Archive for the ‘Understanding Acedia/Sloth’ Category


Asceticism – Fr. Romano Guardini

March 6, 2014
We shall have to learn that asceticism is an element of every life that is rightly lived. We shall do well if we practice setting limits to our urges, for the sake of proper measure. We shall learn to leave that which is less important but very attractive in order to attend to that which is more important. We shall take ourselves in hand in order to be spiritually free.

We shall have to learn that asceticism is an element of every life that is rightly lived. We shall do well if we practice setting limits to our urges, for the sake of proper measure. We shall learn to leave that which is less important but very attractive in order to attend to that which is more important. We shall take ourselves in hand in order to be spiritually free.

There was a time when people spoke not only scornfully but with annoyance about anything that can be called “asceticism,” as if it were not merely something wrong, but something unnatural and insulting. They thought that asceticism arose from the fear and hatred of life, even from perverted feelings; that it revealed the hatred of Christianity for the world, the corrupted sentiments of the priest who depreciated living nature in order to justify his own existence, and so on.

That was the time of liberal bourgeois prosperity. Things seem to have changed somewhat since then. Nevertheless the word asceticism still awakens resentment, so it is worthwhile to ask what it really means.

Much of the resistance against asceticism stemmed from the desire for license in following one’s urges and instincts. But this also involved a false concept of life, or, more exactly, of the manner in which life grows and bears fruit.

How does life function in nature? Men like to compare man with nature when they wish to make room for something which is contrary to the spirit of Christ. How does life go on in nature? How does a healthy animal grow and develop? By following its urges. Then everything turns out well, for instinct keeps it from going wrong.

If an animal is satisfied, it stops eating. If it is rested, it gets up. When the urge toward procreation is active, the animal follows it. When the time has passed, the urge is silent. The manner, the type, so to speak, according to which the life of nature is carried on is simply that of working out its fulfillment. The interior drive expresses itself in external action.

But what is the case with man? In him, there is a force at work which we do not find in the animal. This is so plainly real and operative that one must be blind in order not to see it. It is the spirit. This brings all that we call nature into a new situation.

In the realm of the spirit, the urge has a different meaning than it has in mere nature. It plays and works differently; so it is foolish to seek to understand the life of man by comparing it with the life of the animal. At present, men often carry the folly to greater lengths and try to understand man by comparing him with a machine. But let us not go into that. In any case, it is foolish to set up the life of an animal as the measure of the life of man.

What is the function of the spirit in regard to human urges: in the drive toward food, procreation, activity, rest, and comfort? First of all, something surprising: it intensifies the urge. No animal follows the drive toward food as much as a man who makes the pleasure its own end and thereby harms himself. In no animal does the sexual urge reach the boundless extent which it has in a man who permits it to destroy his honor and his life. No animal has the urge to kill that man has. His wars have no real counterpart in the animal kingdom.

All that we can call an urge operates differently in a man than in an animal. The spirit gives a unique freedom to the life-impulses; they become stronger and deeper, with far greater possibilities of demand and response. But at the same time, they lose the protection of the organic order which binds and secures them in the animal. They become unregulated, and their meaning is endangered.

The concept of “living to the limit” is a blind one. The animal lives to the limit; it must. But man must not. The spirit gives a new meaning to the urge. It works into the urge and gives it depth, character, and beauty. It brings it into relation with the world of values, and also with that which bears these values — the person — and so lifts it to the sphere of freedom. In the animal, the drives constitute “nature”; the spirit makes of them what we call “culture,” taking this word as an expression of responsibility and self-conquest.

In the case of the animal, the drive builds the environment that is suited to its kind, but thereby also accommodates it to conditions and limitations. In the case of man, it leads to a free encounter with the breadth and wealth of the world, but thereby it is also endangered. All that we call excessive, overwrought, and unnatural becomes possible — and enticing.

The spirit elevates man above the urge, not thereby destroying it or becoming, as a foolish statement expresses it, the “adversary of life.” Only a corrupt spirit, traitor to its own nature, does that. By the spirit, man acquires the possibility of ordering and forming the urge, and so leading it to greater heights, to its own perfection, even as an urge. Of course, it is thereby exposed to the danger of deformation and of going counter to nature.

Let us emphasize once more that all this points to the fact that a drive or urge in man means something different from an urge in the animal and that it makes no sense if a man seeks the pattern for his life in the animal or in mere nature. Asceticism means that a man resolves to live as a man.

This brings about a necessity which does not exist for the animal; that is, the need to keep his urges in an order which is freely willed and to overcome his tendency toward excess or toward a wrong direction.

This is not to imply that the urges are in themselves evil. They belong to the nature of man, and operate in all forms and areas of his life. They compose his store of energy. To weaken them would be to weaken life. But life is good. A deep current in the history of religion and ethics proceeds from the thought that the urges as such, sexual activity, the body, and even matter itself are evil — indeed the very principle of evil — while the spirit as such is good. This is dualism, in which, certainly, noble motives are at work; but, as a whole, it becomes a dangerous error, and very often ends in a surrender to the urge.

The motive for true asceticism does not lie in such a struggle to overcome the urges, but in the necessity of bringing them into proper order. The order is determined by various considerations: the question of health, regard for other persons, and our duties to our vocation and our work. Every day makes new demands and obliges us to keep ourselves in order. And this is asceticism. The word, derived from the Greek askesis, means practice and exercise, exercise in the proper directing of one’s life.

We must also consider the fact that there is a hierarchy of values. For instance, there are everyday values: those that pertain to our physical life; above these there are the values of our vocation and our work; still higher are those of personal relations and intellectual activity; and finally those which are attained by our immediate relation to God. We realize these values by means of the powers of our being; but these are limited, and we must understand clearly to which tasks we want to turn them. We must choose, and then carry out our choice. This requires exertion and sacrifices — and that, too, is asceticism.

Apart from all this, everyone who knows the tendency of human nature toward self-indulgence also knows how necessary it is to impose upon ourselves voluntary exercises in self-control, such as are not demanded by our immediate purposes. They are necessary so that the will may more easily fulfill the demands of duty when these present themselves. They are necessary also as a way to freedom which consists in being master of oneself, of one’s impulses and circumstances.

The physical urges which proceed from the somatopsychic organization of man present themselves so plainly to our consciousness that the mental and spiritual urges can easily be overlooked. But these, as a matter of fact, are more decisive from the point of view of our total community life. The building up of what we call “the personality,” its preservation in the world, and its activity and creativity is based upon mental and spiritual urges.

There is the urge toward recognition and esteem, toward power in all its forms. There is the urge toward social and community life, toward freedom and culture, toward knowledge and artistic creation, etc. All of these urges have, as we said, their significance as impulses basic to self-preservation and self-development.

But they are also inclined to become excessive, to bring our life out of harmony with the lives of others and so to become disturbing or destructive.

Therefore a constant discipline is necessary, a discipline whose principles are determined by ethics and practical philosophy; this discipline is asceticism.

But let us put aside generalities and look at a concrete situation — for example, a friendship. Two persons have learned to know and like each other. They have discovered a community of tastes and viewpoints. They find each other congenial and trust each other. They think that their friendship is secure and make no further efforts to preserve it.

But, as we can expect, there are also differences between them, and gradually these make themselves felt. Misunderstandings arise — annoyances, tensions. But neither of the two seeks the causes where they really are, namely in his own self-confidence and carelessness, and after a short time, the two get on each other’s nerves. The quiet confidence disappears, and gradually the whole relationship disintegrates.

If a friendship is to endure, it must be guarded. There must be something that will preserve it. Each of the two must give the other room to be what he is. Each must become conscious of his own failings and regard those of the other with the eyes of friendship. To will this and to carry it out in the face of the hypersensitiveness, sloth, and narrowness of our own nature — that again is asceticism.

Why do so many marriages grow dull and empty? Because each of the two partners has the basic idea that the purpose of marriage is “happiness,” which means that each can find fulfillment in simply living his own life to the fullest extent.

Actually, a true marriage is a union of two lives; it is helpfulness and loyalty. Marriage means that “each shall bear the other’s burden,” as St. Paul says.[Cf. Galatians 6:2] So a spiritual responsibility must keep watch over it. Again and again, each must accept the other as the person he is, must renounce what cannot be, must put away the mendacious notions fostered by films, which destroy the reality of marriage. He must know that after the finding of each other in the first stage of love, the task just begins. A genuine marriage can endure only through self-discipline and self-conquest. Then it becomes real, capable of producing life and of sending life into the world.

Someone founds an institution, undertakes a work, or does whatever his vocation entails. Let us imagine the most propitious case, that this is his true vocation and he is doing that for which he has talent or ability, and so likes doing it. At first he enjoys the task and puts forth every effort.

Perhaps it would be necessary even then to tell him to keep within the measure of the possible and not to overdo. For after a time, the tension relaxes, the more quickly as the original effort was more intense; but the tasks continue. What will happen if they are based only on the “full life,” the joy in working and in accomplishing results? Then indifference will result and later aversion, and finally everything will collapse.

No work can flourish if it is not sustained by a responsibility which induces a man to perform his task faithfully and unselfishly.

Human life has many strata. There are superficial things, some that go deeper, and some that are quite essential – and each stratum has its requirements, values, and fulfillments. Plainly, we cannot have everything at the same time; we must choose, must surrender one thing in order that the other can come to pass.

Let us consider everyday life once more. The man who constantly watches movies loses his taste for great drama; he no longer understands it. So he must ask himself what he really wants and must choose. He must put away the superficial charms of the movies in order to be capable of experiencing what is more valuable, perhaps to become so once more; or he must stay with the movies and persuade himself that these are the art of the times, that he needs the relaxation, and cannot force himself, after the toil of the day, to the mental exertion that real drama demands, and so on.

The person who reads a great deal of trash loses the taste for good reading. So he must make up his mind as to what is more important for him. One who is constantly among people, talking and discussing, loses the ability to live with himself, and so loses all that which only reveals itself in solitude. Again it is a question of either-or. And much self-control is required to triumph over the restlessness which drives one out.

If a man wishes to obtain from life the precious gifts that it can bestow, then he must know that it is only by renouncing a lesser good that he can have the greater.

The people who preach the gospel of the “good life” say that we must not curtail this life; we must bring out all its possibilities and enjoy them. If we ask them what the true content of this life — its meaning and its standard — may be, they answer, “Life itself, the strong, sensitive rich life.” But is that true? Is life its own meaning and measure?

Not only ordinary people speak in this way. There have been whole philosophies that have taught the same thing. But is it not very revealing that today we have the opposite of this — namely, a philosophy of disappointment and of nausea?

The meaning of life does not consist in enjoying one’s own sensations and powers, but in bringing about the fulfillment of the task assigned to us. Man lives truly and fully if he knows his responsibility; if he carries out the task that awaits him; and if he meets the needs of the persons entrusted to him. But to recognize and to choose the right thing and reject what is wrong — this constant effort to transcend one’s own wishes and meet one’s obligations — that is asceticism.

Let us finally consider that which determines the meaning of our existence, the relation to the one who created us, under whose glance we live and before whom we must appear after our few years upon earth; then we shall easily see that no relation to Him can be established without discipline and self-conquest.

Man is not driven forcibly to God. If he does not discipline himself, betake himself to prayer in the morning and in the evening, make the observance of the Lord’s Day an important occasion, and have a book at hand which will show him again and again something of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the things of God [Ephesians 3:18], then his life continually passes over the quiet admonitions that come from within. When he should be with God, he is bored, for everything seems empty.

Lectures, newspapers, and radio teach him that religious values and relationships do not exist any longer for modern man, and he feels not only justified, but progressive. Like every other serious matter, to be at home with God, so that one associates with Him gladly and feels the joy of His presence, requires practice. It must be willed and carried out with much self-conquest, again and again. Then God gives us as a grace the sense of His holy presence.

So we shall have to learn that asceticism is an element of every life that is rightly lived. We shall do well if we practice setting limits to our urges, for the sake of proper measure. We shall learn to leave that which is less important but very attractive in order to attend to that which is more important. We shall take ourselves in hand in order to be spiritually free.

For example (we trust the reader will not mistake accuracy for pedantry), before going into the city we might resolve not to let ourselves be caught by advertisements and by people, but to keep our mind occupied with a fine thought or recollected in quiet freedom. Or we might turn off the radio so that the room will be still.

Perhaps we might remain at home one evening instead of going out, or say no sometimes when eating or drinking or smoking — or many things of that sort. As soon as we turn our attention to the matter, we shall find many occasions for a liberating practice: learning to endure pain instead of resorting immediately to medication; accepting inwardly the renunciation that may be salutary for us; greeting an uncongenial person with quiet friendliness.

These and other such actions are not great things. We are not speaking of strict fasting or night vigils or difficult penances, but of practice in right living; of the truth that our life is different from that of the animal. It is human life, in which the internal drives are lifted by the spirit into a glorious but dangerous freedom. This spirit gives them their motive force, but it must also supply the regulating power, by means of which life is not destroyed, but brought to its fullness.


Leisure: The Life and Health of the Soul by Mitchell Kalpakgian

January 20, 2014
Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose. In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Young Man in London's National Gallery. The influence of Dürer's print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer's print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail. Dürer's work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms. Sitting around, head in hand? Face a bit shadowy? My diagnosis: melancholia. Helpfully, Dürer even names this condition on the banner held aloft by a bat-like creature. Since people still suffer from melancholy – more likely calling it depression, the dumps or the blues – Dürer's image continues to resonate. As does his implication that melancholy afflicts the most ambitious human efforts, that it is a historical and collective, not just a personal, fate. The diagnosis that Dürer offers is rooted in medieval medicine. According to the notion of the "humours", melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile – hence the darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Dürer offers something else not found in the old pseudo-science – a sense of a soul weighed down by its own intellect. In fact, the roots of his visionary masterpiece lie in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well. In 15th-century Florence, philosopher Marsilio Ficino claimed that intellectuals, gifted and introspective souls like himself, were especially prone to the malaise of melancholy. He proposed various magical remedies to lift it – often invoking the power of the planet and goddess Venus to bring joy to the joyless. Dürer powerfully translates Ficino's idea of the sad intellectual into a heroic portrait of a great mind surrounded by unused tools of discovery and creation. Yet there is something more still. Dürer, we can guess from this print, knew the darkness of melancholy personally. He also knew it was the curse of one of the greatest artists of his time: his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, whose art he had studied. Da Vinci notoriously suffered from a strange affliction that stopped him finishing his paintings. He fretted for years over a colossal statue of a horse that he never made, and started a battle painting that he left as a ruinous sketch on a wall in Florence. By 1514, he was a byword for mystifyingly irresolute genius. Is Melencolia I an allegorical portrait of the creative paralysis of da Vinci, the paragon of Renaissance art who Dürer aspired to emulate – flaws included? If so, this would be the first of many Germanic attempts to understand Leonardo, including Goethe's famous essay on The Last Supper, and Sigmund Freud's book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood. Freud diagnoses Leonardo in modern clinical language. But nothing he says, there or elsewhere, is any more insightful than Albrecht Dürer's majestic and enduring study of the troubled human mind.

Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose.
In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Young Man in London’s National Gallery. The influence of Dürer’s print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer’s print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail.
Dürer’s work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms. Sitting around, head in hand? Face a bit shadowy? My diagnosis: melancholia. Helpfully, Dürer even names this condition on the banner held aloft by a bat-like creature.
Since people still suffer from melancholy – more likely calling it depression, the dumps or the blues – Dürer’s image continues to resonate. As does his implication that melancholy afflicts the most ambitious human efforts, that it is a historical and collective, not just a personal, fate.
The diagnosis that Dürer offers is rooted in medieval medicine. According to the notion of the “humours”, melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile – hence the darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Dürer offers something else not found in the old pseudo-science – a sense of a soul weighed down by its own intellect. In fact, the roots of his visionary masterpiece lie in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well.
In 15th-century Florence, philosopher Marsilio Ficino claimed that intellectuals, gifted and introspective souls like himself, were especially prone to the malaise of melancholy. He proposed various magical remedies to lift it – often invoking the power of the planet and goddess Venus to bring joy to the joyless.
Dürer powerfully translates Ficino’s idea of the sad intellectual into a heroic portrait of a great mind surrounded by unused tools of discovery and creation. Yet there is something more still. Dürer, we can guess from this print, knew the darkness of melancholy personally. He also knew it was the curse of one of the greatest artists of his time: his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, whose art he had studied. Da Vinci notoriously suffered from a strange affliction that stopped him finishing his paintings. He fretted for years over a colossal statue of a horse that he never made, and started a battle painting that he left as a ruinous sketch on a wall in Florence. By 1514, he was a byword for mystifyingly irresolute genius.
Is Melencolia I an allegorical portrait of the creative paralysis of da Vinci, the paragon of Renaissance art who Dürer aspired to emulate – flaws included? If so, this would be the first of many Germanic attempts to understand Leonardo, including Goethe’s famous essay on The Last Supper, and Sigmund Freud’s book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.
Freud diagnoses Leonardo in modern clinical language. But nothing he says, there or elsewhere, is any more insightful than Albrecht Dürer’s majestic and enduring study of the troubled human mind.

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian examines the deadly vice of acedia, its effects on the human mind and spirit, and why the art of leisure is so important, especially in today’s workaday society. Taken from the March 2009 Homiletic & Pastoral Review Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian has taught English literature for thirty-nine years at several colleges. He is the author of two books, The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels , and The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature (Neuman Press, 2000). He has published articles in the New Oxford Review, Culture Wars and The Catholic Faith.


To ignore the Third Commandment and not keep holy the Sabbath not only violates divine law but also forms the vice of acedia, that condition of the soul associated with apathy and joylessness. If a person does not enjoy periodic rest, cultivate leisure on festive occasions, or restore his soul by honoring Sunday as a day of celebration, worship and rejuvenation of body and spirit, he becomes prey to the noon-day demon that releases the various symptoms of acedia that afflict the soul.

The Latin word that corresponds to the deadly sin of sloth, acedia signifies a state of mind, body and soul that manifests tendencies like listlessness, lukewarmness, restless, sadness and despair; as Josef Pieper explains in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the unleisurely person

“[is] not at one with himself . . . as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him — and this sadness is that ‘sadness of the world’ (tristitia saeculi) spoken of in the Bible.”

A person who never plays or rejuvenates himself, who never distinguishes between work days and holy days, and who disregards the Greek distinction between living and living well invites an attack from the noon-day demon associated with the vice of sloth.

As the name suggests, the noon-day demon afflicts its victims in the middle of things — in the middle of the day when fatigue rules the body, in the middle of a journey when boredom or exhaustion destroys enthusiasm, and in the middle of life when ennui wearies the spirit. In this condition of being in the middle of things, the excitement and newness of the beginning have lost their freshness, and the anticipation of the end and the thrill of accomplishment have not whetted the appetite for joy.

Thus acedia inflicts upon the person in the middle of things the state of lukewarmness or indifference. The noon-day demon makes a person neither hot nor cold, neither fervent about loving the good nor passionate about hating evil. This dullness or apathy becomes oppressive and robs a person of joy and hope, easily discouraging him from completing his journey, fulfilling his duty, or honoring his vows.

Once acedia rules a person, he loses his resolution and purpose and fails to finish an undertaking with the conviction of the traveler in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

“And I have miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”

Acedia also breeds listlessness. Because a person does not participate in the restorative leisure of Sunday or taste the rejuvenation of play, a person finds himself listless when not working. Time becomes burdensome and needs to be escaped by mindless activities that “kill” time and eliminate boredom.

Thus unleisurely, unsociable pursuits such as endless hours of television viewing or Internet browsing fill the vacuum. In the total world of work without leisure, the time away from work is considered merely a “break” or a period of recovery for the body to nourish itself with food and fortify itself with sleep in order to return to work and regain physical energy.

However, food for the soul and refreshment for the spirit do not receive their proper nourishment. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby — the epitome of the “workaholic” who lives in his office and works even on Sundays — only eats and sleeps in order to return to work, never enjoying friendship, recreation or beauty. Listless and unoccupied when not working, he lives to work rather than working in order to play, and in the process he becomes perfunctory in his habits and lifeless in his demeanor, confining his conversation to a single phrase: “I prefer not to.”

This listlessness of mind and spirit, however, can lead to restlessness or frantic activity — another trait of acedia. Chaucer’s famous description of the lawyer from the prologue of The Canterbury Tales summarizes this state of mind: “Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas/ And yet he semed bisier than he was.

“Just as passive, inane entertainment fills the void and combats boredom, constant movement and incessant busyness also dispel the monotony of time. Compulsive shopping, an unnecessary second job, an overscheduled day or week, involvement in more volunteer work and committees, and endless home improvements all provide substitutes for true leisure. A benefit of leisure is a change in rhythm, an opportunity to “be still” and recollected and experience the joys of an interior life and the pleasure of contemplation that Pieper describes as a “relaxed . . . purely receptive” beholding and “listening-in to the being of things.”

The purpose of leisure, then, is both social and contemplative, an occasion to enjoy the company and conversation of friendship and an occasion to “taste and see the sweetness of the Lord” and revel in the pure goodness of life’s simple pleasures. Like Alexander the Great’s obsessive preoccupation with more conquests and victories even after he ruled the Greek world and was proclaimed king of Asia — Alexander wallowed in sadness because his troops refused to cross the Ganges, as Plutarch records — compulsive activity enervates a person’s strength and robs the spirit of the regeneration that only leisure and play bestow.

The inspiration of the Muses and the power of Eros, as Pieper acknowledges, do not touch the listless, who waste time, or the restless, who never pause. They never experience the joy that Gerard Manly Hopkins celebrates in his poetry: “Glory be to God for dappled things . . . The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . . Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!”

Another by-product of acedia that follows the absence of leisure is sadness, a sense of world-weariness expressed in words like the German Weltschmerz, the French ennui and the Latin tristitia that convey a tiredness with life. Instead of affirming the goodness of creation or rejoicing in the simple pleasures of life, the unleisurely suffer a chronic melancholy, a type of sickness unto death.

This sadness does not proceed from natural causes such as death, tragedy or injustice, but from a jadedness from living, a feeling of déjà vu (“been there, done that”). The repetition of work without leisure, the busyness of activity without joy, and the regimen of living to work instead of working to play allow no opportunities to transcend the workaday world of getting and spending to experience innocent, wholesome, childlike fun or the highest joys of civilization that worship, beauty and learning proffer.

Unlike the ancient Greeks who, as Pericles observed in his famous “Funeral Oration,” cultivate beauty and play (“When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits”), the unleisurely neglect their emotional, physical and mental health. They do not avail themselves of the natural, God-given cures that combat world weariness and the sense of vanitas vanitatum.

Without the normal healing of the Sabbath and the sheer joy of exhilaration afforded by life’s natural experiences of goodness, beauty and truth, the human spirit suffers from melancholy and never recovers from sadness. In Plato’s words, when men ignore divine festivals “as a means of refreshment from their fatigue,” the weight of the world’s cares does not allow them to stand erect and “return to an upright posture.”

The most insidious and destructive dimension of acedia is despair, a symptom that explains the deadly nature of this capital vice. Chronic listlessness, perpetual lukewarmness, compulsive restlessness and deep-seated sadness lead the soul to the state of hopelessness. When a person never looks forward to a time of leisure and recreation, when nothing beautiful, good, noble or miraculous inspires love or wonder, and when no form of activity produces rest, repose and happiness, the future appears bleak — a state of consciousness that Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 experiences when he comments on the drabness of modern life:

“It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty or insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness.”

In the totalitarian regime of Big Brother, Winston suffers the dreary flatness of daily life because he is deprived of every form of leisure and play. After his day of work at the Ministry of Truth, Winston spends his free hours performing more labors for the Party — demonstrations, rallies and other political functions that amount to drudgery.

The world in 1984 is devoid of beauty, art, poetry and great literature, for the classics have been banned to assure the proliferation of the Party’s ideological propaganda. As Comrade Syme explains, “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron — they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”

In the secretive world of Thought Police and spy networks where everyone suspects and distrusts everyone, Winston enjoys no friendships and pursues no romantic relationships. In the godless world of Oceania, Winston never anticipates the leisure of a Sunday, the celebration of holidays, or the civilizing, humanizing pleasures that restore the soul and lift the heart.

The acedia he suffers because of Big Brother’s dictatorial control of every aspect of personal life from work to play to thought to romance leads to a crisis in Winston’s life, where he ponders the famous existential question of “to be or not to be” that Hamlet posed. Winston struggles in the novel to decide whether “to stay alive” or “to stay human” as he grapples with the temptations of despair.

A humane society, then, that cultivates leisure and works in order to play creates culture. Without the fruits of leisure human life lacks the power of renewal and regeneration that worship, beauty, hospitality, friendship, games and conversation provide the human spirit. This ideal balance of work and play, which creates civilization, epitomizes the art of living well that the ancient Greeks bequeathed to the West.

In Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus sojourns in the country of Phaeacia, he revels in the society of a cultured people who not only welcome him with the rituals of old-world hospitality and provide him all the comforts of the body but also invite his storytelling, conversation and knowledge as they marvel at the tales of his adventures. The music of the bard, the performance of the dancers and the exhilaration of the Olympic games inspire his wonder, lift his spirits and make his heart rejoice. The warm sociability of the Phaeacians, their worship of the gods and their appreciation of “the feast, the lyre and dance” all derive from their practice of leisure.

Symptoms of acedia like listlessness do not appear in this land, for the people are productive in shipbuilding and weaving and skilled in dancing; as King Alcinous declares, “How far we excel the world in sailing, nimble footwork, dance and song.”

Celebrating the feasts of hospitality and the athletic games, the Phaeacians do not suffer world weariness but savor the sweetness of life’s simple pleasures. As they honor their guest with a kingly welcome, they affirm their gladness at the joy of living and illustrate what Pieper calls “the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence” — the sense that “man is not only in harmony with himself . . . but also in agreement with the world and its meaning.” Because of these many blessings of leisure, Odysseus feels human and civilized again after all his tribulations at war and dangers at sea.

Without leisure, a society becomes dehumanized, impersonal, perfunctory or barbaric. Just as Winston in 1984 loses his capacity to think, feel, play and love because Big Brother and the Party organize their society as a regimen of total work and no play and regard persons as functionaries, so also the cyclopes in the Odyssey degenerate into crude barbarians because their way of life lacks every vestige of culture or civilization that comes from leisure: no worship of the gods, no customs of hospitality, no sense of beauty, and no conversations or life of the mind.

Both Winston Smith suffering the stark loneliness of daily life in 1984 and the cyclopes living in the darkness of solitary caves without a social or political life are depictions of existence as mere survival, the struggle “to stay alive.” The social virtues that foster civilization have no place either in 1984 or the caves of the cyclopes, where no one experiences a sense of belonging to a family or to a society. The art of living well cannot flourish in a culture that does not value the festive experiences that unify people and remind them of their common humanity.

Without the mirth, joy and rest of leisure, man does not drink from the cup of blessings or taste the sweetness of life that the goodness of creation offers from God’s divine Providence. If, as St. Thomas Aquinas commented, “No man can live without pleasure,” then this deprivation robs persons of a civilized life that accords with man’s dignity as a creature who has been created to rest on the Sabbath, to recreate on festive occasions and to provide for the body in order to enjoy the fruits of the spirit.

Like all of the seven deadly sins, acedia awaits its opportunity to seduce human beings. The noon-day demon prowls everywhere in a workaholic society that knows only work and idleness and preys upon the tired, the bored and the apathetic who lack the time, the energy and the spirit to look above, to lift their hearts, and to fall in love with life again and again in the revel of mirthful play.

This great truth that leisure teaches is both simple and profound: the goodness of creation provides inexhaustible sources of renewal, regeneration and rejuvenation that are as plentiful as the myriad of stars. Just as play always gladdens the child, just as love always renews the heart and just as laughter always refreshes the spirit, leisure always liberates man from enslavement to work and releases him from the bondage to servile activities like earning money in order to contemplate the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The great mystery of leisure, then — to use a phrase from Xenophon when he refers to agriculture — is that it is “a generous art.” It gives so much, and it costs so little; “it is all a purchase, all is a prize.” So much exists to gladden and uplift the hearts of so many people. Just as the cycle of day and night requires man to eat, drink and sleep to replenish himself, the rhythms of the weeks and seasons also demand the food and drink and rest of the spirit that leisure provides.

As Pieper writes,

“The surge of new life that flows to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery — is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep?”

A jaded, listless world debilitated by work, worry and debt and indoctrinated with the ideas of the noon-day demon (“Let both man and woman work,” “Let them think they need more things,” and “Let them have no time except to eat and sleep”) needs this “surge of new life” again and again to resist the wiles of the deadly sin of acedia.


The Bright Sadness Of Lent

February 24, 2012

The theme chosen for Lent was "Where is Christ in the Desert of Your Life?" The stark setting included rocks of the desert painted cream to match the walls, a barren bush, water jug, and black fabric, draped from cream cloth on the altar of sacrifice down onto the marble tile. The setting remained throughout the 40 days of Lent.

You will find in this meditation by Fr. Schmemann a wonderful reflection on sloth. I have another five essays on Understanding Acedia/Sloth  as it is something I truly struggle with in my religious life – it makes a shambles of everything I struggle to do or be. I can’t even seem to get others to understand it, either. A therapist I was working with recently couldn’t see past my struggles for the sin itself and found in it a reason to break off our sessions. I had exceeded my number of visits and she was looking for a way out but I can’t tell you how her distorted view of me added to my utter despair.


For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent — something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

This Lenten “atmosphere,” this unique “state of mind,” is brought about mainly by means of worship, by the various changes introduced during that season into the liturgical life.’ Considered separately, these changes may appear as incomprehensible “rubrics,” as formal prescriptions to be formally adhered to; but understood as a whole, they reveal and communicate the spirit of Lent, they make us see, feel, and experience that bright sadness which is the true message and gift of Lent.

One can say without exaggeration that the spiritual fathers and the sacred writers who composed the hymns of the Lenten Tradion, who little by little organized the general structures of the Lenten services, who adorned the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts with that special beauty which is proper to it, had a unique understanding of the human soul. They truly knew the art of repentance, and every year during Lent they make this art accessible to everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see.

The general impression, I said, is that of “bright sadness.” Even a man having only a limited knowledge of worship who enters a church during a Lenten service would understand almost immediately, I am sure, what is meant by this somewhat contradictory expression. On the one hand, a certain quiet sadness permeates the service: vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement. Readings and chants alternate yet nothing seems to “happen.” At regular intervals the priest comes out of the sanctuary and reads always the same short prayer, and the whole congregation punctuates every petition of that prayer with prostrations. Thus, for a long time we stand in this monotony — in this quiet sadness.

But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable “action” of the service in us. Little by little we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed “bright,” that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access — a place where they have no power.

All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having, in the words of Dostoevsky, touched “another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust. We understand then why the services had to be long and seemingly monotonous. We understand that it is simply impossible to pass from our normal state of mind made up almost entirely of fuss, rush, and care, into this new one without first “quieting down,” without restoring in ourselves a measure of inner stability.

This is why those who think of church services only in terms of “obligations,” who always inquire about the required minimum (“How often must we go to church?” “How often must we pray?”) can never understand the true nature of worship which is to take us into a different world — that of God’s Presence! — but to take us there slowly because our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.

Thus, as we experience this mysterious liberation, as we become “light and peaceful,” the monotony and the sadness of the service acquire a new significance, they are transfigured. An inner beauty illumines them like an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain. This light and secret joy come from the long alleluias, from the entire “tonality” of Lenten worship. What at first appeared as monotony now is revealed as peace; what sounded like sadness is now experienced as the very first movements of the soul recovering its lost depth. This is what the first verse of the Lenten alleluia proclaims every morning: “My soul has desired Thee in the night, O God, before dawn, for Thy judgments are a light upon the earth!”

“Sad brightness”: the sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home. Such is the climate of Lenten worship; such is its first and general impact on my soul.

The Lenten Prayer Of St. Ephrem The Syrian
Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life — St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
     faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
     humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
     and not to judge my brother;

For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages.

This prayer is read twice at the end of each Lenten service Monday through Friday (not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days do not follow the Lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.

Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire Lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the negative and positive elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a “check list” for our individual Lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.

The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down’ rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.

The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.

Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and self-centered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction.

If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments.

The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.

Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John 1:1) . But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.

These four are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer — this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.

  1. Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.
  2. The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.
  3. Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue.God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.
  4. Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love — that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone — the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.

All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the Lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy — pride will be destroyed in us.

After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire Lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all. In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body.

The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious, the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.” Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body.

For this reason, the whole man — soul and body — repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the Lenten rite par excellence.


Reading Selections from Depression’s Upside by Jonah Lehrer

March 4, 2010

Jonah Lehrer’s Depression’s Upside was recently featured in the NY Times magazine (Feb 28, 2010). As someone who has extensively quoted Kathleen Norris’ Acedia & Me that suggests the same “upside,” it was a fascinating read and I’m offering some reading selections here.

Norris had offered the following observations about acedia: “Let’s call it sickness, a desert malady. Anyone could lose perspective in that heat, weakened by hunger, thirst, and uncertainty. Yet a curious fact about illness, including depression, is that it can bring us to clarity. We value the quality of attention that comes to us when we are not well. In “I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK [ her review of The Noonday Demon, Joyce Carol Oates observes that “those afflicted with depression are often ambivalent about it, as no one is ambivalent about physical illness.” Her latter assumption belies the fact that people of many faiths have experienced ailments and incapacities as a gateway to spiritual insight. But her observation about depression reflects the fact that many people are conflicted about a state in which the ploys they’ve used to color things in their favor are stripped away, and they sense that they are witnessing the world as it is. The light maybe harsher than we would like, but at least it forces us to see.

[This reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s creed: “One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy,” he wrote from Siberia. “And yet God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simply: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Saviour: I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.” I confess that one of my coping mechanisms for my depression is that thought “One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy.” Jonah Lehrer has a lot more to say about that in this essay.]

From his extensive research, Andrew Solomon reports evidence that depressed people have a more realistic view of the world than others. He writes of one study that showed “depressed and non-depressed people are equally good at answering abstract questions. When asked, however, about their control over an event, non-depressed people invariably believe themselves to have more control than they really have, and depressed people give an accurate assessment.”

Much of the following should be placed in the category “interesting to know.” Norris never really speaks specifically to defining depression within the construct of acedia (Yes and No is one response that I recall). The reason for that response is the wide swath of symptoms that both acedia and depression elicit. Within that swath is a very serious disorder that means trying every single day to stay alive and to thwart all thoughts and energy going into ending one’s life. It would be easy to take the title of Lehrer’s essay (or Norris’ reflections) and posit that depression can actually have an upside or that he or she is advocating such. Neither does and for those who suffer from depression’s debilitating effects neither suggests that there is some silver lining available to all if only they would look.

Here are a number of reading selections from the essay which can also be found here.

Darwin’s Example
The Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his “fits” brought on by “excitements,” “flurries” leading to an “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” and “air fatigues” that triggered his “head symptoms.” In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in “psychological medicine,” he confessed to “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.

While there has been endless speculation about Darwin’s mysterious ailment — his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease — Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Darwin, of course, was wrong; his recurring fits didn’t prevent him from succeeding in science. Instead, the pain may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work. His letters are filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods. “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me,” Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his “sole enjoyment in life.”

For Darwin, depression was a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems. In his autobiography, he speculated on the purpose of such misery; his evolutionary theory was shadowed by his own life story. “Pain or suffering of any kind,” he wrote, “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil.” And so sorrow was explained away, because pleasure was not enough. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.

Depression’s Paradox
The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

Evolutionary Psychology And The Depression Paradox
In the late 1990s, ANDY THOMSON, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, became interested in evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain the features of the human mind in terms of natural selection. The starting premise of the field is that the brain has a vast evolutionary history, and that this history shapes human nature. We are not a blank slate but a byproduct of imperfect adaptations, stuck with a mind that was designed to meet the needs of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. While the specifics of evolutionary psychology remain controversial — it’s never easy proving theories about the distant past — its underlying assumption is largely accepted by mainstream scientists. There is no longer much debate over whether evolution sculptured the fleshy machine inside our head. Instead, researchers have moved on to new questions like when and how this sculpturing happened and which of our mental traits are adaptations and which are accidents.

In 2004, Thomson met Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who had long been interested in the depression paradox — why a disorder that’s so costly is also so common. Andrews has long dark brown hair and an aquiline nose. Before he begins to talk, he often writes down an outline of his answer on scratch paper. “This is a very delicate subject,” he says. “I don’t want to say something reckless.”

Andrews and Thomson struck up an extended conversation on the evolutionary roots of depression. They began by focusing on the thought process that defines the disorder, which is known as rumination. (The verb is derived from the Latin word for “chewed over,” which describes the act of digestion in cattle, in which they swallow, regurgitate and then rechew their food.) In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods. Consider “The Depressed Person,” a short story by David Foster Wallace, which chronicles a consciousness in the grip of the ruminative cycle. (Wallace struggled with severe depression for years before committing suicide in 2008.) The story is a long lament, a portrait of a mind hating itself, filled with sentences like this: “What terms might be used to describe such a solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared to herself to be?” The dark thoughts of “The Depressed Person” soon grow tedious and trying, but that’s precisely Wallace’s point. There is nothing profound about depressive rumination. There is just a recursive loop of woe.

The bleakness of this thought process helps explain why, according to the Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, people with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to become depressed. They’re also more likely to become unnerved by stressful events: for instance, Nolen-Hoeksema found that residents of San Francisco who self-identified as ruminators showed significantly more depressive symptoms after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And then there are the cognitive deficits. Because rumination hijacks the stream of consciousness — we become exquisitely attentive to our pain — numerous studies have found that depressed subjects struggle to think about anything else, just like Wallace’s character. The end result is poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information. (These deficits disappear when test subjects are first distracted from their depression and thus better able to focus on the exercise.) Such research has reinforced the view that rumination is a useless kind of pessimism, a perfect waste of mental energy.

That, at least, was the scientific consensus when Andrews and Thomson began exploring the depression paradox. Their evolutionary perspective, however — they see the mind as a fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs — led them to wonder if rumination had a purpose. They started with the observation that rumination was often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. (Darwin was plunged into a debilitating grief after his 10-year-old daughter, Annie, died following a bout of scarlet fever.) Although the D.S.M. manual, the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, does not take such stressors into account when diagnosing depressive disorder — the exception is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months — it’s clear that the problems of everyday life play a huge role in causing mental illness. “Of course, rumination is unpleasant,” Andrews says. “But it’s usually a response to something real, a real setback. It didn’t seem right that the brain would go haywire just when we need it most.”

Imagine, for instance, a depression triggered by a bitter divorce. The ruminations might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), recurring counterfactuals (“What if I hadn’t had my affair?”) and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it? Can I afford my alimony payments?”). While such thoughts reinforce the depression — that’s why therapists try to stop the ruminative cycle — Andrews and Thomson wondered if they might also help people prepare for bachelorhood or allow people to learn from their mistakes. “I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”

A Capacity For Intense Focus
This radical idea the scientists were suggesting that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit — has a long intellectual history. Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem “Il Penseroso”: “Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.” The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

But Andrews and Thomson weren’t interested in ancient aphorisms or poetic apologias. Their daunting challenge was to show how rumination might lead to improved outcomes, especially when it comes to solving life’s most difficult dilemmas. Their first speculations focused on the core features of depression, like the inability of depressed subjects to experience pleasure or their lack of interest in food, sex and social interactions. According to Andrews and Thomson, these awful symptoms came with a productive side effect, because they reduced the possibility of becoming distracted from the pressing problem.

The capacity for intense focus, they note, relies in large part on a brain area called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead. While this area has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, it seems to be especially important for maintaining attention. Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task so that we don’t become sidetracked by irrelevant information. Furthermore, deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention-deficit disorder.

Several studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients. Most recently, a paper to be published next month by neuroscientists in China found a spike in “functional connectivity” between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity. One explanation for this finding is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem. (Andrews and Thomson argue that this relentless fixation also explains the cognitive deficits of depressed subjects, as they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise; their VLPFC can’t be bothered to care.) Human attention is a scarce resource — the neural effects of depression make sure the resource is efficiently allocated.

But the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.

The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.

Consider a young professor on tenure track who was treated by Thomson. The patient was having difficulties with his academic department. “This guy was used to success coming easy, but now it wasn’t,” Thomson says. “I made it clear that I thought he’d need some time to figure out his next step. His problem was like a splinter, and the pain wouldn’t go away until the splinter was removed.” Should the patient leave the department? Should he leave academia? Or should he try to resolve the disagreement? Over the next several weeks, Thomson helped the patient analyze his situation and carefully think through the alternatives. “We took it one variable at a time,” Thomson says. “And it eventually became clear to him that the departmental issues couldn’t be fixed. He needed to leave. Once he came to that conclusion, he started feeling better.”

Criticism of Andrews and Thomson’s Theories
The publication of Andrews and Thomson’s 36,000-word paper in the July 2009 issue of Psychological Review had a polarizing effect on the field. While some researchers, like Jerome Wakefield, a professor at New York University who specializes in the conceptual foundations of clinical theory, greeted the paper as “an extremely important first step toward the re-evaluation of depression,” other psychiatrists regarded it as little more than irresponsible speculation, a justification for human suffering. Peter Kramer, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, describes the paper as “a ladder with a series of weak rungs.” Kramer has long defended the use of antidepressants — his landmark work, “Listening to Prozac,” chronicled the profound improvements of patients taking the drugs — and criticized those who romanticized depression, which he compares to the glamorization of tuberculosis in the late 19th century. In a series of e-mail messages to me, Kramer suggested that Andrews and Thomson neglect the variants of depression that don’t fit their evolutionary theory. “This study says nothing about chronic depression and the sort of self-hating, paralyzing, hopeless, circular rumination it inspires,” Kramer wrote. And what about post-stroke depression? Late-life depression? Extreme depressive condition? Kramer argues that there’s a clear category difference between a healthy response to social stressors and the response of people with depressive disorder. “Depression is not really like sadness,” Kramer has written. “It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

Even scientists who are sympathetic to what Andrews and Thomson call the “analytic-rumination hypothesis” remain critical of its details. Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University who is working on a book with Andrews, says that while the analytic-rumination hypothesis has persuaded him that some depressive symptoms might improve problem-solving skills, he remains unconvinced that it is a sufficient explanation for depression. “Individuals with major depression often don’t groom, bathe and sometimes don’t even use the toilet,” Hagen says. They also significantly “reduce investment in child care,” which could have detrimental effects on the survival of offspring. The steep fitness costs of these behaviors, Hagen says, would not be offset by “more uninterrupted time to think.”

Other scientists, including Randolph Nesse at the University of Michigan, say that complex psychiatric disorders like depression rarely have simple evolutionary explanations. In fact, the analytic-rumination hypothesis is merely the latest attempt to explain the prevalence of depression. There is, for example, the “plea for help” theory, which suggests that depression is a way of eliciting assistance from loved ones. There’s also the “signal of defeat” hypothesis, which argues that feelings of despair after a loss in social status help prevent unnecessary attacks; we’re too busy sulking to fight back. And then there’s “depressive realism”: several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes. While each of these speculations has scientific support, none are sufficient to explain an illness that afflicts so many people. The moral, Nesse says, is that sadness, like happiness, has many functions.

Although Nesse says he admires the analytic-rumination hypothesis, he adds that it fails to capture the heterogeneity of depressive disorder. Andrews and Thomson compare depression to a fever helping to fight off infection, but Nesse says a more accurate metaphor is chronic pain, which can arise for innumerable reasons. “Sometimes, the pain is going to have an organic source,” he says. “Maybe you’ve slipped a disc or pinched a nerve, in which case you’ve got to solve that underlying problem. But much of the time there is no origin for the pain. The pain itself is the dysfunction.”

Answering the Criticisms
Andrews and Thomson respond to such criticisms by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms. While the analytic-rumination hypothesis might explain those patients reacting to an “acute stressor,” it can’t account for those whose suffering has no discernible cause or whose sadness refuses to lift for years at a time. “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful,” Thomson says. “Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”

For Thomson, this new theory of depression has directly affected his medical practice. “That’s the litmus test for me,” he says. “Do these ideas help me treat my patients better?” In recent years, Thomson has cut back on antidepressant prescriptions, because, he says, he now believes that the drugs can sometimes interfere with genuine recovery, making it harder for people to resolve their social dilemmas. “I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage,” he says. “I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great,’ she told me. ‘I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’ ”

The point is the woman was depressed for a reason; her pain was about something. While the drugs made her feel better, no real progress was ever made. Thomson’s skepticism about antidepressants is bolstered by recent studies questioning their benefits, at least for patients with moderate depression. Consider a 2005 paper led by Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University: he found that people on antidepressants had a 76 percent chance of relapse within a year when the drugs were discontinued. In contrast, patients given a form of cognitive talk therapy had a relapse rate of 31 percent. And Hollon’s data aren’t unusual: several studies found that patients treated with medication were approximately twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavior therapy. “The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”

Thomson describes a college student who was referred to his practice. “It was clear that this patient was in a lot of pain,” Thomson says. “He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study. He had some family issues” — his parents were recently divorced — “and his father was exerting a tremendous amount of pressure on him to go to graduate school. Because he’s got a family history of depression, the standard of care would be to put him on drugs right away. And a few years ago, that’s what I would have done.”

Instead, Thomson was determined to help the student solve his problem. “What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings — led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests, is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities. “This doesn’t mean there’s some miracle cure,” he says. “In most cases, the recovery period is going to be long and difficult. And that’s what I told this young student. I said: ‘I know you’re hurting. I know these problems seem impossible. But they’re not. And I can help you solve them.’ ”

IT’S TOO SOON to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis. Nobody knows if depression is an adaptation or if Andrews and Thomson have merely spun another “Just So” story, a clever evolutionary tale that lacks direct evidence. Nevertheless, their speculation is part of a larger scientific re-evaluation of negative moods, which have long been seen as emotional states to avoid. The dismissal of sadness and its synonyms is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of positive psychology, a scientific field devoted to the pursuit of happiness. In recent years, a number of positive psychologists have written popular self-help books, like “The How of Happiness” and “Authentic Happiness,” that try to outline the scientific principles behind “lasting fulfillment” and “getting the life we want.”

The new research on negative moods, however, suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose. Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers.

Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s “Requiem” — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.

The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Mental Illness And Creativity
Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence —  people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”

This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.

But is that closeness effective? Does the despondency help us solve anything? Andrews found a significant correlation between depressed affect and individual performance on the intelligence test, at least once the subjects were distracted from their pain: lower moods were associated with higher scores. “The results were clear,” Andrews says. “Depressed affect made people think better.” The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.



January 27, 2010

When it comes to the deadly sins, there is something more to the one called sloth than meets the eye. It is more than just simple inactivity or even laziness. The ancients called it “accidia” and the observations on this post belong to Kathleen Norris, whose book, Acedia & Me, explores the topic brilliantly. If the sin of pride involves man placing himself above God or rejecting God, then Sloth works at a much more insidious level: the “capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.” Of all the things we advocate paying attention to, this is the singularly most modern of all the sins and Ms. Norris observations are right on the mark.

In Good Times or In Bad
One thing that was familiar was my acedia. It was the same as it had been the year before , and the year before that. Acedia, it seems, is my companion in good times and bad. No matter what happens in my life, or how I am feeling, it is my primary temptation. The desert monks would recognize in my annual Advent blahs a textbook case of the struggle with acedia, when prayer seems not only a useless activity but also an impediment to freedom. This is truth as the devil tells it, using the lure of being free to be myself to enslave me in a sterile narcissism. For acedia is not merely a personal vice. Left unchecked, it can unravel the great commandment: as I cease to practice my love of God, I am also less likely to observe a proper love of my neighbor or myself.

The Original Sin Of Sloth?
If the Church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as a society. The Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan believes that passivity and indifference that make us less able to engage in vital occupations and concerns are as problematic today as intentional evil. But they are also an ancient curse. The Judeo-Christian story places it in Eden, where the primal sin involves refusing to take responsibility. Put on the spot, Adam tries to excuse himself by blaming Eve, and Eve then blames the serpent. Neither cares where the buck stops, as long as it rests with someone else. God responds to this display of sloth by sending the first people, who had been intended for the holy leisure of paradise, into a land where they must labor for their sustenance.

Religious vocabulary is demanding, and words such as sin and repentance carry so much baggage that even many Christians are reluctant to employ them. In a culture marked by theological illiteracy it is tempting to censor terms that are so often misconstrued and misused. Many people who would not dream of relying on the understanding of literature or the sciences they acquired as children are content to leave their juvenile theological convictions largely unexamined. If they resented religion when they were young, as adults they are perplexed and dismayed by its stubborn persistence in the human race. But religions endure because they concern themselves with our deepest questions about good and evil, about the suffering that life brings to each of us, and about what it means to be fully human in the face of death.

The Concept Of Sin
We are right to distrust the idea of sin as it is often presented, but are foolish indeed if we throw out the living baby with the old church bathwater. The concept of sin does not exist so that people who may need therapy more than theology can be convinced that they are evil and beyond hope. It is meant to encourage people to believe that they are made in the image of God and to act accordingly. Hope is the heart of it, and the ever-present possibility of transformation. The doctrine would not have remained a living tradition for such a long time if it had not been, as the theologian Linda Mercadante describes it in her book Victims and Sinners, “a rich, holistic way of conceptualizing the human dilemma – one that functioned to steady and inform thousands of generations.” Were I to deny this, and discount the wisdom of my ancestors, I would grow not wise but overconfident in my estimation of myself and in what passes for progress.

Were I to listen with an open ear, I might come away from a Lenten sermon on fasting better able to spurn the tempting feast of malicious gossip and the satisfying art of maligning others in order to feel good about myself. When the church speaks in this way we do well to pay attention. Or when a master preacher such as Fred Craddock defines the sin of sloth so clearly that it stings like a slap in the face: “What we casually dismiss as mere laziness, he says, is “the ability to look at a starving child. . . with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, it’s not my kid.’.. . Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’ It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”

The sin of sloth in this sense is all too recognizable in the United States, where the term “granny dumping” is used to define the practice of anonymously depositing our elderly on the doorsteps of nursing homes and where urban hospitals have been known to abandon indigent patients on skid row, some still in their hospital gowns and with IVs in their arms. But even as such outrages are exposed, we are beset by a curious silence: the more that society’s ills surface in such evil ways, the less able we are, it seems, to detect any evil within ourselves, let alone work effectively together to fix what is wrong. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre finds that while our “present age is perhaps no more evil than a number of preceding periods…it is evil in one special way at least, namely the extent to which we have obliterated…the consciousness of evil. This…becomes strikingly apparent in the contemporary modes of instant indignation and denunciation. “It is marvelous,” he adds, to observe “how often the self-proclaimed defenders of the right and the good do not seem to have noticed [in themselves] the vices of pomposity. . . exaggeration, and self-righteousness.” Such behavior is not new to human history, Macintyre concludes; but “it was left to our time for what had been an eccentric vice . . . to become a dominant social mode.” Acedia, which is known to foster excessive self-justification, as well as a casual yet implacable judgmentalism toward others, readily lends itself to this process.

Though we may think ourselves far too liberated to be considered prigs, the writer Marilynne Robinson insists that this is exactly what we have become. She points out that the polarized tenor of our social discourse epitomizes the dictionary definition of priggishness, as “marked by overvaluing oneself or one’s ideas, habits, notions, by precise…adherence to them, and by small disparagement of others.”

It may be easy to profess not to believe in sin, but it is hard not to believe in sinners, so we embrace the comfortable notion that at least they are other people. “I’m a good person, but God hates homosexuals.” “I’m a good person, but God condemns homophobes.” “I’m a good person, but the homeless are irresponsible bums.” “I’m a good person, but those who denigrate the homeless are evil.” “Good people like me support our president.” “Good people like me oppose the president.” The loud litany of self-aggrandizement that reverberates through our culture convinces me that, for all of our presumed psychological sophistication, we remain at a primitive stage in our capacity to understand the reality of sin. It’s as if we believe that if we just don’t talk about it, it will go away, and we’ll all be nicer to one another. As a Christian, I beg to differ. Our bad thoughts are real, and they lead to bad acts. Check any newspaper.

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer warned that “a great heart is needed against acedia, lest it swallow up the soul.” But in a priggish culture such as ours, this magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect meaningful change. Robinson wonders, in fact, whether we have made such a fetish of social concern and criticism that we have eroded our belief that genuine reform is possible. Anger over injustice may inflame us, but that’s a double-edged sword. If our indignation feels too good, it will attach to our arrogance and pride and leave us ranting in a void. And if we develop full-blown acedia, we won’t even care about that.

Paying Attention
At bottom, to dismiss sin as negative is to demonstrate a failure of imagination. As the writer Garret Keizer asserts in Help: The Original Human Dilemma: “Everyone believes in sin, the people who charge their peers with political incorrectness and the people who regard political correctness as the bogey of a little mind.” He adds, “What everyone does not believe in, as nearly as I can tell, is forgiveness.” It requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain.

Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity. This mentality may be of some use in business, but in a family, including the family of faith, it is a disaster. It permits us to treat our churches as if they were political parties instead of the body of Christ, making them vulnerable to crass manipulation by ideologues. It allows Christian seminarians to give the psalms short shrift, and to assume an attitude of superiority toward these ancient poems, as relics of a more primitive time, when people still had enemies, and still wished them ill. “I can’t pray that.” I have heard pastors say of the cursing psalms, or the confessional ones, which admit to loving lies more than truth, to resenting others or desiring revenge. We’re not like that. We’re good people, or good enough, having willed away the prejudice, tribalism, and violence in our hearts. We are at a loss to explain their presence in the world around us.

Yet if we pay attention to what is going on, we may come to the uneasy realization that the root meaning of acedia, as ‘lack of care,’ could serve to define our present state. We grow inured to the horrendous violence engendered by suicide bombings and genocidal “little wars” around the world, and sigh when we hear of road-rage fatalities at home, or of the murder of a teenager for the trendy jacket or athletic shoes he is wearing. A refusal to care about the needs of others marks the unapologetic incompetence of a government worker or call-center operator, and also the disregard of corporate executives for the pain caused by a move to a place where cheaper labor might be exploited and more dangerous working conditions accepted. In the elderly, acedia expresses itself as a resigned withdrawal in a society indifferent to the ravages of aging, while in the young, it is a studied boredom with all that the world has to offer.

In April 1999, two teenage boys in a Denver suburb slaughtered thirteen people at their high school before killing themselves. The numerous homemade bombs they placed in the building convinced police that their intent was to destroy the school and kill everyone in it, well over a thousand people. Whatever disaffection these young men had felt among their peers, they were in the throes of a lack of caring so severe as to be pathological. A student who had considered himself a friend of the pair said in an interview that as awful as their action was, he couldn’t help feeling that “they finally did something.”

An astute observation, in a time of acedia, when murder on a large scale may be counted as something to break up the everyday routine and grant notoriety to teenage outcasts. In a culture crazy for celebrity and careless of basic needs, it should come as no surprise that a pair of teenage “losers” might come to value “doing something,” even something unspeakably violent, over life itself. The actions of the Columbine duo confirm what the criminologist S. Giora Shoham says of acedia, that it is more than a “breakdown in meaningful interaction among human beings, it is a thorough disengagement.” “The accidie,” he writes, “is an ‘outsider’ who is completely detached from both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides of the value continuum.”

They “finally did something.” In some ways the two teens at Columbine were only taking their culture’s excessive attachment to irony to its logical and deadly extreme. The essayist Benjamin Barber reminds us that, “like sentiment, which has been called unearned emotion, the new irony is a form of unearned skepticism.” The theologian Henri de Lubac puts it another way: “Cynicism is the reverse side of hypocrisy. It does not give us the truth about ourselves.” But the jaded adolescent, confusing cynicism with maturity, may ask, “What is truth, anyway? And why should I care, if no one cares about me?”

Slavery From Within
As a viable sense of sin has eroded in modern times, acedia has become more acceptable. In his pithy essay on the subject, Aldous Huxley explores why, although boredom, hopelessness, and despair have always existed, in his own time “something has happened to make these emotions respectable and avowable; they are no longer sinful, no longer regarded as the mere symptoms of disease.” It may be that after two world wars people could not presume that the great technological advances of the industrial age would lead to cultural and moral advancement as well. Chemical weapons, forced-labor camps, gas chambers, death marches, the firebombing of civilian populations in Spain, England, Japan, and Germany, and nuclear attacks on two Japanese cities revealed that while human beings had become more efficient at genocidal violence, it was not easy for us to consider ourselves civilized, let alone “good.” Leszek Kolakowski, once Poland’s top Marxist philosopher, and now, according to the theologian Martin Marty, “a friend to faith;’ notes that “the absence of God became the ever more open wound of the European spirit when it became clear that “the new shining order of anthropomorphism” — which, it was hoped, would take the place of “the fallen God” — never arrived.

The German Jesuit Karl Rahner, writing in a devastated Munich shortly after the end of World War II reflected that “it has gone strangely with [us] in the recent decades of European intellectual history.” While many felt that, having “struggled passionately against the tutelage of Church, state, society, convention, morals,” they could now claim true autonomy, they often found it an empty freedom. What had originated as “a great, honest struggle” devolved for many into “a foolish protest that mistook licentiousness and unrestraint, the freedom of error and ruin, for true freedom.” Far from finding release, Rahner concluded, modern people fell into “a very odd slavery…slavery from within.”

Slavery from within, in all of its manifestations, was exactly what the early Christian monks were contending with, and Rahner mines a vein well-known to these ancients. His contemporaries, he writes, seem more helpless than ever in struggling with “the powers of desire, the powers of egotism, the hunger for power, the powers of sexuality and pleasure and simultaneously the impotence caused by worry which undermines….from within, by insecurity, by loss of life’s meaning, by anxiety and disappointment.” Not exactly the eight bad thoughts, but close enough. Having lost the sense of a useful religious tradition, and with the insights of the early monks obscured over time, Rahner’s self-proclaimed “free” person was ill equipped to take note of what Aldous Huxley, who was decidedly not a Christian, warned was the noonday demon emerging as the primary sin of the age. “It is a very curious phenomenon:’ Huxley observed, “this progress of accidie from the position of being a deadly sin…to the position first of a disease and finally of an essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature.”

In the nineteenth century, Baudelaire could write, coolly, of a young, urban man as monarch of his own small kingdom: “Bored to nausea with his dogs and other creatures, nothing amuses him: not chase, nor falconry, nor people dying opposite his balcony.” More than a century later Andrei Voznesensky speaks of the heart itself as an Achilles, and comments, “In these days of unheard-of suffering, one is lucky indeed to have no heart.”

Human Capital
The effects of “eroding the spirit” can’t be quantified and are therefore not significant. Neither are individuals. Our diminishing value can be traced through corporate jargon; businesses that once referred to employees as “personnel” rechristened them “human resources” and have now adopted an even chillier term, “human capital.” People who are “capital” are readily disposable, and in recent years corporations have been emboldened to regard full-time employees as liabilities, and thus limit or altogether eliminate health care, pensions, and other once common benefits. But these same corporations do need consumers, and they spend prodigious amounts on advertising campaigns (the military terminology is no accident) intended to seduce us into thinking that freedom is the ability to purchase what Sears once promised as “The good life. At a good price. Guaranteed.” As the concepts of good and freedom, for centuries the province of theology, become small arms in the ever-expanding arsenal of marketing tools, the purpose of life itself can change. One Internet multi-billionaire recently stated that his goal is to die with more toys than the next guy. He may do just that. Thomas Merton said it starkly and prophetically in the 1960s: that in a society focused and “organized for profit and for marketing . . . there’s no real freedom. You’re free to choose gimmicks, your brand of TM your make of new car. But you’re not free not to have a car.”

Once considered suitable only for marking animals and slaves as property, branding is now a social norm, and for a price, some Americans have agreed to have brand names tattooed on their foreheads, necks, and pregnant bellies. One man was looking to replace the family car; a woman wanted the $10,000 for private school tuition for her son, another was paying medical bills. And how readily we have relinquished the sanctity of our own names, in order to walk down the street as Calvin, Tommy, or DKNY, willing to be free advertisements, if only our choice of clothing and shoes might impress others as to our superior character and worth.

Resentment Leading To Avarice
The sixth-century theologian Gregory the Great would recognize our condition as an outgrowth of acedia, which can foster deep resentment that leads to avarice. If the psychological connections that were obvious to Gregory remain obscure to us, we might recognize ourselves in the observation of the contemporary Benedictine Hugh Feiss that “the confused heart, having lost joy within itself, seeks…consolation outside itself. The more it seeks exterior goods, the more it lacks interior joy to which it can return.”

It is indeed acedia’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. Now more than ever we need contrarians like Thomas Merton, who once told a Louisville store clerk who had asked what brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Merton was intrigued by the man’s response. “He almost dropped dead:’ he wrote. “I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest or something with five colors. And they all have a secret ingredient. But I didn’t care about the secret ingredient.” Merton concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”

We should care that as the public sphere becomes increasingly chaotic and threatening, what we think of as freedom consists of retreat and insularity. Marketers welcome this development, but a consumerist mentality allows us to turn spiritual practices, which traditionally have been aimed at making us more responsive to the legitimate needs of the wider world, into self-indulgence. We can pay good money to seek advice, which is plentiful, about finding the prayer method that best suits us and deciding where best to position our meditation space: in a custom-made gazebo, or over the three-car garage.

One glossy advertisement I have seen shows a woman facing the ocean in a yoga position; off to the side is a beachfront high-rise with condominium apartments costing from $1 to. $5 million, and a sales pitch: “The outer world is frenzied. The inner world needn’t be.” When people pray over finding the color scheme, carpet, candles, images, and incense that will best enhance their spiritual life, they would do well to recall the literal meaning of the third commandment, against blasphemy. In Hebrew, it is an admonition against offering nothingness to God. As Graham Greene observes in the novel A Burnt-Out Case, “[People] have prayed in prisons…in slums and concentration camps. It’s only the middle-classes who demand to pray in suitable surroundings.”

In England, the television show Spirituality Shopper offers a variety of religious experiences in a sense that William James could not have imagined. One woman, when asked to select something from the spiritual superstore — among the choices were an introduction to Buddhist meditation, a Jewish Sabbath-eve meal, and a Christian Lenten charity — chose Sufi whirling. Missing, of course, was any sense that religious traditions build up meaning only over time and in a communal context. They can’t be purchased like a burger or a pair of shoes.

As we grow more reluctant to care about anything past our perceived needs, acedia asserts itself as a primary characteristic of our time. “Given the state of our world,” Alasdair Macintyre writes (and, I would add, not just the state of our inner “wellness”), we might ask whether it is time to “restore the concept of evil that it once had in Western culture. It is clear that we lack an adequate concept of evil, because we lack any adequate concept of good.” The danger for us and our society, he points out, is that “inadequate thought and speech always translate into inadequate action.” If sloth means, as the pastor John Buchanan contends, “not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious, prudent, digging a hole and burying our treasure, it is critical that we take into account what this means for society at large.

Historians, Buchanan writes, “observe that whenever totalitarianism of any kind rears its ugly head, it’s because ordinary people have stopped caring about the life of the community and the nation.” He cites Simone Weil, who declared that Hitler’s rise to power would be inconceivable without “the existence of millions of uprooted people” who could not be roused to care about anything except their immediate circumstances. It is all the more appalling that these were often people who believed that human progress had made them more advanced and free than any who had come before. This common fallacy allows us to complacently measure the world by the scope of our own limited outlook; but as the Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald reminds us, our failure to acknowledge our inner blockages can make us incapable of recognizing the blockages we have created in the culture. “We see cold reason, devoid of imagination;’ she writes, “heading with deadly logic toward violence, hardness in the face of misery, a sense of inevitability, war, and death.” Even worse, we come to assume that these conditions — injustice, poverty, perpetual conflict — are inevitable, the only possible reality, and lose our ability to imagine that there are other ways of being, other courses of action.

One such blockage — I’ll call it acedia — seems to me to be at the heart of the question of what we will tolerate as a society. The problem of homelessness in this country now seems intractable, but it scarcely existed, apart from skid row alcoholics, only decades ago. For many people, the problems of homeless families whose children go to bed hungry every night, or the at least 40 million Americans who do not have medical insurance and adequate health care, are just “the way things are” beneath the radar of their concern, The writer Wendell Berry laments the extent to which economics has been elevated to a position that God once held, as “ultimate justifier.” We have come to “treat economic laws of supply and demand” as though they were “the laws of the universe.” If there is a religion that encompasses all the world, it is the pursuit of wealth. But Christians must recognize that in slothfully acquiescing to its petty gods, we deny Christ a place on earth even more effectively than do the loud atheists and antitheists of our time.


Learning To Dwell In This Desert

October 9, 2009
Early in his life, van Gogh was a devout Christian and wanted to become involved in religion for his profession. He became a lay preacher and afterwards strived to become a painter of the working people. Capturing peasants’ everyday laboring in his paintings, he most famously did so in The Potato Eaters (1885). In a dark room lit only by a single candle hung above the table, the painting shows five peasants eating potatoes at the table. The overall darkness and dull green shades coloring the walls give off an impression of dirt and grime everywhere, and the shadows threaten that there are worse unseen areas in the room. The size of the people relative to the room and the low-hanging candle-lamp crowd the room to a stifling point, and the presence of only one community plate certainly is a statement of the family’s sanitary standards.

Early in his life, van Gogh was a devout Christian and wanted to become involved in religion for his profession. He became a lay preacher and afterwards strived to become a painter of the working people. Capturing peasants’ everyday laboring in his paintings, he most famously did so in The Potato Eaters (1885). In a dark room lit only by a single candle hung above the table, the painting shows five peasants eating potatoes at the table. The overall darkness and dull green shades coloring the walls give off an impression of dirt and grime everywhere, and the shadows threaten that there are worse unseen areas in the room. The size of the people relative to the room and the low-hanging candle-lamp crowd the room to a stifling point, and the presence of only one community plate certainly is a statement of the family’s sanitary standards.

Some further reading selections from Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me.

Let’s call it sickness, a desert malady. Anyone could lose perspective in that heat, weakened by hunger, thirst, and uncertainty. Yet a curious fact about illness, including depression, is that it can bring us to clarity. We value the quality of attention that comes to us when we are not well. In “I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK [ her review of The Noonday Demon, Joyce Carol Oates observes that “those afflicted with depression are often ambivalent about it, as no one is ambivalent about physical illness.” Her latter assumption belies the fact that people of many faiths have experienced ailments and incapacities as a gateway to spiritual insight. But her observation about depression reflects the fact that many people are conflicted about a state in which the ploys they’ve used to color things in their favor are stripped away, and they sense that they are witnessing the world as it is. The light maybe harsher than we would like, but at least it forces us to see.

[This reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s creed: “One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy,” he wrote from Siberia. “And yet God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simply: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Saviour: I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.”]

From his extensive research, Andrew Solomon reports evidence that depressed people have a more realistic view of the world than others. He writes of one study that showed “depressed and non-depressed people are equally good at answering abstract questions. When asked, however, about their control over an event, non-depressed people invariably believe themselves to have more control than they really have, and depressed people give an accurate assessment.”

In a test involving a video game, “depressed people. . . knew just how many little monsters they had killed’ while the non-depressed people consistently overestimated their kills by four to six times the actual amount. For all of that, Solomon reminds us that “major depression is far too stern a teacher: you needn’t go to the Sahara to avoid frostbite.” Still, we find ways to love that old devil we know. And “love” is not too strong a word. “Curiously enough:’ Solomon admits, “I love my depression. I do not love experiencing my depression, but I love the depression itself. I love who I am in the wake of it?’ He cannot help respecting that which gave him knowledge of “my own acreage, the full extent of my soul.”

Solomon’s perception is an ancient one; in the first century the Stoic Seneca observed that people “love their vices with a sort of despair, and hate them at the same time?’ Solomon is also in agreement with the desert fathers and mothers who made their stand in the desert in order to combat their demons and assess themselves more honestly. When he asserts that “the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality:’ he is echoing the existential monastic view that the opposite of acedia is an energetic devotion. When I am at my worst, mired in torpor and despair, simply recalling this can give me hope.

“Hope” is the title of Solomon’s last chapter, and in it he writes, poignantly, of valuing his depression because it unearthed “what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day . when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery:’ It is also a costly one, and the price is exacted again and again. All too often we are like the man in the Gospel story who is cleansed of evil spirits only to find that the demons who have been displaced keep wandering, looking for a place to land. When they see that the house of his soul has once more been made neat and clean, they descend on him and make his condition even worse than before.

How is it possible to maintain our sanity, let alone to foster hope? Acedia is a particularly savage enemy, because it is not content with just a part of us. Evagrius writes that “the other demons are like the rising or setting sun in that they are found in only a part of the soul. The noonday demon, however, is accustomed to embrace the entire soul and oppress the spirit.” Evagrius, Cassian, and Andrew Solomon might agree that hope is nurtured when we can recall the peace of mind we once attained, and regard it as real, at least as real as our most troubled and anxious state. But we must start small. Often my first act of recovery is doing something as menial as dusting a bookshelf or balancing my checkbook.

If I am tempted to devalue such humble activities, I remember that acedia descended on Anthony as soon as he went to the desert, but when he prayed to be delivered from it, he was shown that any physical task, done in the right spirit, could free him. Likewise, Evagrius gives sound advice to anyone who has begun to recover from an assault of the demon: “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?’

If my pride recoils from endeavors that seem futile in the face of my world-weary despair, I have to remember that disdaining ordinary, mundane chores that come to nothing can lead to my discounting personal relationships as well. Why honor my mother and my father, when they will grow old and infirm and then abandon me by dying? My own “antirrheticus” for that thought comes from Psalm 27:“Though father and mother forsake me, / the Lord will receive me.”  Under acedia’s siege I might ask: Why vow myself to a spouse, if it is “until death do us part”? We all die anyway, and even our sun will one day burn itself out, destroying life as we know it on earth. Does this mean that I don’t need to bother about loving, or living, here and now? I am better off asking: Why is it that acedia brings such thoughts to the table just as I would feast on life’s bounty? Only then can I fight back, embracing love and commitment as a source of strength and peace instead of despondency. Only then will I have defeated acedia, At least for now.

Both ancient and modern writers speak of the profound serenity that can come after a period of torment and trial. As Solomon puts it, “Depression at its worst is the most horrifying loneliness, and from it I learned the value of intimacy.” The pain is real, but remedy may yet be found. For Evagrius, the struggle with acedia is worthy because it leads not only to peace but also to joy. If, as the scholar Christoph Joest has written, acedia for Evagrius was the culmination of all the temptations, then its absence is the fulfillment of all virtues, which find their ultimate expression in love. That is why the struggle is worth our while.

Isaiah 43
I thought, “Oh, hell, it’s getting close to Christmas — I might as well see what’s up.” After consulting the liturgical calendar, I opened the Gideon Bible to Isaiah 43 and found this:

But now thus says the LORD, who created you; O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Isaiah 43: 1-3 (NICJV)

Taking in these words as I listened to the steady sound of my husband’s breathing, I was profoundly glad for everything. This is a blessed time, I thought to myself. We wait and want for nothing. We are free to love, which is the ultimate freedom. Our situation might appear hopeless to others. But we are Adam and Eve, before the Fall, and all we know is heaven.

A Little Riff on Heaven and Hell
I suspect that any married person, or any monk for that matter, has at one time or another felt the loss and diminishment expressed by the fourth-century Abba Megethius when he said to his fellow monks, “Originally, when we met together we spoke of edifying things, encouraging one another. We were ‘like the angels’; we ascended up to the heavens. But now when we come together, we only drag one another down by gossiping, and so we go down to hell.”

For the early Christian abbas and ammas, both heaven and hell were to be found in present reality. While both were envisioned as an inheritance — one to be hoped for, the other avoided — neither existed apart from everyday experience. No doubt these monastics would have greeted Sartre’s famous existentialist credo “Hell is other people” by saying, “Yes, of course, and heaven as well.”

Eugene Ionesco wrote that “there is no religion in which everyday life is not considered a prison; there is no philosophy or ideology that does not think we live in alienation: in one way or another. . . humanity has always had a nostalgia for the freedom that is only beauty, that is only real life, plenitude, light?’ Heaven or hell? Either place is within our reach, for we carry it within us. Today is the first day, and the last. Heaven or hell: this is the moment, here, now. Make of it what you will.

To Say ‘God Is Love’ Is Like Saying, ‘Eat Wheaties’
In a series of talks in the 1960s, Thomas Merton foresaw our contemporary world as one-dimensional, a world in which “all words have become alike. . . To say ‘God is love:” he commented, “is like saying, ‘Eat Wheaties? – . . There’s no difference, except… that people know they are supposed to look pious when God is mentioned, but not when cereal is? Now that expensive handbags and jackets are displayed in store windows as reverentially as icons, and swimsuits alleged to have a slimming effect are advertised with the tagline “Why pray for a miracle when you can wear one?” even that distinction has been compromised.

And it matters. When magazines such as Time and Newsweek pretend that the news consists of page after page of unpaid advertisements for the latest gadgets, we may, as Merton predicted, fall into the trap of “[thinking we are informed:’ when in fact we are “living in an imaginary world?’

In this hyped-up world, broadcast and Internet news media have emerged as acedia’s perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce, and the latest advance in nanotechnology. Advertisements direct our attention to automobiles; medications to combat high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, and insomnia; the Red Cross; a new household cleanser. When the “news” returns, there are appalling segues, such as one I witnessed recently, the screen going from “Child Sex Offender Search” to “Gas Prices Rise.” It all comes at us on the same level, and an innocent from another world might assume that we consider these matters to be of equal value and importance.

We may want to believe that we are still concerned, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming across the bottom of the screen. But the ceaseless bombardment of image and verbiage makes us impervious to caring.

As Thomas Merton predicted, our world has been flattened, and we’ve been had. Our concern with being up-to-date on the latest product — be it a lotion promising to make our skin more youthful or a trend in politics, medicine, or spirituality — is both “hypnotic [and] narcissistic, which is what a closed circle always is?’ Presented with a seductive product or idea, “you allow yourself to be seduced by it, and then…you’re happy?’ The problem, as Merton notes, is that “this is the way the abuse of language functions?’ Inundated with “self-validating, hypnotic formulas [that] are immune to contradictions” —  he uses as an example a maxim employed by military officers during the Vietnam War: We are destroying a village in order to save it — we lose the ability to reflect on either world events or our own lives.

It is hard work to look beneath the surfaces presented to us and examine the cultural and historical forces underlying current conditions. Why should we care enough to make the effort? In positing this question, we are well advised to name and confront our acedia. For it is an unseen enemy; like a windstorm, it is witnessed only in its damaging effects.

Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks, but a force we ignore at our peril. Whenever we focus on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the real world — the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain forests, the social and ecological damage caused by factory farming — acedia is at work. Wherever we run to escape it, acedia is there, propelling us to “the next best thing;’ another paradise to revel in and wantonly destroy. It also sends us backward, prettying the past with the gloss of nostalgia. Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothflul, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.

We may well ask: If we are always in motion, constantly engaged in self-improvement, and even trying to do good for others, how can we be considered uncaring or slothful? In Sloth, the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein concluded a brilliant parody of a self-help book, titled Sloth and How to Get It, with a cogent observation of the “ubermotivated” people of our time.

“When you achieve true slothdom’ she writes, “you have no desire for the world to change. True sloths are not revolutionaries, but the lazy guardians at the gate of the status quo:’ The culture may glorify people who do Pilates at dawn, work their BlackBerrys obsessively on the morning commute, multitask all day at the office, and put a gourmet meal on the table at night afier the kids come home from French and fencing lessons, but, Wasserstein asks, “are these hyper-scheduled, overactive individuals really creating anything new? Are they guilty of passion in any way? Do they have a new vision for their government? For their community? Or for themselves?” She suspects that “their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis (the process of eliminating energy and drive, the vital first step in becoming a sloth.)”

Just look at us, with more money and less sleep than we know how to handle, except to go into debt, and take pills that get us up in the morning and others that let us rest at night. If we are to believe Bertrand Russell, who remarked that “one of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important:’ then a good many of us are on the edge. Despite the abundance of available therapies, we are still bewildered in the face of our neuroses and spiritual poverty and may be less well equipped than a fourth-century monk to deal with them.

In our desperate seeking after more precise terms to define our condition, we have become like the hapless citizens of Jean-Luc Godard’s savagely comic film Alphaville, who, in a dystopian future, receive new government-issued “Bibles” every day, dictionaries from which words are continually vanishing, because, as one character says, “they are no longer allowed.” She adds, mournfully, that “some words have disappeared that I liked very much” among them weep, tenderness, and conscience. Recalling a man she knew who wrote intriguing but “incomprehensible things” she says, “they used to call it poetry.”

I wonder whether that future is now, and why, if we have effectively banished the word demon, we are still so demon-haunted. It may be acceptable to speak again of demons. The New Yorker recently published a cartoon depicting an unshaven, bleary-looking businessman leaving for work, holding a liquor bottle along with his briefcase, and saying to his wife, “It’s Take Your Inner Demons to Work Day.”

To me this haggard man, even in his slothful appearance, epitomizes our latest, purely acedic mantra, “I don’t have time to think,” which presumes that we also don’t have time to care. Our busyness can’t disguise the suspicion that we are being steadily diminished, not so much living as passing time in a desert of our own devising. We might look for guidance to those earlier desert-dwellers, who had no word for depression, but whose vocabulary did include words for accidie, discernment, faith, grace, hope, and mercy.

They gave one another good counsel: Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores; remember that you are susceptible, at the beginning of any new venture, to being distracted from your purpose by such things as a headache, an intense ill will toward another, a neurotic and potent self-doubt. To dwell in this desert and make it bloom requires that we indulge in neither guilt nor vainglorious fantasizing, but struggle to know ourselves as we are.

In this process we will not escape sadness and pain; it can help to employ Amma Syncletica’s distinction between two forms of grief, one that liberates, another that destroys. “The first sort;’ she writes, “consists in weeping over one’s own faults” and over “the weakness of one’s neighbors, in order not to destroy one’s purpose, and attach oneself to the perfect good.” Yet “there is also a grief that comes from the enemy, full of mockery, which some call accidie. This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody.” If we recognize the bad thought of acedia for what it is, we can indeed cast it out using the very means it has employed to torment us. Amma Syncletica called on prayer and psalmody for a reason. As the slogan has it, life’s a bitch, and then you die: so you might as well find a psalm and sing anyway.


From Eight Bad Thoughts to Seven Sins

July 20, 2009


Naming the Demon
The era of the desert fathers and mothers was no less complex than our own — the fourth-century Mediterranean was in great political and social turmoil — but monks such as Evagrius were free of the heavy baggage of Western Christendom’s concept of sin. What the Church later defined as sin, desert monks termed “bad thoughts’ which to my mind is a much more helpful designation.

Given the history of the Church’s emphasis on sins of the flesh, contemporary readers may find it odd that the early monks regarded lust as one of the lesser temptations. They identified it as a form of greed, the desire to possess and use another person inappropriately in the pursuit of one’s own satisfaction. Anger, pride, and acedia were considered the worst of the “thoughts” with acedia the most harmful of all, for it could inflict a complete loss of hope and capacity for trust in God.

As the “eight bad thoughts” of the desert monks eventually became the Church’s “seven deadly sins” acedia was dropped from the list, and the monks’ profound understanding of the common temptations that all people suffer lost ground to a concept of sin as an individual’s commission of a bad act or omission of a good one. This in turn led to a superficial form of self-justification, for instance:  If I don’t overeat, then I’m not guilty of gluttony; if I don’t commit adultery, I am free of lust.

The new emphasis on acts also contributed to the Church’s power; it alone could identify the acts that it alone had the power to absolve. The monks’ subtle comprehension of temptation as thoughts that the individual may identify and resist before they turn into harmful actions was largely submerged. The insidious thought of acedia was not easily defined as an act, and it was soon subsumed within the sin of sloth.

I regard the early monastic perspective on the basic temptations that all people face as an ur-psychology that is as relevant today as when it was first conceived. In The Praktikos, his primary work on these temptations as he experienced them, Evagrius characterizes them as gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride.

The idea of sadness as a “bad thought” may strike modern readers as perverse, but Evagrius explains that it often comes upon us when our desires are thwarted, and we call to mind poignant memories of our parents caring for us at a time when we felt more at home in the world. this exercise in nostalgia can be treacherous.  As the scholar Lucien Regnault points out,  Evagrius came to believe that the demons “cannot act directly on the intellect.” They arouse evil thoughts by working on the memory and imagination.

Evagrius warns that if we do not resist these seemingly harmless thoughts at the outset, they soon pour out in pleasures that are. . . only mental in nature and then seize us and drench us in sadness. As we come to prefer living in the past, we grow less able to enjoy the present or invest in the future.

Evagrius is quite astute on the subject of how quickly a person’s unresolved anger can turn against him, building an intensity that is inappropriate to its presumed cause. The one who inwardly harbors such an all encompassing indignation manifests “a general debility of the body, malnutrition with its attendant pallor, and the illusion of being attacked by poisonous wild beasts.”  John Eudes Bamberger, the Cistercian monk who translated The Praktikos into English, and who is a physician, notes that Evagrius’s “description of the dynamics of disproportionate anger” is best “appreciated for its accuracy … by those who have carefully followed the progression of certain forms of schizophrenia.”

I recognize all too well anger as Evagrius describes it: “a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes.  I have endured what Evagrius terms “alarming experiences by night” when indignation overpowers me and disrupts my sleep.

I may dwell for a time on the immediate cause of my anger, but if I do not check my rage, I am likely to think of other slights, other people who have been disagreeable, or whom I feel I have good reason to detest. Once when I was furious with my husband, the importance of resisting the “bad thought” of anger was brought home to me.

I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, brimming with resentment. David had acted irresponsibly, and I felt thoroughly justified in my rage. But as my litany of complaint raced on, moving from my husband to others who had recently wronged me, and then to those who had annoyed me in the more distant past, I stopped. Wait a minute, I said to myself, this could go on forever. What’s really happening here?

That question had an answer. And only after I had consciously dismissed my anger for the phantom it was could I see past the shadows. My husband had not been able to help himself, and was in fact in a highly fragile state. My anger had masked what I really felt for him, which was fear. Somewhere in my reading of monastic literature I had found a description of anger as the seed of compassion, and I felt this keenly on that night. What my husband needed most was hospitality, and an open ear. I had to reject my feelings of hurt and anger, which were self-indulgent under the circumstances. I needed to clear my vision.

But even as I recognize the psychology involved in this change of perspective, I have to admit to its theological import. If anger had imprisoned me within myself, only love could free me, the love that is the gift of a merciful God.

When discussing the psychology of the desert monks, we must remember that for them God was at the center of it all. They disdained discussing theology, and while they often spoke about the importance of loving one’s neighbor, they did not specifically mention the love of God. But God was always their reference point. As John Eudes Bamberger has commented, the monks’ concerns were eminently practical, yet they were also directed at more than the psychological and social consequences of bad thoughts and actions. If their hearts and their lives were to mirror God’s pure and unconditional love, they needed to concern themselves with anything that clouded that divine image.

To Speak of Sin
A friend who is a monk, a scholar, and, like some contemporary Benedictines, the client of a psychiatrist and a user of psychotropics, once remarked that what we call “issues” the early monks called “demons” It’s probably not that simple, but I’m tempted to brandish my poetic license and say that he’s right. And what of sin?

Shouldn’t we dump the sick old theology that makes the depressed person feel not only worthless but evil as well? Of course, but we need to be clear about what we are doing, and recognize that this subject is likely to trigger an intense and also polarized response. Some people bristle at the suggestion that they be held in any way accountable for their mental states, while others regard a concern with underlying causes or motivations as an attempt to excuse bad behavior and evil acts.

The psychiatrist Karl Menninger, struggling with this dilemma in the latter half of the twentieth century, observed that even though one may detect the reasons behind a sin, this “does not correct its offensiveness, its destructiveness, its essential wrongness. If  “ignorance of the law excuses no one,” ignorance of the truth surely cannot absolve one from all sins of omission.

Call it sloth, acedia, apathy, indifference, laziness, callousness, or whatever — if refusal to learn permits the continuity of destructive evil, such willful ignorance is surely wrong. It may be, for example, that a person abuses a child because he or she suffered similar cruelty in childhood. This does not diminish the reality of pain for the child now undergoing the abuse, or in Menninger’s terms, its “wrongness.” And unless that wrong is named and addressed, its harmful effects will be passed on to future generations of innocent children.

By treating acedia as a sin, I am not suggesting that people bear responsibility for being overwhelmed by the medical condition diagnosed as depression, which is not a moral failing but an illness. Yet like any essayist, I am an explorer, and I mean to explore freely what I have experienced for most of my life as acedia —  in the light of literature, theology, psychology, and pharmacology. I need to essay, in all its senses —  try out, test, weigh, and probe the distinctions between the disease of depression and the vice of acedia. I suspect that an informed understanding of sin can assist us in sorting them out.

I regard sin as a viable concept, one that helps explain the mess we’ve made of our battered, embattled world, and the shambles we make of so many personal relationships. It’s the abuse of the doctrine that trips us up, as theologians and church leaders have often settled for a facile and narrow view of sin that leaves people either firmly convinced of their own virtue or resigned to believing that they are beyond redemption. I find it instructive that while the early monks tossed around the words “demons” and “bad thoughts” with abandon, they did not speak of sin.

Acedia is best understood not as one of the seven deadly sins, but as the eighth bad thought. Depression may well be one of its names, yet I sense that acedia contains something more than what we generally mean when we say that someone is depressed. I am in good company Both John Cassian and Thomas Aquinas recognized that acedia operates on the border between the physical and the spiritual life. They considered it both a sin and an ailment — a recurring theme in the history of acedia. As a remedy for the affliction, Thomas Aquinas recommended a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep.

Certainly I am grateful for the great advances that have helped destigmatize mental illness and brought relief to millions, including my husband and me. Still, labeling despair as an illness may be less helpful than it seems. It’s a start in the right direction, but only that. We are at a primitive stage in determining the role of genetics and environment in influencing our behavior, and what we believe to be our enlightened and sophisticated understanding of the human character may prove, within a few short years, to be as primitive as Aristotle’s notion that four humors are the prime determinants of temperament.

Acedia and Vocation
The concept of acedia has always been closely linked with that of vocation. Acedia was, and remains, the monk’s most dangerous temptation, as it makes the life he has vowed to undertake seem foolish, if not completely futile. As one scholar has stated, the monk struggling with acedia is “dealing with more than bad moods, psychic fluctuations, or moral defeats.

It is a question of the resolve that arises in the wake of a decisive choice for which the monk has risked his life and to which he must hold . . . to realize [his] full potential in oneness with God. He has bet everything that he has and everything that he is on this.” Monastic people live with the tension of having to find meaning in a way of life that the world, for all the reverent lip service paid to “holy orders” considers largely anachronistic and useless. Artists can feel a similar disconnect, and many could no doubt identify with a caustic remark attributed to T. S. Eliot, to the effect that when all is said and done, the writer may realize that he has wasted his youth and wrecked his health for nothing.

Acedia has been observed in other areas in which the labor is long and the rewards are slow to appear, if they come at all. An article published in the 1960s, “Scientific Acedia” elaborates on the vice as “an occupational hazard among men of learning that takes the form of a general withdrawal of motivation for research and an increasing alienation from science.” Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world does not care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength. But the demon of acedia is adept at striking when those resources are at a low ebb, as John Berryman notes:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no
Inner Resources? I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature.

One would expect that literature, especially great literature, would inspire a writer such as Berryman, or at least enhance his faith in the worthiness of his craft. But no, acedia insists, it’s just boring. Acedia’s genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us.

Liminal Acedia
Acedia’s liminal status in the history of Western culture, and in the Christian East, has allowed it to be a slippery operator, persistently eluding our attempts to comprehend it. Trying to talk about acedia is like trying to define a negative or grab a shadow. As the monks’ “eight bad thoughts” evolved into the Church’s “seven deadly sins,” and acedia was hidden within the sin of sloth, it played a terrible trick on us.

We came to regard sloth as an insignificant physical laziness, or a pleasant and even healthy lassitude. Evelyn Waugh acknowledges that most of us believe sloth to be “a mildly facetious variant of ‘indolence,’ and indolence, surely, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the most amiable of weaknesses?’

But I wonder. Specifically, I wonder about our synonyms for laziness: listlessness, languor, lassitude, indolence. They sound harmless enough, a good, long stretch on plump pillows. Listlessness has a seductively soft sound, but at root it means being unable to desire, which is a cause, and a symptom, of serious mental distress. Languor derives from a Latin word meaning “to feel faint,” and lassitude from a word meaning “to fall forward because of weariness.  It is related to alas, connoting misfortune and unhappiness.

The harder sound of indolence clues us in to even more serious trouble. It is defined as “habitual laziness” and in its root we find a very bad habit indeed. Dolor is an ancient word for “pain” and indolence is the inability to feel it. 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.

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. We spend greater sums on leisure but are more tense than ever, and hire lifestyle coaches to ease the stress. We turn away from the daily news, complaining of “compassion fatigue,” and enroll in classes to learn how to breathe and relax.

Increasingly, we need drugs in order to sleep. We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available “twenty-four/seven” and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible. But when distraction be comes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feel ing itself, We are more likely to indulge in public spectacles of undemanding pseudo-care than address humanity’s immediate needs. Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own? How can that be, when so few know its name?

If only it were as easy as shouting “Rumpelstiltskin” and watching the fiend dissolve in a rage around his fire. But acedia has been called by many names. To the ancient Greeks it was the black gall; to the fourth-century monks it was a vicious and tenacious temptation to despair. Petrarch called it the nameless woe, and Dante named it a sin. It became known to Robert Burton and others in the Renaissance as melancholy.

In Shakespeare, it is the boredom of Richard III, arguably as responsible as ambition in triggering his monstrous violence. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope called it spleen; to Baudelaire, and to many writers in the years to follow, it was ennui. To Kierkegaard it was the soul turned into a Dead Sea, over which no bird can soar without falling to its death.

To the nineteenth-century French, it was the mal du siècle, or the illness of the age. To twentieth-century playwrights — Chekhov, Ionesco, and Albee among them — it fuels the acrimony that underlies domestic relationships, making us suspect that relationship itself is absurd and unworkable. Acedia is the place where we wait for Godot, and it is the state of waiting. It is the fashionably negative pose of ironic detachment, of valuing life as “less than Zero.”

I can hear scholars howling, with some justification, that I am mixing it all up, failing to make the necessary and proper distinctions. That is their job, not mine. I am deeply indebted to the work of Reinhard Kuhn, who in The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature examines acedia’s baleful effects on the human spirit over many centuries. He finds that already in the literature of antiquity, “the seeds of the modern plague were present” noting echoes of Aristotle’s “black bile” in Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the horror loci (fear of place) of Lucretius and Horace in Baudelaire’s “The Voyage” and Beckett’s tramps, and the squeamishness of Seneca’s Serenus in the nausea of Sartre’s Roquentin.

As for me, I need to tell a story. More than twenty years ago, not long after I had been surprised to find myself in the description of acedia made by a fourth-century monk, I conceived this book. I had no idea how long and painful the labor would be, or I might have rejected it from the start. But in conversations with my husband, David, who was also a poet, I began to work with the connections I was making between my experience of acedia and my experience as a writer.

David suggested that I look at Aldous Huxley’s essay “Accidie.” I tried interlibrary loan, but despite its author’s renown, this work, like much that has been written about acedia, was not easy to locate. It took some time to track it down, and when I did I found something that changed my life.

Kathleen Norris’ story is in Acedia & Me from which these reading selections are taken.


Life Emerging Out Of What Had Seemed Dead

July 17, 2009

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.

Evragius Ponticus

Evagrius Ponticus

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.


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