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Acedia

Acedia has a long history and extensive Church literature. Over the centuries, it has become mixed up with sloth, melancholia, and, most recently, depression. It is important to carve out depression from spiritual disorders like acedia, because the last thing people with a mental illness need is to think it's a sin that is their fault. (How many people are truly depressed vs. among the over-diagnosed who suffer from the fallen world's portion of sadness is beyond this discussion.) Things are complicated in that spiritual dryness (yet another, similar condition) can often be "comorbid" with depression, as the 12th century doctor of the Church Bernard of Clairvaux recognized. It is a shame we no longer recognize such distinctions or have all the medicines of former days.

Acedia is a listlessness and aversion to one's duties, especially religious duties. It is best thought of as it was in the beginning: a kind of spiritual disease in need of a cure. An old story perfectly captures acedia. There was a monk who always managed to be somewhere else when it was time for Divine Office. St. Benedict discerned a demon in the form of a black boy tugging at the monk's sleeve when it was time to pray.

Acedia was known as "the noonday devil," because that was the time monks (apparently) felt twinges of dissatisfaction with their life. "Of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday devil." Ps 90 (91) v. 6, Douay Rheims version.

Sloth -- one of the seven deadly sins -- is a culpable laziness in doing what one should. It is much simpler, and has nothing to do with depression, and doesn't quite capture acedia.

A verse from St. Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians 7.10 is relevant on how sorrow may be good or bad.

"For godly sorrow produces a salutary repentance without regret, but worldly sorrow produces death."

Feeling bad after committing a sin can make us look outward to God's mercy, and seek our cure in the sacrament of reconciliation. That is godly sorrow. But worldly sorrow turns our eyes away from God and upon ourselves. Paradoxically it is thus a kind of pride, causing the soul to become fascinated and paralyzed by her own disfigurement. Since it keeps one from seeking God's mercy, it indeed can only produce death.

During Lent, you may find the demon of acedia a sometime companion, and may find yourself sorrowing after sin. The Bear certainly does, and knows there are few resources that make the proper distinctions. Acedia and Me by Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris is an imperfect, but comprehensive treatment of the subject mixed with substantial autobography, and is the best resource for anyone interested in this important topic.

Comments

  1. I think some Benedictine Abbot even wrote a book called the Noonday Devil. I'd look it up for you, but what's the point of it all?

    ReplyDelete

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