Along these same lines, I would mention another subtle and dangerous attitude, which, as Bernanos liked to say, is “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. It is also the most harmful for those of us who would serve the Lord, for it breeds discouragement, desolation and despair.
Disappointment with life, with the Church or with ourselves can tempt us to latch onto a sweet sorrow or sadness that the Eastern Fathers called acedia.
Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík described it in these terms: “If we are assailed by sadness at life, at the company of others or at our own isolation, it is because we lack faith in God’s providence and his works. Sadness paralyzes our desire to persevere in our work and prayer; it makes us hard to live with… The monastic authors who treated this vice at length call it the worst enemy of the spiritual life.” — Pope Francis in his Letter to Priests
I will offer a few of my journal thoughts on acedia, which were prompted by a discussion I had the other day about this remarkable Letter with a faculty colleague. We reflected together on acedia’s spiritual poison. This is just a simple meditation, not a grand exposition on a complex topic.
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Acedia’s symptoms include a persistent sadness and constant restlessness, the loss of a desire to pray or of the will to remain faithful to daily prayer, a flagging of interest in (or even emerging hatred of) the things of God, resentment toward those who make demands on me, a desire to flee struggle and hide away, all of which leads to the waning of hope, love and trust in God.
The desert Fathers locate acedia’s origin in our suffering of some evil, personal failure or sin; or in our unmet expectations or disappointment in others/God — all of which eventually opens out into a persistent sadness, sorrow, anger, resentment unto despair that grows, is held onto and nursed, remaining unresolved or unhealed like a festering wound.
The spiritual Tradition also identifies other causes for acedia, like the setting of unrealistic goals/expectations, over-committing beyond one’s strength, illusory belief that God will make all work out as we think best, a lack of patience in the face of evil, vain dreams of success, or seeking to dominate and control everything and everyone.
As Pope Francis argues in his Letter, this deadly sadness of acedia acquires a certain sweetness, presenting a seductive sense of ‘consolation’ that only leads us further into self-absorbed isolation, resentment, self-pity as we slide with increasing speed into the pit of despondency. Indeed, this “inward turning” cuts us off from the remedies awaiting us in God and others, and so is the heartbeat of acedia’s power. Isolate, destroy.
Britta Phillips’ song, Luck or Magic, captures perfectly the resistant inner state of mind that develops toward God and others:
I don’t want your mercy
you can’t help but hurt me
I don’t want my heart to get dirty.
Kathleen Norris also says this about acedia,
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 you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.
So what to do? While there are no single silver bullets or magic cures for any malady in life, the spiritual tradition does offer a medley of prescriptions. These are some of the ones (not all!) that have helped me most in life, in the many times I have fallen into the grip of this demon:
Pray. Never surrender prayer. Just show up to the times of prayer. Keep it simple, unrelenting. Ask God with simplicity for the desire to pray, to work, to hope, to believe, to love, to taste again joy. Pour out to Him your cares, look at a Crucifix, sit before the Eucharist. Sit in silence when you can, and just open yourself Upward. Pray for the gift of tears, to grieve, surrender and bury whatever evil it is that is holding you fast in its grip. In all of these, open yourself wide to God and wait. Here in the night, greatness is born.
Work. Be faithful to your duties. Be present to the present moment, to the real, and not to ruminating fantasy. Simplify your commitments if your life has become unnecessarily complicated. Do manual labor, work your body, sweat hard.
Think. When dark thoughts come, redirect your thoughts to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). Ignore negative ideation. Don’t dialogue with the devil, you won’t ever win. St. Benedict said, “When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.” The Jesus prayer. Repent, forgive.
Reveal your thoughts to a trusted other who will listen without judgment, but who will not reinforce the self-absorbed, wound-licking self-pity. Opening oneself to another defeats self-reliant pride, which is the workhorse of acedia. Bringing dark thinking out into the light, and to persons who live in the Light, sets captives free.
Meditate on death. This may seem morbid or counterproductive for one in the grips of acedia. But the spiritual Tradition’s wisdom is that there is lasting freedom in becoming aware of the passing nature of life, in gaining perspective and attending to the truth that, in the end, all will be surrendered back to God without remainder. Life is an unfolding vocation to make of all a sacrificial offering. Every day presents new opportunities to let go, to hand over, to give away, to leave behind and to return whatever we were, even if but for a moment, given “to have and to hold.” The trick is to learn to do this freely, willingly, trustingly as to an Abba.
Serve. As my great grandmother used to say, so I am told, “Do others a good turn and you’ll do yourself one.” Or as Dennis Prager said,
In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.