By Fr. Sean McDermott
Editor’s Note: During the first week of Advent, the men at All Saints Anglican Church held a retreat on a beautiful farm just outside Staunton, Virginia. Bishop Chad Jones led us through the topic of acedia and its opposing virtues. Like many others, I was struck by the Bishop's teaching and his insights on how to counteract this deadly vice. I hope this post and the audio recordings can bless many others.
Acedia is a vice often described as sloth, but it is much more nuanced than just plain laziness. It is particularly harmful to modern men and women for it injects a deep dullness within our spiritual lives that separates us from God. In a First Things article, Rusty Reno summarizes acedia and the need for Christians to be attentive to it:
"Acedia is a word of Greek origin that means, literally, 'without care.' In the Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, it comes down to us as tristitia or otiositas, sadness or idleness. But citing synonyms and translations will not do. For the monastic tradition, acedia or sloth is a complex spiritual state that defies simple definition. It describes a lassitude and despair that overwhelms spiritual striving. Sloth is not mere idleness or laziness; it involves a torpor animi, a dullness of the soul that can stem from restlessness just as easily as from indolence."
What is especially terrifying is that our modern culture inculcates this torpor animi. Reno wrote that in 2003, before the start (if you can imagine) of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc. From consumerism, to the ease of technological distraction, or the obsession with individual choice, modernity does not help our fight against acedia.
In his first segment, Bishop Chad helps us understand acedia--the better we can diagnose, the better we can fight the vice. Acedia is the opposite of spiritual joy, and boredom is a symptom of this. Because one cannot take joy in oneself or the world, often the person suffering from acedia seeks after a plethora of frenetic activity which is useless distraction. The downward spiral continues as no true pleasure is found, and this ‘unreality’ divorces the captive from God, other people, and their own self. In a struggle towards limitless freedom, the person chained by acedia ends up serving diabolical forces. Listen more here:
The only way to break such a heavy burden is to turn to the one who offers an easy yoke, Jesus Christ. By His Incarnation, He reintergrates us into the true life, renews and heals our nature, and redeems us from captivity. When we bind ourselves to Jesus through obedience found in a Rule of Life, we rid ourselves of acedia as we invite Jesus into our lives. We develop fidelity and an ordered sense of place in the Body of Christ as we continue to experience God operating in us, God’s grace. This healing becomes our basis of joy, and we can truly celebrate God, his creation, and those around us. The Church Fathers offer five ways to avoid acedia: tears of repentance, prayer and work, contradiction, meditation on death, and perseverance. Listen more here:
Bishop Chad next helps us see the struggle against acedia is based in the theological virtues. Where acedia separates us from God, our neighbor, and the creation, the theological virtues turn us directly to God and by doing so, they enliven our relationships with our neighbor and creation. But to grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, we must grow them in habit. This is the true yoke of Christ: allowing God to work through us with our freedom. Listen more here:
In the final segment of the retreat, Bishop Chad details how the specific theological virtues break the bonds of acedia and moves us towards a right relationship with God. Faith, hope, and charity ground us in God’s Being rather than frittering away our time in endless distraction. All of life points us in a single direction towards God-- aided by His Holy Spirit and through His Son, we will finally enjoy our lives as we give them up to Him as a living sacrifice. It is then that we break free from our cultural snares and live in true freedom. Listen more here:
If you want to read more on this important topic, I highly recommend two books on the topic of acedia. R.J. Snell's book, Acedia and its Discontents, would be for those more inclined to literature and narratives. Jean-Charles Nault's book, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of our Times, would be better for those who like history or systematic theology. Both are very edifying and will be a great aid to your spiritual growth.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar and Curate at All Saints Anglican.