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Rediscovering acedia

The retreat was good. As usual, I went expecting one thing and left with something different. The conferences were interesting, in no small part because priest who led them was something like six-foot-six, friendly, personable, and full of stories. There were numerous opportunities for prayer, Mass, Adoration, and the like. Plenty of silence, and the sisters who manage the retreat house do a wonderful job of keeping the retreatants fat and happy. It was also good to meet the others - some of whom I had met last year - and catch up on things. I found myself answering a fair number of questions about homeschooling, parenting teenagers through the college experience, and the like. Some of the men were considering things we did about ten years ago, so they were keen to hear how things had turned out, and what sorts of insights I had to offer. I’m not going to lie; it was a little weird.

I started The Noonday Devil while on retreat and am very much enjoying it. You wouldn’t think that a book about a capital sin would be all that, but it is. Acedia was known to the Desert Fathers and described in detail by Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century theologian. Monks living a solitary existence would come into periods of dryness and weariness, rendering prayer difficult or impossible. In some cases this was accompanied by torpor, in others, a sort of frantic business. As time passed, acedia sort of fell off the radar in favor of sloth, which took its place in the lists but calls to mind general laziness and losing something of its depth. St. Thomas Aquinas briefly wrote about it, describing it as a sin against the love of charity, and points to an ingenious remedy: The Incarnation itself! Go read it to see how. Ultimately, William of Ockham may have been responsible for acedia’s place on the back-burner. By reducing events and actions to individual, separated occurrences, sundered from a larger pattern or totality, the need to describe a broad tendency (like acedia) is diminished.

Fortunately, acedia’s made something of comeback in the popular consciousness. Unfortunately, it never really left us. The Noonday Devil traces the notion of acedia through church history, starting with Evagrius and the others, through the middle ages, and into modernity. The Fathers were wise - the concept of acedia is no less relevant today than it was in a desert cell 1,600 years ago. Consider the mid-life crisis, or the pervasive nihilism, or the constant desire for novelty as its own end. I’m not quite finished, but can see that I’ll certainly be returning to it, especially the section I’m in now, which not only describes modern acedia, but goes on to describe the remedies.