The following is adapted from Kathleen Norris’ Acedia & Me, a chronicle of her battle with acedia. I’ve left most of that story out but have tried to focus on the literary and historical references in her work. That allows us to fill our own examples in. It’s a great book, though.
The demon of acedia — also called the noonday demon — is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.
Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), The Praktikos
It Is Always Noon Somewhere
One of the best stories I know is found in The Institutes by John Cassian, a monk who was born in the fourth century. Cassian speaks of Abba Paul, who like many desert monks, wove baskets as he prayed, and subsisted on food from his garden and a few date palms. Unlike monks who lived closer to cities and could sell their baskets there, Paul,
“could not do any other work to support himself because his dwelling was separated from towns and from habitable land by a seven days’ journey through the desert . and transportation cost more than he could get for the work that he did. He used to collect palm fronds and always exact a day’s labor from himself just as if this were his means of support And when his cave was filled with a whole year’s work, he would burn up what he had so carefully over each year.”
Does Abba Paul epitomize the dutiful monk who recognizes that the prayers he recites during his labors are of more value than anything he can make? Or is he the patron saint of performance art, methodically destroying the baskets he has woven to demonstrate that the process of making them is more important than the product? Paul’s daily labors may have been designed to foster humility, but the annual burning had another, greater purpose. Cassian notes that it aided the monk in “purging his heart, firming his thoughts, persevering in his cell, and conquering and driving out acedia.
Acedia may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. The word has a peculiar history, and as timelines on the Oxford English Dictionary website reveal, it has gone in and out of favor over the years. References to accyde cluster in the fourteenth century, then disappear until 1891; accidie appears in 1607, and then not again until 1922, in a citation from William R. Inge’s Outspoken Essays. Reflecting on the cultural shock that followed the Great War, particularly in Europe, he writes that “human nature has not been changed by civilization,” and discerns “acedia….at the bottom of the diseases from which we are suffering:’ In the 1933 OED, accidie was confidently declared obsolete, with references dating from 1520 and 1730. But by the mid-twentieth century, as “civilized” people were contending with the genocidal horror of two world wars, accidie was back in use. A four-volume supplement to the OED published between 1972 and 1986 instructs, “Delete Obs.,” and the current 1989 edition includes references from 1936 and 1950. Languages have a life and a wisdom of their own, and the reemergence of the word suggests to me that acedia is the lexicon’s version of a mole, working on us while hidden from view. It may even be that the word has a significance that stands in inverse proportion to its obscurity.
The scholar Andrew Crislip writes that “the very persistence of the term ‘acedia’ betrays the fact that none of the modern or medieval glosses adequately conveys the semantic range of the monastic term.” He cites a French monk, Placide Deseille, who describes the word as “so pregnant with meaning that it frustrates every attempt to translate it:’ I believe that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as “apathy’ “boredom,” or “torpor” do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer. Christian teachings concerning acedia are a source of strength and encouragement to me, and I hope to explore its vocabulary in such a manner that benefits readers, whatever their religious faith or lack of it.
At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out’ as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.
When I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus, it spoke to me across a distance of sixteen hundred years of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it “[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Boredom tempts Evagrius “to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour]? But he soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.
As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. Many reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy; be it a troll, a demon, or an “issue,” puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free.
“He’s describing half my life,” I thought to myself: To discover an ancient monk’s account of acedia that so closely matched an experience I’d had at the age of fifteen did seem a fairy-tale moment. To find my deliverer not a knight in shining armor but a gnarled desert dweller, as stern as they come, only bolstered my conviction that God is a true comedian.
I did laugh then, and also later, when I encountered another passage from Evagrius, recognizing myself in the description of a listless monk who
when he reads, he yawns plenty and easily falls into sleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that.
The desert monks termed acedia “the noonday demon” because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself (“training” being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one’s life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia’s assault is not merely an occupational hazard — it is a given. It is also an interfaith phenomenon. When I asked two Zen Buddhist monks how they defined the boredom that is endemic to monastic life, one replied that as her community was founded by an Anglican, they call it acedia. The other was unfamiliar with the Greek term, but readily identified torpor as one of the Five Hindrances to Prayer.
We might well ask if these crazy monks don’t have it coming: if your goal is to “pray without ceasing” aren’t you asking for trouble? Is this a reasonable goal, or even a good one? Henri Nouwen tells us that “the literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest.’ The Greek word for rest,” he adds, “is ‘hesychia,’ and ‘hesychasm’ is a term which refers to the spirituality of the desert.” The “rest” that the monk is seeking is not an easy one, and as Nouwen writes, it “has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.” Acedia is the monk’s temptation because, in a demanding life of prayer, it offers the ease of indifference. Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married “for better for worse,” anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. When I complained to a Benedictine friend that for me, acedia was no longer a noontime demon but seemed like a twenty-four-hour proposition, he replied, “Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere.”
Examining Acedia: Sin or Sickness
To examine acedia is to come face-to-face with a crucial question: Is acedia sin or sickness? It is an easy temptation to equate acedia and depression. The medical historian Bill Bynum, writing in The Lancet, notes that “there is an often repeated trajectory in medical history, from sin through crime and vice, ending in disease…By the late 19th century, psychiatrists defined acedia as a mental condition of sadness, mental confusion and apathy, bitterness of spirit, loss of liveliness, and utter despair. [Now] psychiatrists medicalize it, Catholic priests theologize it, and management consultants denigrate it to ‘laziness.’” All of this is true, insofar as it goes, but it is not the whole story.
In The Sin of Sloth, the scholar Siegfried Wenzel provides a useful survey of acedia’s history. He observes that for Evagrius, it was a thought, or a temptation, resulting from “a combination of an external agent and a disposition in human nature one of the eight bad thoughts that plagued a monk, while John Cassian discerned in acedia a stubborn sadness that could lead the monk into a far worse state of distress. In the sixth century, John Climacus equated tedium with despondency, and spoke of it as “a paralysis of soul.” Acedia’s omission from the list of the “eight bad thoughts.” which eventually became the seven deadly sins, began early in the fifth century, when the influential monk Cassian, even as he recognized acedia’s link with sadness, emphasized its physical aspects as laziness. By the next century, the theologian Gregory the Great had dropped acedia from the capital vices, fusing it with sadness; his list of the seven principal sins is still recognizable today. Cassian and Gregory had built on the desert tradition but altered it considerably, and acedia began to disappear from the common lexicon of spiritual life.
For the medieval scholastic theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas, acedia held what Wenzel terms an “intermediate position between body and spirit.” It may spring from physical weariness, but ultimately it is the spiritual phenomenon of “aversion of the appetite from its own good.” specifically an “aversion against God himself…. It is the opposite of the joy in the divine good that we should experience.” The person afflicted with acedia, even if she knows what is spiritually good for him, is tempted to deny that his inner beauty and spiritual strength are at his disposal, as gifts from God. “Give up long enough on trying to be spiritually lovely.” one contemporary philosopher explains, “and you will decide that no one could love anything as ugly as you — and then you have despair.” Such a person can seem so trapped within himself that others will say, “His only enemy is himself.” But the true enemy is the acedia that has set into motion the endless cycle of self-defeating thoughts.
Until the early thirteenth century, acedia was seen as exclusively a monastic vice, caused by the rigors of an ascetic life. As the concept was applied to laypeople it lost much of its religious import. It came to mean physical as well as spiritual laziness, and to combat it meant embracing what is now both extolled and disparaged as the Protestant work ethic. If we trace with Wenzel what he calls “the deterioration of acedia” in the late Middle Ages, we find the sin increasingly secularized, until in the Renaissance it is replaced with melancholy — where, to a large extent, it remains today. I suspect that many people now would answer the question “Is acedia depression?” with a reflexive and assured “Yes, of course,” depression having become a catchall for not only mental illness but also a wide range of emotions. Pharmaceutical companies advertise in newspapers and popular magazines with lists of symptoms — feeling down, anxious, fatigued, or discouraged — that would seem to cover most everyone at some time, as is no doubt the point. These advertisements can inspire people who need treatment to seek it, but they also serve the purposes of commerce and feed a disturbing tendency to medicalize all human experience.
This is nothing new: in the 1970s, Karl Menninger called “absurd” a statistic purporting that some sixty percent of Americans were afflicted with “chronic states of disorganization, formerly labeled ‘schizophrenic.’” Psychiatric counseling and prescription medication were seen as the solution to the problem. This avoids the question of whether despair can be a reasonable or even healthy response to suffering and evil. If we are to address this, it is essential, according to Menninger, that we “[relinquish] the sin of indifference,” the “Great Sin’ of acedia.” While acedia may appear in many guises, “no amount of sentimentalizing [it] as ‘contentedness,’ ‘minding one’s own business; and ‘living and letting live’ can cover up its devastating effects.” It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the state of our lives and the world, but we still must examine our response. If we shrug and turn inward, are we normal, ill, or somewhere in between? The very ubiquity of indifference should give us pause. “Inactivity and unresponsiveness in those upon whose cooperative efforts we depend always feels to us like sinful negligence;’ Menninger wrote. “The persistence of this taboo over the centuries testifies to the universality of the temptation to shirk.” As a psychiatrist, Menninger knew that “inactivity and idleness may (also) be an expression of fear, self-distrust, or self-misunderstanding. . . One can never be sure whether indifference is an aspect of sloth (acedia) or a perceptual intellectual deficiency — a certain blindness in human beings; as William James called it: ‘Whatever we call it, we might admit that given the condition of our world, “to transcend one’s own self-centeredness is not a virtue [but] a saving necessity.” We might also apply some common sense.
Discouragement is not necessarily a sign of illness, for people are often discouraged for good reason. Feeling off balance and ill-at-ease may be a sign of sanity, just the goad one needs to face a bad situation. A friend, a professor of philosophy, observes that many depressives accurately perceive that they are living under conditions in which any reasonable person might be despondent. But, she asks with her customary acuity, can the same be said of acedia? Can it ever be considered a rational response to the vagaries of life? From the perspective of Christian theology, the answer would be no, for acedia is understood as the rejection of a divine and entirely good gift. Because we are made in God’s image, in fleeing from a relationship with a loving God, we are also running from being our most authentic selves. Even from a secular point of view, we can see that acedia is intrinsically deadly, whereas depression may not be. When we face a grievous loss — of a loved one, a job, a marriage, or health — depression can be an inevitable and appropriate response, providing a time-out to allow for healing. But what if one responded to such a loss with a casual yawn, as if none of it had mattered in the first place? That is the horror of acedia, and its intractable isolation. The journey back from such a deadly solipsism would be extremely arduous, if one could find one’s way at all.
Is acedia depression? My answer is, No, not exactly, but I must struggle to articulate the difference with precision. My job is not made easier in the contemporary climate, when not to name acedia as depression can make one suspicious of being in denial, or worse, of judging people who are ill as being morally deficient. This is an area where only a fool would dare to tread, and thus I tread along, trying to keep in mind the useful distinction that Thomas Aquinas makes between acedia and despair. A contemporary scholar summarizes his insight:
“For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.”
As Evagrius and Cassian do not merely predate modern psychology, but also prefigure it, I am willing to grant to their writings the same latitude I give to other ancient literature. Their perspective helps me confront my own bad thoughts, temptations, neuroses, and compulsions, and I also know that I am not alone. A young woman recently told me that reading Cassian on sadness and acedia helped her cope with depression in ways that complemented the medications she’d taken and the therapy she’d received. But if I am to appreciate fully the contribution of these early Christian writers, I need to let go of the comfortable assumption, still pervasive in literary and academic circles, that religion is of no use to us today. Grounded in the nineteenth-century belief in unceasing human advancement and in the writings of such innovators as Freud and Nietzsche, this prejudice takes myriad forms: the smug certainty that religion keeps people at an infantile stage of development that the worldly person must outgrow; that it is a weapon to make people feel guilty for things that are not their fault; that it is the cause of all violent conflict.
Joyce Carol Oates, in a review of Andrew Solomon’s masterly study of depression, The Noonday Demon, epitomizes a disdain for religion that is common among intellectuals, but she contributes something welcome and rare in acknowledging its profound value, even to Un-believers. She laments the Judeo-Christian origins of Solomon’s title, writing that “one might wince at the theological metaphor, with its suggestion of demonic possession — a primitive stage in our comprehension of mental illness we like to believe we’ve advanced beyond?’ Yet, she adds, “the poetic figure of speech is a powerful one that no amount of scientific terminology and matter-of-fact discussions of serotonin deficiency, neurotransmitter systems or tricyclics can match. Though we ‘know’ better, we tend to ‘feel’ symbolically.”
I appreciate how, in a deft phrase, Oates skewers what amounts to religious faith in science, technology, and medicine, which, in confronting the mysteries of our bodies, remains less a science than an art. Maybe we still need to “feel” symbolically because we’re human. Let’s look at an ancient poem, Psalm 91, from which the early monks coined the term “noonday demon”:
You will not fear the terror of the night
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the plague that prowls in the darkness
nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.
While we are all too familiar with nighttime terrors, we might well ask: What scourge that lays waste at noon? Andrew Solomon explains that he chose The Noonday Demon as the title for his book because he found the phrase describes so exactly what one experiences in depression…Most demons — most forms of anguish — rely on the cover of night; to see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the whys and the wherefores and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance. There is almost no other mental state of which the same can be said.
Reading fourth- and fifth-century monks such as Evagrius and Cassian, who provide much of the substance of early Christian thought about acedia, we find that, as much as any modern psychiatrist, they knew that awareness of one’s underlying problems was key, but by itself could not effect a healing. These monks had learned that it’s at noon, when the sun is unbearably hot, and one’s energy is drained, that all the knowledge in the world is of little use. Whatever peace and joy one found at prayer in the cool of the morning could all seem false by midday, and the view of “life stretching out for a long period of time” unendurable. “The toil of the ascetic struggle,” which had once seemed the very foundation of life, was now exposed as futile.
That Evagrius characterizes these thoughts as a “demon” (he does not speak of “possession”) matters far less than the exactitude of his description of how despair takes hold of a person. I know that when I am tempted to run from an onerous task in the present, I am likely to picture past times that I now imagine to be better than they were, or to project myself into future events of which I can, in fact, know nothing. I am unable to see the grace that is available to me now, in this place and time. Acedia can flatten any place into a stark desert landscape and make hope a mirage. Time itself becomes unbearable, and I am fifteen years old again, under assault by horrible thoughts that seem mine alone. I have no idea that others have experienced this and lived to tell of it.
A desert monk troubled by “bad thoughts” knew he was not alone. He was expected to seek out an elder and ask for “a word.” But the elder consulted was likely to be reluctant, and even suspicious. If he determined that he was being consulted for the wrong reasons, as a diversion from tedium or an excuse to socialize, he would admonish the seeker to stop looking outward for what he needed to look for within. Lengthy confession or conversation was deemed unnecessary, and the elder’s good word often consisted of Zen-like instruction: “Go, sit in your cell,” said Abba Moses, “and your cell will teach you everything.”
This was a common saying in the desert. Fighting acedia with a focused, intentional stability was considered so vital in maintaining a good relationship with God and one’s fellow monks that elders sometimes gave their disciples advice that contradicted the monastic norms. One counseled, “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.” Astonishingly, given how central prayer was to the monks, another elder advised, “Don’t pray at all, just stay in the cell?’ According to one scholar, this admonition concealed “a fearsome demand” and the elder knew full well “what courage, what heroic endurance was needed to tolerate the demon of acedia. . . the most oppressive of all, whose specialty it is to take a dislike to [staying] in one place.” Call It a Day
That sort of perseverance is still required of us in contending with acedia, and it can still be a discouraging endeavor. In a speech titled “In Praise of Boredom,” the twentieth-century writer Joseph Brodsky described facing ennui head-on, and allowing yourself to be crushed by boredom, for “the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea.. is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.” Brodsky was addressing American college students, but his words would no doubt resonate with monks, who have long understood “hitting bottom” as recognizing that you are not going anywhere, because you are already there. Can’t we just call it a day, and give our overanxious and ironic selves a rest? Might we consider boredom as not only necessary for our life but also as one of its greatest blessings? A gift, pure and simple, a precious chance to be alone with our thoughts and alone with God?
In claiming boredom in this sense, we approach what monks term a “recollection of the self.” That sounds pleasant enough, but it is far from a narcissistic endeavor: in a pitched battle with acedia, we will come up against the best and the worst in ourselves. Only after this trial can we enjoy, in the words of Saint Bruno, the founder of the extremely ascetic Carthusian order, a newly dynamic solitude, in “leisure that is occupied and activity that is tranquil.” Yet it is always easier for us to busy ourselves than to merely exist. Even important and useful work can distract us from remembering who we are, and what our deeper purpose might be. Monastic wisdom insists that when we are most tempted to feel bored, apathetic, and despondent over the meaningless-ness of life we are on the verge of discovering our true self in relation to God. It is worth not giving up, because when we are willing to do nothing but “be” we meet the God who is the very ground of being, the great “I Am” whom Moses encountered at the burning bush.
One need not be a monk, or even a religious believer, to confront this mystery. In a notebook entry F. Scott Fitzgerald speaks of boredom as not “an end product” but an important and necessary “stage in life and art” acting like a filter that allows “the clear product to emerge.” The philosopher Bertrand Russell describes himself as an unhappy child who realized at the age of five that “if I should live to be seventy, I had only endured so far, a fourteenth part of my whole life, and I felt the long-spread-out boredom ahead of me to be almost unendurable.” What saved him from hating life enough to commit suicide was the “desire to know more mathematics.”
Speaking prophetically to future generations, including our own, he writes that “a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men … unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, in whom every vital impulse withers.” If I was saved by poetry, and Russell by mathematics, the challenge we faced was the same, that of daring to become an individual. Even as I discovered my vocation as a writer, I had to struggle to maintain the boring work habits necessary for nourishing it. The syndrome that the ancient monks describe is one that I know well. It is just when the work seems most hopeless, and I am hard pressed to care whether I ever write another word or not, that the most valuable breakthroughs are likely to come. When I face trials in my life and work, I have found that the perspective of another — pastor, physician, counselor, editor — can bring me to my senses. But it’s the work I have learned to do on my own — the self-editing, if you will — that has proved the most valuable.
Where acedia is concerned, the desert abbas and ammas advocate plentiful self-editing, and they employ harsh imagery to convey acedia’s power to distract us from it. John Climacus compares the person led astray by acedia to a dumb beast: “Tedium reminds those at prayer of some job to be done, and . . searches out any plausible excuse to drag us from prayer, as though with some kind of baiter]’ Most anyone who has endeavored to maintain the habit of prayer, or making art, or regular exercise or athletic training, knows this syndrome well. When I sit down to pray or to write, a host of thoughts arise. I should call to find out how so-and-so is doing. I should dust and organize my desk, because I will get more work done in a neater space. While I’m at it, I might as well load and start the washing machine. I may truly desire to write, but as I am pulled to one task after another I lose the ability to concentrate on the work at hand. Any activity, even scrubbing the toilet, seems more compelling than sitting down to face the blank page.
My favorite story about this state of mind concerns a university professor who went on sabbatical to write a book, and resolved to keep to a strict work schedule. A colleague who drove by his house one day was surprised to see him in the yard, wearing coveralls and hauling a hose. “I started to work this morning,” the man explained, “and it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve lived here for over five years and have never washed the house.”
It is all a matter of perspective. There is the story of an abba who took a piece of dry wood and told his disciple, “Water this until it bears fruit.” How bizarre, perhaps cruel, an instruction that seems; yet in nurturing a marriage over a span of thirty years, and in keeping to the discipline of writing and revising for even longer, I have often found myself watering dead wood with tears, and with very little hope. I have also been astonished by how those tears have allowed life to emerge out of what had seemed dead.