Acedia is a sort of listlessness, a strange state of mind of sadness and melancholy. It was a problem faced by the first Christian monks, those who chose to take refuge in the desert to live more intensely their ideal of spiritual perfection in solitude or in small communities.
These men sometimes suffered from discouragement that left them troubled, dissatisfied, sad, and tired. Those are feelings we can surely identify with today, whether or not we’ve chosen to dedicate our life to God in religious life.
The “demon” of acedia
For the monks, this evil could assume different forms, such as irritation with the other members of their community and with monastic life, a lack of concentration in reading and prayer, great tiredness, sudden hunger and sleepiness, desire for novelty, or a strong desire to be somewhere else. Substitute “family” for “community” and it sounds all too familiar, especially during times when a public health crisis is disrupting our daily life.
The “demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon, is the most burdensome of all the demons,” warned Evagrius Ponticus, a 4th century monk who lived in the Egyptian desert. He explained:
It besets the monk at about the fourth hour (10 a.m.) of the morning, encircling his soul until about the eighth hour (2 p.m.). First it makes the sun seem to slow down or stop moving, so that the day appears to be fifty hours long. Then it makes the monk keep looking out of his window and forces him to go bounding out of his cell to examine the sun to see how much longer it is to 3 o’clock, and to look round in all directions in case any of the brethren is there. Then it makes him hate the place and his way of life and his manual work. It makes him think that there is no charity left among the brethren; no one is going to come and visit him …
Anyone who has been working from home during the pandemic, or who has simply had to spend a lot of time social distancing, will likely recognize these feelings—as will students trying to study for exams, for example. Who of us has not felt discouraged, distracted, and at least a bit frustrated?
Here are some ideas from three great monks who fought against acedia. While these saints all dealt with acedia in the context of monastic life, their observations can apply in varying degrees to all of us.
1St. Anthony the Great
An ascetic intoxicated with God, like many anchorites of the first centuries of Christianity, St. Anthony the Great withdrew to the desert to find the ideal conditions for union with God in silence and solitude. Like Christ, in the desert his faith was put to the test. Despite his feeling of psychological exhaustion, he decided to resist the visions sent him by Satan: “I saw all the devil’s traps set up on earth.”
The devil strove to distract him from his prayers, urging him to renounce in spirit the fast to which he was obliged and, in a dream, to wallow in gluttony. He then understood that asceticism should never be considered an end in itself. Salvation comes from God. He explains, giving this valuable advice:
Keep what I command you: wherever you go, always keep God before your eyes; whatever you do, consider the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; and wherever you are, do not be moved easily. Keep these three things and you will be safe.
Those of us who are not monks also need to remember that always, although perhaps in a special way during the pandemic, we have to accept limitations, make sacrifices, and carry out work under conditions that won’t always be enjoyable or comfortable. However, the reason for doing all of this is transcendent: to love and serve God, by working to support ourselves and our family and by doing our best to promote the good of all, especially the most vulnerable.
We can’t let boredom and frustration separate us from what must be done. When we want to give up and do whatever we want without regard for anyone or anything else, we have to look to God and to Christ on the Cross.
2St. Peter Damian
The hermit monk Peter Damian dedicated himself from a very young age to prayer, asceticism and the study of the Holy Scriptures, as well as to contemplation and preaching.
In his numerous works that made him a doctor of the Church, St. Peter Damian focuses on certain manifestations of evil. Struck by drowsiness during reading, he describes this “inevitable heaviness of the eyelids which not even a saint of great temperament can resist.” For him, the remedy is found in charity which leads to true joy:
May hope lead you to joy! May charity awaken your enthusiasm! And in this intoxication may your soul forget that it is suffering, so as to blossom.
Again, we need to remember why we do what we do, and we can infuse all our actions with charity, at least indirectly—working to support ourselves and those we love, educating ourselves to be better people and thus love God and our neighbor, seeking to live with virtue and reach heaven… It’s easier to do something with joy if we’re doing it with hope and purpose. If what we’re doing cannot even remotely be connected to love, maybe we need to reevaluate our choices.
St. Romuald of Ravenna admitted to suffering from acedia. The evil manifested itself in him particularly during the mechanical learning of the Psalms. Faced with the rebellion of the body because of the limitations of the monastic life to which he was subjected, he insisted that it was necessary not to give in, but, on the contrary, to increase vigils, prayers and fasts.
For him, a working monk must remember that there is no rest but eternal rest. Since the morning hours are when listlessness most often occurs, they should be occupied with prayer.
Prayer can certainly be useful for all of us when we’re feeling tired or bored and are struggling to carry out our duties. Standing up or kneeling and praying an Our Father or a Hail Mary, for example, can help us break out of the stupor we’re in and reorient our hearts and minds. We can pray to renew our motivation, offer up our activity, etc., and thus take up our activities again with new purpose and energy.