(readings for Lent 1A) (It is not lent… but this sermon is for a particular occasion – so be patient…)
Some of us have spent the past few days here at Volmoed thinking about acedia, the “noonday demon,” or what is sometimes referred to as “the sin of sloth.” This morning we’ll continue that exploration a bit. So, I wanted to start today with the readings that normally bring us into Lent – the temptation of Christ in the desert. It may not be apparent yet, but I think there is a connection…
For those who have not participated in a multi-day colloquium on acedia, let me supply a little background. The noonday demon has been a problem for monks pretty much since there have been monks – that is to say since nearly the time of Jesus. The first writings about it are from early monks, but that isn’t to say they were the first to experience it.
When Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that the good he wants to do he does not do he might be describing acedia. Acedia is debilitating in that you know what you should do, what you truly want to do, but you can’t quite get it in gear to do anything…
The early monastics framed their various struggles in terms of demons. The so-called Seven Deadly Sins were powered by demons who led monks to sin in various ways. And sometimes acedia is conflated with the sin of sloth – one of those seven deadlies… But that is a misunderstanding that is both not helpful and very hurtful. Making someone feel guilty is rarely, if ever, beneficial…
Acedia has also, in more modern times, been conflated with depression. These days we would like everything to be diagnosable and, therefore, treatable. While acedia may share some traits with depression, it is not depression. All the wonderful anti-depressants that our modern pharmacopeia boasts will not treat acedia.
Acedia is a spiritual illness, not a psychological or physical one. And so, it must be approached with spiritual tools. Those old monks who may have been the first to write about acedia also were kind enough to describe how it might be dealt with.
So, what can we learn from history? Well, German philosopher Georg Hegel, whom Desmond Tutu liked to quote, observed that “History teaches us that we learn nothing from history…” Thinking like that will give you acedia…
Early monks thought of spiritual battles as being battles with demons. And most of the demons that tortured those monks came in the night. But the reason that I wanted to include the story of Jesus’ baptism is that here is Jesus, doing battle with demons, with Satan, in the middle of the day! And that is a unique characteristic of acedia – it is a daytime affliction.
John Cassian, an early monastic writer, describes two main characteristics of acedia – first an inability to move, to motivate, and second, meaningless agitation; Or to paraphrase Paul, I can’t do the meaningful stuff, but I can’t stop fidgeting with the meaningless… This combination of meaningless agitation with overall lethargy is an all-too-common set of symptoms that accompany various mental health issues. But just keep in mind, acedia is a spiritual health issue, even if it shares its symptoms with mental illness.
Benedict does not address acedia by name. But he does have advice on living with the challenge. His advice is the same as John Cassian’s advice, which is the same as Evagrius’ advice. Keep to your rhythm of life. Keep praying. Keep working in the garden. Keep reciting the psalms. Again, this is advice for a spiritual illness – folks who are experiencing mental illness need different care.
We have become much more skilled in recent years in dealing with mental illness. There is still much to be learned, but the days of lobotomies are, thankfully, behind us. Back in the seventies, when I was a Psychology student, there was a limited selection of psychotropic drugs, most of which were horrible. That is no longer true. We have an abundant medicine cabinet…
But as they say, when you are holding a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail… We are keen to see everything as a mental health issue and, as quickly as possible, get some sort of prescription for the problem. We have a medicine chest full of hammers…
If the problem is a spiritual one, a hammer just won’t help. That doesn’t mean we are helpless. In previous centuries there were only spiritual tools in the medicine chest. Many of those have been discarded – and that is good. But people tend to have a bias toward the things that are new – our advertising culture conflates new with improved. Our bias should be toward things that help.
So, what of this noonday demon? Acedia certainly likes to hold hands with depression. But treating depression won’t cure acedia. Acedia robs us of the joy of normal life and, at the same time, seems to tempt us with the notion that some other place or some other person will make us feel better.
Let’s look at the newly baptized Jesus and the demons he is facing. Jesus does not ignore the devil, the demon. He doesn’t try to pretend that the demon not there. But he also does not allow himself to be drawn from his path. The devil tempts Jesus with what are essentially quick fixes.
Getting food in Jesus’ day was an endless task – but change these stones to bread and have endless food with no effort… Jesus does not take the bait. Jesus is expected to become a great leader and so the next temptation is that Jesus can skip the work and cut right to the part where everybody acknowledges him. But Jesus does not want to rule the world, Jesus wants to save the world. Jesus wants a world that is defined by justice and love, not tyrants and power. So, Jesus… Throw yourself from the highest tower and cheat death… Jesus hasn’t come to cheat death. Jesus has come to defeat death.
All the best efforts of the demon fail in shifting Jesus’ path by one jot or tittle. Jesus does not ignore the demon, nor does he try to defeat the demon. Jesus seems happy enough to chat with the demon. But he does not let the demon turn him from his path. He keeps to his pattern of life.
The demons of acedia want to rob us of will and purpose. They tell us that there is no reason to keep praying – nothing changes… There is no reason to work hard, life does not get better… There are pastures somewhere that really do have greener grass; think about them…
I don’t think there is anything wrong with visions of greener pastures. But we’re not meant to move to them, we are meant to create them here. The demon of acedia reminds us that this is a project we can’t finish – so why even start… The answer is that we do this work not for the reward, but because God loves us and there is immense joy in sharing that love. Acedia doesn’t know a thing about love.
This thinking about acedia is not random. Our world has experienced a very great jolt known as Covid. For too long it is as though the heartbeat of the world stopped, or at least slowed to the point where we hardly had a pulse. The work of churches was greatly frustrated. The work of schools and universities was greatly frustrated. Business and industry went into survival mode. All of us were suspended in one way or another. And if you’re looking for the perfect breeding ground for acedia, there it is.
While we waited for effective treatments and prevention for Covid, we lived an acedia-like existence. Remote learning, remote church, remote weddings and funerals, shuttered museums and concert halls, closed parks, a world that boasted high degrees of isolation suddenly replaced a world that had previously had high degrees of social interaction. With no preparation we were all suddenly hermits.
One of the important steps in moving past acedia is maintaining your rhythm of life… Covid prevented that.
Desmond Tutu saw that a person is a person through other people. How does that work in a locked down world where interaction with other people is greatly inhibited?
Well, if you ask the acedia demons, they will say it’s great. If we ask St Benedict, he will be far more concerned. Isolation, the Hermit life, is a unique calling within his monastic vision and one that most of us are not called to. Those who are called must have special and lengthy training.
In Benedict’s vision, monks encourage each other. It’s a simple thing, but a powerful spiritual tool to take away the power of the noonday demon. It must be understood that encouragement does not include inflicting guilt. It is not harassment. It is not the Drill Seargent screaming at the soldiers in training. Shaming someone struggling with acedia will surely make things worse.
Encouraging each other is Jesus inviting us to stay awake with him in the garden – a gentle request. Acedia says that sleep will be better… But Jesus’ always invites us. And we can encourage each other to accept that invitation.
Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” If this description does not fit the spiritual tools we are looking at, then those tools do not come from Jesus.
But I have one other concern regarding this present age – an increasingly secular age. Folks who do not have any faith structure in their lives are also vulnerable to acedia. But without a faith community to support and encourage them, and without a tradition to guide them, who will help them? And what might we do? It’s tempting to think we might just tell them to start going to church… But I would not call that helpful – nor would I call it Christlike… They are God’s children too.
I suspect that a lot of the depression that is diagnosed today is, at least in part, acedia. Jesus calls us to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted… I’m not saying I have any answers as to how to do this… but it is a call from Jesus. How will we answer it?
The challenges and difficulties of this world are massive, and Acedia says we shouldn’t even bother trying to fix them. Jesus says we don’t have to fix them, and we don’t have to face them alone. All we have to do is love God, love our neighbors, love ourselves; and endure in that love.