December 10, 2004

A Tale of Acedie

or, What Acedie Looks Like When It Gets Dressed Up and Goes Out on the Town

In some ways, this advent season is a perfect time to talk about acedie because one of the central traditions of Christmas storytelling is a marvelous illustration of its effects. The Fathers have said variously that Pride is the source of all the deadly sins, or that when one of the deadly sins is present all are present. I think another well-spring of deadly sin is very important and pervasive.

If we were to look at the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, we would conclude that the operative sin was avarice. And I suppose to some extent that might be true. But if we look to the roots of the story, we will find haunting (pardon the pun) suggestions of the cause of this avarice. That is, avarice was not the first cause, but the result. In the story of Christmas past we encounter Isabelle who tells scrooge that he is "too afraid of the world." (At least this happens in some of the cinematic versions of the tale.) It is this fear of the world and closing in on oneself that is the core of acedie. And it shows itself in how one conducts one's life. One is more closed in--one may collect and own things (as does Scrooge) but, famously these things are neither cared-for nor valued. They simply are. Scrooge's house is in disrepair, his belongings substandard. This is in part the avarice of not wanting to spend the money, but it is also a sure sign of the despair, the loss of joy that did not happen all at once. That is part of the insidiousness of this deadly sin. That loss of joy can take years and years and years, until one arrives in the dark, bleak wilderness of the end of Acedie.

Famously also, Scrooge is awakened from the slumber of despair. And while the proximal cause is three spirits representing Christmas, outside of our secular culture we can assume the greater cause is the cause of Christmas Himself. That is that grace breaks in. Grace in this case takes the form of visitation from four spirits--one who testifies and three who demonstrate. Now we know from the gospels that the rich man was not released from Hell to go in spirit to warn his brothers and sisters, and yet, we have that story that warns us, and other works through the ages. We cannot expect the visitation of spirits. We must like Dante come to ourselves in midlife and awaken to what has happened to us. We must seek to recover joy and Jesus has promised, "He who seeks finds."

If we are subject to this terrible deadly sin, let us uncover it in the light of day. Let it be confessed and done away with and let us avidly seek "surcease of sorrow" in the presence of God. The only way to do away with Sloth is to recognize it and apply one's will to doing away with it.

And so I end my discussion of Acedie--one of the most insidious of the seven deadlies. All are deadly, and all can go unrecognized. The danger of Acedie is that it builds through a series of seemingly unimportant choices to ultimately rob us of joy.

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December 09, 2004

The DNA of Literature

A friend of mine just apprised me of the availability of the Paris Review Interviews (Go to the page and find the DNA of Literature feature. These are hefty--the one with T.S. Eliot runs 25 pages!

Eventually all of the interviews will be available. But for the moment you will have to content yourselves with the likes of:

Isak Dinesen, Nelson Algren, Truman Capote, Lawrence Durrell, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ralph Elliosn, E.M. Forster, Henry Green, Joyce Cary, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Francois Mauriac, Alberto Moravia, Frank O'Connor, Dorothy Parker, Francoise Sagan, Irwin Shaw, Georges Simenon, William Styron, James Thurber, Robert Penn Warren, Thorton Wilder, Angus Wilson.

Go and enjoy. It is nice to have at least two prominent Catholic Writers and one Anglo-Catholic. I shall be most interested in what Capote was saying at this point in his career. What a treasure trove. Happy Advent to literature lovers everywhere!

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Urgent Prayer Request

Please pray for the swift recovery of four friends who, I just learned, were in a car crash last night. One of them is still in the emergency room. May God be with them and protect them and bring them safely home.

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A Rose Against Acedie

A rose for you from St. Thérèse:

"We who run in the way of Love must never torment ourselves about anything. If I did not suffer minute by minute, it would be impossible for me to be patient; but I see only the present moment, I forget the past, and take good care not to anticipate the future. If we grow disheartened, if sometimes we despair, it is because we have been dwelling on the past or the future."

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On Acedie or Sloth

The modern usurpation of terms has left us with the deadly sin of sloth as something akin to laziness. Earlier in the essay by Robertson Davies that I quoted below he notes that the person in thrall to acedie might be extraordinarily busy indeed. So much Martha that Mary hasn't a single moment to be with the Lord.

Acedie is akin to world-weariness. As Davies rightly noted it is the complete death of Joy. The Good News is no longer good, and it is just barely news. It merely is. The world is drained of color and meaning.

Here is an excerpt from an article that gives a clearer view:

from "Spiritual Acedie, Torpor, and Depression" in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August Sept 1999
John Navone

The term in classical Christian spirituality for life-robbing dreariness or sadness is “acedia.” St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) included this term among the seven deadly sins (Moralia xxxi, 87, where it is called “tristia” or sadness). This form of ennui or apathy is linked to our greatest possibility. To be oppressed by weariness and boredom is to despair of the glory to which God calls us. The inability to delight in God is the inability to glorify God. If faith is the “eye of love” that “sees” and delights in the beauty of God’s love in all things, acedia implies the absence of the love which both “sees” and delights in the all-encompassing splendor of God’s love.

Acedia shrivels our vision of God’s goodness and love. It is born from a loss of hope in ever achieving what God’s love wants for us: our eternal happiness under the sovereignty of God’s love. It is spiritually fatal because it means that we do not want what God—Happiness Itself—wants for us: we do not want Happiness Itself.

Now, I think we need to be very, very careful equating acedie, which is something remedied by grace with clinical depression, which also might be healed by grace, but which is not of the same substance. Acedie develops from a lack of spiritual discipline, a failure to make use of the sacraments, a gradual abandonment of prayer because of a lack of hope--things around us seem so desperate and so sad that there is little or nothing to hope for.

As Davies said, this can easily creep up on one. You find that nothing whatsoever holds any interest. You flit from spiritual thing to spiritual thing looking for something to fill the time but not the emptiness that you acknowledge but have come to see as unfillable. The most remarkable thing about acedie is that the person in thrall to it will not even recognize it. This person is likely to be wry, witty, sarcastic, intelligent, sophisticated, above the fray and toil of the ordinary, in possession as it were of the real secret to life.

The desert fathers warned constantly of acedie, and its real danger becomes more intense as one approaches or enters the various dark nights. It is possible for one to lose track without a good spiritual advisor and to slip off into hopelessness--at least so we are warned by the spiritual masters.

With this description, it seems as though few would be subject to such a condition. But read the article linked to above and you will see how very easy it is to slip into the condition. And the worst part of all is that you hardly know that you have done so--one might view it is a natural concomitant of aging. But it is not necessarily so. We all can think of older people who are still vibrate, alive, and aware--Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes to mind.

The great bulwarks against acedie are an established spiritual discipline that includes constant recourse to the graces present in the sacraments. I should also think that service would help one to be sufficiently exteriorly directed that one would not normally have time for the self-focus necessary for despair and sadness. We might still go through a terrifying dark night, as it is said of Mother Teresa, but her constant recourse to contemplation and to adoration and receiving the Lord helped her to stay the course.

As a society, I sometimes feel that the general mood is one of acedie--individuals see things differently, but the group mind seems to be endlessly preoccupied with entertaining itself and relieving itself of hardship, pain, and suffering to an unhealthy degree. And yet in our reality television and even in the popular shows such as CSI, we dwell constantly on the suffering and hardship of others because it momentarily takes our minds off our own. The only cure for acedie is a motion of will toward grace--the desire as it were to wake from this waking nightmare.

And lastly, my apologies to all. I thought acedie was well known to all. It has a prominent place in the spirituality of the desert fathers and the subsequent early Christians. Hope this helps somewhat.

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December 08, 2004


In common terms, sloth.

from "The Deadliest of the Sins" in One Half of Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies

I have never been able to make up my mind which it is that people fear to feel most--pain or joy. Life will bring you both. You will not be able to escape the pain completely, thouogh Acedia will dull it a little. But unfortunately it lies in your power to reject the joy utterly. Because we are afraid that great exultation may betray us into some actions, some words, which may make us look a little foolish to people who are not sharing our experience, we very often stifle our moments of joy, thinking that we will give them their outlet later. But alas, after a few years of that kind of thing, joy ceases to visit us. . . There is an old saying of medieval teachers which I recommend to your special notice:

Time Jesum transeuntem et non revertentem.

I shall translate it thus: 'Dread the passing of Jesus, for He does not return.' And thus it is with all great revelations, be they relgious or not. Seize them, embrace them, let them engulf you, draw from them the uttermost of what they have to give, for if you rebuff them, they will not come again. We live a world where too many people are pititfully afraid of joy.

Acedie is one of the most dreadful of the deadly sins because it sneaks up on you. It slowly grows until it has a complete grip and suddenly you can't find the way out (if you even recognize your predicament.) Not so lust or gluttony, which while persausive and powerful, are generally of a moment and recognizable. Most people can recognize when they commit these sins--but most are ignorant of any signs of Acedie. In a time of waiting, look inside and see what is there--look for signs of joylessness of being above the fray, sophisticated, and too advanced for those emotions that drive hoi polloi.

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On Phases of the Spiritual Life

TSO has this interesting reflection and question on the spiritual life. Much of this has merit and we do well to think of it as we think about how we will move forward (or not) in the spiritual life.

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A Vow of Partial Silence

In a comment, Mama T brought up an interesting and, in my experience, largely true psychological insight. When we control our tongues, we go a long way to controlling how we feel and react to things.

This from James:

James 3:6-12

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

(An aside: I love the book of James, precisely because Luther so despised it. In order for Luther's theology to work, he needed to divest himself of James and Hebrews--compelling evidence that his system had flaws, if one were only to heed the evidence.)

In the Gospels, Our Lord tells us that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but rather what comes out of him. For what comes out of him comes out of the fullness of his heart. Think of your instinctive reactions to comments made around you/about you. Is it the reaction of the saints who say, "Thank you Lord for this humiliation, for this reminder of my lowliness in the scheme of things." Or is it (as in my case) more, "Who the heck does that bozo think he is?"

I think we start with an act of will--a vow of partial silence. With Mama T's friend it was, "No complaint shall pass my lips." By not complaining, her view of the world changed--there became less in the world to complain about. I would do well to start here. But I know that I need to go beyond. I need to promise myself never to speak about another person outside of that person's presence. And I'm not referring to gossip, which I have long abhorred, but even the truth in small negative things. Speaking these truths colors my perceptions of the persons about whom I am speaking. And as James says above, may I bless God and curse humanity that is made in his image? May the stream of my speech flow from both sweet and brackish water?

Bridling the tongue is the first step on the path to extending grace in our lives. God will work with us however we are, but when we make this promise of obedience, even though we do not initially feel it, I do believe that grace flows in so that soon we are feeling.

I look around the blogosphere and so much unpleasantness, so many dark things are the result of people "talking" to people they never meet. What flows out of the comment boxes can be vitriol and hell-fire. Not everywhere, not all the time--but it is so much easier to say ill of people we have never met.

Speech is more than what comes out of my mouth. In a very real way what I write each day is speech. It has the power to comfort or to confront, to wound or to heal, to offer a glimpse of grace or a glimpse of hell. Satan would have us believe that what we say is of little consequence. But both our Lord and St. James tell us otherwise.

So perhaps I should consider this vow of partial silence--simply to refrain from saying what need not be said. It sounds like the easiest, most reasonable, most logical thing in the world--and yet it is fraught with such enormous difficulties one wonders if it is even possible. But with grace and through Christ, I can do all things. He will assist if I am firm in my conviction that for love of Him I will offer no harm to any of His brothers, to any of God's children. Let my speech be always edifying, converting the sinner, changing hearts, offering comfort and a place to rest. That is my prayer as I wait for the coming of Our Lord. With joy and expectation, in hope that His time is soon, I wait and I thank God for this season to remind me of what it is I wait for and wait upon.

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Prayer Request

A dear friend in correspondence has written to me saying that she needs our prayers for financial support. She is going through an extremely difficult personal crisis and that is exacerbating the problem. Please pray hard for God's grace and help in finding her a position.

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December 07, 2004


An insight that startled me:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse
Dwight Longenecker

Church-shopping is one of the spiritual diseases of our age. Constantly on the lookout for an excellent preacher, good music, fine liturgy, or pleasing architecture, we become liturgical tasters and our taste becomes so refined that, like the connoisseur who has spoiled his appreciation through snobbery, we can never find a church exquisite enough for us.

These lines were written right at me. One of the problems I have espoused with my present parish is the awful decoration and certain anomalies in practice. What I should have been doing is working quietly and relentlessly within the parish to bring it into line with Church teaching.

Apparently some good souls have been doing so. The expansion of Eucharistic adoration, the suggestion of building a special chapel for exactly this purpose, and the request to alter the configuration of the Church to result in a eucharistic centrality, is evidence of a core of faithfulness that has worked relentlessly to effect the changes necessary to bring the entire parish into line with the Church at large. I should be ashamed of myself for my laxity and my own appetite for comfort, by which I deprived the parish of one more supporter--a supporter who might have made shorter work of the long waiting the people have experienced. I pray that God forgive me my own self-indulgence.

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On Suffering

All of the great saints seem to desire to suffer. Well, perhaps not all, but a great many make a point of desiring to suffer for Jesus. This has long been disconcerting and nearly incomprehensible to me.

But yesterday, as I continued to think about this matter, it seemed a light slowly began to dawn. I'll start with the straightforward ideas before I launch into the theological speculation which may have no validity at all.

Just as any good parent would take upon themselves any of the suffering that faces their children--from physical, suffering a cold or broken bone, to mental, making incorrect decisions--so we desire to shield those we love from suffering. Desiring to share in Christ's suffering is an expression of the desire to offer some comfort, to take away part of the agony of the Passion.

Now, I speculate. God honors that intention. The suffering of the saints may, in some odd way, help to alleviate the suffering on the cross. That is not to say that it makes it more pleasant, but rather that the offering of suffering throughout all of time even made it possible. We all know the story--the scourging, the crowning with thorns, carrying the Cross to Golgotha, and three hours upon the Cross. Christ was fully human and fully divine. Being fully human, it is unlikely that he could have survived even the scourging much less the rest of the ordeal on mere human strength. That goes without saying. He was strengthened by supernatural grace. But perhaps the channels of that grace were tapped into the suffering of Saints throughout the ages and this served in some way to be allied to the sufferings on the cross and allow Jesus to run the entire course.

I've always been a little mystified by Paul's declaration that he made up in his own body what was lacking in the sacrifices of Christ. What could possibly be lacking in that sacrifice. Perhaps what was "lacking" was not atonement or redemption, but rather the human strength to endure the whole ordeal. Perhaps the sufferings of his own body in some way made Christ's own sufferings possible.

Mere speculation, I hope not blasphemous, and I renounce them if against some teaching of the church I do not know. But mysteriously, they provide for me the key to understanding suffering. If I can really believe that my sufferings, little and big are truly united with those of Jesus on the Cross, that they express not just some strange notion of an almost Manichean nature, but rather true and passionate love; then, perhaps I can grow to be like the Saints. Perhaps I can come to understand the necessity of suffering and the beauty of suffering united with Christ. God will undoubtedly continue to work on me, but I humbly offer these speculations and respectfully request correction from those who know better than I do.

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December 06, 2004

Prayer for the Day

And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

--William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V

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Prayers for Katherine

I'm asking all mothers and all involved in the care of mothers to remember Katherine especially in your prayers in the coming weeks. She is hoping to have a home-birth, but presently the baby is not accomodating her. I don't understand the details completely, and I'm not certain they are relevant. What is relevant is that if she cannot have the child at home it will entail a great deal of hardship for the family.

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For Those Following the Great Saint Debate

TSO has put up a provocative and intriguing excerpt from the always controversial Father Greeley. In this case I don't think he says anything too off-base. But I'd love to hear other views--particularly of his view of the Reformation.

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A Reading Suggestion for the Year of the Eucharist

You might want to take up Abbot Vonier's Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, now available through Ignatius Press and also through Zaccheus Press. By buying and reading this book, you are both surrounding yourself with an introduction to Eucharistic theology and supporting the efforts of a new, independent, and very promising book seller. Use my search box in the left hand column to look up previous mentions of this wonderful book. Tom at Disputations also had one or two posts in the pst about it.

Anyway, it is a suggestion. (After of course Ecclesia de Eucharistia and Mane Vobisum Domine.

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The Church of Jesus Without the Cross

What I write below I do in the first person for several reasons. For one, it occurs to me that it is true and I do well by saying so. For another, I suspect there may be others who have a similar problem, and yet it is presumptuous of me to include those who see no problem in my indictment of it. The Holy Spirit has been speaking through a megaphone to me recently. I guess I just need to adjust my own ear-trumpet and try to start listening.

Flannery O'Connor wrote in Wise Blood of Hazel Mote who wanted to found "The Church of God Without Christ." His goal was to undo some of the "damage" done by religion and by the "Christ-haunted" South.

I think too often that I want to belong to the Church of Jesus Without the Cross. That is I really do love Jesus, I accept all that I understand of what the Church teaches about Him, and the rest I agree to by faith even though my understanding is weak. I love the Eucharist and the rich treasury of the Church and I believe what she teaches. I even believe in the necessity of personal sacrifice.

Sort of. I believe in the abstract principle. But when it comes right down to it, I don't really want the cross. Every time its shadow looms, I run for cover. I turn to the gospels and spend time in the Garden with Jesus. I pray with Him, up to a point, and then I say, "Nevertheless Father, my will not thy will." I want protection. I want the "Be Happy" prosperity gospel of Robert Schuller and his ilk. I want to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, but if it involves even so much pain as a leg-waxing, I could do without it, thank you. Change me, but do it gently. Batter my heart three-personed God, but use nerf projectiles.

The shadow of the cross looms and I run from it. Or perhaps eventually I take it up, with long face and long sighs and much lamenting. Take this recent spate at work, where I will need to put in more hours for an extended period in order to accomplish our goals. I do this, but I make sure that the entire world knows how much I suffer and how meaningful that suffering is.

I take up my cross, but I do not embrace it. The sad fact of the matter is that there is no genuine love of Jesus Christ without willingly embracing everything that comes to me from His hand. Jesus did not reluctantly take up the cross, but as memorably portrayed in Gibson's film version, out of love, He embraced it for us all.

St Thèrése of Lisieux told us that the sacrifices need not be monumental. Bearing with the unbearable with a smile, sitting on a hard bench to talk to a friend in desperate need. Listening one more time to what you thought would drive you crazy a moment ago ("Jingle bells, Batman smells. . . " you get the picture). In the words of Don Quixote, "to bear with unbearable sorrow, to fight, the unbeatable foe."

I do not embrace the cross. I run from it. And until my cooperation with graces causes enough change in me to make embracing the cross a reality, my love for Jesus is incomplete. I must love Him as He loved me, even to the death of the Old Man and the resurrection of the new. And if that does not happen in this life, I have wasted my life. There is no love without sacrifice, personal, meaningful sacrifice of what I would rather.

So now I return to my overlong work week with a different perspective, one granted by this meditation. Perhaps I can make a worthy offering of this admittedly minor sacrifice. Perhaps I can start on my way today and embrace the cross as I wait for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

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December 05, 2004

Trying Very Hard to Turn Off the Judgment

In Mass today we had a visiting Priest who gave a stirring and wonderful homily directly in tune both with advent and with the Eucharistic Year. While he was speaking to us the woman directly in front of us spent the majority of the homily talking, albeit quietly into her cell phone. Has she no sense of priorities? Is she unaware of what her example teaches the three children she was with? If it were an emergency, why not take it outside the Church?

I don't know the nature or the meaning of the conversation; however, I will be praying especially hard for this woman and for her three children.

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My Parish Moves Forward

And then get points for having lots of heart. They are just in the process of moving first Friday adoration to all Fridays. This is the first step of a campaign to institute perpetual adoration. I don't care how much hand-holding goes on in the Church, when their heart is set on making the Eucharist the center of parish life, they are going the right direction.

Wanting to encourage this trend, I immediately signed up for some Friday hours. You could choose one or more Fridays of the month. Knowing that I can't do anything halfway--I signed up for all Fridays at the last hour available. This was before I looked at the brochures.

Well it turns out that the Friday hour I chose will have Rosary in English and Spanish followed by Benediction. In other words, virtually no chance of any quiet at all, with the additional penance of public Rosary.

Well, for a change the Holy Spirit led, and I listened. Thus, I am absolutely certain this is what is meant for me and I am deeply grateful for being able to participate.

Another thing my Parish is doing is bringing to our attention "Equal Exchange" or "Fair Trade" coffee and cocoa. Yes, this is exactly in line with the mushy-headed thinking of people who hold hands during the "Our Father." And I love it.

It means ultimately that we pay a bit more for coffee that might not be so good as some of the more exotic brands and roasts, and as a result the people growing the coffee get what amounts to a living wage in their part of the world. This is not to say that they make princely sums, but that they make a good deal more than the average person in the same place in the world.

This is one of those way to implement economic justice that just doesn't hurt all that much. (But then I (1) don't drink coffee at all; and (2) I'm not a conoisseur of coffee and cocoa. ) Linda was enthusiatic about supporting this cause.

I sincerely hope that my parish continues efforts in these directions. Implementing true social and economic justice without trying to level the playing field (hardly "just" in any sense of the word) is part of the Catholic Christian message. If we can help simply by buying coffee, what a wonderful privilege!

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