I’m getting close to the end of Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me. She describes many years of a journey—a journey of often painful self-discovery. She details her struggle with acedia, the “deadly sin” better known as sloth. Our friend Kathleen shares some wisdom of the desert monks in their battle against it.
In chapter 14 (p. 275), she speaks of John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435). “‘From acedia,’ he writes, ‘[are born] idleness, somnolence, rudeness, restlessness, wandering about, instability of mind and body, chattering, [and] inquisitiveness.’ If I allow myself to reach this stage I will be a distracted tourist rather than a pilgrim, and am likely to turn away from the very things that might bring me to my senses. I have learned that nothing will erase my susceptibility to acedia, for it is a part of who I am. But this does not mean that I am helpless. I can look for the seed of hope in my despair, and pray with the psalmist: ‘Bring my soul out of this prison, / and then I shall praise your name’ (Psalm 142:8).”
The so-called “seven deadly sins,” besides sloth, consist of envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath. Like Norris, I would have to say that my greatest temptation comes from acedia. On the first Sunday of Advent, I preached a sermon titled “Acedia, the Enemy of Advent.” Norris has especially struggled with the facet of acedia that manifests itself as depression. That’s really not me. In my sermon, I spoke of something else.
There can be the feeling that life itself is absurd. It’s the feeling that there’s no meaning to what we do anyway, so what’s the point? 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?”
There have been times when I’ve been tempted by that dreary outlook. I’ve sometimes noticed it when I’m watching someone perform a job with repetitive motions, especially if I’m at a distance. I can’t hear them; I can only see them, maybe shuffling things around. And that outlook can be expanded to the entire world. People everywhere: being born, doing whatever with their lives, and then going back to the earth.
Giving in to that kind of outlook sucks the life out of you. It sucks the hope out of you. But for Christians, hope is not an option. Hope is a command; it’s a command to resist acedia—to say “no” to sloth…It calls us to welcome the One who comes—the One who, instead of letting us slothfully dream life away, gives us the grace to live the dream.