I read a book I can’t finish. I’ve read every page, but I’m not done with it. It smelled of something monumental, sent flutters into the pit of my stomach whispering, “Listen. See. Hear.” The book wasn’t about the next self-help step. It didn’t unlock a passage of scripture that provides a prayer you can pray to find ultimate joy or prosperity. Instead it exposed a sin, an ancient sin that Dante and Chaucer wrote about, Luther mentioned, the desert fathers feared and that monks in monasteries around the world seem to know intimately. One of the famous seven deadly sins, it seems to have lost popularity over the ages; and the reason I’m not done with the book is because I’m afflicted with it. The sin is acedia, and what the author of Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris, wrote about it, cut deeply. I knew I’d been had by something.
Sin is something we like to hide, even from ourselves, but much like our bodies give us signals when something inside isn’t going right, our lives show symptoms of hidden sin. When I met the word acedia, I knew I was onto something; I had a name for my disease. As much as I hate to read about sin and hate the process of exposing my sin, I know that naming it is one sure step to getting help.
Acedia is described as spiritual weariness. It is sometimes called torpor, sometimes sloth, sometimes busyness, often apathy and often melancholy. Psychologists might diagnose it as chronic dissatisfaction. A pastor might call it discouragement or burn-out. The Catholic Church defines it as “a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart.” The monastic fathers knew it was deadly for community because it was known to render a monk passionless and separated from his community. Often it was the cause of a monk’s leaving monastic life altogether.
The last twelve years have been prolific for me. I’ve borne four children. I’ve disinfected, taught, cautioned and laundered many times over. I’ve been part of planting an exciting new church, grown in community with people who shared a common vision, taught the Bible to young children, cooked meals for teenage boys learning about Jesus through an inner city drum line, coordinated a women’s ministry, led Bible studies, organized retreats, facilitated meals for families with new babies, hosted community groups in my home, supported my husband in his ministry as an elder in our church, served on committees, met with women going through painful circumstances and managed a household with four children. Many of those things I did all at one time. I don’t share these things to impress anyone. I share them to show the contrast between then and now. Acedia was lurking around the corner.
One day I woke up and felt tired, very tired. Ridiculously tired. I was driving to pick up my then eleven-year-old from school and realized I was taking turns with my hands holding the steering wheel. I’d hold the wheel with one hand. Then I’d switch to the other. I’d switch feet on the gas pedal too, so that I could take turns resting my feet. I started waking up unable to unclench my right fist for the first hour of the day. I was experiencing pain and tingling in my fingers. Checking out at the dentist with my daughter, I started to stumble over my words. I wasn’t able to pronounce a simple word, and past experience told me I was at the beginning of a migraine. I’d never struggled with migraines except during pregnancy. I wasn’t pregnant now. I was just very tired.
Our church started to shrink. Most of the families we would have considered critical to our vision left. Much of the “prolific” past few years began to feel like a meaningless vapor. Emotionally I began to protect myself from the pain of attrition. My husband’s more-than-full schedule was taking its toll on him and our family. We began to pull back and protect our family. We reduced our activities to a small few. We pulled back from community. We went into survival mode. I got more sleep, but I was still tired. In addition to the fatigue was now a growing loss of feeling. Apathy had started to replace what had once been hopeful excitement and passion. Acedia had more than well established itself by now.
The tediousness of my life began to swell in my imagination. I woke to a grim awareness that everything I would do would need to be done all over again the next day. What I would accomplish one day would be undone by sunrise. Acedia was opining that what I did wasn’t of any worth, that any aspirations I had weren’t worth the effort. It nagged me to get tasks over with quickly as tomorrow I’d have them all to do over again. I began to live a tedious, monotonous life. One day I will write about tedium’s gifts, but acedia makes us think only of the insurmountable burden of the day. It blinds us to God’s gifts and presence in the ritual of, yes, monotony. Energy dwindles to sighs. A prolific life turns inward. Not only does the child of God grow weary of the monotony of each day, but he grows tired of himself and tired of the needs of those around him. Acedia grows like a canker. Norris says:
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.
Whether there is a wily devil lurking out there or we have merely bedeviled ourselves with delusions concerning the true nature of sloth, I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia. Maybe that’s one reason why, as we languish from spiritual drought, we are often unaware of what ails us.
I am convinced that acedia is at its best when the child of God despairs, for spiritual apathy is hence born and he, in the words of Dorothy Sayers, “remains alive because there is nothing for which [he] will die.” Cesare Pavese in his memoir The Business of Living: Diary, 1935-1950, laments, “Oh! The power of indifference! That is what has enabled stones to endure, unchanged, for millions of years.”
I could give lots of reasons why I landed in the kingdom of acedia, but now that I have a name for it, my primary interest is in getting out. I have no desire to be unchangeable. I care not to stand at judgment before my Creator and be likened dull or hard like the stony heart of an Egyptian pharaoh. Unfortunately, knowing how you got into a place is important to knowing how to get out. So I’m in the process of retracing my steps. I’m re-reading the book and making notes. The monks had a cure for acedia. Praying the Lord’s Prayer was one of them. Certain psalms were prayed. Spiritual mentors encouraged monks to remain in community and to push through their daily disciplines of prayer.
Meanwhile the tedium of my job as a “stay-at-home mom” makes me prone to acedia. Though I know there is worth in what I have chosen to do, I am also constantly aware of the sacrifice I have made to do what I do. As much as I love my children, I miss the fulfillment I found in a different form of work. I find myself prone to wandering in my own life. When the day is broken into tiny snatches of time, it is easy to throw up hands and admit that nothing productive can come of thirty minutes here and thirty there. It is easy to grow weary of the same monotonous tasks done over and over again. And I’m still tired.
It is hard to fight acedia, and it is hard to sit quietly and wait on the Lord. There may not be a cure for sin in this lifetime, but just as there are medicines for my physical symptoms, there are “medicines” for sin too. I have hope that prayer is one of the treatments that can help me combat the disease of a sin like acedia. I trust that naming this sin for what it is has power too. The day draws near in which the clouds will part and Jesus will descend with the once-and-for-all cure to all the diseases resulting from our sinful fall in the Garden of Eden. The hope of that day is the only way to endure sin’s nagging persistence in the days in between. It’s good to know what ails us. It’s good to call sin what it is and turn to Christ for our daily bread — for forgiveness and sustenance to wake to sunrise and do it all over again. Whether tomorrow means I succeed or fail in this daily battle, the mercies of God are new every morning, and each new day is a gift. So is the hope that our struggle will come to an exultant end through Christ’s ultimate triumph over sin, especially this “lost” one.