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March 22, 2010

AcediaAccidie (Greek for “negligence,” “indifference”). By the early 5th century the word had become a technical term in Christian asceticism, signifying a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.  It is accounted one of the seven  deadly sins.

~ Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church

For those who have adopted a regime of fasting, sacrifice and spiritual practice during Lent, the season may at some point provide an occasion of encounter with the demon of acedia.  The word has many meanings and perhaps as many applications.  Thomas Merton cites it as one of the main obstacles to contemplative prayer, but the term may be applied broadly to describe the host of interior difficulties that inevitably arise when we strive in earnest to grow and live spiritually.  According to Merton acedia, a condition of spiritual inertia, is marked by inner confusion, coldness and a lack of confidence:

What at first seemed easy and rewarding suddenly comes to be utterly impossible.  The mind will not work.  One cannot concentrate on anything.  The imagination and the emotions wander away. Sometimes they run wild. . . . One’s inner life becomes a desert which lacks all interest whatever.  (Contemplative Prayer, 38)

As we grow lax and lose heart, spiritual torpor sets in.  Our former desire for spiritual things gradually cools: the effort bores and exhausts us; we begin to seek diversion, relief, and even escape from the discipline that spiritual practice requires.

     The term “acedia” dates back to the fourth century when there were eight deadly sins: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride — arranged by Evagrius in order of increasing severity.  It was Pope Gregory in the sixth century who reduced the list to seven deadly sins by eliminating vainglory and acedia (because of their similarities to pride and sadness) and adding a personal candidate — envy — to the roster.  Gregory placed pride first on the list, as the most deadly, and listed the other sins in descending order by degree to which they prevented a person from feeling and expressing love for God.  Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas challenged the notion that some sins were more deadly than others (all being equally harmful to the soul’s health and well-being) and considered that the sin of sadness/acedia was actually spiritual and not physical in nature.

     The lack of care (the heartlessness!) that acedia produces in the soul is surely sinful.  But our attention must include consideration not only of the sin itself but also of the conditions that lead to the problem.  Are spiritual sadness and dejection already there within us, before we even begin our ascetical practices?  Or is it that our way of pursuing spiritual goals contributes to the condition of listlessness and indifference?  The danger may well lie in how we envision and approach our task.  Is the spiritual life just another duty to perform, another work to be undertaken with tireless diligence?  Or should we be thinking of spiritual practice as a process that includes “letting go” and relaxed receptivity?  Over half a century ago Josef Pieper described the worker in modern times:

And when we look into the face of the “worker,” it is the traits of “effort” and “stress” that we see becoming more pronounced there and, so to speak, permanently etched.  It is the mark of “absolute activity”. . . the hard quality of not-being-able-to-receive: a stoniness of heart, that will not brook any resistance. . . . (Leisure, the Basis of Culture, 14)

“Will it be possible,” Pieper asks, “to keep the human being from becoming a complete functionary, or ‘worker’?”

     Inasmuch as acedia is the result of overdoing it—of hyper-vigilance, of excessive discipline and effort vis-à-vis spiritual progress, and perhaps even of over-aspiration—we might do well to try to discover our personal “golden mean’ with regard to spiritual work.  Merton discusses the danger of over-emphasizing one’s “inner life” to the detriment of the rest of one’s existence:

. . . instead of accepting reality as it is, we reject it in order to explore some perfect realm of abstract ideals which in fact has no reality at all.  Very often, the inertia and repugnance which characterizes the so-called “spiritual life” of many Christians could be cured by a simple respect for the concrete realities of everyday life, of one’s friends, one’s surrounding, etc. (Ibid. 38 – 39)

     We are not made to live in a world of total work, not even of total spiritual work.  If our life is based exclusively on the expenditure of functional energy, we will be susceptible not only to physical exhaustion but also to spiritual depletion.  Work habits and dispositions which tend to become routinized and customary must be subjected to the same law of conversion as everything else in our spiritual life.  To serve the Spirit means to grow from habituated responses and behaviors to more open and flexible ones.  The more our dispositional life is based on transcendent energy sources and is open to ongoing renewal, the less likely it is that we will be afflicted by periods of debilitating inertia and ambivalence about our spiritual progress.  In the end, balanced living and humility may be the best antidotes to the sin of acedia.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.