Acedia & me (2008)

We’ve now come close to the worst that acedia can do to us: not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about that. If we can no longer weep, or desire, or feel pain and grief, well, that’s all right; we’ll settle for that, we’ll get by (45).

Kathleen Norris’ Acedia & me is a wonderfully helpful read. I was struck by how she wove biography in with historical theology to create a book that speaks directly to readers’ lives.

She bases most of her discussion on acedia on Evagrius’ writings (two of which I’ve written about here and here). Evagrius defines acedia as the noonday demon that makes the day feel 50 hours long, urges the monk to abandon his way of life, and stirs up hatred between brothers and sisters. Fundamentally, Norris points out, acedia means “lack of care.” Once acedia removes one’s ability to care, one is left in a potential downward spiral, leading from not caring to not feeling to not wanting to be. This follows Evagrius’ demonology: the external demon stirs one’s thoughts; one can choose to harbor or dismiss the through; if harbored, the thought stirs a passion (a technical term for Evagrius) causing a person to act harmfully/sinfully. Acedia is one of the thoughts that can get stirred, and we can either accept the thought or “wage war” (cf. Abba Agathon’s words quoted on 96) against it with prayer and psalm.

Norris begins with the story of Abba Paul, one of the desert fathers, who spent his days making baskets, praying while he worked. Living too far from civilization, he would simply make baskets as a means to occupy himself with labor and so create space to pray, avoiding idleness which is conducive to acedia. Since he could not journey to sell his baskets, he simply burned them when his cave began to overflow with them. This seeming “useless activity” was actually nourishing life-giving habits in Paul. Norris writes, “The tale is a wry comment on the futility of all human effort, and on mortality itself. . . . Our work is bound to be forgotten. But monks still tell Paul’s story because they take heart from his perseverance and bold humility in the face of acedia. His steadfast labor at both work and prayer reminds us that even if what we do seems worthless, it is worth doing” (19). Norris points out that the repetitive work Paul engages in is nothing less than training (“a root meaning of asceticism“) for coming to rest (from the Greek hesychia which “refers to the spirituality of the desert”). She adds that Nouwen claimed “pray always” could literally be translated “come to rest.” All this repetitive training for resting “mirrors eternity in its changelessness (5). Here, then, acedia’s snare is especially troublesome: instead of training for ceaseless praise, acedia temps solitaries (and everyone else) to accept “the ease of indifference” (6). It is that ease that we must resist.

Norris traces the decline of the use of acedia as a term, saying that as we’ve lost the language for the noonday demon, we’ve hindered ourselves from being able to identify the true cause of our despondency. Although we tend not to use the term demon (though I have no problem with the word as Evagrius used it), Norris contends that an apt translation might be “issues”: “what we call ‘issues’ the early monks called ‘demons'” (33). And while they spoke of demons, the desert dwellers rarely spoke of sin — especially in regard to acedia. It was one of the thoughts that the demons stir up. Thought not sin, as Norris points out. In this nuance, Norris sees an opportunity for healing by naming acedia as a source of carelessness instead of a cause of fallenness. Healing is offered by being able to name and tame, as it were, the corresponding thoughts — nostalgia, sadness, etc. — that accompany acedia and take us down the downward spiral of carelessness.

As alluded to above, one of the two weapons against acedia, and indeed against all the demons, is prayer, and prayer requires always beginning again. Norris writes,

Monastic writers have always emphasized that maintaining a life of prayer means being willing to start over, after one has acted in a sinful or destructive way. Both pride and acedia will assert themselves, and it may appear that we are so far gone we may as well give up and not embarrass ourselves further by pretending to be anything but failures. It seems foolish to believe that the door is still open, that there is always another chance. I may accept this intellectually, but I have come to appreciate its depths only through experience. Just when I seem to have my life in balance and imagine I can remain in this happy state forever, I lose sight of the value of contemplation and prayer, and try to live without it. Soon enough, once again, I am picking myself up out of the ashes.

. . . When acedia tempted [early Christian monks] from [their prayer rules], they were admonished to make their way back as quickly as possible. It is all a matter of falling down and standing up again, no matter how many times. Typically, the desert fathers provide a gnomic commentary on this aspect of their lives: “Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, ‘Can a man lay a new foundation every day?’ The old man said, ‘If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment'” (86).

The other weapon against the demons was the Psalms, and more broadly speaking, the whole of Scripture. Psalms and books of the Bible were memorized in their entirety so that they readily combat the demons.

Labor is also a weapon against acedia; Evagrius counseled: “What heals acedia is staunch persistence. . . . Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it” (100). Additionally, being fully present when undertaking tasks is vital for flourishing (132).

Acedia can make us feel that prayer is impossible, but Norris suggests that if we get to that state a good short prayer is taken from Psalm 70: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” She quotes a monk who said lowering standards can also help break us out of a funk; when he was unable to pray the liturgy of the hours, the monk simply prayed Psalm 117 (the shortest of the Psalms). Norris cautions that lowering standards can be a good short-term fix, but that acedia can lay claim to the lowered standards until all standards are abandoned. Caution and discernment are required (282–284).

Another strategy for overcoming acedia Norris suggests is reading the desert fathers and mothers can help break us out of acedia’s grasp because their stories remind us that these demons can be overcome (269).

Throughout Norris compares and contrasts acedia and clinical depression — an interesting exercise though I feel unqualified to speak to her psychological insights. She also narrates her own struggles with acedia and depression and with her husbands failing health — a moving story that shows how the stability of marriage can prop us up in ways we can’t see coming. I’m grateful for her vulnerability and openness in telling these stories.

My suspicion is that you’ll benefit from this book — a literal must-read.

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