Sin Revisited: Acedia

Posted by Solange Hertz on

Sin Revisited: Acedia

Acedia, the deadly sin you've never heard about, but which the Desert Fathers regarded as a deadly sin.

Acedia, the word the Desert Fathers used to designate the sixth capital sin, defies accurate translation. Literally it means not-caring, but it has overtones of depression, cowardice and sloth which are impossible to convey in one English word.

It’s the sin of copping-out, a lazy disgust with everyone and everything, but with the spiritual life in particular. It’s well symbolized by the Pherizite, who lived in unwalled villages almost anywhere in the Promised Land, moved around as he pleased, and was therefore hard to locate geographically, much less to corner and isolate. He had no capital city, and neither does boredom. Like the Pherizite, boredom can thrive in any environment, independent of strong central organization or any specific point of reference.

It bears the same close relation to depression that lust bears to gluttony and anger bears to covetousness. Like depression, from which it springs and with which it normally works as teammate, it can arise suddenly without exterior cause. Some of the Fathers identified it with the famous “noonday devil” of the Psalms, “the arrow that flieth in the day” (Ps. 90:6). Caught defenseless in open country, our first impulse under its attack is to run for cover. And that, say the Fathers, is exactly what the noonday devil wants you to do. He will keep you running like a rabbit until you drop in your tracks.

In modern society boredom causes more quiet havoc than the common cold. We get bored to tears. We can be bored stiff, or silly. Because it’s a deadly sin, however, we can also literally be bored to death, the spiritual death that overtakes us when finally we run away even from God. Yet, how often does boredom figure in our examinations of conscience? As with depression, we have been led to look on it as simply another of life’s afflictions for which we are in no way responsible, and which we are at liberty to dispel by any ready means that offers.

The Fathers ask us to look at it more closely. Their description of its effects on an afflicted monk is full of wry humor and will be recognized by anyone who has ever stifled a yawn:

When this has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is ... of no use in the place, as if he were one who, though he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none, nor profiting anyone by his teaching and doctrine.

Boredom’s hapless victim always finds the other side of the fence greener.

On the other hand, he says that everything around him is rough ... Lastly he fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place ... unless he leaves and takes himself off from there as quickly as possible. Then the fifth or sixth hour brings him such bodily weariness and longing for food that he seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey, or some very heavy work, or as if he had put off taking food during a fast of two or three days. Then besides this he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him.

Eventually:

...he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone. Then the disease suggests that he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks too about some dutiful religious offices; that those kinfolk ought to be inquired after, and that he ought to go and see them more often; that it would be a real work of piety to go more frequently to visit that religious woman, devoted to the service of God, who is deprived of all support of kindred, etc., etc., and that he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly in his cell.

Although bred of despairing depression, boredom lacks sufficient drive for outright self-destruction. Working slowly but effectively, it relentlessly goads its prey to flight. Where or how matters little, just so he goes, and keeps going. Boredom doesn’t seek revenge as anger does, because it actively hates no one. Seeing no solution to its misery, it seeks only to kill its pain any way it can.

This makes boredom par excellence the sin of the “trip” generation of today, who find momentary alleviation for their anguish by taking a trip of some kind. The young take drugs; the old board tour busses.

Our universe being constructed as it is, there are only two directions in which trips can be taken: we can run in, or we can run out, depending somewhat on our temperament and the opportunities offered. We can take a passive trip and run from boredom by turning inward on ourselves, or we can take an active trip by running to vain involvements with others on the outside. Both are accurately described in the passage on boredom just cited from the Fathers.

The passive trip is essentially some form of sleep. This may be no more than natural sleep over-indulged in. Or it may be chronic idling, compulsive eating, television viewing, masturbation, escape literature, pornography, transcendental meditation (the spiritual form of masturbation), or perhaps sauna bathing. Effective as these short-term palliatives may be, it is to drugs that boredom turns for passive trips as by natural compulsion. Their gamut running from dangerous mind-expanders, habit forming “downers” or “uppers” and tranquilizers, to mere tea, coffee and cigarettes, all offer varying degrees of relief from discomfort by the most direct method.

We might be tempted to add alcohol to the list because of its soporific, pain-killing properties when taken in quantity, but such excess is more properly related to over-eating, alcohol being by nature a food. Those who equate drugs with cocktails are on very shaky ground, for whereas drug addiction is an effect of sloth, alcoholism is an effect of gluttony. The remedies cannot be the same in both cases.

The active trip is less easily recognized as a product of boredom. It takes considerable spiritual sophistication to see that both the indolent man who won’t move and the man who can’t sit still are equally bored, but so they may be. As described in the Fathers’ little pen sketch, the latter variety can become obnoxious do-gooders, driving others to exasperation by their “concern” for them. Heaven knows how many travel agencies, political campaigns, health resorts, universities, clubs, charity bazaars and civic projects they keep going. They love discussion groups, conferences, fads, red tape and “meaningful” encounters. Because they tend to be meddlesome and outgoing they naturally seem more numerous than the passive tripper, who is also legion, but quieter and less evident. Most of us take both roles by turn.

Whichever course we take, the noonday devil gains his objective: he has severed us from reality by divorcing us from God’s will. Whoever gives in to boredom becomes incapable of discharging his duties of state properly, the sine qua non of sanctity. The passive tripper won’t do what is required of him; the active tripper does everything but.

From this it’s clear that the essential malice of boredom doesn’t lie in flight from the disagreeable, or even in flight from self, but in flight from God. It is directly opposed to the Third Commandment, which decrees not only that we work six days, but also that we keep the prescribed sabbaths. The passive tripper violates the first part of the ordinance, the active tripper the second, for our acts cannot be ruled by our whims, but by eternal law if we expect to remain in union with God.

As we have already noted, sloth doesn’t figure at all on the Fathers’ list of capital sins. It is, however, implicit in their notion of acedia. Here again, sloth, like boredom, isn’t just lying around doing nothing. As a matter of fact doing nothing can be extremely difficult for some temperaments, and strong exertion of will is required to restrain themselves from unnecessary activity. Just as the worst gluttons can often appear abstemious, very lazy people can sometimes look quite energetic, for sloth specifically is following the line of least resistance at any given moment. It is a disease of the will.

Sloth and boredom are one in their wholesale, dedicated flight from the Cross. Prayer, which by its very nature becomes tedious as we progress through spells of aridity and abandonment, is effectively cauterized by capitulation to boredom.

For in truth the soul which is wounded by the shaft of this passion (acedia) sleeps as regards all contemplation of the virtues and insight of the spiritual senses.” Again, “For the mind of an idler cannot think of anything but food and the belly, until the society of some man or woman, equally cold and indifferent, is secured, and it loses itself in their affairs and business, and is thus little by little ensnared by dangerous occupations, so that, just as if it were bound up in the coils of a serpent, it can never disentangle itself again and return to the perfection of its former profession.

Because boredom will turn to anything that relieves its pain, it easily finds refuge in all the sins that lie behind it, returning to them as a dog does to his vomit. Obesity, illegitimacy, slander, gambling debts, divorce, abortion, lawsuits and automobile accidents are only some of its grosser by-products. Originally produced by depression, boredom seeks relief in the very gluttony, lust and covetousness which produced the anger which produced the depression which produced the boredom in the first place. Looking over the wealth of filth which this vicious cycle spews around us, we are palpably reminded of Pascal’s comment, that all the evils of the world are caused by man’s not being able to sit in a room happily by himself.

Summary: In Sin Revisited, Solange Hertz tackles the topic of sin with a unique perspective for modern times, delving into the intellectual approaches of the Desert Fathers as well as St. John of the Cross. In Hertz's own words: "Don't expect to find the seven deadly sources so familiar in song and story. You'll find eight, and even these won't be in the same sequence most of us are used to. This approach is newer than Vatican II, because it's so much older, if you know what I mean, very much older certainly than the old Baltimore Catechism." Upon reading this book, a person may subtly undergo an examination of conscience pertaining to each sin that is being discussed. This book is designed to be a guide for spiritual perfection.


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