September 3, 2009

Acedia and Distraction

After yesterday's post and some clarifying comments, it seemed like a good idea to me to continue on the topic of acedia, especially in its distinction from ordinary distraction and other troubles and challenges in the spiritual life.

Acedia is a slippery term, for sure. In the monastic tradition it refers to a kind of spiritual sickness by which we lose our taste for spiritual things and thus become spiritually lazy or find ourselves in a spiritual torpor--here we can see the relationship by which acedia gets transformed into sloth in standard lists of "deadly" sins. Acedia leaves us joyless in--or even disgusted with--the things of God and our spiritual practice, even though we might be dutifully fulfilling them all the same. This is very dangerous for anyone, but especially for those who preach the Word of God and minister the Church's sacraments, for they may be 'going through the motions' or simply acting as a technician who lacks any genuine savor or spiritual unction.

It is critical, in our own discernment or in spiritual direction, that ordinary sadness or even depression not be confounded with spiritual acedia. Acedia must also be distinguished from certain positive movements in the spiritual life that may bear some resemblance to it, like an invitation into John of the Cross's "Night of Sense."

Acedia must also be distinguished from the ordinary experience of distraction, both in prayer itself but also in our desire to be recollected in God during the rest of our day. While acedia is a dangerous passion, a 'bad thought' or a 'demon' as our monastic fathers and mothers call it, distraction is a normal part of human experience flowing from the mutability of our wills and bodies. In fact, distraction--when used properly--is no danger to the spiritual life at all, but is actually one of its most important helps. By using our distractions well, we refine and purify our intention toward God and become more durable in our recollection. In other words, distractions are the daily workout and exercise of our souls; they are always an opportunity to strengthen our intention and attention to the God Who is the true Desire of our hearts and Delight of our minds.

Nevertheless, there are dynamics that occur between acedia and distraction, and we should be aware of them in our daily practice. On the one hand, if we are not vigilant in our guard of our hearts and do not use our distractions well, instead allowing our hearts and minds to rest in whatever random thing arouses their interest, we will eventually discover ourselves to be slaves of concupiscence and sensual appetite. This is one way that the poor use of the opportunity of distractions can help us 'catch' the spiritual disease of acedia. If we follow every distraction and take worldly delight in every curiosity that invites our attention, we will find that when we do try to return to our piety we have lost some of the savor and joy we used to have in spiritual things. We will discover to our horror that even our desire for spirituality is selfish and sensual and that God no longer delights us in the way we had previously imagined.

On the other hand, for one who is already sick with acedia, distractions from prayer or from our recollection in general become that much more dangerous. This is because, according to Evagrius and Cassian at least, the remedy for acedia is to get to our spiritual work as diligently as we can, especially if we don't feel like it. Once I told one of my first spiritual directors that I had not prayed one day because I didn't feel like it. He told me that such a time was the most important time to pray. To pray when we want to and when we are full of the taste for the things of God is always to risk praying in order to have these delights. To pray when we don't feel like it, and when--as the world says--we don't 'get anything out of it' is the real ascesis of the spiritual life. So, distractions and temptations that would be the plain, ordinary tools of spiritual growth become that much more dangerous to the one afflicted with acedia, because of the risk of failing to do the one thing that needs to be done: getting back to work.

1 comment:

ben in denver said...

Your discussion of acedia has reminded me of Soren Kierkegaard's the Sickness Unto Death. I wonder if you have read it and what you think of it?

It is one of a handful of books that left an indelible mark on me.