Fra Angelico’s Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers – Google Cultural Institute – Public Domain
Spiritual remedies prescribed by the desert fathers can often be intimidatingly simple. Intellectually simple, at least, however spiritually profound. Building on Nault’s reduction of the manifestations of acedia to five, he gives us a mirror of those five in his remedies. I suppose it makes sense to use the same format as I did in my last post and include some quotes and music alongside the remedies.
Tears have a specific meaning for the desert fathers that was carried along in an especially profound way through the Eastern traditions. Tears basically signify recognition that one desires to be saved and the acknowledgement that one can’t go it alone. In my first post on acedia I mentioned the word akèdia while sketching a definition – not caring about salvation. Tears are the physical manifestation of it’s opposite, a recognition that one desires to be saved. But Nault mentions a second meaning: tears act upon us as we shed them. He uses the example of water over time sculpting and softening the hard rock of our hearts. Nault writes, “[Tears] will make a notch so that mercy might pour into that gap, into that wound, just as the mercy of God was engulfed in Christ’s wound of love on the Cross.” And Evagrius adds:
Sadness is burdensome and acedia is irresistible, but tears shed before God are stronger than both. – Evagrius of Pontus, Exhortation to a Virgin, 39
2. PRAYER AND WORK
Not just work. Not just prayer. What’s meant is a balance between work and prayer. Nault makes frequent references in his book to “The Image and Acedia”, an article by Rémi Brague in the 1985 issue of Revue Thomiste, which contains a useful (if rather long) quote on this balance from the sayings of the desert fathers:
Once when Antony was [sitting] in the desert [he fell into] boredom and irritation [akèdia]. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be made whole and my thoughts do not let me. What am I to do about this trouble, how shall I be cured?” After a while he got up and went outside. He saw someone like himself sitting down and working, then standing up to pray; then sitting down again to make a plait of palm leaves, and standing up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct Anthony and make him vigilant. He heard the voice of the angel saying, “Do this and you will be cure.” When he heard it he was very glad and recovered his confidence. He did what the angel had done, and found the salvation that he was seeking. – The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks trans. by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 60
3. THE ANTIRRHÊTIC METHOD, OR CONTRADICTION
Despite the “difficult expression”, Nault tells us that this simply means imitating Christ’s method of resisting temptation in the desert by confounding Satan with scripture. Evagrius in fact wrote an entire book about the method, called Antirrhêtikos, recently translated into English as Talking Back. Basically, it means using scripture to argue with acedia. Saint Benedict famously adopted this method himself, writing:
When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately. – Benedict of Nursia, Rule of Saint Benedict, 4
4. MEDITATION ON DEATH
This of course isn’t to be taken in the morbid sense, as fixating upon a fear of death or grasping for the transient, but rather a focus on the endpoint of the Christian journey. Evagrius considers philautia, or self-love, the root of all sin, and this meditation on the ephemerality of worldly life as a worthy antidote. I don’t think I could put it any better than Nault, who writes, “The thought of death also makes it possible to counteract self-centeredness absolutely. I told you earlier that there was a temporal dimension to acedia. Now the thought of death, precisely, gives meaning to passing time, restores a linear orientation, gives it a sense, in both senses of the word: direction and signification.”
Perseverance, the heart of all the remedies for acedia, isn’t a passive thing. It doesn’t merely mean holding tight to your vessel in the storm. Nault calls it an “appeal”, an “increase of fidelity”. Fidelity to what? To everyday routine and final purpose all at once. “Perseverance sometimes consists of remaining without doing anything, or else, on the contrary, doing everything that one did not think one had come to do,” Nault writes.
It’s important to remember that with these remedies, Evagrius instructs to avoid the trap of appealing to purely human or non-spiritual solutions to acedia. There are none, acedia being a spiritual problem. And as Nault says, “Everything happens in God’s light: the tears are tears in the presence of the Lord; the work is closely bound up with prayer; the battle against wicked thoughts is waged with the Word of God; death is not simply the end of your human life, it is the encounter with the Lord…” Perseverance then isn’t a kind of dry, secular stoicism, a KEEP CALM AND X exhortation, but something that adheres to the same spiritual realm as acedia itself – endurance in the sight of God.
Oh, almost forgot some music. Here you are: