Bad Day, Good Readings

“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

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • F

    Oh! THANK you for this post! So intensely shared and so very helpful. The sun is out here in CA, but, not in the heart. Just reading this helped and also seeing the soothing words of the Lord. I could not fathom why I was a touch blue and this re-oriented me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
    And by the way, you are not a loser, never were or will be so forget that lame attempt by the enemy.

  • MJ

    Thank you for this absolutely wonderful uplifting post on this bitterly cold day. You helped put the Readings for this morning’s Office into perspective for me. The Reading from Isaiah was really tugging at me all day. Thank you for being you!!

  • NanB

    Thank you so much for this post. It has hit home for me. Sometimes we need to be down in order to be lifted up.

  • Steve

    Hoooyaaa!!! May the glorious name of Christ be praised!
    That hits me where I have been living lately. Thanks sis.

  • Bensmom

    Another heart-felt “thank you”, dear Anchoress. Too much on my to-do list, too many crises at home and at work, too little time spent in prayer, too much castigating myself for my shortcomings; I was sleepless, bitter, and weepy all week. God used you to open my eyes and thaw my heart… your words were telling me, “We’ve all been lost in this place before, and here’s the way home. Take my hand.” I am most grateful for your ministry. Bless you.

  • Maria

    Fan mail?

    [Yes, actually, forwarded from the publisher. Is that okay with you? Truth is humility, is it not? Am I not allowed to discuss how humbled and fraudulent it made me feel? -admin]

  • jan

    Now I get it! Marie is a troll! Yay! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before.

    The rule is, don’t feed them, right?

  • jan

    Sorry, Maria. Wouldn’t want to get anyone’s name wrong.

  • MaxedOutMama

    For me the essence of acedia has always been a sinking into the well of the self. As the light recedes and the dark walls tower above us, our capacity to participate in the greater life which feeds us diminishes and we feel too weak to climb back up. Knowing that the walls that block the light are largely self-made walls of sin, neglect and indifference only makes our plight harder.

    But this also is made easy for Christians – we need only make the decision, do what we can do at that moment to forward it, and submit our intentions in prayer, and we are carried forward by Communion.

    I feel bitterly sorry for those who feel that they are required to fight this sort of thing all by themselves. It is too great a weight for one to bear; in the end we are all sick of ourselves, or fools.

    [Mama! How good to see you in these parts again! I hope you are well? Yes, we are very self-indulgent when we get into this spot - which is probably why the psalms are so helpful; they make us realize there is nothing we are feeling that has not been felt before, and won't be felt again. Someone said once, "depression is anger turned inward." I think that is very true, and yes, it is about a distortion of self-love. -admin]

  • Maria

    Self-love will have nothing to do with virtue which is humble, hidden and unnoticed by others; still less, when it is despised, calumniated and persecuted. Good deeds done in secret and with no sounding of trumpets are not to its liking. It loves to appear in full daylight. It seeks display, recognition, esteem and applause, which it obtains craftily, invites deprecatingly, receives hypocritically, and enjoys immensely, all the time pretending to reject these things, knowing very well that if the world refuses them, it will make up for it itself in secret.

    Self-love is the one source of all the illusions of the spiritual life. By its means the devil exercises his deceits, leads souls astray, drags them sometimes to hell by the very road that seems to lead them to heaven. We long eagerly for spiritual delights; the devil provides false ones, which encourage vanity and sensuality. We desire ardently extraordinary favours; the devil transforms himself into a angel of light, and counterfeits the divine operations. We question God, curious to find out our own state and that of others, and about secret and future events; the devil causes us to hear an inward voice, which we take for an answer from heaven. We fancy ourselves recipients of special lights, and grow wilful, obstinate and deaf to good advice. We throw off the yoke of authority, and under the deceitful guise of sanctity conceal the pride of Lucifer.

    John Nicholas Grou S.J.

    [Yeah, and you don't like monastics who blog, either, we know. ;-) Thank you, Maria, for asserting yourself as the singe to my conscience; I don't mind that. We all do what we feel called to do, and I guess this is what you feel called to? Okay, then you will be my helpful Jiminy Crickett, keeping me honest. (You see, I am not deaf to good advice!) You needn't worry so fervently about me, though. I don't fancy myself the recipient of anything more than anyone else is given. Do you? -admin]

  • elmo

    “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.”

    Thank you for this, I really needed it! :)

  • Maria

    The subject is acedia, not you, correct?

    [Yes. But also me, of course, in as much as I was writing about what my day was like. But I am afraid I am having trouble understanding where you are coming from. Given your first comment, I assumed that that wonderful (and very instructive) quote by Fr. Grou was meant to correct me for being "full of myself," something writers are susceptible to, after all; we spend half of our time thinking we're great and the rest of it thinking we're the lowest beasts in nature. If it WAS meant to keep me on my toes and guarded against self-love, then please accept my thanks. It's a very wise and good quote! If it wasn't meant that way, and was simply a fine quote to throw in the conversation, that may be a clue to me, that my conscience is already niggling me, and that's great, too. I had not taken you for a troll, just a lively commenter! -admin]

  • Maria

    ‘Love to be unknown and esteemed as nothing’ is another excellent counsel from the same source. Self-love dreads nothing so much as being unnoticed. It loves to be seen, to be known and to be thought well of. Do not allege your duty to God and men: be content to remain hidden. God will know how to find you and use you, when it is necessary for His glory and for the salvation of souls. As far as you are free to choose, avoid such positions as are likely to induce publicity and bring you to the notice of others. Then any notice will not harm you, since you are exposed to it in spite of yourself. God will make use of you, even if it means your being noticed, when you no longer run any risk, and a reputation for sanctity will not be a danger for you.

    Be glad that God should appear to treat you as unknown to Him, and as of no account. Rejoice when you see others receive His consolations and favours, and you yourself only knocks and loneliness. After all, what are you: what do you deserve? And what ought you to want other than that God should deal justly with you in this world by treating you as a sinner — in fact as nothing at all!

    Finally: know well that you will advance only in the measure in which you do violence to yourself. Allow no quarter, no arguing with self-love. He is a criminal, and you must hound him to death, imploring his destruction at the hands of God. ‘Burn me, prune me here below’ cried St. Augustine, ‘if only Thou grant me mercy in eternity’. This seems terrible and frightening to nature, but in practice, it is not so bad as we think; and it is the only way to peace and happiness. The more self-love is brought under control, the greater will be our freedom, our independence and serenity.

    Let us go boldly to battle, then, against this enemy of our peace and sanctity. Let us carry our attacks to the bitter end, asking of God as a great grace that He will Himself strike the final blow. We can do a great deal to hasten the end, but only God can achieve complete victory.

    Feel better.

    [Very Thomas a Kempis, isn't it? Excellent advice. Thank you - admin]

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  • Nancy W

    I read the sermon from Maximus this morning, too! What an awesome piece to read. It is very cold where I am at, everyone I have come across in the last 24 hours has been cranky or I have had to battle with someone about some ridiculous inane issue. So you are not alone Madame Administrator.

  • Mimsy

    Of course you feel empty when you deplete yourself to sustain others. Fill yourself on the Psalms…that is a good remedy. I need to remember that, too. And be chary of those who seek to instruct as though from a higher realm. I may be wrong, but something makes me uneasy. Why does Tolkien come to mind here?

  • shana

    Surprisingly, that is 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?”

    The funny thing about autism is that hidden things seldom remain hidden from them. My son can find the most carefully hidden objects. He can see through many deceptions – although is innocence and trust in those he loves is so utterly profound that he will jump off of furniture and down stairs without warning, explicitly trusting that he will be caught by Mommy or Daddy. He seems always to want to dig deep into the core of something, not to see the object in particular but to see how it works, how it moves, why it does what it does. He does not remain fooled for long.

    [That makes the most sense! Thanks -admin]

    Perhaps, my dear E, it is not the kindness in you particularly that is seen by the reader or the child, no fraud committed, but rather the overwhelming kindness of Christ present in you in baptismal grace.

  • Maria

    The fault is all mine. I am the troll. Will you please forgive me?

    [You're joking, right? Nothing to forgive. Yet. ;-) (That's a joke) -admin]

  • Beatrix

    I think I understand what Maria is saying, but I don’t think she understands what you’re saying, Anchoress.

  • Beatrix

    Of course, I think I do. I would, wouldn’t I?

  • Fuquay Steve

    Fr. Delps comments in the Magnificat were so inspirational. What beauty and truthfullness not only for his time but for ours as well. Is there a book about his life? I’d love to read it and share it.

  • Anne B.

    Thank you a million times for this! I have been in a seriously deep funk, thinking I’d gone mad! I see myself all over this post, your day is like my past two months! I have read both Cloister Walk and Acedia and Me last year and was very comforted by both of those books, yet how easy it is to forget that others suffer as I do when I am in the midst of it. Somehow, suffering through acedia, depression-whatever name it goes by-makes me feel so all alone.

    Like you, I feel like a fraud, as if I am faking my way through life and no matter how many kind words others shower upon me, I can’t bring myself to believe them. I am quite absorbed in self-pity.

    Thank you for the reminder that the psalms are what I need to bring me out of this near-despair that I find myself in.

  • Hantchu

    “I think I understand what Maria is saying, but I don’t think she understands what you’re saying, Anchoress.”

    I think this is true. Acedia seems to be a universal human condition, except that unlike being tired or hungry, it does not occur at relatively predictable intervals. We are flawed receivers, but that does not diminish the quality of the Source.

    Once again, I agree with you that the Psalms are a universal key to unlock the realms of “shefah” (abundance). There’s an interesting book by the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on the Psalms as meditation. Reading the Psalms is somewhere between directed and undirected meditation; clearly they were meant to be read and/or sung and that’s the source of their comforting quality, like being sung to by an inner voice.

    They say that Solomon had a ring inscribed “This too, shall pass”. I was delighted to find one for myself when daughter #2 hit full-throttle adolescence.

    [Passes all too soon, actually! :-) -admin]

  • Maria

    I think I understand what Maria is saying, but I don’t think she understands what you’re saying, Anchoress.”

    Oh dear. I am Maria. Now I am lost.

  • Maria

    do what we can do at that moment to forward it, and submit our intentions in prayer, and we are carried forward by Communion.

    This is so beautiful.

  • kate

    I just said goodbye to my middle child, only daughter, senior in college, going back to school. She doesn’t expect to live at home when she graduates and I was preoccupied with this in the past week as she packed her things. She caught me teary at unexpected moments and said she didn’t know what to do with me. I dropped her at the airport this morning and was full of self doubt about all that we have done in her life – and all that still seems unfinished. I’m afraid for her – and I’m not in charge anymore.

    So, I thought, let’s read the Anchoress, maybe she’ll have something helpful to say. Ironic, eh?

    [It sucks when we're not in charge anymore, doesn't it? I hate it. Parenting was so much easier when they were four years old and wanted to marry us and live with us forever, and they went to bed at 8PM, cheerfully, and woke up next morning, cheerfully. Then they go away to college and they don't need us anymore. Then they boomerang back, but they stay up all night and wake up grumpy and eat all the salsa. Then (if they're boys) they meet someone and they become that person's (which is only right and good), and you become a distant friend instead of a confidante. At least with daughters, you still have the confidante, stuff, I think? What's that old saying, "a son is a son until he takes a wife; a daughter is a daughter all her life?" There's some truth in that, although I suspect my own mom would raise her eyebrow at me for quoting it. With good reason! :-) But this is the normal thing about life, right? If we've done a decent enough job raising them, their priorities should be in order. And of course, it seems to me the older I get, the more I pray. And increasingly the prayer is, "it's your world, Lord. I'm going to take a nap!" -admin]

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  • Craig Payne

    Knowing our own unworthiness and our own sins, it is always essential to have faith not only in God, but in God’s work in us.

    “He who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (New Testament, somewhere). This has pulled me through a great deal of self-doubt.

    I remember a short story, entitled “The Sham” (author, anyone?), which impressed me years ago. A young man lives his life in the service of Christ, but knows he really does not “feel” like doing so; he sacrifices for others but doesn’t want to; he knows his inner self is not worthy of all the compliments and gratitude he receives from others; he knows if people knew what he “really” was like, they would despise him as he despises himself. In fact, as he grows old and approaches death, he is filled with fear of the judgment of the One Who knows him perfectly.

    Look it up and read it sometime. The ending will bring tears to your eyes.

  • Fuquay Steve

    Sacred music and art seem to work for me. Rembrandts The Prodigal Son (on the cover of the Advent Magnificat) says everything there needs to be said about our relationship to God and each other. No matter how unworthy, if we approach God with honest humility, mercy will be granted. It’s the non-prodigal son (most likely snearing somewhere unseen) I worry about.

  • Mimsy

    Yes…I have a son and a daughter, and for us, the truism seems true.

  • http://http// Helen Russo

    Thank you for this-you hit the nail on the head…perhaps we all feel this way, in an after the Holy Days, Christmastide sort of feel? I love the psalms for solace, and the Magnificat is a favorite too, sometimes I just flip through one, reading the meditations. In a mysterious way, it helps. I hope you are feeling better! ( I agree about children, I’ve 3 living, and 2 of them on their own…sigh. I hope we’ve done a good job…time will tell…)

  • Beatrix

    Maria @2:50 – no no, I’m sure you’re not!

    It’s just that I don’t find the Anchoress remotely egomaniacal, and I thought that was what you meant.

  • http://Magdalene'sMilieu Magdalene

    Read Fr. Delp’s book ADVENT OF THE HEART!!!

    How he could find joy in the midst of being imprisoned, totured, shackeled and facing death is something that will grip your soul. Trust in God! No matter what.

    Fr. Delp wrote from prison with his hands in cuffs on smuggled bits of paper. He would be executed on February 2, 1945–a first Friday.

  • Maria

    Whyare you sure I am not lost?

  • Fuquay Steve

    Thanks Magdaline. I’ll even order from the amazon link – ching, ching.

    [Thanks! ;-) -admin]

  • Beatrix

    Well of course one can never be 100% sure about anything… :-)

  • Beatrix

    Just a hunch.