In my last blog post I discussed my spiritual upbringing and how it created in me a fear of death which may have been at least partially responsible for my propensity towards despondency. How the fear of death and despondency go together, however, may not be totally obvious since despondency is a very complex and misunderstood topic, especially in modern Western conceptions. In this blog post I seek an understandable definition of despondency and how it relates to death and the fear of death, and more importantly, how it relates to time and to joy.
The Greek word for despondency is acedia (or accidie in late Latin and English translations). It literally means a lack of care or concern. Discussion about acedia is rather absent in modern conceptions of psychology and philosophy; however, the early Church Fathers used this term often and very seriously, especially when discussing the absence of ascetical effort, or a lack of effort in the spiritual life. It was mainly discussed as a spiritual attack on monks who voluntarily lived in seclusion; however, as Fr. Gabriel Bunge discusses in his book Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia (for which I am indebted to for helping me understand my own spiritual illness more fully), acedia affects all people, including those who live in the world and those who live in community.1 It is simply the manifestations of it that may be different depending on the context in which it is experienced.
Acedia is more than just a lack of effort in the spiritual life, however; it is a rather complex and misunderstood phenomenon that intrudes on the entirety of the life, but especially the spiritual life and prayer life, of the sufferer. Fr. Bunge likens it to Pascal’s ennui (boredom) and Soren Kierkegaard’s melancholy.2 It also isn’t unlike the “dark night of the soul,” described by John of the Cross, a mystic-poet-priest-saint in the Roman Catholic Church.3 It is reminiscent of words that may be more familiar to you: despair, repulsion, inertia, indolence, lassitude, dislike and dejection. It is that state of intense boredom and feeling of disgust for everything and everyone. It is sorrow which seems to have no cause. How it intrudes on the spiritual and prayer life is made obvious by St. John Climacus (of the Ladder), a seventh century monk, in his work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, when he says that
despondency or tedium of the spirit[…]is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of the mind, a neglect of religious exercises, a hostility to vows taken. It is an approval of worldly things. It is a voice claiming that God has no mercy and no love for men. It is a laziness in the singing of psalms, a weakness in prayer, a stubborn urge for service, a dedication to the work of the hands, an indifference to the requirement of obedience.4
The main tactic of acedia, it seems, is to steal away the enlightenment that the one in prayer seeks and causes him to lose desire for prayer and all things spiritually edifying. Acedia is, as the monk and theologian of the fourth century, Evagrius of Ponticus, described, “a slackness of the soul, namely a limpness of the soul.”5 This definition particularly affects me to the point of embarrassment. It brings to mind for me a loose knot that can be undone with just a tug. It brings to mind a soul that is sleeping. It brings to mind negligence and carelessness – two words which I hope to never be lumped in with.
Oddly enough, the melancholy of acedia drives the sufferer to have “a stubborn urge for service” as St. John Climacus said above – the urge to engage in intense activism and service to others. This “service,” however, is not for the benefit of the person in need of service and causes which need activism, but rather for the selfish benefit and gratification of the one providing the service. He buys into the dangerous illusion and self-deception that he is doing this service out of love and compassion, and his illusion, for but a brief moment, allows him to transcend the feelings of acedia. This too, when done to an extreme, leads the sufferer further into his acedia, however, because he is no longer just dissatisfied by spiritually edifying things, but his service, because it is born of brokenness, only causes resentment and hatred. The busyness is a way of masking the acedia underneath and postponing the necessary suffering that comes with truly transcending it.
St. John Cassian, another monk and theologian who was instrumental in bringing Christian monasticism to the West during early medieval times, also had some things to say about acedia. He equated it with the “noonday demon” (or the “midday demon”) of Psalm 90, which makes a lot of sense.6 Noon is the middle of the day. At noon we have not quite begun our work, and we are not quite done. It is the moment when time seems to stand still as we anticipate the end of the day – the perfect time for acedia to make its attack. In his Institutes, St. John Cassian described acedia in the following way:
AND 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 cut off from spiritual gain, and 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 any one by his teaching and doctrine. He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; and besides this he paints the intercourse with the brethren there as sweet and full of spiritual life. On the other hand, he says that everything about him is rough, and not only that there is nothing edifying among the brethren who are stopping there, but also that even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty. Lastly he fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell (in which he is sure to die if he stops in it any longer) and takes himself off from thence 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, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone. Then the disease suggests that he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities to the brethren, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks too about some dutiful and religious offices; that those kinsfolk ought to be inquired after, and that he ought to go and see them oftener; 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; and that it would be a most excellent thing to get what is needful for her who is neglected and despised by her own kinsfolk; and that he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly and with no profit in his cell.7
Here, St. John Cassian makes it quite clear that acedia is a rather complex spiritual phenomenon, and it’s manifestations are varied. Among acedia’s many manifestations are:
- inner restlessness (the temptation to move/flee/leave, the inability to complete a task, disgust for present company),
- viewing one’s work or current status in life (one example: being married or being single) as the source of one’s suffering,
- seeking out distraction and amusement,
- negligence and laziness in one’s prayer life (minimalism in prayer, distraction, comparison to other’s spiritual life ((ex: “so and so only prays for 10 minutes a day, so it’s okay that I only pray for 15 minutes)),
- OR maximalism in prayer (ex: “I’m going to pray for an hour and sing an entire Akathist”), which leads to…
- discouragement (loss of hope),
- a deep depression or feeling of emptiness or numbness,
- and at it’s worst, suicide.
For me, acedia usually manifests as extreme fatigue and lethargy (but only where there is nothing exciting going on), boredom (but only when it comes to the things that matter, like prayer), an intense procrastination and disgust with my (seemingly mundane) responsibilities, irritation with other people (but only ones seemingly more foolish than me), longing for the past (seemingly better) things and romantically idealistic thinking about the future which cause discontentment for what is present. When in this state, jokes are not funny, people are not my friends, beautiful things lose their sparkle and important things invoke indifference. At its worst, it causes me to feel empty, joyless and like I’m staring into a deep abyss from which I cannot look away. These manifestations resemble greatly the symptoms of clinical depression. Though, as I mentioned in my first post in this series, they are quite different. They share the darkness, but they do not share the cause.
Evagrius said that acedia arises from a mixture of desire and anger – anger toward what is present, desire for what is not.8,9 Nicole Roccas, in her book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, also adds pain to this mix since anger covers up pain in order to cope with living in the midst of a world of brokenness where there is shame, toil and adversity.10 Evagrius also strongly said that the one who suffers from acedia is “an unreasoning animal, dragged by desire and beaten by hatred.”11 Perhaps with Roccas’ addition of pain, we could say that the despondent one is “an unreasoning animal, dragged by desire, beaten by hatred (or anger) and then fleeing, wounded and limping.” All I can do in response to this description is to put my hands up in defeated embarrassment. This “anger towards what is present and desire for what is not” – there is no better description of what my state has been for the last few years. It describes well what I have deemed my own definition of acedia:
the reversal of joy.
I call acedia the reversal of joy because acedia is inherently a disordered relationship with time which causes life to be filled with the anxiety of tedium and causes death to be feared; whereas, joy (or rejoicing) necessitates being in the present, free from anxiety and fear. As mentioned before, acedia is the hatred of the present (i.e. “anger towards what is present”), and a desire for what is not. But God lives in the present, and is in a mystical way, Pure Presence. As such, he infuses each [present] moment with ample opportunity to move towards Him; yet, the one who suffers from acedia chooses of his own will to move away from God and to not actively engage in the life of the spirit. The reason acedia causes life to be filled with anxiety and death to be feared therefore is because it is, in a sense, the opposite of that well-known cliché, “Live each day as though it might be your last.” It is, in fact, living each day as if that day were an eternity. The one who suffers from acedia dissociates from life, from the present, and thus, from God. He dissociates from everything except for the unpleasant feeling that acedia causes and its various manifestations. It causes him to not be aware of anything, but specifically, to not be attuned to life. It causes a false sense of eternity in which this moment – the one being plagued by acedia – becomes an eternity in the sense that it becomes all-encompassing. This moment becomes everything, and paradoxically, becomes nothing. It is a joyless abyss. It loses its God-filled spiritual opportunity and instead becomes plagued with tedium, monotony and ennui. The problem with remaining in this state, however, is that death is inevitable, and life’s moments are not eternal but fleeting. Even more problematic is that this state, when left un-remedied, leads the sufferer to an earlier death: a spiritual death. And this type of death is to be most feared.
Therefore, the proper mindset and approach to time and the inevitability of death is not acedia – it is active participation in life, moment by moment. Here we have yet another paradox: active participation in life is simultaneously our preparation for death. Through the spiritual life we put the self to death as we turn away from our selfish desires and passions and turn towards God. Thus, we are most attuned to death when we are attuned to life. And one is less afraid to die if he is less afraid to live. One is less afraid to die if he has already put the “old man” to death. When acedia is overcome, time ceases to be our enemy. It becomes a close friend who assists us in the spiritual life and prepares us for death. Death, only when viewed properly outside of acedia, can be seen for what it really is. Death is not the end; it is the beginning of the true life, but only if we have begun to live it here. Christ, through his life, crucifixion and resurrection made this possible. He has ascended into heaven, and he awaits us there. Death does not need to be feared, for it reveals the fact that we are eternal. This type of death is one filled with much joy and rejoicing; indeed, it is an eternal joy.
*This is the third post in my series, Death to Despondency. Click here to read the first post in the series.
1. Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1940), 23.
2. Ibid., 47.
3. You can retrieve the entirety of the text here.
4. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 162.
5. Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia,47.
6. John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Coenobia, and the Remedies for the Eight Principle Faults,” tr. Elizabeth T. Knuth, 12 June 2000, <www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/inst/inst10.html#10.2> (14 July 2018). The full text of this work can be found here.
8. Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, 54.
9. Nicolle M. Roccas, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2017), 24.
11. Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, 57.
“Active participation in life is simultaneously our preparation for death.” Or put another way, “Active climbing of the Ladder of Divine Ascent in this life is the best preparation for climbing over the Toll Houses in the next.”
My sister once said that she was afraid to have me come stay at her house when I was a child because I would speak a sentence with such intensity that it paralyzed her: “I’m bored.” Fr. Thomas once said, “Can’t you just watch a movie like other people?” But I couldn’t. The reality that I was intentionally doing something to distract myself from boredom only made the boredom more painful.
“A stubborn urge for service”. I related to that. I once saw an Orthodox therapist a couple times. He suggested that perhaps my proliferation of liturgical prayers was flowing from an unhealthy place. In my mind, since I cannot find anything better to do, I might at well read a prayer out loud. Maybe it will do some good, some how, some way. But it is also an escape for me. The abbot of a monastery was observed that the fact that I NEVER pray with my own words flows from unhealth. There is a rawness and authenticity (and their accompanying pain) that is avoided by just reading other people’s words. I still cannot pray my own words, and my intimacy with God is hindered by it, I think.
It is quite interesting how acedia can manifest in different ways. You are drawn to pray more and more in order to avoid boredom, and the lack of authenticity and rawness in those prayers is safe for you. In a way, even though the act of prayer is there, the true conversation and encounter with God that produces prayer of the heart, is not. I relate to this in a way. I went almost 3 years without praying at all. The mere thought of having an encounter with God scared me and caused me shame because I felt like I was unworthy and like I had gone astray. Add to that the fact that I was seeking Truth and didn’t know exactly who I was praying to if I did pray. Unfortunately, that lack of encounter with God caused a numbness and dissociation from life that I have not yet fully recovered from. Nicole Roccas says that “to be present is to pray.” But that prayer must be genuine. That’s why Evagrius and many others have said that one of the remedies used to heal despondency is tears, specifically tears while praying. The tears are a sign of humility as we come before God and a sign of vulnerability and genuine sorrow and need for Him to heal us.
I also have a similar story about boredom. I would stare at my college roommate and tell her I was bored, in hopes that she would entertain me. As if her only real purpose in my life was to fulfill this need for distraction and entertainment. Perhaps my desire for people to distract and entertain me and your desire for the action of prayer are the same in that way.
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