Acedia and the Help of Saint Benedict

So, you may have noticed that for the week, I have written nothing. At all. Anywhere.

For whatever reason, I have most uncharacteristically been doing battle, all week, with the devilish little blue megrim that is acedia.

Actually, “doing battle” sounds romantic and pro-active. It would be more accurate to say I have been whining and unable to work and whining about being unable to work, and wandering around the house ineffectually, and walking the park feeding ducks, and missing my dog, and cooking supper and sitting before my oratory with nothing but a keening emptiness in my heart and mind and soul.

It is terrible to realize that you’re a walking, aching void. Acedia is like a dark echo-chamber of “me” bouncing off walls and resounding until nothing can get through the thickness of the self.

It’s terrible to cry out “help!” and feel unheard, unseen and so lost to everything but that freakish, spongy emptiness that you cannot perceive the answers, when responses are all around you — in the psalms, in the concerned suggestions of family and friends who know that saying “snap out of it” doesn’t really help, but can’t think of what else. My dear husband snipped hydrangeas from the yard, jewel-toned and dewy and placed them on my desk, and they’re gorgeous, but his kindness just made me feel worse.

Because when one is that empty, it’s so hard to give anything in return.

Yesterday, I started asking for prayers about it — really reaching out in a way I rarely do, to many corners. “Acedia!” I cried, “help! Pray for me!”

And everyone said, “Been there! Done that, and will pray for you!” Bless them!

I went to bed last night thinking, “well, if this is where I am, I will be here for as long as God wants it. Acedia passes. In God’s good time.”

It was scant comfort but better than nothing.

This morning, on this feastday of Saint Benedict, I had occasion to spend about ten minutes chatting with Brian Patrick on the Son Rise Morning Show about this great saint and his Holy Rule. I mentioned Benedict’s advice about dealing with “bad thoughts” — whether they be sinful or despairing or idolatrous. Benedict knew that all of this begins in the mind, and so he prescribed a very useful mental exercise; when “bad thoughts” come, he said, “dash them” against the cross of Christ.

I write about that bit of advice in my book, actually:

In his Rule, Saint Benedict of Nursia tells his monks that when evil thoughts arise, they are to “dash them against Christ, immediately.” It is a sound and helpful image, and one I have used to great effect. I imagine the crucifix after Christ’s death, when all has been won, and I see my own hand crashing the harmful thought against the wood of the cross. With a shatter, the thought disappears, and I am released from its hold. My angry or enraged or selfish or irrational thought, having encountered in that moment the constant reality of Christ, is instantly gone.
It all takes place in the mind, yes, but my sin was also forming in the mind, so the thing has been destroyed at the source. This is real-time salvation within the eternal dialogue.

And there it was. In discussing Benedict’s brilliant advice, I realized I had not brought my acedia — rooted in idolatry of the self — to the cross and given it a good solid bashing, there.

So, off the air, I did it. I sought out the cross and imagined myself hauling it all the way back — the sense of emptiness, loneliness, disappointment, self-loathing. I was surprised to find (as I gathered all of these things into a sort of glassy, fragile bouquet of hurt) that my imagined arm, stretched out and ready to swing, seemed to catch within it the pain of a recent encounter with an old friend who has grown cold; I hadn’t realized I was in touch with that. And there was another stash of self-loathing, there, too. My wind-up was collecting all of these feelings like an awful magnet, and it was a heavy thing I finally heaved forward and crashed against that standing wood of redemption.

But crash it did. And, curiously, there was dissipation. I could breathe again.

It should not be a curious thing — I know this works — and yet every time I take my Holy Father’s advice, I am again taken by surprise at how efficacious it is.

I can’t say it pulled me 100% out of my acedia. It’s still there, but greatly, greatly diminished. And having been freed of its heaviest weight, I immediately recalled the advice of Saint Teresa of Avila who had a one-word counsel against acedia: “psalmody! Psalmody, psalmody, psalmody!”

In fact, out of business, I have been less faithful to my offices, lately, than I should have been, and missing the balm-like application of the psalms to my every day; they are so grounding because within them, every day, we encounter ourselves and the world and realize that our condition is the human condition in all of its brokenness; our world is the world David sang about 5,000 years ago. Nothing has changed except in superficial.

Dashing oneself against the cross, and then applying the psalms. It is the recipe; the chemistry; the holy prescription. I knew it; I have known it for years, and yet all week what I knew intellectually could find no opening in my spirit wherein I could take this medicine. Everything I “knew” was useless until I could open heart, mind and spirit.

And there it was, in one of the psalms of Morning Prayer — my own stubborn recalcitrance, born in the idolatry of my own service to my woes and feelings — and God’s ever-willingness to deal with me:

A voice I did not know said to me:
“I freed your shoulder from the burden;
your hands were freed from the load.
You called in distress and I saved you.

I answered, concealed in the storm cloud,
at the waters of Meribah I tested you.
Listen, my people, to my warning,
O Israel, if only you would heed!

Let there be no foreign god among you,
no worship of an alien god.
I am the Lord your God,
who brought you from the land of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
( from Psalm 81)

The Cross. Psalmody. And the good advice of two great Christians, Benedict and Teresa, reaching out through the Communion of Saints to guide me away from myself, away from the dangerous sinkhole of self-obsession, towards the Light of Christ. Thank God for our friends the saints, and their good-natured assists in getting us to “snap out of” things.

I am nearer the light, today, than the shadows. I am grateful.

To my friends in heaven, and to those saints here on earth who have offered prayers for me these two days: thank you. Bless you. Deo Gratias.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll all look like the cover of this book.

About Elizabeth Scalia

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