I was especially drawn to read Mary Farrow’s article on Acedia on the Catholic Herald website for 19 May as I have a sneaky feeling that I suffer from it. I am constantly tempted (and sometimes succumb) to putting off what I should be doing and frittering away my time in displacement tasks. The lockdown hasn’t helped: when you theoretically have all day to do a worthy labour it is much easier to delay it than when you have only a couple of hours free to complete it. Urgency does concentrate the mind. Yet there is much more to acedia than indulging in occasional idle moments.
Farrow cites a priest-blogger on this subject, Fr Harrison Ayre, who describes acedia as “an affliction of the soul” (it is one of the seven deadly sins, after all) that attacks our desire for the good. Listlessness, distractions, avoidance of duties, frenetic busyness and underneath it all, a coruscating sense of boredom and disgust; these are hallmarks of acedia or sloth.
I was interested to note that Ayre recommends in his bibliography a book titled Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire by R.J. Snell (Angelico Press); it so happens that I have been sent a copy, with its arresting cover picture, a painting of Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man by Andrey Mironov, showing the couple naked but apart, isolated from each other, trapped in separate private hells. Snell spells out the deadly nature of sloth/acedia, explaining how God gave Adam a mandate to work and how the Fall had the consequence of disrupting and deranging human toil; the vital link with its divine purpose had been lost.
His book is provocative, erudite, illuminating and, at a mere 127 pages, well worth a careful reading. Interestingly, he sees the contraceptive mentality as part of a modern disease of acedia. “It is best understood” he thinks, “as part of a culture so afflicted with acedia that it destroys its own health.” Sexual activity designed to be deliberately unfruitful is barren, sterile. Seen in this light, it is easy to discern metaphysical boredom behind the shallow, non-reflective pace and stance of most modern relationships, supposedly liberated from irksome duties but still discontented.
Snell suggest that the remedy for this vice is giving due reverence to the Sabbath, as a day for joyful renewal, the reminder of our supernatural purpose and destiny. “Perhaps the Sabbath is particularly given to the barren as a special instruction, a practice able to reorient and enliven slothful lives”, he reflects. But he adds a warning: grace builds on nature; if nature is grievously deformed grace will find poor soil on which to work.
The Desert Fathers who first discerned this vice and named it, identified monks who were restless, constantly wishing to be somewhere else, contriving purposeless activity to evade their true duties. Their advice was simple: to “stay in the cell”; Snell interprets this as “keeping the prayers, finishing the report, paying our bills on time, wiping away childish tears, doing the dishes, cleaning the car…through staying in the quotidian, the mundane ordinary work” – rather than wasting time in day-dreaming and fantasising about more satisfying or important roles elsewhere.
Although he doesn’t mention it, I think Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s classic book, The Sacrament of the Present Moment is helpful here: if we really believe that each moment is consecrated to a sacred purpose and is thus ennobled, however routine or unglamorous it appears, the ennui that is characteristic of acedia would be slowly dispelled.
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