Acedia and the Opposite Course

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

When I know that I should remain in my study, writing if I am able, and if not, being willing to be alone with God, doing nothing, I am easily tempted to leave and seek the company of other people. But if I am honest with myself, I will admit that my inability to be alone is no reason to abandon my solitude; the danger is that I will use others as an excuse to avoid confronting matters that require my full attention. Evagrius defines this temptation as lust, the desire to draw others to ourselves for selfish purposes, and he warns: "Give no confidence to such promptings; on the contrary, follow the opposite course." If I feel a strong urge for solitude, I need to ask: Is it because I wish to foster contemplation, or am I seeking an excuse to avoid other people, for whom I harbor a secret contempt? If it is the latter, then I must not remain in isolation but seek companionship. Only then will I come to better appreciate what Abba Theodore termed "the sweetness of the cell". I may still wish to be alone, he says, but not because I despise my neighbor.

Acedia is a devious temptation, and if the thought of going outside to see whether anyone else is about is not sufficient to distract us from our interior work, we may find ourselves convinced that it is not distraction we seek, but only the opportunity to help people. Perhaps the monk beset by what John Cassian calls "the foul mist" of acedia decides "that he should pay his respects to the brothers and visit the sick." The monk in this condition is in danger of using other people in order to feel good about himself, and may fantasize about performing the "great and pious work" of making more frequent visits to this or that holy man or woman who is more isolated than he, and who has little support from others. The last thing he should do, he decides, is to remain, "barren, and having made no progress, in his cell."

Cassian warns of the real peril that this monk will forget who he is, and "the reason for his profession, which is to practice silence, solitude, and meditation. If he succumbs to one diversion after another, he will lose the capacity to pray, and become more prone to despondency. Theologians have always regarded acedia as an especially serious, or "capital" sin because of its ability to engender and nourish other vices; it is a root out of which both despair and anger can grow. We are to be wary, Evagrius says, when "the irascible part of our soul is stirred up," and anger tempts us to keep others at a distance. Solitude may remove us from the immediate disturbance, he tells us, but it won't help us confront the cause of our irritation and sadness. That will happen only through the mediation of those "others" we are apt to scorn and detest. Then, tending the sick would be appropriate, a humbling act of charity that might free the soul from vainglory and illusions of holiness. Serving others in such a spirit could help us appreciate these words of Anthony the Great: "Our life and death is with our neighbor."

The monastic perspective can assist us specifically with regard to understanding the value of community. Imagine for a moment that the people you encounter at home, work, or school are the very people God has given you to pray with, eat with, and play with for the rest of your life. And you are supposed to thank God for this, every day, several times a day. This is what monastic people take on. And what they've learned from this particular asceticism, in attempting to live in peace with themselves and with others, may constitute their greatest gift to us. How radical to think that we can best know ourselves by embracing commitment, not rejecting it; by relating to others, not callously relegating them to the devilishly convenient category of "other." Monks know that taking on this challenge entails struggling with acedia, and that is one reason they have been so dedicated to discerning its presence within themselves and accurately naming it.

Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me

Such a long quotation, but I could not cut it anywhere. I am not called to the monastic life in the defined sense as given here, but I do feel called to the contemplative life, to be present within it, to a writing life (regardless of how many publishing credits I shall notch under my belt, I cannot shake the conviction, often returning, that I am called to this sort of life, whatever it means). The wisdom contained here in this book is profound. I heartily recommend it to everybody; I do not know quite how to come at talking about this slippery thing acedia, so easy to dismiss one minute and clobbering me about the ears the next, wended through my life in everything I do so that I can be full of the living water one hour and uncaring on the couch the next.

I do not quite see its tentacles reaching so far into my spiritual life these days as I do see it in my creative life. I have recognised it - or at least felt the hem of its garment and its fleeting shadow, if I could not put a name to it - earlier in regard to God, and I see that he has been teaching me how to chop away at it and cut down its legs to a certain extent. But in the writing life, I am just learning to name it here. It's like a weed-infested garden in which I always knew the amazing shrubs were here, hidden under. But oh, the commitment, over and again, to resisting that noonday demon and its delicious invitation to not care. Like a spiritual dose of morphine.

Of course, the best part of all, like a giant bottle of weed killer and a great delight and hope, like some sort of transparent sky honey, is recognising that this great noonday demon acedia is simply temptation, though it roars. How amazing to realise that the prison that has kept your hands silent for so long is one that disappears while you go about ignoring its presence, as if it wasn't there. Who needs to be a dragonslayer out in the real world? I have orcs in my head.

Every damn day.

Here is the discipline and wisdom of the left hand not letting the right hand know what it is doing and pressing on, one foot in front of the other, regardless of the hundreds of despondent couch sits on the way when you forget that the prison is not made out of cement but of paper ...


  1. orcs in my head ... love that image! They inhabit not only the writers, although you may be more acutely aware of them, but some of the rest of us who never seem to get done what lies before us. Listlessness ... apathy ... so many faces to these noonday orcs!

    I liked that passage in the book as well.

  2. I think you'll realise just how much acedia has me in its grip when I tell you that my first reaction to reading - no, skimming - this was "Oh shit, not another bloody person writing about acedia".

    And of course this rather extreme reaction (I'm censoring my internal language a bit...) made me go back and read it properly.

    Excellent quote and post, and yes, I really do have to start unravelling those slimy tentacles in my life.

  3. I'm with Barbara . . .

    "orcs in my head" got my attention

    orcs scare the hell out of me!

    you sure have a way with words :)

  4. Barbara - it was Mike who mentioned orcs in my last post's comments ... just flowed onto this one :) Yes, I think those orcs in this age inhabit damn near everybody. Occupational hazard

    Tess - LOL that made me laugh out loud. Perfect reaction! :) Slimy tentacles indeed, it's all such a distraction! And they feel so ... real and ... tentacleish!

    Kel - why, thank you my dear!! :) They are rather creepy, aren't they. But still, if you just think that they're Maori's dressed up with make-up it's easier to handle. The paper tiger thing, you know? Like imagining the Queen on the toilet :)

  5. What Barbara said! That's a stunningly memorable image... and it may actually make dealing with the real temptation a little easier!


Newer Older