Acedia – The Disease of ‘Whatever!’

Like the Greek word Paraclete is hard to translate as a title of the Holy Spirit (John 14-16), and can mean ‘Helper’, ‘Comforter,’ ‘Counselor,’ etc. – so Acedia [uh-SEED-ia] is the deadly sin that defies simple words like ‘sloth’ or ‘apathy.’  So we’ll call this third deadly sin by its new/old name!  It literally means ‘the absence of care’ or ‘spiritual indifference.’  And it is dangerous!

Alexander Schmemann – an Orthodox theologian wrote:

The basic disease is sloth (acedia). It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down” rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source. (From commentary on  The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian)

For those who want to explore Acedia in depth, I highly recommend Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life. If you or a loved on are ‘stuck’ or stagnated or like C.S. Lewis’ illustration of “an instrument unstrung” – then this book will take you into some deep waters of scripture, history and Norris’ own compelling story.   You can listen to an interview with PBS’s Bob Abernathy.  Finally here’s an excerpt from the interview that explores how the Psalms can be God’s tools for getting through the darkness.

How can I find my way in this impenetrable darkness? How can a few words from a psalm that I say upon waking be all I need to begin again, after I have been worn down to almost nothing by acedia? The danger in lowering one’s standards, with acedia, is that one might accommodate oneself to less and less, until one is lowered right out of existence. So I will attempt a bit more and turn to Psalm 90, which poignantly addresses my present condition. Now that my beloved grandparents and father are gone, and my mother is ninety years of age, I need more than ever the solace of its opening verses: “O Lord, you have been our refuge / from one generation to the next. / Before the mountains were born / or the earth or the world brought forth, / you are God, without beginning or end.”

I also need the psalm’s shift from exultation to ultimate realism: “Our span is seventy years, / or eighty for those who are strong. / And most of these are emptiness and pain. / They pass quickly and we are gone.” Savoring this stark truth in a holy book, I am better able to confront my acedia, and ask myself why I am so willing to waste time, as if it were not a gift, mindlessly consuming and discarding my precious mortal life. I can pray, with the psalmist: “Make us know the shortness of our life / that we may gain wisdom of heart.” I may feel lost and weary, but these words provide hope. If the life of faith, like depression, is a cycle of exile and return, I am a prodigal become a pilgrim, if only I can come to my senses and remember to turn toward home. …

A way where there is no way; this is what God, and only God, can provide. This is salvation, which in Hebrew means to widen or make sufficient. As we move from death to life. We experience grace, a force as real as gravity, and are reminded of its presence in the changing of the seasons, and in the dying of the seeds from which new life emerges, so that even our deserts may bloom. It permeates the very language we use, and we are fortunate indeed that our words are far wiser than we are. Any poet knows that they can spark with new meaning, even years after we have written them, and tell us what we most need to know. Poetry might not seem like much in an unjust and violent world, in which acedia tempts us to give up on the fight for something better. But poetry — psalms and hymns — can offer as a remedy for the human tendency to take refuge in indifference.

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