Acedia is a complicated reality : made of laziness, boredom and discouragement. It is also made of weariness, aversion for work and prayer, torpor, longing to abandon everything. All the Fathers see it as one of the main hindrances for prayer. It is also called « mid-life crisis » and is seen as the heaviest and the most overwhelming passion. Trial and temptation, it becomes a sin when one surrenders to it, renouncing all effort.
Physical istability, An urge to move all the time, to change location. « Acedia makes the monk long for other places, where it will be easier for him to get what he needs, where he will find an easier job in which he will be more successful. » (Evagra) This instability revals deeper one in the heart.
A vague and general dissatisfaction, Aversion for duty : a person with acedia has no taste for anything, finds everything bland and no longer expects anything Acedia urges her to run away from her activities and look for others making her believe they will be more interesting and make her happier. She will neglect her duties and tend to do as little as possible.…
The inner emptiness it fosters can lead the person to undertake many activites and travels that are not necessary, without obtaining any real satisfaction. Despair and depression can follow.
Darkening of soul and spirit, With acedia the soul is allowed to become lax in spiritual activites. It seeks to distract man from the regularity and steadfastness necessary for prayer, it urges him by vain discourse to emerge from silence. Zeal for God seems to have disappeared. Saint John Cassien notes : “Truely, the soul wounded by this trouble is really drowsy with regard to any contemplation of the virtues and any vision of the spiritual senses.” It tries to divert man from the punctuality and steadfastness necessary for prayer, it urges him to come out of silence with idle talk. Zeal for God seems to have disappeared.
« Man gets up to pray and finds neither words of prayer nor the strength to go on. When he sits down to read, the book in his hands, according to Isaac the Syrian, is like lead and can stay open before him a whole day without him being able to understand a single line. The intellect is dispersed, unable to concentrate and understand the meaning of the words ; the will which presides over all activity is dissolved.» (Matta El Maskîne)
Its causes and reasons
Overwork can be a cause : excessive activity has been indulged in or ascetism has been beyond one’s strength and one gives way. Or, out of scruple practices have been multiplied, doing more than the required measure, and suddenly one becomes unable to accomplish, even the minimum which once seemed so light.
Some hot and unhealthy climates, are seen by the Fathers as capable of causing acedia.
It is not without reasons that God allows such a test for the soul that seeks him. Father Matta El Maskine discerns three of them :
« God takes away from the soul its ability to elevate itself, so that it does not risk raising itself above its possibilities of balance and endurance, and consequently fall and crash. Thus it safeguards the life of the soul, protecting it from spiritual pride ».
It also aims to correct a misconception the soul may have of God. It is not because of its efforts or its diligence that God loves the soul : it is also dear to him in times of darkness and inability. God does not need its fervour or its works to love it, they must be a response to the love God has for it and not the price to pay in order to receive that love.
It aims to strengthen faith in God beyond the sensitive. Faith must « rise above abandonment and lead man to keep his trust in God, in his mercy and solicitude, despite all the tribulations he is going through. » In the Western tradition, one can draw a certain parallel with the “nights” of Saint John of the Cross.
The remedies available
Crying, is the first remedy recommended by the Father of the Desert Evagra ! Man recognizes his helplessness, his need for a Savior, trusting that God will come to him like a mother to her child.
Prayer and the Word of God, Sending up a short prayer towards Heaven, repeating a verse from the Scriptures as often as possible ? The prayer transmited by John Cassien « God, come to my aid, Lord come quickly to my rescue » is still topical. To meditate about the ultimate end of time sets man in front of his fate and can bring about a spurt.
To hold on with patience whatever the cost, « Do not leave your cell » (Abba Arsène) will mean for us not to be discouraged, not to let go, to hope against all hope. It means to go on doing what we can, even if it looks like very little. « As I found myself in this very hard trial » says a Father « I forced myself and stood up as I could not pray because this devil would not let go of me, I merely bowed to the Cross and prostrated myself in front of it. As I held on for quite a moment, the power of the Cross pushed the devil away ». The necessary virtue required here is patience. “When our compassionate Father, wants to deliver those who are truly his children from their temptations, he does not take away their trials, but gives them patience to endure them. It is through patience they receive all that is good, for the perfection of their soul » says Isaac the Syrian.
Relaxation: Humbly recognizing the need to go out of doors for a little while, to perform a simple manual task, to watch over a better physical hygiene, will also help.
Above all, fraternal charity in all its forms. To an acedic-stricken monk, Father Poemen advises: “Never despise anyone, do not condemn anyone, do not speak ill of anyone, and God will give you peace.” For Saint John Climachus, the cenobitic life is the antidote to acedia.
Over all, it is important not to let go of God’s hand, to remain in a relationship with him. We have to remember that « the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us » (Rm.8,18). When God wills and as He wills, sooner or later, in this life or in the hereafter, we will experience total deliverance.
« My opponents, declares acedia, are psalmody and manual work, my ennemy is the thought of death, my murderer is prayer along with the sure hope for futur goods »
St John Climachus
Story of a deliverance from acedia
« The longer I held on in this hard tribulation that had befallen me, the more it disappeared and vanished in front of me. Then suddenly I saw like the palm of a hand that lifted off my head like a heavy stone, and at the same time I was relieved from that weight and filled with inexpressible joy and gladness, and my whole body and soul became one shining light that cannot be expressed with a tongue of flesh ».
Joseph Azzaya (Lettre on the three stages of monastic life)
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Find the previous articles in our “Life of prayer” series.
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