Got Acedia? Who Cares?

Acedia is not a household word, unless your “house” happens to be a monastery or a department of medieval literature. … Continued

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.”

Written by

  • 66

    The cure.

  • Roy

    Thank you for teaching me a new word.Let me use it in a sentence:I have acedia for Catholic stupidity that thoughts are a sin.

  • 66

    There are Catholic scholars. The ignorant only see one side, the hellish side and proceed from there. See where it takes you Roy and look forward to the trip. The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr. Hate is a battlefield and it gets bloody and mean, so God lets things go, but only to a point. Evil takes you to the point of no returns. See the market news for verification of this truth. It gets better or worse depending on who is going to hell and who is watching out for who. So watch it.

  • Anonymous

    Your Arms Feel Like Home There’s a life inside of meThis life aint the fairy tale we both thought it would beThere’s a life inside of meThere’s a life inside of me3 Doors Down

  • PERSPECTIVE

    Aldous Huxley was a deeply insightful man, and no doctrinaire Catholic by any margin. His work went far beyond social commentary, and his entire family was brilliant – full of original thinkers. He was into mind expansion and psychedelic experience before it ever became (briefly) popular among the masses.See ‘The Doors of Perception’ and ‘The Perennial Philosophy’. Mysticism fascinated him for decades. He dropped acid on his deathbed, and his wife of the time has written about it.He was not interested in living that Dark Night, either here or in the hereafter!

  • 66

    People are trying to get home and with the mortgage fraud, trying to keep home home. Keep your arms ready and your aim steady. Keep your steel sharp and watch your back. A lot of people care, but what can you do?

  • 66

    Now the ads are pitching free gadgets and interfaith weddings. I think, so I don’t need a gadget I have a mind. If the wedding idea is good, chances are you don’t need to advertise it. Love isn’t for sale, at least not my love. You can do what you want, it’s a free country. Just not care free. I’ve seen interfaith in action and I stick with my own kind. It’s kinder and gentler that way. Too many divorces and lawyers running ads for that business too. I’m not buying, but fools do rush in.

  • 66

    Dodge Doctrine

  • Thomas Baum

    ROYHave you ever had a thought?If you have ever had a thought or thoughts, has any of them led to an action?Have you ever thought that a thought could be an impetus to doing something which may be the right thing to do or it could be the wrong thing to do?Have you ever thought that just because something is legal does not make it the right thing to do, just legal, and conversely have you ever thought that just because something is illegal does not mean that it is the wrong thing to do, just illegal?Have you ever thought that some people’s thoughts make them prisoners of their own hatreds, unforgiveness and bitterness among other things?Thoughts can be very powerful in both constructive and destructive ways, don’t you think?Just some thoughts.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • 66

    There’s a 9 11 weight loss ad above for idiots. How acedia keeps growing in digital form and producing fat pay-checks. I have an O50 plan to get you fat and happy. With Google you can lose 9 pounds in 11 days. Sounds worse than it looks. I’m eating a sandwich. I guess the plan is to use ads to make us all into idiotic drones who want to die of starvation. Google it and the Washington Post gets a few cents for non-sense in on the bargain. Then people call Sally an idiot. Have a sandwich, the idiots are all in California waiting on a quake. Keep burning man and we’ll send you a woman to burn, so the fire should be bigger than ever. The next generation will feel the heat from it.

  • Arminius

    I am old, and am wearing a t-shirt that proudly displays the message “My Giveadamner Is Broken”. I guess I have the disease…. can’t say that I give a damn, though!

  • 66

    I have my New York-New Jersey Hitmen football T-shirt on. Kick the pigskin and don’t forget to put some lipstick on it for good luck. The market may be looking bad, just look at it as waste elimination and don’t get wasted. They now have oil coming down and somehow managed to get gasoline going up. Sounds fishy, but you can find cheap virgins on Google so bid your daughter away and follow the money all the way to hell for all I care. Speak in keywords, so the ads keep it real and it’s searchable and all of that. Watch for virgins being sold on the Washington Post via Google. I call that a bargain, the best you never had.

  • Robert B.

    Arminius –You and I both know that your T-shirt is very much tongue-in-cheek. If you were truly acedic, you posts would look like J Jovenz’s or CCNL’s…:)

  • Arminius

    Robert B,”You and I both know that your T-shirt is very much tongue-in-cheek. If you were truly acedic, you posts would look like J Jovenz’s or CCNL’s..”Or, worse, Spidey’s posts! Yuck!

  • L.Kurt Engelhart

    Regardless of what some might think, purpose drives the universe. Although we humans may not be able to realize what that purpose might be, it manifests itself in the physical “laws” we can depend on that operate around us. Certain of those laws are doubtless what creates us living critters. The laws work through us and our intelligence by almost forcing us to imagine our own purposes that contribute to survival and development. When the reality around us becomes chaotic, when the world we know fails to stimulate the necessary purposes, anxiety ensues. That is the force I mentioned. The anxiety will increase and become almost unbearable to the point where, BAM!, new purposes will emerge, and a new world will be created from the ashes of the old, all in our collective minds. Wait for it, look for it, make it. It will happen.

  • Anonymous

    “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.”Ah, yes, the Church ruined the people’s sense of hope and purpose…Give me a break…Try the Protestant theory of pre-destination, Freud, Existentialism, Materialism, and Post-modern culture/art.This writer is obviously a liberal Protestant.

  • Robert B.

    Anonymous,I don’t think the author is saying that at all. She’s merely relating that acedia was subsumed under the term “sloth” which eventually came to mean the more physical type of listlessness.

  • Anonymous

    Monks are making beer with flavor and then there is monkey beer being made. Start a brewery, that’s what the economy needs. More beer and less searching for B S.

  • Enemy Of The State

    Acedia sounds less like a malaise or genuine unconcern than it does a neurotic defense against the craziness of the world. You can’t be hurt if you don’t care.

  • 66

    You don’t care if you get hurt, just so the mission is completed. Get in the mud and stay in the mud until the job is done. Any grunt knows this. We are all enemy combatants in this war. Civilians are targets for terrorists. Stay alert.

  • 66

    Even the credit card companies are acting like terrorists trying to collect bad debts from the customers they have screwed who now don’t have money to pay bad debts. I believe we’ll see lots of credit defaults and more of these companies going bankrupt. Personal bankruptcy is too time consuming, so the whole company just goes the way of the fannie. That was predicted decades ago, so it’s nothing new. Use cash, it always works.

  • Nelson Robison

    I too, suffer from some form of acedia, after many years of searching for the right church and leaving one after another, for lack of scholarship or lack of meaning, I find it hard to let myself trust that another church will fill the void that I feel.

  • Thomas Baum

    NELSON ROBISONYou wrote, “I too, suffer from some form of acedia, after many years of searching for the right church and leaving one after another, for lack of scholarship or lack of meaning, I find it hard to let myself trust that another church will fill the void that I feel.”Maybe instead of looking for a church to find meaning, you should look to God.I am a Catholic and I cherish my Catholic Faith and I do not let religion get in the way.I know that the Catholic Eucharist is Jesus because the Holy Spirit revealed it to me when He came into my body back on Jan 29, 2000.Sometimes people, clergy and laity both, can get so much into the rules and regulations and even the dogma that they lose sight of God.Even the bible seems to lead some people away from God, Who happens to be a Being of Pure Love and He is a Trinity and Jesus is God-Incarnate.Some people refer to the bible as the Word of God but hopefully it will lead you to the Word of God because the bible is about the Word of God.It very clearly states in the bible that the Word became Flesh well the bible did not become Flesh but Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews became Flesh.We are all made in the Image and Likeness of God, page one, and God’s Plan is for ALL to be with Him in His Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth.Christianity, not to be confused with some of those that call and have called themselves ‘Christians’, is part of God’s Plan which is unfolding before our very eyes and His Plan will come to Fruition even tho the night of the sixth day is coming just like Jesus told us.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.