The noonday devil (Acedia) and the experience of nothingness
Chapter Talk 4/1/17
When ask to respond to the invitation to describe the ‘Cistercian charism’ specific to our Order as you desire to live it out in your community? My spontaneous response was this:
“I believe that Lectio Divina is at the heart of our charism. Without it, our lives can become too scattered and we can lose our focus. As well as enclosure, which is often hard to keep when living near a large city and dependent on their patronage for our survival….I am called to deepen my love of scripture and the discipline needed to continue to deepen my practice. It has been a long journey, but the monastic vocation and growth into its charism takes time and patience”.
In my own life, I can go through periods of deep inner discontent. Even the word discontent does not apply, it is more like a feeling of ‘nothingness’, more than boredom. I call it the Sunday afternoon syndrome. When young, and in the Navy, Sundays afternoons for me would be absolute torture. Just the feeling of ‘nothingness’, of feeling rootless, wandering around finding no relief anywhere, it was not painful, or even distressful, just empty air…which from my experience is much worse.
In the Monastery this also happens, and my way of dealing with it over the years has changed. When a young monk, I would exercise a great deal, swim for hours, do yoga and lift weights. Which are good in themselves, but for me it was a way to escape. I would also read for knowledge and pleasure, which is also not something bad, but good. However, that underlying feeling of ‘dissipating’ and being ‘nothing’ would not abate, I felt rootless and in fact, it is still with me more often that I would like: I still struggle with it. I am of course talking about the ‘Noon Day Devil”, or “Acedia”
Signs of Acedia
(The Noon day Devil)
The signs or symptoms of Acedia may be bodily or psychological, and again, pertaining to sadness or to its consequent tedium or languor. Bodily signs range from mere sleepiness to general sickness or debility. It produces feelings of ill health, making a person feel unable to fulfill his duties.
Some psychological signs are a lack of attention to prayer, an overall dissatisfaction with life, and boredom, showing itself in a general laziness or refusal to work or to pray.
It is usually seen as naming a fault, which is subject to one's will, rather than simply a psychological state. Acedia is to spiritual health something like what depression is to mental health.
Over the years I have found that the only way to deal with it, to profit from it, is to stop running from that ‘restless nothingness’ and simply embrace it. For me, that can take some time, but as the years roll on I have slowly learned that restless wandering only makes it worse and ever more deadly. The more I try to get away from it, the more like a tar baby it sticks to me. “Feed me” it seems to say. Feed it what?
Lectio is, of course, different from other forms of reading. Study and the love of literature is a good way to spend one’s time, but when ‘aecedia’ hits hard these activities may not be possible. Lectio is not done for pleasure or as a way of escaping but of facing deeply the hard reality of our human existence. Living in a Monastery with its quiet life and strict schedule will only open us up more deeply into the human situation. One being, that our inner thirst for meaning and our longing for God can only be ignored at our own risk. Many addictive actions are used to find some form of release from this often deeply painful situation. This in the end only makes our situation worse and will keep us at an immature level of emotional development, for we can’t grow without a disciplined response to life and what we are called to become. In any case, when living any kind of life that goes against what we say we are doing, is deeply destructive to both mental and spiritual health. It is a way of fleeing from personal responsibility and the painful road of self-knowledge.
The demon of Acedia suggests to you ideas of leaving, the need to change your place and your way of life. He depicts this other life as your salvation and persuades you that if you do not leave, you are lost. – Evagrius of Pontus, De octo vitiosis cogitationibus 12
When I am in the grip of Acedia, below the emptiness and nothingness I sense panic, anxiety and a desire to run away. As I age this is becoming more apparent to me. What is also becoming more obvious to me is that the only cure for this dilemma is to simply sit, open up my bible, and slowly read, ponder and pray from the Word. This can be difficult, like swimming up river, but in the end, perhaps later during the day, because of my desire to center myself in the Word, I get a feeling of ‘home’, or of even feeling the living waters rise up in my heart. A joy comes, and I feel how much I need the grace of God. To pray, to do Lectio, is in actuality a response to an invitation to center myself and to die to ways of being that only trap me in an endless round in the desert, like it did the Israelites with their 40 years of wandering in the desert.
One reason that I like aging is that I have many years of experience behind me that allows me to stop the endless cycle of seeking relief from my own inner poverty without the grace of Christ Jesus. It also connects me more to the community, which is another way of allowing the Lord to minister to me. In seeking to serve the community, to love them and not to judge harshly, frees me from my-self as well.
In any life, to be successful (however that is meant), discipline, focus, and determination are needed. I like the adage: “Believe that nothing is possible without the grace of God, but act as if everything depends on you”. I would like to say I am always successful, but not true. That is the difference between isolation and solitude. One is destructive and other life giving. Acedia leads to isolation, or to relationships that are shallow and in the end lack meaning.
So, for me, I guess Lectio is, in reality, central to our charism. Without it, I believe everything else falls apart.—Br.MD