Adventures in Acedia

It would begin in April, when the stiff winds first mellowed into a breeze and blue sky first began pushing breaches in the cloud banks. I’d be in class, trying to focus while some tenured mummy droned charmlessly on, when all of a sudden, through the window would slip the essence of springtime. One caress would be all it took to render me MIA. On a good day, I’d zone out on the fresh, pink soles of some girl in front of me who’d kicked out of her Blücher moccasins. On a bad day, I’d ditch the rest of my classes and spend the afternoon sprawling on a bench in Stuyvesant Park, inhaling the promise of warmth and light and freedom.

Okay — there were, I’ll admit, certain days when I inhaled other things, too. They don’t call it high school for nothing. But the affliction I seem to have carried into my faith life is a reverie that creeps over me at regular intervals and fills me with the conviction that everything good is happening outside. Fun, sex, and history belong to those lesser breeds without the law, springtime to the goyim. Imagining life outside the Church, I feel like Wordsworth recalling the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Except I’m on the side of the meagre, stale, forbidding ways. Lucky me.

This is a kind of acedia, which, in the words of St. John Cassian, “begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritual-minded persons.” I don’t have brethren the way a monk does, or claim the right to accuse even an orangutan of spiritual laxity, but I do at these times tend to think of my fellow Catholics as Pharisees and fascists, along with some other bad things that begin with the same sound.

Anyway, yesterday morning, while writing press releases, I found myself in such a state. Unable to flee to Stuyvesant Park, I clicked over to Slate. For me, Michael Kinsley’s online magazine has become the voice of intelligent, stylish, principled, Northeastern-accented, godless liberalism, the kind I might be basking in right now if only I’d kept my life on track. (Contributor Hanna Rosin went to my high school, although we were two students among 3,000, and she was two years ahead, so I have no memory of her and hope she has none of me.)

In this column, Emily Yoffe, who advises the lovelorn, and every other kind of -lorn, as Dear Prudence, captures the appeal of Slate’s slant. A reader dubbed by editors “The Cornered Cuckold” writes that his wife, whom he had allowed to take lovers, is pregnant, leaving him unsure how to broach the subject of paternity. The unflappable Yoffe replies:

just because you agreed your wife would set the terms of both her behavior and yours doesn’t mean you are not now entitled to rethink things. If you say you want to talk about the pregnancy and the child’s possible paternity and she orders you into the dungeon, then you two are suffering from a failure to communicate.

Do you follow? In Yoffe’s world, people are entitled to things. They solve their problems by communicating. Even the choices of the world’s dumbest ass (and cruelest succubus) deserve to be understood on their own terms. This is how those living in outer darkness define pastoral behavior, and — blow me down — it ain’t bad.

Or it seemed so, anyway, in comparison to the Facebook debate I’d witnessed the night before on moral theology and ethics and categorical statements and hypothetical statements and prudential statements. It went on for as long as an artillery duel at Passchendaele, and saw about as much force expended. Apples to oranges, yes, but the memory was enough to get me speculating on what jumping ship might involve — how I could hope to rebrand myself after seven years of Catholic observance (and five of punditry). “Oh, that? Research. Yes, of course I read your essay about your daughter’s double-gown wedding. Very moving.”

And before you could say “noonday demon,” there I was, back in acedia-land.

Copping to acedia means inviting cold comfort. According to the Benedictine rule, monks who show signs of it “should be reproved a first and a second time” and then “subjected to the punishment of the rule so that the others may have fear.” Get that? Beatings will continue until morale improves pour encourager les autres. To do that policy justice, two old jokes about bad management must meet in the street and kiss.

You know your plans to apostasize are premature when you find yourself dreading the wrath of some abbot whom you’ve never taken vows to because he doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, in my head, I’d already made my flight from the Divine Good and was living in a brownstone in the West 70s, where I had nothing to do of a Sunday but shop at Zabar’s and say mean things about Republicans. Very heaven! The fantasy calmed me down to the point where I could finish my press releases. After that, to keep my head clear, I ran an errand that involved a long walk — it sounded like the kind of thing Emily Yoffe might suggest.

Passing the bus stand on Van Buren Street, just east of 52nd, I saw two books lying on the bench. They were big books, too big to not to be good, so I stopped to look. The book on top? The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor –for Catholics, the Bible, so to speak, on the vocation of writing. I looked around; no potential owner was in sight. By the law of finders-keepers, the books were mine.

One day when I was in mortgages, my manager called me into his office for a lecture. I forget what I’d done wrong — probably put the underwriters to useless trouble by failing to note that the property to be refinanced was actually a double-wide trailer. Instead of accepting the reproof gracefully, I vented — about the crap-ass leads we had to spend four hours per day cold-calling through, about mutating underwriting guidelines that made every loan look like a bait-and-switch and caused them to roll from one month to another while rookie LOs like me starved.

“____ your lecture,” I shouted. “The way I break my back, I deserve — I want — a pat on the head!”

I could not believe those words came out of my mouth; I’m sure I blushed to hear them. But my manager, a monster of concupiscence, a hammerhead shark of a man, reached forward, and with a good deal more tenderness than irony, patted me on the head.

That’s what finding those books felt like — a pat on the head from God. A God who pats us on the head even when we’re fleeing Him is a God I can love. Fat chance of rebranding after that.

  • Mom2Teens

    I only recently learned about acedia from a post that Elizabeth Scalia wrote. After coming back from a retreat for professional church staff put on by the diocese (no Masses, no opportunities for confession, the same two prayers for the opening and closing of each of the three days, no music, dismal cold and rainy weather which precluded any communing with nature, two roommates, and no time or place to be alone and pray) the acedia thing, which was camping on my doorstep since Advent, came trampling over the threshold. I was really yearning for a way to get back in touch with God. Your meme that said you were writing about acedia was like God patting MY head and reminding me that I’m not alone. On top of that, Elizabeth told us, again, what the cure is — psalmody, psalmody, psalmody. Thanks to both of you :) and thanks to whoever came up apps for the breviary on my cell phone!

  • Darragh

    I experience this as I navigate the terrain of spiritual life.
    the best book I have read so far about Acedia is the one written by kathleen Norris. It helps

  • Anna

    Man, I love this essay.


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