On Acedie or Sloth

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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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I'd heard of it, but I never quite "got it". Thanks for an informative post.

Excellent post, Mr. Riddle. "The Noonday Demon" in a recent issue of First Things is also helpful, as is Gabriel Bunge's Earthen Vessels from Ignatius Press.

It's very interesting to read about this. I'm having a hard time, though, distinguishing sloth from symptoms of clinial depression. Some authors seem to use the terms sloth and depression interchangably. Prozac, Paxil and Welbutrin can clear up symptoms of clinical depression, which, if they were simply sins, couldn't be cleared up by pharmaceuticals...or could they be?

Sloth as a specific vice is directly opposed to the joy of loving God. If you exhibit symptoms of clinical depression, but only regarding the joy of loving God, you just might be slothful.

And if you exhibit symptoms of sloth (St. Gregory named the daughters of sloth to be "malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things"), but regarding all things, not just the joy of loving God, you just might be clinically depressed.

I suppose a drug can prevent someone from acting on an evil habit, but that wouldn't by itself clear up the vice; a miser who drinks himself to sleep is still a miser as he sleeps.

Thanks, Tom! That does help me understand better.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 9, 2004 7:54 AM.

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