20 November 2008

acedia in ecclesiastes—everything sucks

In the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes, the author uses the word hebel almost forty times—that’s as much as in the rest of the Bible! It literally means “vapor” or “breath,” but most translations use the word “vanity.” Our writer (“Qoheleth” is the Hebrew word), after describing some human endeavor, proclaims it “vanity.” On several occasions, Qoheleth wearily cries, “All is vanity.”

But saying “all is vanity” doesn’t quite capture “the frustration that comes from the pit of the stomach,” as Elsa Tamez puts it. It still feels too scholarly—too removed from where we live. No, I think if Qoheleth were speaking today, he’d say something more like “everything sucks”!

His lament that “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9) speaks to the apparent absurdity of human actions that are repeated over and over. In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris speaks of her struggle with that illness of the spirit. Acedia mocks the repetition of daily life. It says, “You get out of bed, eat food, do whatever you busy yourself with, go to bed, and do the whole thing again tomorrow. To what end?”

Norris cites an example from her youth—her reluctance to make her bed. “‘Why bother?’ I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone. ‘I’ll just have to unmake it again tonight.’ To me, the act was stupid repetition; to my mother, it was a meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself, and a humble acknowledgment of our creaturely need to make and remake our environments” (p. 13).

Fortunately, the acedia in Ecclesiastes doesn’t have the final word. But I think we can benefit from recognizing that even biblical authors recognize, and express, a struggle that we too often try to ignore. Of course, ignoring it only gives the slothful demon more control!

The image is “All is Vanity” by Lyamkin Alexander.

19 November 2008

slothful about acedia

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Kevin Spacey’s unforgettable line from the movie The Usual Suspects (1995) is something I thought of as I began reading Kathleen Norris’ new book, Acedia and Me. I’m only about one-third of the way into the book, but it verifies something that I’ve long suspected: of the so-called “seven deadly sins,” sloth is the worst.

The original word, “acedia,” became lost in the term “sloth,” which most of us think of as laziness. (Plus we have the image of those cute critters hanging from trees!) It is laziness, but not the kind that means you’re a couch potato. (Well, I suppose that can be part of it!) Acedia literally means a “lack of care.” It’s a deadly spiritual apathy, a condition of lethargy, in which the person afflicted is unwilling or unable to care about much of anything at all. In early monasticism, it was called the “noonday demon.” What brought Spacey’s line to mind was this passage in Norris’ book (pp. 45-46):

“I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia. Maybe that’s one reason why, as we languish from spiritual drought, we are often unaware of what ails us. We spend greater sums of money on leisure but are more tense than ever, and hire lifestyle coaches to ease the stress…We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available ‘twenty-four/seven’ and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible. But when distraction becomes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feeling itself. We are more likely to indulge in public spectacles of undemanding pseudo-care than address humanity’s immediate needs. Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own? How can that be, when so few know its name?”

Obviously, we don’t need to know the name of something for it to control us. Are we too “slothful” to identify and resist acedia?

17 November 2008

a divine milieu

Last Sunday, my sermon text was the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. I placed it within the framework of “playing not to lose.” I noted my heartbreak and horror on Monday night in 2000 when my beloved Miami Dolphins blew a 30-7 4th quarter lead to the New York Jets. By playing not to lose, they did exactly that—lose!

Bruce Epperly at Process and Faith reflects on the parable. He says, “Often, we act as if we live in a ‘closed system’ in which no new energies or possibilities can emerge. Often, we see ourselves in terms of what we lack rather than the surprising and life-changing possibilities residing within our concrete limitations. We have not, because we ask not—and dream not!”

I recently finished Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s classic work, The Divine Milieu. In his afterword, he sounds a similar note. (Please note: this was written in the 1920s!) “Where is the Catholic [or any Christian, in general] as passionately vowed (by conviction and not by convention) to spreading the hopes of the Incarnation as are many humanitarians to spreading the dream of the new city? We persist in saying that we keep vigil in expectation of the Master. But in reality we should have to admit, if we were sincere, that we no longer expect anything.”

Some questions I posed to my hearers—and to myself, definitely—were these: what are some ways in which we play it safe? What are some ways in which we play not to lose? And going beyond that, can we see how that demonstrates fear and mistrust, rather than love and faith?

15 November 2008

how I wish I were wrong

When Sarah Palin was saying Barack Obama "pals around with terrorists," and people were screaming "kill him!" at rallies which came close to resembling mobs with torches, I predicted what would happen when you stir the pot of hatred and racism. Numerous news sources are now documenting a higher than usual increase of death threats against Obama. The threats on Obama's life, according to the Secret Service, began to spike right when Palin started questioning his patriotism.

Of course, if John McCain had exercised some good judgment, Sarah Palin would never have been placed in the position of consideration for VP. His campaign wasn't exactly vocal in putting to rest the irresponsibility of Palin. TV commercials with an ominous voice asking, "Who is Barack Obama?" only feed the paranoia already present in too many fringe elements. What's worse, it seems to give the stamp of approval to those willing to take that extra step toward violence.

11 November 2008

on a dark night

In a recent sermon on Psalms 42 and 43, in which I did the first half and my wife Banu the second, I spoke about the phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” That phrase goes back to a poem written in the 16th century by St. John of the Cross. As he advanced deeper in his life of prayer, he began to experience periods of extreme loneliness and emptiness. The light and joy and peace he first received from God began to wither away. This was his “dark night.”

Last year, when some of Mother Teresa’s letters were made public, we saw how she also spoke of feeling abandoned by God. Her dark night of the soul was a dry wilderness of pain that lasted for many years.

The thing about these experiences “on a dark night” is that they aren’t signs of God’s displeasure: very far from it! Our psalmist, St. John of the Cross, Mother Teresa—and many other people—aren’t being punished by God, even though it may feel like it. I think we can agree that we’re not talking about slackers in the spiritual life! These unpleasant experiences are instead a sign of God’s love; they’re a sign of purification.

I’m not saying that so-called “dark” feelings, in and of themselves, are good things. I am no masochist; I don’t enjoy pain or fear or suffering! But there are lessons we can learn only by attending their school. As Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

Without death, there can be no resurrection. And that’s not simply a matter of coming back to life; it’s a matter of coming back to superabundant life.

The image posted is “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” by Salvador Dali.

05 November 2008

a time for joy, even if it's brief

Last night, I watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago's Grant Park, as did hundreds of millions of people all over the world. I won't deny that I was (almost!) moved to tears. I'm mindful of some words in G. K. Chesterton's hymn of 1906, "O God of Earth and Altar": "From all the easy speeches / That make our hearts rejoice."
That doesn't open the way for cynicism, which works against the faith and hope the hymn proclaims. And to my mind, this is a time for celebration. True celebration is born out of faith and hope—qualities we Americans have allowed to slip away. We've replaced them with less noble qualities mentioned by Chesterton: "The walls of gold entomb us / The swords of scorn divide."

But my words don't match the images of last night, so I'll stop here, lest I become guilty of "lies of pen and voice."