Monday, March 16, 2009

Lent III - Canon Robin Ward

I want to talk this morning about a forgotten fault: the sin of Acedia. What is Acedia? The word itself is one of those odd theological words like propitiation and tutiorism which are actually quite useful but which can’t decide whether they are really Latin or really English, and so end up being neither. But it is one of the seven capital or deadly sins, like pride and lust and gluttony, and under its other name of sloth it is perhaps more familiar. Why not call it sloth then, and strike a blow for plain English? The reason is that sloth now means laziness, and Acedia is more particular and more dangerous than that: we call someone slothful who sits down with a can of lager watching the rugby when he knows he ought to be cutting the lawn or doing the shopping; that is certainly lazy, but it isn’t Acedia, which really means spiritual sloth. In the Middle Ages, everyone was taught about Acedia as one of the seven deadly sins, and examined about it at their Easter Confession: we know this because Chaucer has a whole chapter about it in The Parson’s Tale. His definition is very clear and very good:

Envye and ire maken bitternesse in herte, which bitterness is mooder of Accidie… Thanne is Accidie the angwissh of troubled herte; and Seint Augustyn seith ‘it is anoy of goodnesse and Ioye of harm.’ (l.677)

Our medieval forefathers were particularly aware of this sin because of the religious communities which they had among them, as Acedia is the besetting sin of religious people living together in community. John Cassian, who founded the first monastery in western Europe on the island of Lerins in the south of France, wrote a guide for his monks which tells them about the grave danger of Acedia: when overcome by this vice, it makes the monk stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work… People who don’t know religious communities often think that monks and nuns must live very quiet, uneventful lives, free from the sort of passions and upheavals which life in the world brings. This could not be further from the truth! The dedication and high hopes of a religious vocation can easily burn out into frustration and the anguish of a troubled heart. Browning captures this well in his poem, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, where a monk speculates on murdering unsuspecting brother Lawrence because of the annoying ways he has of watering pot plants, setting out his knife and fork and cultivating melons for the abbot’s table. In the end he contents himself with sabotaging the garden: How go on your flowers? None double? Not one fruit-sort you can spy? Strange!-And I, too, at such trouble, Keep them close-nipped on the sly.

So much for monks, and nuns: what about Acedia in the lives of Christians living in the world. There are good reasons for supposing that spiritual sloth is the besetting sin of our time. It isn’t so much militant unbelief or antagonism that has emptied the churches of western Europe, it is indifference: people may well believe in God (they generally do), and nearly everyone seems to think that life continues after death in some way that we would recognise, but there is no sense of urgency or even inquisitiveness about how God might show us His holy will, or how our life here relates to Him and the life of the world to come. And Christians also fall into the same indifference when their commitment and their zeal grow cold, and they suffer the same fate as John Cassian’s monks: either they stay put, and go through their religious duties with coldness and formality, or they become restless and unsettled, convinced that if only this or that in their church life were different, all would be well again.

There are three areas in which the damage done by Acedia is particularly apparent. Firstly, in our life of prayer and our relationship with God, we need to preserve a lively sense of our divine calling, and the pressing reality of our religion. Jesus says No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). If we find the effort of prayer and Bible study too much, if our Sunday worship means little to us or is simply a source of annoyances about things which we really know to be trivial, if we find in our fellow Christians little to inspire us with zeal, then we are in danger of falling victim to Acedia. John Cassian wrote that S. Paul had noticed the beginning of this vice in his converts at Thessalonica, which is why he wrote to them to say: may the Lord make you to increase and abound in love. Acedia is fundamentally a coldness towards love, divine love, and it is Paul’s prayer that his converts, as yet untouched by the more serious and obvious sins which afflicted the Corinthians, might be kept from spiritual sloth by the gift of abounding love; we should share their prayer.

Secondly, there is marriage: not many of us are called to be monks and nuns, but many of us are called to live in fidelity to vows we have made to our spouses, and to sacrifice leisure and convenience for the good of our families and their upbringing. When we marry, as when we make any fundamental choice in life, we exclude other possibilities by our choice, such as staying single or marrying another person. For many people this now seems to be a tyrannous imposition, and as soon as difficulties come along, as they inevitably do, they feel free to indulge the classic symptoms of Acedia: either they stop trying to live their commitment and simply fall back into a sullen formalism, or they assume that somewhere and somehow there will be a new partner who can provide them with what is lacking in their present situation. All this is bolstered by lots of bad psychology about self-fulfilment and human flourishing. The consequences of this mentality are personally and socially disastrous: marriage is a vocation which God sanctifies and blesses, and to indulge in speculation about what might otherwise have been, or what other possibilities might come about in future, is not only foolish and often futile, but also a sinful violation of vocational commitment.

Thirdly, there is our choice of a state of life, our choice of work. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that work has a dignity in God’s purposes: you remember our labour and toil, brethren; we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you, while we preached to you the gospel of Christ. If we approach our work, especially work which has a strong vocational element, as a burden to be borne with absolutely the minimum of commitment necessary from ourselves, or if we undertake it in a state of constant dissatisfaction, imagining that some other choice would suit us far better, then we risk falling into Acedia, anguish of heart which blights and mars the best of our endeavours. Of course, there will be times when to change work is to change our lives for the better, but we need to know our feelings and our consciences well, if we are to discern between infidelity to our chosen path in life, and the need to adapt that path in the light of changing circumstances.

Acedia, spiritual sloth, is really the enemy of vocation, the enemy of our call from God to take up the life we have received from Him and use it in obedience to his commands to his glory and in the service of others. It kills off our vocation to prayer by making our religion dry and restless; it kills off our vocation to marriage and a fulfilled social life by undermining commitment and our ability to overcome difficulties; it kills off our vocation to work by encouraging unreasonable dissatisfaction, unreal expectations and a dispirited minimalism in our daily tasks. If we are to overcome it, then as S. Paul says, we must abound in love, so that the peculiar bitterness, blended of envy and anger, which provokes it will find no purchase in our hearts. I finish by quoting Cardinal Newman’s fine meditation on vocation, and the holiness of God’s individual call to each one of us:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission- I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He hs not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it- if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends, he may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me- still He knows what he is about.