“The temptation to acedia is an invitation to abandon involvement and leave the pangs of creativity to others.”,
— Michael Casey, Fully Human, Fully Divine
“…my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out. The simplest acts demand a herculean effort…I am observing my life more than living it.
I recognize in all of this the siege of what the desert monks termed the “noonday demon.” It suggests that whatever I’m doing, indeed my entire life of “doings,” is not only meaningless but utterly useless…Worst of all, even though I know what the ancient remedies – prayer, psalmody, scripture reading – would help to pull me out of the morass, I find myself incapable of acting on this knowledge…”
— Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk.
If she touched on acedia in The Cloister Walk, Norris delved much more deeply into that demon of sloth and spiritual torpor in Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life.
I’ve often echoed her sentiment that the best remedy to acedia is psalmody:
Psalmody, psalmody, psalmody. Whatever you’re wrestling with – bring yourself to the psalter. Open the pages and open your heart; “O God come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” (Psalm 70). You will be amazed. Seriously. Amazed.
While I cannot say I am in the grips of acedia, I know this week my energy has been off; my instincts are to the negative and there is a cloud of self-doubt hanging over me. Surprisingly, that was not helped by the lovely notes (what my kids teasingly refer to as “fan mail”) that I received today and yesterday, from a reader and from the autistic son of a friend, respectively. They moved me very much, but also made me think, “how can people think I am kind? How can they buy into this fraud?”
I tried to cheer myself up ala St. Philip Neri, and said, “Lord, don’t trust Lizzie; she’s not following well, and she’s a bummer, today.” But that didn’t help. I groused at anyone who happened to be in the house, including the poor dog, and then decided I needed to just get out, go find a bit of fresh air and pretty scenery.
That didn’t help, much either. I went toward the water -where I always go when I am down- and everything was steely gray, with low-hung clouds that seemed to echo my misery. It was too cold for walking. The seagulls who investigated my arrival left presents of their own, all over my windows.
I felt a little like Charlie Brown, except that round-headed sap always understood why he was glum. Me? My life is good. I know I have a million things about which to be grateful; yet I was thinking about my husband’s problems at his job, my Elder Son’s inability to find work, Buster’s sometimes exhaustingly- passionate expression of whatever he is feeling of an instant.
To all of that I added a gooey dollop of, “Gawd, you’re such a loooooser!”
With nowhere to turn, I opened my Magnificat and read this by Fr. Alfred Delp, who died in Germany during World War II:
How is it that there are people in all periods of history who remain unmoved by the greatest miracle, by the most convincing proofs of providential guidance, by the severest penances, or the most inexorable strokes of divine justice? … This is very pertinent to our fate today. It sums up everything an on the attitude we adopt to it depends whether we are going to place ourselves once again under the law of God’s grace or whether on the contrary, we are going to continue this miserable dance of death to the bitter end. It comes down to this -and there is no escape – to which order will we give our allegiance? … Christmas is the mystery of contact with God, fundamentally and actually. Those who are part of the approach to it can show us the human requirements which will make it possible for humanity once more to converse with God, and the conditions necessary if we are to reestablish contact with him.
It is still, for a little while longer, Christmas; it ends in just about 24 Hours, with the First Vespers of the Baptism of the Lord; the First Vespers of Ordinary Time. I became determined to psalmody my way out of the glums, and opened my breviary to today’s Office of Readings. There I found -as so often happens- the psalm that perfectly captured my feelings:
My guilt towers higher than my head;
it is a weight too heavy to bear.
My wounds are foul and festering,
the result of my own folly.
I am bowed and brought to my knees.
I go mourning all the day long.
Well, Peek-a-Boo! The Psalmist was seriously in touch with the human condition, wasn’t he?
In the scheduled reading, however, there was this, from Bishop St. Maximus of Turn circa 398-400 A.D.:
Reason demands that this feast of the Lord’s baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord’s birthday, during the same season, even though many years intervened between the two events.
At Christmas he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him. The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nation.
That is why the Lord Jesus went to the river for baptism, that he why he wanted his holy body to be washed with Jordan’s water.
Someone might ask, “why would a holy man desire baptism?” Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.
I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a parth for those who followed. As the apostle Paul said, what was accomplished then was the mystery of baptism. Clearly it was baptism in a certain sense when the cloud was covering the people and bringing them through the water.
But Christ the Lord does all these things; in the column of fire, he went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now, in the column of his body, he goes through baptism before the Christian people. At that time of the Exodus the column provided light for the people who followed; now it gives light to the heart of believers. Then it made a firm pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism.
I read the words of an early Church Father, and he in his time was celebrating the same mystery, with the same wonder, as we do today: Christmas, the Mother and Child, the Magi; Jesus’ baptism, the dove, the waters of exodus. What echoed in my head was “he is the firstborn of all creation…”
And suddenly everything lifted. I found myself confronted with the history of Eternity – the revelation of God to Creation that has outlasted men, movements, philosophies and fads and has been communicated by the living from age to age in the Word, in the liturgies, in the teachings and traditions. There was something hugely comforting in reading the sermon of a bishop who lived only a few hundred years after Christ’s Ascension. He reached out across centuries and gave me instruction full of wonder, mystery, grace and joy, instruction that reminded me that He is Reality, and Reality is therefore Outside of Time; Timeless.
And when one is clinging to that Reality -He who our good Pope calls the foundation of all Reality- one realizes that the rest of it is just temporary – the scary job situations, the moody kids, the self-doubt – it is part illusion and part necessary track-laying for the engine of eventuality and eternity.
I pulled away from the gulls in a better frame of mind, remembering Exodus:
The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, while all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing and she led them in the refrain: Sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
Almost made me wish I had a tamborine!
Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Also praising the psalms