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I do care...

While in Waterloo, Ontario to attend the Canadian Theological Society's annual conference last week, I picked up a few books, one of them being Kathleen Norris's Acedia & Me.  Sometimes defined as sloth or associated with depression, acedia is a word that, though commonly used by the ancient monks, has not found a prominent place in contemporary spiritual language.  Norris describes what acedia looks and feels like by writing about her own experience. 

Basically, acedia is an absence of care.  Norris writes:  "The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can't rouse yourself to give a damn." (p. 3)  Monks knew this affliction well.  They called it the noon-day demon because the temptation usually made an appearance around midday when it was hot and they were hungry and tired.

As I read the first few chapters, I found myself fascinated and intrigued by what Norris was writing.  Then she began to talk about how acedia appeared in her life as a shy teenager and the topic got a little too close for comfort.   Norris struggled with tedium, with disappointment and discouragement, withdrawing from the "pains and joys of ordinary life" by keeping a busy school schedule and choosing to hang out with adults instead of her classmates. (p. 10)  She describes her behaviour as rejecting time, living just barely, and refusing the gift of each day. (12)

For her, one of the temptations was to rebel against the repetitive nature of the necessities of life.  She refused to make her bed every day.  She writes:  "'Why bother?' I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone.  'I'll just have to unmake it again at night.'" (13)  While non-bed-making is a fairly common phenomenon in teenagers, Norris associates her underlying attitude with acedia and an inability to take pleasure in the details of life involved in self-care and caring for the world.  Instead, she identified in herself a desire to do everything once and for all and be done with it (14).

This same attitude of disdain towards repetition and discipline proved troublesome in her music lessons.  She neglected scales and exercises in favour of playing what she enjoyed (that was me for much of my musical education).  Her teacher wisely observed that if she liked to play rather than practice, it marked her as an amateur (15).  Ouch!

Acedia is a spiritual dilemma.  It very often attacks the very places we are the most gifted or show the most potential.  It threatens to contort these areas into a series of self-serving binges instead of life-long, disciplined paths to progress.  Acedia is spinning gold into straw instead of straw into gold.  It is never living in today, but always valuing a future moment over the present.  It perceives time and tasks as stretching out for a long period, which in turn makes one want to drop out and forsake the path.  For monastics who live their entire lives by a certain, set rhythm which involves a lot of repetition, acedia is a constant threat.

I identify many of the symptoms of acedia in myself.  I am easily overwhelmed by tasks and life and find it a challenge to start projects because I just can't fathom how they will ever be completed.  I used to think of myself as lazy.  I long to live in the moment of completion and I sometimes dwell there in my mind before a task is even started, basking in a hypothetical sense of accomplishment instead of just getting started.  Writing this blog or any assignment for school usually produces a small rush of anxiety and a fair bit of procrastination because the process seems too long and arduous.  Plus, I don't believe I have anything to say and if I do, it will probably be mediocre and unclear.  It is tempting to just quit (I regularly think about quitting my blog, my leadership responsibilities, and I thought about quitting every job I ever had). 

The good news is that acedia is only a temptation; it can be overcome.  We do not need to give in.  I acknowledge the pattern of anxiety or feeling of tedium that comes over me when faced with a challenging task.  I may be tempted to quit, but I don't.  I ask God for help to make it through and the gift of grace always meets me in the process.  I talk about my silly tendencies with close friends in order to be open and accountable.  It is easier to stay on the path when others are with you.  I also cultivate those repetitions of life-care that I enjoy.  I love doing laundry, I love cleaning up my kitchen at the end of the day.  I love taking care of my cat and watering my plants.  And I find creative ways to adapt those tasks that I find difficult.  I don't particularly like ironing or cleaning my house, so I have taken to ironing while looking out my window (the ever-changing sky is magnificent) and that makes it a more pleasant job.  I pay someone to clean my house and that has removed a lot of anxiety from my life in that area. 

There is power in repetition, I can testify to that.  I have managed to keep up a workout regimen for over 30 years.  It is an important part of my well-being.  I change formats every few months just to avoid boredom in my mind and body, but I never question whether or not I will keep at it.  I also never question whether or not I will study the scriptures and converse with God.  These disciplines have become so much a part of me and I have seen so much good progress in my life as a result of them that acedia has virtually no access to them.

As I come to the end of another blog entry, I sigh with relief.  Yes, I have overcome the temptation of acedia once again.  I have written about something that is important and relevant to me today.  And I believe I have made myself clear, for the most part.  Yes, every day can be an overcoming day, and that gives me great joy in this moment.

References taken from:  Kathleen Norris.  Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 

the photo:  the sky outside my window today.  Magnificent!


Shelley said…
never heard of it! but very interesting indeed. i think I have it! ;P

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