us to attain the prize. Otherworldliness, poverty, vigils, almsgiving, fasting, obedience, patience, all help us on our course, but perseverance alone wins us the victory. How one finishes, not one’s first effort, is reckoned virtue. We conclude then that patience wins approval for obedience, perseverance crowns patience with all blessing. Patience tests and proves obedience. Perseverance brings glory to patience. My he who has granted us obedience and not denied us patience utterly, may he, the Father through the Son, in the Spirit, bestow on us the gift of perseverance.
-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-