Resisting acedia with new beginnings

  • Written by Effie Caldarola, Catholic News Service
  • Published in Commentary
Photo: Olu Eletu, Unsplash Photo: Olu Eletu, Unsplash

My neighbor stands smiling in the Saturday morning sunshine, surveying her crop of tomatoes and kale. She lifts her tanned arms in exultation toward the cloudless sky.

"Why can't it be like this all year long?" she asks of the already hot and humid day.

As I sit in the shade of my patio, sipping my morning coffee, I wonder if she's nuts.

Are you kidding? I sulk silently. Who would want to live in this heat all year long? We've had a long stretch of weather in the 90s.

I lived in Alaska for years, relishing Anchorage's relatively cool clime. Almost no homes had air conditioning -- none was needed. At night, with our bedroom windows wide open to let in the chilly evening air, I would burrow under my blankets and wonder, Why can't it be like this all year long?

Despite our obvious difference of opinion on what constitutes good weather, I had to admit my neighbor gave me pause to think about something important: my attitude. Why am I so doggone crabby sometimes? Why wasn't I lifting my arms to the heavens in praise on a sunny morning rather than hunkering over my caffeine?

A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat given by Kathleen Norris, a best-selling spiritual writer whose works include "Dakota," "The Cloister Walk" and "Acedia and Me."

Norris is known as an authority on the desert fathers and mothers, those early Christians who founded monasticism. Although a Protestant, Norris is also a Benedictine oblate, and has spent much time in the reflective confines of Benedictine monasteries.

St. Benedict, who wrote his great rule in the early sixth century, tells us that always we must begin again. It's this message that most resonated with me from Norris' talks.

"You can make a new beginning at every moment," she avers, thus challenging the "I'll start my diet again tomorrow" approach that I bring to many things in life.

The early monastic Christians didn't talk about sin, according to Norris. Rather, they described the temptations that plague us as "bad thoughts" or "demons." They listed eight of these, that correspond today to the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.

So what happened to number eight? A strange word, acedia, fell by the wayside and was somewhat absorbed into sloth. Sloth generally describes laziness.

But that doesn't quite define acedia. Sometimes called "the noonday devil," acedia appears when we let ourselves become lethargic, out-of-sorts, down in the dumps.

I think I was embracing acedia that Saturday morning when I was downright stunned to see my neighbor so pleased with the day. Her outstretched arms dramatically contradicted the closed-in posture I displayed physically and felt spiritually.

An important note about acedia is that it can resemble depression, yet the two are separate things. Depression can be a serious illness requiring medical help or counseling. Depression can't be treated by telling ourselves to "get over it," and it should never be taken lightly.        

Acedia, however, puts the ball in my court. Norris put it this way: "Acedia can be resisted -- take your mind off the closed circle of yourself.

So if I'm yielding to acedia, what should I do? Many things help: exercise, laughter, socializing with friends, doing a good deed, prayer or focusing on gratitude. Vanquish the pity party, get my mind off the "closed circle" of myself.

I can begin this at any moment. Any time is the right time to smile and try out a new attitude.