The Table Podcast
Fighting the Noonday Demon: Kathleen Norris on Acedia, Boredom, and Desert Spirituality
A spiritual riddle to the modern mind: A desert monk burns all of his baskets as a means of fighting off the so-called “Noonday Demon.” Evan Rosa interviews celebrated writer Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloisterwalk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, and the Quotidian Mysteries, about her 2008 book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life—discussing ancient Christian spirituality and the deadly vice of acedia, with commentary from theologian Jerry Sittser. Acedia was taken off the list of deadly vices in the 6th century, only to rear its ugly head in contemporary technological life. Has the noonday demon been haunting you? Well, now you’ll know its name.
Evan: Our story begins in the Porphyrian Desert, lost among the maps of time, seven days’ journey from the nearest sign of civilization—we find Abba Paul, an old monk tending his small garden and date palms, quiet at work, weaving baskets, saying his prayers. Alone, in the desert, all his needs are taken care of. Everything about Abba Paul is what you’d expect of an early Christian monastic. But each year, he takes those baskets he so carefully and faithfully weaves… and he burns ‘em.
I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio—in this episode with an exploration of a vice you’ve probably never heard of, a devil you don’t know that wreaks havoc in contemporary life, maybe even your own; featuring writer Kathleen Norris and theologian Jerry Sittser.
Alright, so back to Abba Paul, the pyromaniac monk who makes his baskets just to burn em. Obviously, very strange behavior, perhaps for any age.
But why? John Cassian, an early biographer of Christian history, delivers this story to us from Book 10 of The Institutes, his theological catalogue of desert spirituality.
He describes Paul’s practice as a victory, saying, “he performed it simply for the sake of purifying his heart, and strengthening his thoughts, and persisting in his cell.”
Still, why though? Destroying one’s work? Over and over? Sounds more like the Myth of Sisyphus than a bountiful Christian habit. Weave, burn, rinse, repeat: it sounds like hell. Well, maybe one reason we don’t understand the prescription is that we don’t understand the diagnosis. If you don’t know what’s wrong with you, any treatments seem strange and pointless.
The answer to Abba Paul’s practice lies in a lost word for a deadly vice; actually removed from the dictionary at one point—considered obsolete and effete, ineffectual, marking nothing, as if we can erase a vice by eliminating the word for it.
That vice is Acedia. (Sometimes pronounced Aseedia or Acedia) Literally, not-caring in Greek.
Alright, so that’s where we’re headed: What is Acedia? What does it have to do with me? And what can I learn from our hero, Abba Paul? Well, before you go and burn all your baskets, I suggest we rewind a bit, to get some context for the theological and practical goals of Christian monasticism.
And for that, we need Jerry Sittser, Professor of Theology at Whitworth University, specializing in the history of Christianity and Christian monastic spirituality. He’s an expert on what you might call John Cassian’s “monastic journalism.”
Jerry Sittser: Right now I’m studying John Cassian—very unusual and interesting figure. He was kind of, one of these well-connected, we’d say today, “networked” people in the ancient world. Grew up in the Baltic area, fell in love early on with the stories of the early desert fathers and mothers and with his friend Germanus he eventually went to Bethlehem stayed there for a while, grew disillusioned because it was a little soft and eventually made his way down to Egypt where he met the stars of the desert in the later part of the 4th century. Interviewed them, traveled around, learned as much as he could. Eventually was forced out of Egypt—too long a story to tell—made his way to Constantinople where he was ordained a Deacon, came to know John Chrystostom, went to Rome, maybe Antioch, eventually ended up in Gaul. So this guy’s really well traveled.
And one of the bishops in Gaul asked him to write a report and to reflect on all that he learned in Egypt, and so he wrote two books, the Institutes and the Conferences. In the Institutes, he outlines in detail and reflects on the wisdom of the idea of the eight deadly thoughts, or vices. Reading these things is like feeling you’re being flayed alive. I mean honestly they are so psychologically insightful. His reflections on gluttony or avarice or sadness—yes sadness is one of the eight deadly thoughts or vices—and of course pride and so on.
And I love to teach these things because they give us a kind of diagnostic tool to understand human nature at its worst and to see it redeemed by the work of Christ. And he also tells some great stories in those books too.
Evan: Just one of these many stories is the story of Abba Paul—and we will unravel that spiritual puzzle in a few minutes. But for now, note what Sittser says about diagnostic tools:
Sittser: “they give us a kind of diagnostic tool to understand human nature at its worst and to see it redeemed by the work of Christ.”
Evan: This is in many ways psychological language. It’s thinking about the patterns of human thoughts and behaviors, diagnosing our spiritual pathologies, and designing treatment protocols for flourishing despite the onslaught of temptation to vice and failure.
Kathleen Norris thinks of these desert mothers and fathers that John Cassian presents “as the first psychologists.” Norris is the author of many books, including the Cloisterwalk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. These first psychologists would include Evagrius of Pontus (aka, Evagrius the Solitary), a fourth century monk who was one of Cassian’s teachers. Evagrius was the first to formalize a list of the “eight” (yes, eight—not seven) deadly thoughts. Also more affectionately known as the eight terrible temptations or eight evil thoughts. Evagrius formulated this list as a way of thinking about the temptations (which you might think of as the ideas or suggestions toward sin, not the sinning itself… proto-sin maybe)… the temptations from which sinful, immoral, damaging behavior flows. It’s in this sense that he and the other early ammas and abbas of the desert are psychologists.
Kathleen Norris: The research I did, I really am convinced now that Evagrius and some of these early monks, 4th century Christian monks, are really the first psychologists of the West. When they talk about the eight bad thoughts that plague us and the eight virtues that help us deal with our bad thoughts, a lot of what they say really resonates with modern psychology.
In fact, I heard from a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists on my book tour, people calling in to radio talk shows saying what Evagrius is talking about—thinking about your thoughts, that’s exactly what we do in cognitive behavioral therapy, a new therapy but he was talking about this 1,700 years ago.
I really was delighted to find all of that in the 4th century, this great wisdom about the bad thoughts that come to all of us. Those early monks never used the word sin which I think is very useful because everybody has the bad thoughts and the temptations, so there’s not really guilt associated with that.
Everyone experiences anger, envy, pride, acedia, I think. For these early monks, anger, acedia, and pride were the three really, really dangerous ones. Everybody experiences that. There’s no guilty associated with it. Where the problems come in is how we respond to them.
If we give in to our anger, if we behave badly because we’re being plagued by this bad thoughts, then the moral issues come in. Then you’ve got other problems. But the temptations…the bad thoughts come to everyone. Using the word bad thoughts instead of sin I think is really quite, useful.
Here they were in the first century, really, delineated all of this.
Evan: These monks were examining the subtleties of trying to live the Christian way—trying to follow the pattern and example of Jesus, who was tempted in all ways, yet without sin. Thinking psychologically about vice—moral and spiritual failure—means getting to the roots of the problems, and finding patterns and habits of life to resist temptations with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and thereby become more like Jesus. If you’re familiar with virtue ethics, it’s a “fake it till you make it” kind of thing.
Now, we could go lots of directions from here—there are 8 deadly thoughts that can infect the mind and cause us to sin in a multiplicity of ways. What are those original 8 deadly vices? The list Cassian translated into Latin from Evagrius was:
Gluttony, Lust, Avarice or Greed, Superbia or Pride, Despair or Sadness, Anger or Wrath, Vainglory, and Acedia.
These 8 deadly terrible thoughts became the 7 deadly sins in the 6th century, when Pope Gregory the Great wanted to consolidate and develop the list in order to respond to the spiritual needs and pathologies of Christians at that time. So, vainglory and superbia are combined into pride. Envy is added to the list. But we want to hone in on just one that was removed and forgotten: Acedia. Despair or sadness and Acedia were often confused, thought irrelevant to life outside the monastery, and used interchangeably; so they were combined and renamed as Sloth.
Dante Alighieri thought of each of these deadly sins as corruptions or deprivations or negations of love. Four of them deal explicitly with the corruption of the mind—vainglory, sorrow, pride, and acedia—which is perhaps what makes it possible to see these exercises as psychology, which exists, at least in part, to heal corruptions of the mind, or mental illness.
So what’s the point of this listing of vices and the examination of temptations? Evagrius himself was worried about too much theorizing about temptation and sin, because of the way it can introduce bad thoughts to otherwise innocent minds. I’m sure there are many reasons, and I won’t list them all, but giving temptations and vices a name has a way of helping us respond. The 8 vices are presented as spirits or “demons” in Cassian’s Institutes. There is a meaning found in naming the enemy or attacker, or diagnosing an illness. Until you know what plagues you, it can be hard to formulate a resistance or treatment plan. It looks like the same goal is active in the modern spiritual classic of C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters. That book was conceived by Lewis during a particularly boring sermon one Sunday. He wrote to his brother Warren,
“Before the service was over—one cd. wish these things came more seasonably—I was struck by an idea for a book wh. I think might be both useful and entertaining. It wd. be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ‘patient.’ The idea wd. be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”
Naming these temptations and vices allow us to formulate a strategy for responding. It’s about knowing your enemy, and knowing your own weaknesses. It brings a whole new meaning to “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
When Gregory the Great consolidated the list, it was seen as a good thing—it allowed Christians of that time to focus on the most problematic of temptations and try to root them out. But as a result, Acedia was taken off the list and hidden away. It didn’t seem to apply beyond the solitary, individual lives of monks, who were constantly tempted to abandon their cell, abandon their monastery and simply give up on the life they were called to. But as we’ll see in a minute, that was a mistake. More on what acedia actually is, why it’s called “the noonday demon,” and how that demon prowled unnamed and unknown for the last 1500 years into your life today, in just a moment.
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Evan: We’ve developed a lot of questions so far: What is the usefulness of a psychology of sin and temptation? Why go from 8 terrible thoughts to 7 deadly sins? Why take acedia off the list, and what in the world was Abba Paul doing burning his baskets? It’s not exactly a helpful productivity tip or life hack.
Back to Kathleen Norris on the significance of acedia.
Kathleen: The fact that they were into acedia up there with anger and pride really struck me. They understood how deadly it was. Then unfortunately, about a couple hundred years later, in the six century when the seven deadly sins became the church doctrine, Gregory the Great talked about ‘em.
Acedia got dropped. It was stuck into the sin of sloth, physical laziness, and that whole powerful, deadly force that it had that the notion of that was pretty much lost to Western culture. Then I thought that was really a shame, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, was to talk about it.
Again, because I really do think we need to understand acedia’s effect on us. I use the image of a fairy tale. If you’re suffering from something, and don’t know the name of it, of the demon you’re suffering from, you’re in a bad way.
The book she’s talking about is 2008’s Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. It’s a theological memoir that reintroduces and names this vice back into the lexicon of Christian spirituality. And the argument that she makes throughout the book is that acedia is just as relevant to us today as it ever was in the monastery. It afflicts us solitary, individualistic moderns in a particular bad way because we’re haunted by a demon without a name, a condition and temptation to spiritual discouragement and loss of meaning.
Kathleen: The word actually was marked as obsolete in the Oxford English Dictionary in I think the ’30s and then when they brought a supplement out after World War II, the word was back in and I don’t think that’s happened to a lot of words where it’s marked obsolete.
We don’t need it anymore, it’s not in use, and after World War II it was back in and that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book because I wanted to explore the reasons why we need this ancient word again.
After the trauma that the whole world went through during World War II and then what I think of as the trauma of the military industrial complex, the whole consumer economy, all of that has taken its toll as well.
All these products that are supposed to make our lives easier, and we’re supposed to be more carefree, instead we’re burdened by lots of anxiety. We take drugs to lift our mood, to help us sleep at night. The problems haven’t gone away. Acedia hasn’t gone away. It’s there in us, in our culture.
Boredom—we do so many things to escape boredom and I think the early monks would tell us, “Hey just face it head on. That’s the only way you can deal with it.”
Evan: Comment on escape, on what it is to escape rather than engage.
Kathleen: Video games, television, all kinds of things, overuse of the Internet. I think human beings are good at finding almost any way to escape their responsibilities, their true selves, the fear of being alone, all of those things.
There’s so many things we can do. We can take drugs, we can have a couple cocktails every night that take the edge off, help us escape that feeling of solitude, of being responsible for our own selves, our own lives.
There’s so many things that can distract us from that and I guess that was really the point of that whole monastic movement in the 4th century and still in some ways the point of monastic life is you come to terms with who you really are.
The masks get dropped. You reduce your distractions so you’re forced to come… to be alone with God I think is one of the ways that Monastic people have always talked about it. You’re alone with God.
You have the scriptures maybe by heart because then they’re inside of you, and the words will come to you, but you’re basically alone with God and I guess for most of us that’s a scary proposition. We don’t really want to be alone with ourselves, let alone be alone with God.
Evan: Acedia, Norris thinks, is an important tool for diagnosing contemporary technological life. A life wherein we’re constantly “alone together”—where solitude and silence are uncomfortable—where we constantly dream and envision a life other than the one we have. Those ancient monks felt acedia when they were tempted to leave the discomfort of their spiritual calling, abandoning their vocation. We modern monks feel acedia when we put off the tasks we’ve been given to check-in on social media, voyeuristically looking longingly at the lives we wish we had. And of course those people with the good lives you want: they’re just dreaming of someone else’s situation. Acedia distracts us from the task of being a responsible, loving individual before God, worthy of the work and projects God calls us to in faith and work.
If we are in fact hassled and tempted by acedia to give in to meaninglessness and reject our spiritual calling, then we’d be wise to listen to the monks who battled it in the fourth century—and referred to acedia as “the noonday demon.”
So here are Kathleen and Jerry Sittser again, talking about the definition of acedia, how should we understand this spiritual vice?
Kathleen: The Greek word acedia just means not caring. It’s come to mean as seriously not caring to the extent that you no longer care that you care. I described it as a spiritual morphing. If you really give in to it, it becomes this numbing effect on your life.
Just knowing the name of what it is, it’s not depression, it’s not just sadness. It’s not just boredom and restlessness, but all those things are part of it. Just knowing the name of it, and when it strikes it, seems to come out of nowhere.
If I’m depressed I usually know why. That something really bad has happened. Of course, I’m a little bit depressed. I’ll work through that. If someone has died, or a bad thing has happened, with acedia it can come out of nowhere. At least now I recognize it and I say, “Oh, you again. OK, well, I’m not going to give in.”
Depression is an illness, whereas acedia is a temptation. Because it’s a temptation, it can be resisted. You can struggle against it and win, whereas, if you’re seriously depressed, you probably need medication. You need a psychiatrist, or a psychologist to work with you on it.
With acedia, it is a temptation. You can resist it, once you know what it is, and you recognize it.
Evan: Again, Jerry Sittser, who thinks acedia…
Jerry: … is best translated “impatience with routine,” “boredom,” “listlessness”… a desire for a shortcut—that’s what it really implies. That’s why they call it the noonday demon. But the time noon hits when you’re living in a monastery and you’ve prayed for the fourth of fifth time of the day, you look outside and the sun has basically stopped moving. You look at the clock and its stopped ticking.
Kathleen: When you think about the desert, you might have a little bit of cool in the morning. You would get up and say your prayers, and maybe water your vegetables, whatever you were doing. But by the noon of the day, the desert heat is really pressing down on you and it’s going to affect your mood.
You’re going to feel more oppressed at noon than you will say at, 6:00 in the morning, or maybe 5:00 in the afternoon, when you have the luxury. You can watch the sun go down and know that the night will be a little cooler.
The noonday desert heat is very oppressive. I think that’s when they noticed. These early monks were very good observers of their own lives because they had very few distractions. They would notice, “Well, this particular temptation, this bad thought tends to come at that hour.”
And there’s also Psalm 91 that talks about the scourge that lays waste at noon. That was also the identified because they knew the psalms by heart most of them, so that was another way they identified The Noonday Demon.
Jerry: And you feel overcome. Athletes experience acedia when they’ve gone through drills again and again and again, and they feel like they’re not making any improvement and they grow bored with them, and restless. Or musicians or scholars.
That particular deadly vice or thought applies to those who want to figure out how to take a shortcut to excellence. Or to flee. In fact, Cassian talks about the desire to flee the place—he says—oh, he says (putting words into an imaginary monk): “If only I could find a better abbott… if only I could find a better monastery…” If only I could find a better coach a better teacher, a better set of circumstances that would simply make the Christian life easier for me and more convenient. And I could get to excellence somehow more quickly. That’s really what he’s referring to.
Evan: And that syndrome, the “if only syndrome” is just rampant in our society.
Jerry: It is. It’s a habit of our society.
Evan: So, Acedia isn’t depression. Neither is it sadness. Remember, there was some confusion about Despair and Acedia, and they were both mingled into Sloth.
Jerry: Sadness on the other hand would best be translated, on the lighter side of things, self-pity; and on the harder side of things, despair. Where you face circumstances, experiences in life that are simply so hard, and you fall into a deep kind of sadness. It’s not depression. I hesitate to use modern words and apply them easily to ancient wisdom. That takes some nuancing that I’m hesitant to do.
Evan: Here’s what Evagrius of Pontus has to say about acedia:
“First of all, [the demon of acedia] makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour, to look this way and that… And further he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labor, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him. And if there is someone who has offended the monk, this too the demon uses to add further to his dislike (of the place). He leads him on to the desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive; he adds that pleasing the Lord is not a question of being in a particular place…and he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee the stadium.”
Calvin College philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in an essay covering Sloth and Acedia, we published online in The Table Journal not long ago, she suggests that, “The counsel of the desert is this: ‘Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.’”
Similarly, Blaise Pascal, from his Pensees, or Thoughts—particularly the section on Diversion, admits, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”
Acedia tempts you to leave your station. It tempts you to sleep or disengage. It tempts you to fill your life with noise—whether that’s TV, or social media, or… um.. my voice… this podcast?? Hopefully not! It’s the opposite of mindful fulfilling of your responsibility, come what may. It leads to restlessness and instability.
A 2014 article published in Science magazine presents findings from 11 studies, that subjects would rather administer mild electric shocks to themselves rather than sit alone in an empty room for just 15 minutes! That’s, I beg your pardon… but…that’s shocking.
All dumb jokes aside (and I am sorry about that), think about the ways in which our consumption habits and daily practices imply that we all demand to be entertained, almost constantly. Aldous Huxley once wrote a short essay on acedia, and thinks of it as a quintessential modern vice:
“Other epochs have witnessed disasters, have had to suffer disillusionment; but in no century have the disillusionments followed on one another’s heels with such unintermitted rapidity as in the twentieth, for the good reason that in no century has change been so rapid and so profound. The mal du siècle [that means “world-weariness” or in French, literally, the sickness of the century] was an inevitable evil; indeed, we can claim with a certain pride that we have a right to our [or, acedia] accidie. With us it is not a sin or a disease of the hypochondrias; it is a state of mind which fate has forced upon us.”
In many ways we are still stuck with boredom or ennui as the ultimate form of despair. To be alone with our thoughts and face to face with our selves is far too frightening.
My friend Matthew Smith, a professor of literature at Azusa Pacific University, pointed out to me this spot-on expression of acedia by the French poet Charles Beaudelaire, a decadent poet of the 19th century post-Romantic period. Here’s Matt reading the final stanzas of “To the Reader” from Baudelaire’s volume, “The Flowers of Evil.” Take it away, Matt.
In each man’s foul menagerie of sin —
There’s one more damned than all. He never gambols,
Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,
Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles
And swallow up existence with a yawn…
Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother.
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!
Evan: Does Baudelaire mean what he says, or is he being ironic? Is he celebrating boredom or is he lamenting it?
Matthew: I think Baudelaire is implicating the reader in this ennui that he sees in this city. The poem is called “Au Lecteur” and it begins with the visual landscape of Paris: prostitution, crime, disease, addition, damnation—and then in the end when the reader might expect him to take a step back, maybe like Shelley or Wordsworth, to give an experience of the sublime in poetry that transcends these material conditions, he refuses to. He sinks, or as he might say, “slinks” into boredom—ennui— and then implicates the reader: his brother, his twin.
What strikes me about this poem is the depiction of a boredom that overcomes the soul and its purpose so completely—a vice “more damned than all”—that it would rather see the world in shambles than lift a finger. To “swallow up existence with a yawn…” The subversion is slow and quiet, a sleepy and yet total destruction. That’s modern indifference.
What can we say about this then? We need to consider the everyday, the mundane, the quotidian. Facing our most simple and repetitive tasks with faithfulness. I asked Kathleen about how we can find God in the quotidian.
Kathleen: God is not just there for us on Sunday mornings. God is part of our lives, 24/7. I wrote the book, “The Quotidian Mysteries” partly to explore that, because our lives are lived in the daily, so of course, God is there.
And the struggles that we have with ourselves, with our responsibilities, with other people, it’s all worked out in the daily. So daily life is where it’s at. That is where we live, and that’s where our struggles are with the bad thoughts.
Evan: You’re talk, in the book, about the helpfulness of repetition and routine. Comment on that.
Kathleen: Yes, I learned about that in monasteries, because going to spend nine months in a monastery, going to church four times a day, you begin to realize that it’s a scaffold that supports the rest of your life.
That repetition, it can seem really boring sometimes, and every monk I know talks about it like a runner hitting the wall and you think, “Oh my gosh, we have to go to back the church again. I can’t stand this.” When you get into that routine, you realize that it’s a scaffold.
Even going to weekly church on Sunday can be a scaffold for your life. In the monastery, what I discovered was because there were these set times for prayer, and all of this repetition going on, because there are set times for prayer, you use the time for recreation well. It gives you the license to use your other time more constructively.
It’s a very interesting phenomenon, but repetition is at the heart of it that you keep going back to church reciting the song. Of course, in monastery, you’re going to recite the same 150 psalms about every…you get through the cycle about once a month.
If you’re in a monastery for 10 years or 50 years, pretty much you do know the psalms by heart. That’s a beautiful thing, because you can be walking down the street, and suddenly a line from a psalm will come to you when you need it. It’s like a portable Bible.
Evan: And I think now we’re in a position to see what’s going on with Abba Paul. He’s remaining faithful in the small things. What looks like fruitless tedium from the outside is really a spiritual victory once you’re familiar with acedia.
I like the way Kathleen tells the story of Abba Paul, and that’s how she starts her book, Acedia & me. So here’s how she explains his behavior.
Kathleen: Abba Paul was a 4th century monk, I believe in Egypt, maybe Syria. He lived a little more isolated than most monks. In those days, monks would weave baskets, and then take them to the cities to sell them. That is how they bought a little bit of subsistence… you know things that they would need… staples they would need. Otherwise, they grew their own food. Paul lived too far away from the cities to make it profitable. So he would spend more on traveling than he would get for the baskets. So he really did live on his garden and everything.
Because prayer and work were closely linked, that you would pray the psalms as you were weaving the baskets. Weaving the baskets was part of his prayer life. He would weave his baskets as if he were going to sell him, and at the end of the year, he would burn them all, then start over again.
Cassian, in his conferences for monks in the 5th century, tells that story of Abba Paul. He said Abba Paul is the person who basically conquered the demon of acedia. That’s why he tells the story, because if someone can do that—make something, build something, and then just destroy it, and start over again quite calmly, without regret—then he’s conquered this demon of acedia.
Evan: Paul’s practice of weaving keeps him focused on simple labor (not unlike the dishwashing of Brother Lawrence in the devotional classic, The Practice of the Presence of God). Establishing a practice and rule of life allows him to remain stable, unflagged by the noonday demon. Paul finds rest in the weaving. He finds rest even in the restless threat of solitary life, built around fear of missing out, built around the anxiety of made-up consumer needs. Paul slaps boredom in the face with a pattern of life that facilitates his spiritual goals, which of course is his vocation—but it’s ours too. There are lessons to learn about staying the course, resisting the temptation to sleep off our boredom and despair, and lean in to our present situation as an act of long obedience toward God and faithfulness and loyalty to the people around us.
The truth is, there are many practical suggestions and advice surrounding treatment for an acedia diagnosis. Norris’s book, Acedia & me, includes a treasure chest full of reflections, many her own, on what ought to be done to combat this ancient vice revisited.
As one prone to acedia myself, but perhaps no more than the average suburban American, I’m not fit to advise. But as one looking for practices myself, I’ll call to note some of the ancient practices made present and some things that might seem to work for me.
The desert mother Amma Syncletica suggests weeping. There’s nothing sentimental about this though—it’s just about grief. Acedia threatens to take away your ability to grieve about things that matter: your own actions and character, the suffering and weakness of your neighbors. She recommends this kind of grieving as a means to retain your sense of purpose in spiritual formation.
Evagrius suggests to monks battling acedia that they simply endure. Endurance to perform one’s tasks, menial though they might seem, gives you a pattern for living. Against the doom and meaninglessness acedia tempts us with, we do the dishes, we keep our rooms clean, we send that email, we reconcile that budget, we brush our teeth, we change that 7th diaper today, we hang the laundry. Kathleen Norris ends her book this way, with a short poem of her own: “I empty the washer / and gather what I need for the return: / the basket of wet clothes / and bag of clothespins, / a worn, spring jacket in need of mending. / Then I head upstairs, singing an old hymn.”
Invest or inspire love in your work
And that’s the third thing: Invest or inspire love in your work. Etymologically, that would be clothing or breathing into. When you invest or inspire, you instrumentalize the tasks. You take them as little bursts of delight.
You sing into them. You pray into them. You weave a basket full of psalms, and then you can offer a burnt sacrifice of your work to the one who gave it to you.
Invest into your tasks your care, and thereby your love, and thereby find a reason for your work. It’s yours, given to you by God.
Kathleen: Evagrius says, “Once you’ve contended with acedia, you really experience a deep peace that is deeper than almost anything else you’ll ever find. Because you’ve come through that really bad time of thinking everything as meaningless. Nothing matters at all, and then you pull through.”
If you can get through to that…Basically, he thinks the opposite of acedia is love, that you’re able to love in a really, really deep way, if you’ve contended with acedia.
The opposite of acedia is caring very deeply, and it’s loving, which I find very liberating.
Evan: That’s it for this episode, but as I said, you can find a wealth of directions and reflections on acedia in Norris’s book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life.
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Evan: The Table Audio is hosted and edited by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is supported by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation along with people like you who care about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Special thanks to Kathleen Norris and the Baylor University Institute for Faith and Learning for facilitating that interview; thanks also to Jerry Sittser, and to Matt Smith for his lessons in French pronunciation. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, wherever you get your podcasts. Just search The Table Audio.
You can follow me on Twitter at @EvanSubRosa, and you can follow The Center for Christian thought @BiolaCCT or visit cct.biola.edu.
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