Following the Edict of Milan (313), when Christianity was declared a legal religion by the Emperor Constantine, a unique spiritual movement began in the Church where Christians from various social classes traveled into the desert to lead lives of prayer and asceticism in solitude. They felt led by the Holy Spirit to make their vocational dwelling place a cell in the desert where they could devote their entire lives to prayer. These Christians were known as the “Desert Fathers.”
As you can imagine, the Desert Fathers engaged in serious spiritual warfare, fighting off all kinds of temptations of the mind. Several of these Desert Fathers recorded their spiritual battles with the Evil One in writing for others to read and analyze.
One of the primary demons the Desert Fathers battled regularly was the demon of Acedia (pronounced: uh-see-dee-uh), the sin commonly known as “sloth.” Although sloth is certainly one aspect of Acedia, it is important for us to understand that it is so much more than just sloth.
For the Desert Fathers, Acedia was the demon that tempted them to abandon their cell and thus abandon their ascetical vocation. Acedia was referred to as the “Noonday Devil.” At noontime, the sun is at its zenith and produces no shadows. Shadows help us recognize the passing of time. When there are no shadows, time seems to stand still as if the present moment is never ending.
The temptation of Acedia for the Desert Fathers was the temptation of boredom due to a lack of activity. Many of the Desert Fathers would be tempted to leave their cell, their dwelling place – the place where they were called to make themselves available for the Lord in prayer. The demon of Acedia would spiritually attack them in the middle of the day to disrupt their prayer and eventually draw them away from their vocation. Thus, the written advice from the Desert Fathers was to “stay in your cell!” In other words, the recommendation was to commit yourself to the vocation God has called you to and refuse to consent to the deception of the Evil One.
In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas gave a fuller definition of Acedia when he referred to it as, “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with spiritual activity.” Aquinas expanded the notion of Acedia to include the “sadness” we often feel in the face of something we know to be spiritually good for us. He also included in his definition the “disgust” we often feel when we come to understand the hard work that is required of us to grow in our spiritual life.
Today, the demon of Acedia is still very much at work. One of the common signs of Acedia in our modern culture is the constant need for change. There appears today to be a constant need for change: to change one’s locality, work, situation, institution, occupation, spouse, friends, etc… As soon as we get what we desire, we seem to want something else. We start reading books, but we never finish. We start going to class, but we never finish. We continually glide horizontally from one thing to another without remembering the necessity of the vertical movement that draws us deeper into God and heavenly things. One could argue that we are so wrapped up with “passing through” the things of this life that we forget the importance of “passing beyond” to the things of the life to come.
A clear example of this “passing through,” is the common practice of “channel-surfing.” In addition to our desire to see all things at once, we hop from one television program to the next with a kind of radical instability. This continuous movement from one show to the next never allows us to focus and reflect on one thing and often leaves us unsatisfied – longing for something more.
In addition to our constant need for change, we are also terrified of being alone. Acedia causes us to flee from ourselves. When we spend time alone, we are forced to confront our inner self. Sometimes when confronted with our inner self, we discover our own moral poverty – how spiritually and morally empty we really are. This discovery can frighten us and cause us to fall into despair. For this reason, we allow ourselves to become so busy that we do not have the time to be by ourselves and deal with what is going on inside of us. We take on a “creative activism” through which we make up new things to distract ourselves. The problem here is that if we never confront our moral poverty, we can never grow in our life of faith.
Sometimes we do this even in our own marriage. Instead of taking time to face the inner struggles of our married life, we fill our lives up with external commitments and activities so that we can remain in a constant flight from our everyday life at home. Often times in the face of the need for forgiveness in our family life, we run, because we realize that forgiveness requires the interior availability to give and receive it.
For St. Thomas Aquinas, the answer to Acedia is the gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the God who takes on our humanity in all things but sin, we encounter a God who removes all distance between human nature and God’s divine life. Christ restores to us the hope of being able to participate fully in God’s divine life.
Although Acedia causes us to struggle with the sadness of spiritual good and disgust toward spiritual work, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the grace of Sacraments that flow from His Paschal Mystery give us strength and hope in the face of these struggles. The gift of God Himself, and our constant focus on this gift, restores our spiritual joy. Accepting the love of God and the sublimity of our vocation gives rise to authentic freedom.
In Christ, we have the grace to be faithful to God and our vocation even when it is sometimes met with sadness and disgust. In Christ, we have the sufficient grace to persevere in the face of Acedia. May the Incarnation of Jesus continue to pour forth joy into our souls – the joy of discovering that when we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing of what makes life free, beautiful, and great.
For further reading on the topic of Acedia, Fr. Will recommends reading the following books:
Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire by R.J. Snell
The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.