Our Battle with Acedia
"I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress” (Kathleen Norris).
Restlessness, sloth, depression, escapism, these are terms we know all too well. On the first Sunday in pre-Lent, the Church looks into our heart. What does it see? Idleness. Τί ὧδε ἑστήκατε ὅλην τὴν ἡμέραν ἀργοί. “Why do you stand here idle all day?” Our Lord is speaking to us directly, with compassion and urgency.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place…Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same… And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?” (Matthew 20:1-16).
Idleness. The Greek word is ‘argos.’ It stems from two root words: ‘a’ - meaning ‘without,’ and ‘érgon’ - meaning ‘work’ or ‘energy.’ A person suffering from ‘argos’ lacks drive. Originally, the word was associated with loafers — hired workers wasting time. It also implies barrenness and death. In his epistle, St. James admonishes: “O foolish man, faith without works is dead” - worthless, barren, ‘argos’ (2:20).
‘Argos’ parallels with the Hebrew word ‘iysh’ — meaning sluggard, or slothful.
The Book of Proverbs states:
“I passed by the field of the slothful man…the man without sense; And behold! It was all overgrown with thistles; its surface was covered with nettles, and its stone wall broken down. And as I gazed at it, I reflected; I saw and learned the lesson: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest – Then will poverty come upon you like a highwayman, and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 24:30-34).
The Church Fathers often prefer another word: ‘acedia.’ Evagrius of Pontus wrote about it extensively: “The demon of acedia – also called the noonday demon – is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all.” Acedia is marked by a lack of care. It makes a man bored with a feeling of meaninglessness, restless for distractions, critical of others, and anxious for change. “[Acedia] instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor…[He] leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight.”
Acedia is far more alive and kicking in our modern life than we realize. In 2010, an author, Kathleen Norris, published a book called Acedia & Me. She talks about the way she and her husband have battled clinical depression. She began reading works by the Church Fathers, and St. Evagrius in particular, and was amazed at the insight of ancient thinkers. “As I read this,” Kathleen explains, “I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name.” Clinical depression, ADHD, and similar diagnoses are quite real. Psychiatry and therapy offer valuable tools for combatting them, but the chemical imbalance is only part of the problem. Underneath, we struggle with a deeper, spiritual ailment, acedia. The Scriptures and Holy Fathers offer volumes of advice on battling acedia.
“He went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?” (Matthew 20:1-16).
How much of our life is marked by spiritual idleness — acedia?
When we grumble to do anything, there is acedia in our heart. The minute you pick up a broom to sweep, you are starting a task spiritual and with eternal significance. But we do not think that way about sweeping, or any of our “insignificant” jobs. The work feels mundane. We grumble, because our heart is clogged up — acedia.
When going to church becomes a burden, when saying our prayers is a bore, when encouraging others at coffee hour becomes unappealing — it is acedia.
When we find ourselves constantly busy and restless, this too is acedia. I struggle with this a great deal personally. Growing up on the east coast with an a-type, entrepreneur as a father, I used to consider busyness to be a virtue and leisure a vice. The opposite is true. Busyness quickly becomes an unhealthy distraction, closely related to slothfulness. Leisure is the higher form of work. We err when anything distracts us from prayer and mindfulness.
“I wonder,” Kathleen Norris asks herself, “Do we stay so busy so as to unconsciously flee from the noonday demon of acedia? Do we fill up our time and our lives with endless activity because we feel that dreadful acedia creeping up on us? Or is it the acedia that drives us forward so restlessly to always doing something – anything - because we no longer have the ability to be still, to truly “rest” in God as the saints described a life of prayer and stillness/hesychia?”
Did you know that to ‘pray unceasingly’ means ‘to be at rest’? The Church defines spirituality with a single word, ‘hesychia’ — inner quiet. It is not the kind of rest that comes from laziness. It is an interior rest, and a rest acquired in the midst of work and struggle. The medicine against acedia is hesychia.
Martha criticized Mary for being idle, but the opposite was true. Martha bounced around from one activity to the other, plagued in her heart with acedia. Mary was working harder, because she was still.
“Why do you stand here idle all day?” (Matthew 20:1-16).
Our Lord calls us to a life of holiness. He comes to us in the market street, in our mundane jobs, in our boredom, depression, and busyness. He asks: Why are you paralyzed? Why are you downhearted? Why are you idling your time? Come join me in the field.
“My soul, my soul arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is approaching and you will be confounded. Awake then, and be watchful, that you may be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere present and filleth all things” (Kontakion, Great Kanon of Saint Andrew of Crete).