The Words of the Bouachri Family

The Modern Affliction -- Keeping Acedia at Bay by Kathleen Norris

Susan Bouachri
April 2011

...acedia is a thoroughly modern affliction, not just a relic of the fourth century, and that we ignore its reality at our own peril. 'Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.'" (pg. 130)

I knew I was on to something good when I checked out Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life at the local library. Both librarians on duty were interested in the title and author (her last book was excellent), which from my experience signals a worthwhile read. The same thing happened when I went in to renew it. (The dense, thought-provoking prose required more time than the initial three-week allotment I'd been given!)


So, just what is acedia? Most likely you've not encountered the word unless you were once a devout Catholic, or if you've studied the works of the ancient desert monks who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. Author and poet Kathleen Norris, known to many for her previous work The Cloister Walk, first happened upon the concept of acedia in the writings of Evagrius of Pontus, an Egyptian monk who lived from 500 to 580. He describes "the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia and enervating despair" called acedia (quote from page 3). Well known to monks, this "noontime demon" was the steady companion of those who'd chosen to set aside the ways of the world to pursue a life of discipline and devotion. Adhering to the practice of simple labor, silence and ceaseless prayer, the monk's challenge to faith presented itself not in the new or unexpected, but in the mundane, repetitive, cloaking acedia always at hand and the doubts to which it led.

Though difficult to define precisely in English, the Greek root of acedia means the absence of care. Norris points out that a person afflicted with 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." (pg. 3) I found this book a challenge as at times it gets into some pretty weighty contemplation on that most esoteric of topics. But Ms. Norris very successfully uses her own life experience to show the hidden and yet deadly ways that acedia can deflect us from our path, most especially for those of us pursuing a spiritual path amidst the demands of daily life.

Monk-ish Endeavors

In reading the challenges of the monks as they sought to deepen their faith through simplicity and labor, I found a parallel to my own years of monk-ish endeavor known as MFT. Unlike their sequestered life in a cell or a cave far removed from the distractions of everyday life, I labored in the midst of the world, going door to door extolling the beauties of metal etchings. Just as the monk strove for the ideal of ceaseless prayer, I gave my sales pitch over and over again until it came forth without thought. This constant effort, this jingle that I repeated 100 times a day, became my holy words devoted to God day in and day out, month after month and year after year.

Sometimes acedia would exert itself. "Whatever peace and joy one found at prayer in the cool of the morning could all seem false by mid-day, and the view of life stretching out for a long period of time unendurable." (pg. 38) In the middle of a tough run I might ask myself: "Why am I doing this? Did I join the church to make money?" Ultimately it wasn't the money that had the most value. The money served as a measure of my effort that day; it wasn't the value of my offering. Similarly, Norris tells the story of Abba Paul who, like other monks, believed that over time the "straw of mundane tasks could become the gold of ceaseless prayer." (pg. 18) But unlike other monks, Paul lived such a distance from the town that it was impossible to travel there to sell the baskets he wove day in and day out as he practiced his prayer. "As soon as he had filled his cave with baskets, he would have only to burn them and begin again. The tale is a wry comment on the futility of all human effort and on mortality itself." (pg. 19) True value came not from the profit the monk made from his endeavors but the connection to God that he built while busying his hands and mind in defiance of acedia. "Monastic wisdom insists that when we are most tempted to feel bored, apathetic and despondent over the meaninglessness of life, we are on the verge of discovering our true self in relation to God," Norris writes. (pg. 40)


My favorite section of the book is her reflection on her own marriage and the struggle both she and her husband encountered with acedia. "I suspect that any married person, or any monk for that matter, has at one time or another felt the loss and diminishment expressed by the fourth-century Abba Megethius when he said to his fellow monks: 'Originally, when we met together we spoke of edifying things, encouraging one another... we ascended up to the heavens. But now when we come together, we only drag one another down....'" (pg. 111) Ms. Norris shows the danger of allowing acedia to assert itself in a marriage. Dangerous little thoughts slip in. They hint that this person doesn't stimulate us anymore. It's very easy to start thinking that dropping him or her to go find someone new is the answer. Those of us who've stuck out those dry times realize its part of the cycle and we need to reapply ourselves rather than withdraw to stimulate true, deep and growing love once more.

Upon reflection I find acedia's roots running through my own life story. At times successful in my pursuits, I've nevertheless found myself tormented by plaguing doubts of my value and worth, leading to a gradual withdrawal from previously satisfying endeavors. This withdrawal didn't take place overnight, but was over time and subtle.

The Classic Dilemma

In a recent bout with acedia, its sneaking attack began with a small disappointment, followed by a major disruption of discipline which sealed the deal on a prolonged struggle. My carefully balanced juggling act of heavenly focus and external discipline took a hit when my husband began a new job with a 14- to 18-hour workday. Under the guise of a "temporary necessity", I dropped my "me time." The good things I'd been doing for myself, the quiet time in the morning, gym time in the evening, disappeared as I became the sole caregiver, housekeeper, and bill minder in the family. Though the new job presented a valid reason for a change in schedule, I too-optimistically set aside my hard-won disciplines. Before I knew it, I was driven right into acedia's clutches, that place where "prayer seems not only a useless activity but also an impediment to freedom." (pg. 113)

It's the classic mother's dilemma, and one we still fall prey to even after years of experience: the pressure (whether real or imagined) to be the supportive wife, to create and maintain a meaningful, fulfilling schedule for the children, all while tending to the household and accomplishing the requirements of a full-time job. Worn down by these challenges, I gave up my needs and began to attend to the needs of others in only a half-hearted way. Norris suggests that acedia is a thoroughly modern affliction, not just a relic of the fourth century, and that we ignore its reality at our own peril. "Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more." (pg. 130)

The results? In my case it was a lingering spiritual malaise: the feeling of inadequacy and an inability to do anything about it, a feeling of helplessness and despair, a weight gain of 20 lbs. and stress- induced anxiety. In other words, a classic case of modern-day acedia!

Aversion vs. Desire

In fact, in today's over-scheduled, too often shallow relationships, we see evidence of acedia on the widest levels. As Norris puts it, "Acedia is not merely a personal vice. Left unchecked, it can unravel the great commandment: as I cease to practice my love of God, I am also less likely to observe a proper love of my neighbor or myself." (pg. 113)

Another section of Norris' book struck me as right on when I think about what I see as the current challenge facing the first generation in our church. She writes that the Abbas (the elders or leaders of the monastery) often weren't as concerned about the struggles of the young monks and their challenge to reign in their passions for the world, as much as they were concerned about the older monks and their tendency to withdraw. On page 200 she writes: "I am consoled anew by my friend Evagrius, who notes that while young monks contend with lust, or the impulse to pull others toward them, the middle-aged have to fight the desire to push others away. As the young struggle with a raging appetite for more experience, their elders are tempted to grow angry and regretful over experience thwarted or denied.... Evagrius regarded aversion as a much more serious and larger problem than misdirected desire.... Aversion was more likely than lust to engender a scorn for others that would cause the monk to abandon his community and his vocation." (pg. 200)

I feel like many of us are wrestling with this issue of middle age right now. We have a choice: we can let acedia take hold, condemning us to inaction, or we can rouse ourselves to meet the challenge of the next stage of life and embrace it with renewed vigor and hope. When old ways no longer bear fruit, discard them and start afresh.

Acedia makes it difficult to care about so many things that used to matter. No matter what age we may be, we must continue to nourish our souls and our relationship with God even though it may at times seem repetitious. Norris wonders: "Could we regard repetition as a saving grace, one that keeps returning us to essential understandings that we can discover in no other way?... For many of us, affluent or not, it is by means of repeating ordinary rituals and routines that we enhance the relationships that nourish and sustain us.

So let us value even those hurried prayers or a less than fully sincere "Welcome home, dear." "Whether we realize it or not, our everyday words and actions signify more than we know and help keep acedia at bay." (pg. 188) 

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