Acedia is not a household word, unless your “house” happens to be a monastery or a department of medieval literature. At its Greek root, acedia means the absence of care, and in personal terms it means refusing to care, even that you can’t care. It is a supreme form of indifference, a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, but can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. In the mid-twentieth century Aldous Huxley called acedia the primary affliction of his age, and its baleful influence still sours our relationships to society, politics, and our families. But how can this be, you may ask, when “acedia” is such an obscure term? Well, as any reader of fairy tales can tell you, it’s the devil you don’t know that causes the most serious trouble.
When I first encountered the concept of acedia (pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh) in a work written by a fourth century monk, Evagrius of Pontus, I was startled to find him describing something I had long experienced but had never been able to name. It was all there: acedia manifesting as both as boredom and restlessness, inertia and workaholism, as well as reluctance to commit to a particular person or place because of a nagging sense that something better might come along. Another group of people — surely not the lot I was stuck with now, my family or co-workers — might value me more highly and help me better fulfill my potential.
The early Christian monks regarded acedia as one of the worst of the eight “bad thoughts” that afflicted them. It was ranked with pride and anger, as all three have the potential to lead people into deep despair. Acedia in particular could shake the very foundations of monastic life: once a monk succumbed to the notion that his efforts at daily prayer and contemplation were futile, life loomed like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness. In a similar way, acedia can make a once-treasured marriage or vocation seem oppressive and meaningless.
Western culture lost the word acedia because the monks’ subtle psychology of the bad thoughts was eventually solidified into the Church’s doctrine of the seven deadly sins. What the monks had recognized as temptations that all people are subject to became seen as specific acts or omissions, and as acedia was not easily characterized as either, it was subsumed into the sin of sloth, which came to signify physical laziness rather than a more serious existential indifference.
But the word acedia has persisted, coming and going from the English language over the centuries. It was most recently reinstated, after being marked obsolete, in the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary that appeared after the Second World War. Language has a logic and wisdom all its own, and I am convinced that the word returned to us because we needed it again.
Kathleen Norris will discuss her new book “Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life” at 7:30 p.m. today at the National Cathedral. award-winning writer whose works include “Dakota,” “The Cloister Walk” and “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.”