Acedia: The Forgotten Sin

How can one little thought-pattern be responsible for both boredom and restless, frantic activity?

In her new book Acedia & Me, poet and nonfiction writer Kathleen Norris provides a helpful range of definitions for the little-known term “acedia”: “a non-caring state”; “the deadly sin of sloth”; “spiritual torpor and apathy”; “a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia.”

The latter definition is from the Online Medical Dictionary circa 2000 A.D. That’s right, folks, boredom is now a medically recognized syndrome. Norris, however, spends much of Acedia & Me de-medicalizing acedia, taking especial care to distinguish it from clinical depression. At “the risk of oversimplifying,” Norris writes, “I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.”

Norris, who in her previous works Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, has introduced many Protestants and other spiritual seekers to the riches of the Benedictine monastic tradition, is not opposed to the supposedly outmoded word “sin,” and she believes that the one sin of acedia is responsible for many of the ills of our high-tech, breakneck-paced, yet apathetic, contemporary world.

Acedia was first named as such by desert monks in the early centuries of Christianity, but Norris cites many more contemporary writers, both monastic and lay, who trace its insidious footprints across Western society today. Cistercian Michael Casey writes, “The acediac is a person without commitment, who lives in a world characterized by mobility, passive entertainment, self-indulgence, and the effective denial of any external claim. . . . Sometimes [acedia] is identified with sloth or idleness, but that is only the external face of an attitude marked by chronic withdrawal from reality into the more comfortable zone of uncommitted and free-floating fantasy. The temptation to acedia is an invitation to abandon involvement and leave the pangs of creativity to others.”

In other words, the couch potato and the over-achiever may be suffering from the same problem, which ultimately boils down to the refusal to engage fully with life in the present moment. The over-achiever may be compensating with frenzied, external activity for the same internal emptiness that the couch potato feels. Both consume entertainment passively: the couch potato because there’s nothing else to do and the over-achiever because work is a stressful chore from which he or she feels the need to retreat.

The solution for modern-day acedia is not much different than the solution for 4th-century acedia: spiritual discipline. The Benedictine motto “ora et labora” (“work and prayer”) reminds us that work can be an act of prayer and a meaningful pursuit in itself, regardless of one’s productivity. Norris tells the tale of a 4th-century hermit monk whose trade was basket-making. Even though the monk lived too far from civilization to sell his baskets, he continued making them. When too many baskets collected in his cave, he would burn them all and start over again. The work itself was an act to glorify God.

Most of us may not be looking to burn our baskets, but practicing work as prayer is an option open to us. If we find rest in our work, because it’s time spent with God, then we may feel less need to seek relief in mindless entertainment. Obviously, as someone who writes for a site called Christ and Pop Culture, I’m not saying anything against entertainment in itself. Nor am I interested in drawing distinctions between “escapist” and “meaningful” pop culture, because, in resisting acedia, it’s the mindset of the viewer or listener that’s more important. It’s probably quite possible to watch Beverly Hills Chihuahua in a way that is both “work” (in the sense of mental engagement and commitment) and prayer (though I have to admit that, personally, I would probably be praying, “Get me out of this theater!”).

So, readers, what do you think? Is acedia a convincing explanation for both habitual boredom and frantic activity? What ways have you found to engage meaningfully in the present moment, wherever you are and whatever you may be doing?

About Carrisa Smith

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