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?

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