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How to beat the spiritual disease of ‘acedia’: grab a rosary and go for a walk

Benedict XVI: 'If we let Christ into our lives we lose nothing' (Photo: CNS)

We know that Pope Francis talks about “the peripheries” a lot in his homilies. I took this to mean those on the margins of the Church and of society: poor people, outcast, refugees and so on; those people whom Our Lord spoke of as being on the “highways and byways”, who would normally feel debarred from the feast. Then I discovered that the Holy Father has been using this word before his election, and meaning those who live in spiritual rather than material poverty.

In an intervention during the general congregations preceding the conclave of 2013, which elected him Pope, the then Cardinal Jorge-Mario Bergoglio stated: “The Church is called to go out of herself in order to go to the peripheries, not only the geographical peripheries but also the existential peripheries: to the dwelling place of the mystery of sin, suffering, injustices, ignorance and disdain for religion and thought, the dwelling place of all sorts of poverty.”

I found this quote in a thought-provoking book, The Noonday Devil, by Jean-Charles Nault OSB, Abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille in Normandy. So what does this poetic-sounding title mean? It refers to “acedia, the unnamed evil of our times” as the subtitle has it. Monks know about it as it was first identified by a Desert Father, Evagrius of Pontus, who gave it this arresting description to describe a monastic temptation: a longing to leave one’s cell, gradual indifference to the faith, with the consequent sense of the futility of the monastic vocation.

Although those in religious orders might be especially prone to this spiritual disease, the author makes it clear it can affect anyone. It does sound pretty modern to me, which shows that perils to the soul don’t change much over the centuries. Symptoms include inner restlessness and “flight from the self”, apathy, faint-heartedness and temptations to doubt. We live in the age of the “selfie”; it indicates that we moderns are prone to suffer from a preoccupation with our superficial and public persona rather than the inner “self” that is meant to grapple with existential questions.

Abbot Nault points out that acedia might be present in a priest’s activism at the expense of his prayer life; gradually prayer becomes harder, ending in the state of “disgust with one’s relationship with God”. In marriage it can be seen in a “lack of openness to self-giving … and lack of openness to children” and for single people the temptation is spiritual sterility. “We are all called to bear fruit,” the author emphasises.

The remedy against this subtle danger is actually very simple: “To flee mediocrity and to be faithful to the sublime vocation to which man is called – to become a saint – it is necessary to remain faithful in the little things” and to practise “joyful perseverance”. In the book a quotation from Pope Emeritus Benedict’s homily at the inaugural Mass of his pontificate follows the earlier one I gave from our present Pope, suggesting that their approach to faith is closer than one might have thought: Benedict writes of the fear of surrendering to Christ, in case it entails self-sacrifice, and reminds his listeners that “if we let Christ into our lives we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great … Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

To summarise: when we have frittered away the morning, letting ourselves be distracted from the task in hand, and when it hardly seems worth trying to salvage the rest of the day; when our energy levels are low, the Lenten fast is irksome and we are tempted to break it by foraging in the fridge; when we are facing the monotony of the daily routine and when a creeping spiritual inertia and indifference starts to undermine us (none of this is personal, you understand) – that is when the noonday demon strikes. And that is the moment we must grab a rosary, go for a walk, force our minds out from this slough of despondency and reclaim the friendship that Benedict speaks of. It is the only remedy.