And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
I’m not sure how long the demon of acedia has plagued my life, all of it, I suppose. Not until recently, however, did I realize it had a name. And the more I study and reflect on acedia, the more I realize how pervasive it is in our culture.
Acedia is hardly a recognizable term in modern-day Christian vocabulary, but it’s been around for hundreds of years. It refers to the absence of care, a type of spiritual slothfulness. Don’t mistake it for laziness, though. Acedia is far more demonic and destructive.
It lulls you to spiritual sleep, slowly and completely. It would have you believe life is meaningless, all of it, working for the common good, your relationship with God and others, nothing matters. Acedia stifles creativity. It leeches desire and passion. It leaves you hopeless about the future. And it breeds a Brady Bunch of suppressing and numbing behaviors.
Kathleen Norris says, “Much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and entreating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon acedia in modern dress.”
When this slothfulness is full-grown, not only are you unable to care, but you no longer care that you don’t care. Not only do you stop trying to change the world for good, but you stop believing the world is capable of change.
When you hear acedia described as sloth, you might be tempted to think coach potato or alcoholic. This evil can, of course, assume these forms. But it can also take the form of the “go-getter” and the high achiever.
Both share a common desire to avoid the present moment.
An acedia existence feels episodic, like a soap opera. In a soap opera, a lot of stuff is moving and shaking. They’re full of plot twists, drama and suspense. But at the end of the day, nothing happens. Nothing of value or substance, anyway. It’s just one episode after another, for years, decades even.
This sounds eerily like our culture. We’re busy doing a lot of stuff. People wear burnout like a badge of honor. News cycles never stop.
But what are we actually doing? If I’m honest with myself, more days than not, I’m busy doing nothing, running hard on life’s hamster wheel but going nowhere.
I think we all need to ask some hard questions in light of our current times. Are our over -packed schedules leading us to create anything new? Would anyone, after a few encounters, accuse us of giving a dang, about anything, but particularly about stuff that matters – injustice and evil, the health of our marriages, the spiritual growth of our children, among others? Is our busyness leading us to cast new visions for ourselves, communities, our governments, our churches?
For me, the answer is mostly no. Busyness has been a tool to avoid the hard stuff and giving myself fully to the present now.
Several years ago, I started doing spiritual work to combat this demon. Don’t applaud me for this. I was more or less forced into it after a hellish year of being fired, the death of family members and the arrival of a mysterious illness. In this season, I when I wasn’t able to hide behind my busyness, God revealed this demon, acedia.
Sweet Baby Jesus was I afraid. For thirty years, this beast had quietly, subversively hypnotized my soul. Now I was staring it in the face. I peed on myself, as I remember.
Around the same time, I discovered writing. Writing ignited my passion and lifted me from my spiritual trance. Writing is my vocation. It gives me hope, puts my feet on the ground and helps me live in the moment. It is something I could lose myself in, for days or weeks or a lifetime. Just writing, about whatever, but mostly about God and love and truth.
But you need to know this, every time I sit down at my computer to write, that wretched demon acedia shows up. Every time. Even though I’m convinced I should spend my days working at the craft, one of the most difficult things to do is open the writing app on my MacBook Pro and stare at a blank screen. My mind becomes pregnant with anxiety, my body becomes restless. In those moments, as the cursor blinks in an almost taunting manner, my mind conjures up a-million-and-one other things to do. Take out the trash. Glance through my Twitter feed. Buy a new book. Go for a walk. Run into oncoming traffic. Anything, really, besides stare at a blinking cursor on a blank page.
Suffering and writing have helped me realize the path to overcoming acedia. Sit with the blank page.
When we hear those voices calling us to numb out, to fantasize about greener pastures, to fall into familiar addictive patterns, to engage in vain busyness, to avoid the present moment, we mustn’t listen. Instead, we must sit with the boredom, stare the demon in the face, until the voices become less pronounced.
Some days, I suck quite royally at this. I give into acedia’s temptations. Other days, I swear to you friends, I stare at the blank page for 30 minutes. As long as it takes for acedia to pass.
Then I start writing.
This is the only way to overcome the demon of spiritual apathy. We must summon all our awareness and energy to the present moment. We must strongly reject any thought that our life doesn’t matter, that we have no positive contribution to make with our days, or that God is absent or inactive in the present moment. And we must finally do the next right thing in front of us. For me, that means engaging the blank page.
What’s your blank page?
It’s only appropriate to highlight acedia during this season. Advent is the personification of God’s love. Love is also the opposite of acedia, making the themes and disciplines of this season (awareness, alertness, mystery, hope and faith) spiritual medicine for an acedia-plagued culture. Indifference is simply not an option in light of Christ’s coming. When the magnitude of the Incarnation reaches the deepest corners of our being, we lose interest in the commercialization and materialism of Christmas. We see through the marketing schemes and refuse to believe we must run ourselves ragged.
Advent calls us to stop the gluttonous consuming and start using our gifts to create and bring about good. Advent calls us to give a dang, especially about the orphans, widows, marginalized and oppressed. Advent challenges us to stop using social media as a mouthpiece for cynicism, but instead to take action, to cast a new, redemptive vision for our churches, communities and governments.
What does acedia mean to you? In what ways do you see its effects in your life?
Father, I repent of any indifference that exists in my heart and mind. Reveal those areas of my life where I might be blind to the effects of acedia. Awaken my desire for justice and mercy. Fill my heart with love. Give me faith in your never-ending presence. Amen!