Christy Wilkens provides encouragement for those struggling against the sin of acedia, or sloth.
Acedia: It’s one of those obscure theological ideas, plucked from the annals of the Desert Fathers, that seems wholly inapplicable to our modern lives. In fact, though, it’s a near-constant spiritual battle that is uniquely pertinent to the days we are living through ... even if you don’t happen to be a third-century hermit.
The Catechism (2733) defines acedia (often translated roughly as “sloth”) as “a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart.” Inwardly, we begin to neglect spiritual good for its own sake — acedia dulls our senses to the joy of God’s gifts and causes us to turn away from the good. Outwardly, that neglect of the good leads to active sin: sloth, restlessness, a short temper.
If that doesn’t sound like life in quarantine, I don’t know what does. (No? Just me?)
Aquinas explains in his Summa Theologica that acedia is “evil on two counts, both in itself and in point of its effect.” The sense of pulling away from the good is, by definition, not good. The rootlessness that results, the lack of substantive and purposeful goodness driving one’s actions, cannot then itself lead anywhere good.
The earliest monks recognized acedia as a monk's desire to leave his cell, which often peaked around midday. In modern times, that might look like a desire to do ... anything but what you’re supposed to be doing in the moment. For more on acedia, in both its history and its appearances today, I recommend The Noonday Devil by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
I’d argue that acedia’s initial danger lies not in pulling away, but a lack of pulling toward. Without an ongoing and direct connection to the active sacramental life of the Church — which so many of us still lack due to COVID restrictions — it can be difficult to maintain an order to one’s days that honors the True, Good, and Beautiful first and foremost, always and everywhere.
Let’s start there, then, and take stock of ourselves. How can you order your days in God’s peace? How have you been doing that since March? Have you maintained a regular spiritual practice, or has it casually and progressively slid away from your grasp? What fruits can you see from the last five months, for good or ill?
If you, like me, have loosened the reins too far, it’s time to pick them back up. Remind yourself that God is calling you to sainthood, exactly where you stand today, even if that’s your living room (the modern monastic cell) for the 174th day in a row.
Here are four tips from St. Thomas Aquinas for combating acedia in both its forms of evil.
- Reorder your thoughts. Passions are not in and of themselves worthy of blame or praise, Aquinas notes. It is disordered passions that are the danger — in the case of acedia, this looks like inadequate sorrow for evil, or sorrow for what is good. Begin your day with a breath of thanks for the gift of life, family, and faith; end your day with a short examination of conscience. Be mindful and honest in simply naming the good.
- Take care of the body. Aquinas notes that the monks’ greatest temptation to acedia was in the middle of a day of fasting. The needs of our bodies can tempt us to sin. The cure here is to give the body what it needs — no more, and no less. Dress yourself each day. Drink enough water. Get enough sleep. Eat nutritious food.
- Rejoice in God’s gifts. This is Aquinas’ strike against the sin of false humility. It was all too easy for monks to imagine life was greater and more spiritually fruitful in other monasteries. It is all too easy, for our part, to compare ourselves unfairly to everyone else’s (imagined, social-media-curated) holiness, to step blithely over the line from sorrow over our sins right into contempt for ourselves and our lives. Do not let this false humility turn you from the great spiritual fruit that is present in your own life.
- Be steadfast in your resistance. Some sins, Aquinas teachers, are overcome by avoidance, but others — acedia among them — can only be overcome by placid perseverance. The more you practice resistance and contemplate spiritual goods, the stronger your will becomes and the more pleasing those goods seem to you. The words of Philippians 4:8 are helpful here: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Even amid the storms and turmoil of our earthly life, even when we are physically separated from Christ and his Church, contemplation of what is good and holy can be a powerful weapon against the spiritual sloth of acedia. How can you turn your face firmly back toward the good?
Copyright 2020 Christy Wilkens
Image: Niklas Hamann (2017), Unsplash
About the Author
Christy Wilkens, wife and mother of six, is an armchair philosopher who lives in Austin, TX. She writes at FaithfulNotSuccessful.com about disability, faith, doubt, suffering, community, and good reads. Her first book, Awakening at Lourdes: How an Unanswered Prayer Healed Our Family and Restored Our Faith, a memoir about a pilgrimage with her husband and son, will be released by Ave Maria Press in 2021.