Sunday, November 25, 2007

Acedia: the absence of caring

I was at a book launch the other week, listening to Kathleen Norris speak on the lost meaning of Advent. She centered her talk around a long-forgotten word the desert fathers used: acedia. The word literally means "the absence of caring." Norris said the concept was originally one of the seven deadly sins, but became subsumed under the more one-dimensional word "sloth."

Acedia seems to articulate a very contemporary malady. And it is difficult to reduce to a simple "thou shalt not."

Fourth-century monks called it "the noon-day demon." It reared its ugly head in the physical and spiritual torpor brought on by long hot mid-day hours in the desert. An ancient writer explained that the noonday demon “stirs the monk also to long for different places in which he can find easily what is necessary for his life and can carry on a much less toilsome and more expedient profession." It's described as a heavy dullness of the soul that robs an individual of spiritual and physical energy. Though we think of sloth as immobility, acedia is more often related to a restlessness. It was the temptation of the monk to stop caring, to escape, to cease effort in the present and seek false solace elsewhere.

Descriptions of acedia sound a lot like post-modern descriptions of depression. Aquinas explained it as "an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing." This is not simple laziness, Norris emphasized, but an oppression of the soul and the dimishment of life purpose. Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox describes something similar when he describes sloth as a heaviness causing a "refusal to live up to one's essential humanity.”

For Norris, acedia is one of the current ills of Western culture. She described eloquently our collective loss of memory, of meditation, of spiritual effort. The author of an article in First Things on acedia agrees with her: "The care-free life, a life a-cedia, is our cultural ideal," R. Reno writes. While Norris rails against the sleepy comfort of commericialism, Reno attacks the "critical distance" we keep from study and faith in order to preserve rationality. He argues that we no longer engage in meaningful ways with worship and academic study, instead keeping the pursuit of truth and the joy of faith at arms' length.

The more I find about the concept, the more it seems to be elusive. It can manifest as a cultural passivity, a cold imbalanced rationalism or an individual's incapacitating despair. But it seems to put into words an invisible force of sorrow, meaninglessness and inertia in the world that we all have found ourselves struggling against at different times.

And the way out of acedia? Dante believed it was a violent, heartfelt rush to repentance and intimacy with God to awaken the soul. To rediscover the romance and power of truth. Evagrius, a fourth century writer, advocated stability and loyalty. Instead of giving way to restlessnes and rushing from the present, Evagrius believed the monk should "stand firm and patiently." Norris comes close to this with her admonition to "remember, wait and hope."

But the motivation to do so? If one waits, if one opens oneself to caring, to the possibility of caring, faith says that it must come, albeit painfully slowly sometimes. In my experience, it seems to come outside of myself.

Today, during the eucharist in a tiny church in my town, the priest looked into my eyes and said "beloved of God, the body of Christ broken for you."

Beloved. Christ broken. And I cared despite myself.