In-Sight: Acedia

Today, I am writing a “note to self.”  You are welcome to read it.  And as they say, ” If the shoe fits….. 

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Christianity was barely off the ground when soul-drain began to take its effect.  Paul called it “growing weary in doing what is right.”  He felt the depletion in himself, and wrote about it to two church groups (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13).  Some time later, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews referred to it as well (12:3). [1]

By the fourth century a.d. the condition had a name: acedia. [2]  It was seen to be so serious that it came to be included in the “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Like every other condition, it has degrees.  On a simpler level, it appears as discouragement, listlessness, and sluggishness.  Who of us has not felt this way? But if that were the extent of it, acedia would never have come to be viewed as sin, much less a soul-killing one.

The trouble is, there are times when acedia takes us farther down–down into a spiritual state of apathy where we think, speak, and act in ways that define our state as one of “not caring.”  It arises in our worship and work, manifesting itself in a myriad of specifics–all pointing to a deep sense of depletion when we have done everything we know to do….and nothing (or very little) changes for the better.

Acedia becomes a soul avenger, when we turn the feeling toward God–as people of faith–and pray, “God, don’t you care?” [3]  Nothing wearies us more than to wonder if our  “I could care less” spirit is God’s Spirit too.  Going back to the way Paul described it, if “doing what is right” yields diddly squat, why stay in the game?

And right there is where satan wants to get us–to turn us into spiritual “dropouts,” who adopt the mantra, “the world’s going to hell in a hand basket,” and in our depletion, we are willing to sit on the edge and watch it go over the cliff.

All this to say, I believe acedia is the state many of us are living in right now.  Many people are worn out after repeated efforts to “stop the madness” of the last eighteen months–madness born of sociopathology, narcissism, nativism, populism, imperialism, supremacy, racism, religious prejudice, immigrant mistreatment, “good-old-boy” protectionism, partisanship, greed, violence, undermining respected media and journalism, the hijacking of Christianity by fundamentalism, etc, etc. The past two weeks in particular have exposed the pus festering in the open wound of our common life, and many have resisted to the point of exhaustion.

And lest you think this is a detached, academic observation–let me tell you I heard myself saying just two days ago, “I don’t care anymore.”  And when those words came out of my mouth (even though my heart told me otherwise), I knew I was in trouble–that it was time to name my acedia and refuse to give it a defining/controling place in my soul.

And that brings me to the pivot of this post–acedia can be a deadly sin, but it is not a sin we are helpless to overcome.  As always, grace is greater than all our sin!  And it is in the claiming and appropriation of that grace where renewal begins.  Kathleen Norris describes it this way, “No one is exempt from [any deadly sin]. Our job is not to deny them, but to make our way through them to the virtue on the other side.” [4]

Evagrius linked the renewal to prayer–but not just any kind of prayer–to a special kind of prayer called, “hesychia”–the prayer of quiet, the prayer of rest.  In this prayer, we interceed for no one, we ask for nothing.  We simply put ourselves into the embrace of God.  The hymnwriter described it thus, “lean weary one upon His breast, God will take care of you.”  At the core, heysechia is a prayer of trust, saying from the depths of our weariness, “God, I do not know how…but I know that…you’ve got this” (see Psalm 121).

In addition to the prayer-related renewal, there is an accompanying physical alignment.  Thomas Aquinas recommended that soul-weary people take a hot bath, drink a glass of wine, and get a good night’s sleep.  As Saint Francis would say, take care of Brother Donkey!  The soul rides on the back of Brother Donkey, and it will not go any farther than Brother Donkey can take it.

This is not selfishness, it is survival and strengthening.  It is recovery and restoration.  No athlete stays on the field all the time.  No soldier fights every day.  No saint runs every leg of the race.  Overcoming acedia means practicing sabbath and even fasting from the fray.  Our hearts will tell us when the desire to re-engage has returned.  And the sign will be when we are ready to “fight the good fight” with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

[1] the Greek is ekkakéō: to feel utterly spiritless, to be worn out, exhausted.
[2] Evagrius Ponticus wrote about it in the ‘The Praktikos,’ chapter 12.  Kathleen Norris has written about in our day, ‘Acedia & Me’ (Riverhead Books, 2008).
[3] Evagrius notably links acedia with the effects it has on our prayer life.  Norris does too.  We see questions like this throughout the Psalms.  We must never cease to pray honestly.
[4] Norris, ‘Acedia & Me,’ 138.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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