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
  • diane_6LlR97VP6

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Helpful in more ways than you know.

  • Michelle T

    OH! You have no idea, this is just what I needed to hear today! Outstanding advice. Your advice is heaven sent… And I pray for your continued improvement too.

  • Gloria Laudes

    You were missed.

  • Win Nelson

    After reading a recent recommendation by Pope Francis, challenging us to pray as is done in the Mass, I have begun to sing the Gloria (Mass of Creation) either out loud (and thankfully alone in the car) or in my head when waking up (which allows for SATB, full orchestration and drum, and no idea if my head is off-key). It is helpful to my prayer, I hope it’s helpful for someone else too.

  • Lynn Van

    What timing for you, on the Feast Day for St. Benedict! May you “run (with joy) on the path of God’s commandments”!

  • Bertha

    I was not aware of this particular rule from St. Benedict; how dashing oneself against the cross has healing power. Wow, powerful stuff. I am currently weighed down with some really “bad things” and will make use of this spiritual advice

    In a similar vein, I read Teresa of Avila this morning. She writes, “One night I walked through the streets feeling desperate, in need of alchemy. A hooded priest passed by where there were no lamps. I could not see his face, I only heard these words that he kept repeating, ‘Teach me, dear Lord, all that you know.’ I knew that a treasure had entered my soul.”

  • Gordis85

    I learned a new word today for something I too struggle with, acedia. I also learned, thanks to you, Elizabeth, how to combat it. Thank you and God bless you for your sharing.

  • Virginia

    Oh, how timely… AND practical. Thank you ever so much for being a conduit of God’s wisdom for the downhearted today (& from two of my favorite saints)… Dashing our dark (& gray) thoughts against the Cross – ’tis truly a ‘holy prescription.’ Thank you, again (& again) for sharing…

    grace, peace & Holy Prescriptions – Virginia

  • Maura Shea

    Thank you for writing. I have struggled a lot with acedia in my own life, and I am going to try what you suggest.

    Any thoughts on the connection (or difference) between acedia and depression? Descriptions of both sound so similar to me. Is there a difference, and if there is, how do you know?

  • frdlongenecker

    Thanks! This helped me much. Cor ad cor loquitor.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Acedia – Now there was a new word for me. I like the St. Benedict’s solution. It’s sort of when I have something bitter and stinging in my heart i envision taking it out of my heart and placing it into Christ’s sacred heart wherit will be soothed over and healed.
    You know, the thought crossed my mind that it’s time for you to get a new puppy. Nothing loves life like a pup and it’s contagous.

  • Howard

    Acid reflux + Academia = Acedia

  • Joe

    I have heard it said that while suffering trials in her life St. Teresa of Avila once lamented to God “No wonder you have so few friends look how poorly you treat the friends you do have!” I’ll be praying for you. Thanks for all your great Labora.

  • Ron Van Wegen

    meh :-)

  • Rebecca Duncan

    Very odd. I just got done reading this post and I go to my next blog to read and here is what it said: “”As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ.”1 http://ascentofcarmel.blogspot.com/2013/07/to-ignore-st-benedict-is-to-ignore.html

  • Clinton

    Clinton

    Ah Elizabeth, such beautiful, meaningful words about an old acquaintance, acedia! And the great St Benedict never disappoints either! Kathleen Norris actually wrote a book titled “The Noonday Demon” on acedia, a superb read. With much love from Pretoria, South Africa.

  • mudpiemagnet

    Maura Shea- I can only speak from personal experience, you may or may not find that experience helpful, but it seems to me there is a crossover between the two. They sort of build upon and support eachother- though they are not the same thing. I suspect acedia is born of sin, depression is more like falling into a hole that you didn’t know was there- no personal responsibility, just the unfortunate effects. I wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg- my acedia, or the depression. And then I think, it was always both- I think acedia is depression’s nasty accuser and abuser- always using itself as “proof” that the depressed person doesn’t “deserve” to heal, or making it seem even more hopeless that healing will come in God’s time. (Why does He have to wait so long?) It might be a long road- but then we heal, just like that- because God died for it.

  • mudpiemagnet

    Thank you, this is a beautiful blog.

  • KyPerson

    Oh yeah, been there, am in that right now. Just yesterday the reading was from the book of Genesis about Joseph and his brothers and the famine in Egypt. Today I read a news story about widespread hunger in Egypt and was moved to pray for the people there. Am still in acedia, but am looking beyond myself.

  • pinklady

    “the dangerous sinkhole of self-obsession, (instead) towards the Light of Christ” , beautifully said truth Elizabeth! thank you, I needed it too

  • valleys of neptune

    I gather it was also called the noonday demon. And is doubtless striking many people this summer. How much work is going undone because of heat? A fair bit, I should say!

    If you wanr=ted to dignify it you could call it ataraxia :)

  • valleys of neptune

    It is also a recognised thing that people busy themselves doing tasks that are useless. Pleased with themselves that they’ve been active all day, they never consider the fact that no genuine work is done.

  • Mary Betton

    Oh Elizabeth, thank you for sharing- as always love your posts, love you! [Two editorial comments: St. Benedict's quote is to "dash.. against Christ" vs. your construct (which works for you!) of against the cross (as mentioned in comments- "As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ."1 http://ascentofcarmel.blogspot... ) and also, this might be a typo, David with his psalms was about 3000 years ago, instead of 5000. Please receive these as commentary, not criticism! Your words today are very helpful to me!]

  • MeanLizzie

    “dash them against Christ, immediately” as I quote accurately in my book excerpt, included. :-) Thanks.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Fr. Spitzer says something similar about the psalms in his book Five Pillars of the Spiritual LIfe: “But there is a way out. For me, it begins with prayer…I have frequently had the experience after a bout of real arrogance (and even self-idolatry) of opening my breviary and finding myself sliding back toward my proper place as God slides into His central place…I can always tell when God is moving toward the center of the universe again because I enjoy–simply enjoy–praising Him.”

  • Deputyheadmistress

    You probably won’t remember, but it’s because of you that this protestant started reading The Rule of St. Benedict several years ago, and I am now a huge fan. I have been reading through his rule ever since, and revising/adapting it for family usage.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Thank you, I never had a name for it before. I always considered it a good time to diet.

  • Lady Bird

    My Bichon died after giving us 15 years of joy. He was a one person dog and he chose me but he stole many hearts. He was not happy or nervous. He was stoic and loving. My heart broke into pieces. My doc said it is acute depression due to the loss and to go hit the gym. So Prayer+Psalms+Exercise might be the correct potion for what ails us. I’ll add you to my prayers this evening.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Gulp. Tossed and turned by every wave, asea and powerless to rudder your life. Your great inagery and honesty about your bondage in aedia was overpowering. The call of the lord must be great in your heart. Thank you for sharing one of the greatest testimonies I have heard since reading The Live Of The Saints. You are truly blessed.

  • Terry Fenwick

    Good writing. Nice path to walk with you and, along the way, see places I may have been for/with other friends, who have been in need. That’s it, simply made me think of others . . . a Saturday evening to pray for you and them. Oh, yes, and I bought the book!

  • Maura Shea

    Thank you. This is really helpful – I think you’re right about their difference but “chicken or the egg” relationship.

    When I read the saints’ accounts of experiences with acedia, I sometimes wonder if they make the distinction.


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