On Wednesdays I am going through my book Idol Thoughts, presenting the classic Christian doctrine of the ‘eight thoughts’ that draw us away from God and from life, and what to do about them.
Much of the list corresponds to the more familiar ‘seven deadly sins’, of which it is the historical progenitor. But we are now in the thoughts that vary from that later list. Last week we talked about despondency, the settled conviction that happiness means getting one’s own way, and hence the glumness that pervades life when we so often don’t.
But there is an even deeper thought that can sadden us in an even more destructive way. Namely there is the thought that happiness is… well… not. That is, there is no such thing, not really, not in any lasting way. Not to speak of.
This is the crushing, paralyzing, soul sapping thought of acedia, which oddly has never had an adequate English word to describe it. I guess we English speakers just (sigh…) can’t be bothered to come up with a word for it.
It really is what ‘sloth’ used to refer to, but that word has come to mean exclusively physical laziness, which is quite a different thing, really. Acedia is a spiritual ailment more than a bodily one, and in fact can be expressed by an intense physical busyness and workaholism.
Acedia is the settled conviction that nothing is any good, anyhow, that there is no real point in striving for true and lasting happiness, that there is no heaven awaiting us, no real victory over sin and death in this life or the next, and so there is no value whatsoever in striving for such a victory through any real spiritual effort.
Acedia is the great ‘why bother?’ of the soul. Pray? Why bother? Fast? Really, why bother? Good works? Why bother? Practice virtue, resist temptation, repent of sin? Why bother, why bother, why bother?
Much of this goes on at a sub-conscious level. Of all the thoughts, acedia has the least actual truth to it—the other thoughts take great strength from the fact that they are all partial truths and so quite persuasive. Acedia has almost no truth to it, and so often lurks in secret underneath the level of conscious reflection.
But it is the thought that fuels so much of our sinful behavior. We know—most of us, if we have a scintilla of good sense—that stuffing our faces, hoarding riches, and messing around sexually will not really make us happy, not for more than a moment anyway. But we are constantly falling into those sinful deeds and others because acedia is constantly thrumming in the sub-basement of our soul its deadly refrain: ‘why bother, why bother, why bother’. We know those things won’t make us happy, but we do them because nothing else will make us happy, either, so why not have a bit of pleasure right now?
Acedia is the silent killer of the soul, the cancer that chokes off its life. Acedia is the abortionist of the soul, killing spiritual life and growth in its nascent beginning. Acedia is the atheist of the soul, loudly and obnoxiously proclaiming that there is no God, no point, nothing at all worth pursuing on the spiritual line.
Acedia is in all of us, to some degree or another. The only people who are entirely free of it are wholly transformed saints, and if any such people are reading this blog, they know quite a bit more about the subject than I do. Because the path to sainthood means having to do battle against acedia for years, truly. It is a tenacious foe, hard to kill, like Jason or Freddie or one of those other horror movie villains, perpetually back for one more sequel (Nightmare on Elm Street XXVII! Friday the 13th XXXII!), one more slash of the knife to our spiritual selves.
So when we speak of a ‘remedy’ for acedia we are not talking about quick fixes. There ain’t no such thing. The remedy for acedia is fundamentally perseverance and habit. Establishing a routine, a way of life, a fixed commitment to pray at certain times, fast on certain days, dedicate oneself to apostolic charity and love according to what is suitable for one’s way of life. To simply do these things, and when (as is near-inevitable) we fail to do these things, to promptly begin to do them again.
This, and the grace of God we dispose ourselves to receive as we simply ‘show up’ each day in prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, is the radical surgery, the radiation therapy, the chemotheraphy of the soul shrinking the tumor of acedia so that ultimately it can do us no damage, even if it still there in a reduced state, still muttering its insane little refrain of why bothers at us.
We have to endure that, for as long as it lasts, but that too can become a spur in us to fidelity and perseverance, and an atoning suffering borne for all our brothers and sisters who live lives of quiet desperation, who are so utterly in the grip of acedia that they don’t even know what it is, since it is the assumed fact of life—the sky is blue, grass is green, and nothing is any good in the end anyhow.
I have quite a bit more to say about this subject, but will leave the rest of it for the readers of my book to discover for themselves. For today, let’s fight the good fight against acedia, say our prayers and do the good that is before us today, en route to the Good that is awaiting us in God’s heart.