Tuesday, 17 March 2015
Acedia and Me?
I have begun to read Acedia & me, a book by Kathleen Norris. I have just started get into the book but I find the subject fascinating and want to share early impressions with you. Acedia is a term which has fallen out of favour is not in general use in the modern world. I was vaguely aware of this concept but was introduced to it in the Spiritual Direction program I completed with the Haden institute and the Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre in Niagara Falls. Lorna found out about this book which was not on the reading list of the program (and should be) and purchased it used on-line.
As I noted, I began to read it recently after Lorna recommended it and am finding acedia to be a concept and condition which appears to be very much something which is part of modern life and deserves more consideration. Kathleen Norris delves into the concept of acedia drawing her life long experience with the condition. As Norris notes acedia is often considered to be another name for depression. Norris notes that there are many similarities between the two conditions. However, the two conditions are not synonymous. Norris suggests that, “while depression is an illness treated by counselling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.” (3) Categorizing acedia as a vice is not done lightly by Norris. She traces the early thoughts about acedia and notes that Evagrius, a 4th century Christian monk and ascetic, classified it as “one of the eight bad thoughts that plagued a monk, whole John Cassian discerned in acedia a stubborn sadness that could lead a monk into a far worse state of distress”. (20) The eight bad thoughts eventually became of seven deadly sins of Christianity. The theologian dropped acedia form the list and conflated it with sadness.
As I noted, it is often thought of as depression. It is rather hard to get a definitive handle on just what the condition—or vice—entails and how it differs from depression. The simplest way of thinking about it appears to be a state of generally not caring about the world and others. Norris describes the condition—which she diagnoses as acedia—as one in which she would avoid life by obsessively reading anything and everything as a way of running away and “consuming books rather than reading them”. With acedia the ‘not caring’ can take can take the form of sloth or laziness of body and mind. But it can also take the form of escapism either in nostalgia about a golden past or fantasy about the grass being greener in the other places. It can even take the form of being a rescuer who wants to obsessively help and rescuing people. However, the common factor in this is avoidance. The sufferer is not able to engage the world around them. They do not/cannot care about anything and do not take the effort to engage in anything. I believe that acedia is what people in other times and places were addressing when they talked of ‘loss of soul’. Norris notes that, “John Cassian and Thomas Aquinas recognized that acedia operates on the borders between the physical world and the spiritual life.” (35) It is also interesting that Norris notes Aquinas recommended ‘a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep’ as a remedy. However tempting that may be, I suspect that someone who is in the thrall of acedia will not get a good night’s sleep. Rather, they will be pursued by the demon of acedia. Indeed considering acedia in the realm of demons or evil spirits has some validity if we consider the world of the early monks who were very familiar with acedia as the demon of mid-day which brings lethargy. I think the understanding that we are dealing with a condition that allows temptations in the form of thoughts to take hold. Norris notes that the demons “arouse evil thoughts by working on the memory and imagination.” We may have difficulty believing in demons or evil spirit in today’s modern material, world. However, it can be useful to understand the thoughts that creep unaware into our consciousness that encourage us to avoid what we know is in our best interest in this way. Indeed after I had begun to be engaged by the book I had the thought that I have done enough and deserve to play a computer game which I must confess I surrendered to quite willingly.
I am looking forward to reading more and will probably share more of it with you next time. Blessings and don’t let the demon of acedia or any other catch you unaware.