This week we heard about acedia and sloth.
Fr. John defines sloth as a “morbid inertia” — a state in which it seems hopelessly impossible to do or even to want to do anything good that requires any effort at all. Is it the same as depression — which would imply that it is right to exhort the depressed to get over it, get up, and get back to life? No; no one chooses or wants depression, and that kind of exhortation is therefore cruel. In fact, depression is often a rational response given the circumstances, and therapy (with or without medication) is the best help for resolving depression and coming to better terms with the circumstances.
Not everyone in the church takes such care to make this distinction. In my experience, depressed Christians often find it hard to believe their own intuition that they did not, in fact, deliberately choose to disobey by getting or staying depressed. It can be hard for us to understand anything true about sin at all, but especially about sin that looks a lot like depression.
Acedia means “lack of care.” It is a spiritual boredom or depression, that either does nothing or runs after emptiness in an attempt to hide or avoid emptiness. It finds the work of loving God, becoming the true self, and loving our neighbor too pointless or boring or difficult, and withdraws into distraction, emptiness, the false self, instead. Full-blown acedia is sloth, in which you not only don’t care, but don’t desire to care, don’t feel the pain of not caring — life is full of disconnection from self and God and others, and you are indifferent.
Contemporary consumerism and constant change can foster acedia and sloth; everything is emptiness, always shifting, nothing solid. This kind of life can lead to an “obsessive self-concern” as well as a profound “sadness which saps any desire for depth and long-range commitment,” or which makes depth and long-range commitment seem impossibly out of reach or unavailable.
Acedia usually hits in the midst of things — the routine, the mundane, the ordinary, the repetitive, the necessary but unthrilling. It’s a sense of boredom, emptiness, meaninglessness, futility. It’s an urge to go somewhere else, be with other people, do something else.
Sometimes it is a good idea to go and do something else. Sometimes persevering is counterproductive. Sometimes we need rest, recreation, replenishment.
Sometimes, though, “especially when our work is directed towards our relationship with God, the discovery of our true self, and the meaning of charity towards our neighbors,” it is important to persevere. A sense of boredom, or a desire for distraction from the work, call us away from discomfort. It is good sometimes to just sit with the boredom, the sense of futility and emptiness, the fear of the work we are doing. It is a good thing that being bored at mass or in the daily office or in prayer does no damage to those disciplines. As one continues to do those things, accepting the boredom, one might come to see, as Kathleen Norris says, “the grace that is available in the present place and time.” Boredom does not need to alarm us, and we don’t need to run away from it — it is good to embrace (without judgment, without shock, without anxious worry) the present moment even when it contains boredom, or anything else that makes the present moment feel threatening.
In all kinds of work, at home, at jobs, with people, it is most often important to persevere even when it’s boring. Sometimes something completely different is a good idea — a bath, a good book, an outing, a nap. Mostly, though, the treatment for acedia is to go back to those little routine boring things and look for grace there as you persevere. Having routines — whether for home life or job efficiency or for spiritual practice — is of great help with acedia — one can fall back on the routines, do them “as an offering to God,” and try to “trust the process to work,” and patiently wait to see what God has next.
Regular labor is good for soul and mind and body; it is steadying. Persevering to embrace the present moment — interruptions, threats, boredom, routine, unsolicited feelings and desires, whatever — is also good; better to accept reality than to try to fight it or escape it. Merton says the solitary — and perhaps any of us trying to live in the present moment — “knows least where he is going, and yet he is more sure, for there is one thing he cannot doubt: he travels where God is leading him. That is precisely why he doesn’t know the way.”
Acedia tempts us to doubt that even God knows where we are going, makes us impatient with our progress, and would divert us from our real path, and side-track us into trivial pursuits. From all of which may God deliver us!