Overcoming Acedia: A Statement of Purpose
I once took a seminar class called Virtue and Vice: a study on the definitions of the seven deadly sins, the seven cardinal virtues, and their relationships with one another. This sort of academic pursuit, begun with a certain scholarly aloofness, tends to become personal rather quickly. While our class discussions centered around the ideas of Aquinas, Pieper, and Kreeft, my independent study of the subject took the form of uncomfortable undergraduate soul-searching.
Traditionally, the virtues and vices are presented in pairs, so that once those in mortal error recognize their root sin, they can look to the corresponding virtue as the source of an antidote.
Now, we are none of us completely free from any of these errors. But I do believe that different personalities have different areas of strength and weakness. Dante’s Inferno shows sinners delegated to certain levels of hell based on their defining error, or the sin which ultimately kept them from seeking salvation. Thus, readers find murderers housed with the treacherous and adulterers suffering alongside liars: though any individual may have participated in any variety of sins in his lifetime, he is found most guilty of one.
As it turns out, despite my impressive capacity for envy and my insatiable greed, Sloth, or Acedia, is my defining weakness at this point in my life. While the word “sloth” connotates mere laziness or a two-toed creature one might find in a zoo, its classical meaning implies complacency that results in a refusal to actively seek God. In other words, the slothful are the luke-warm ones: too easily satisfied with ourselves, we’re liable to be spit out.
“Acedia” is an older, broader concept of slothfulness—one identified and experienced by hermits and monks. They called acedia the “noon-day demon” and considered it the most insidious of the so-called “eight bad thoughts”, which are the precursors of our current list of deadly sins. Acedia is defined by a lack of caring (about the world, others, oneself) and often expressed in listlessness or, curiously enough, a frenzy of activity. Early desert monks fighting acedia found themselves often unmotivated in their work, distracted in their prayers, and indifferent to the well-being of their souls. Rather than reflecting or refocusing themselves, they desired a change of pace—to leave their cells for a walk, to go visit a revered Abba, to take a vacation from the tedium of their daily routine instead of accommodating themselves to it.
As soon as I discovered the concept of acedia in my research of the Virtue and Vice seminar, I immediately realized how profoundly this malady affects my own life. It lurks beneath nearly every poor choice, even the apparently harmless ones. Sleeping in on Sundays and going to the evening mass, procrastinating instead of grading the stack of essays immediately, scouring Hulu for mindless entertainment when I could be praying, frantically wiping off counters in the kitchen to avoid writing that email—I could go on. The problem with acedia is that it seems, on the surface, so simple and so innocent. But the consequences—a deadened conscience, a dulled sense of empathy, and, worst of all, indifference toward God—are death in life.
Having identified acedia as the source of many of my errors, and being reminded of this when my husband presented me with a copy of Kathleen Norris’s spiritual memoir Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, I have decided to fight back with this blog. Sitting down to write has always been the hardest hurdle for me to overcome. For example, on January 1st, 2011, I spent about seven hours not creating this website before finally wrangling with WordPress for a few minutes to bring Breeding Lilacs into being.
I am keenly aware of the irony of staging the battle within the medium of the internet, an infamous, infinite source of distractions, a notorious destroyer of hours. But, as my profession requires spending a significant amount of time working online, developing the discipline to work well in this context is essential.
So, gentle reader, you now know why I’ve decided to begin again, to tackle the nearly impossible task of writing. Daily. In Public. The corresponding virtue for sloth is Diligence: pray that God grants me grace and fortitude.