High Summer and the Demon, Acedia

Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish

This weekend, on the XVII Sunday of Ordinary Time, now after many years of hearing the readings of the Liturgical Year, it always amazes me how much the readings and their lessons (along with those of the Breviary) have informed my sense of time and season.  In the middle of High Summer, the Church as it were, much like the haggard masses surrounding Christ during his preaching, sits down, and at last admits fatigue.  We sit next to Christ as he teaches us with the words of Saint John’s immortal ‘Bread of Life’ discourse, where we learn where and with whom we may be truly refreshed.

It is precisely in these doldrums of nature, when the heat can be so unrelenting that even nature shows the strain, that we also, like the prophet Elijah and many others, may legitimately complain of discomfort.  Knowing this, we recall that there are very many examples in the Old and New Testament where enormous graces are bestowed in response to exhaustion and desperation.  The Lord always super abundantly bestows his grace as he sees we have need.

While in Lent most of the world’s Christians historically experience the austerity of winter, and in Easter the exuberance of spring, it is in the season after Pentecost, now sadly simply called “Ordinary”, that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, suspended between the hope held out in Christ and the assaults of temptation, borne aloft time and again by the mercy of God.  So many of us have known the zeal and beauty of youth, supernaturally and naturally; many of us can point to former days as being ones of greater devotion.  Yet such days, we must understand in the maturity of our discipleship, were only the first vernal breaths of a newly begun life.  The carefree play of children and the impetuosity of young love are the quasi-Edenic qualities of innocence.  To borrow the words of W.B. Yeats:

“Come away, O human child, to the waters and the wild, with a faery hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”!

In the “high noon” of life, when we have to bear the heat of labor and of the day, it is easy to become fatigued and to give way to the “noonday devil” which was the name the Ancient Fathers gave to the Vice of Acedia/Sloth, and the evil powers that abetted its spread in human hearts and minds.  It consists principally in disgust and to spiritual joy, and to charity.  The ancient monks that succumbed to acdedia, like Pachomius and Evagrius noted, would often become malcontents, complaining about the conditions of their lives, and also gainsay the good lives of the other monks.  Additionally, they manifested what St. Benedict called instabilitas, that is, the lack of order and staying power in their daily routine and habits, most eminently manifested in their adherence to public and private prayer and to labor. Eventually, some would succumb to more degrading vices as a punishment of their pride and indolence.

Rediscovering the value of fatigue and of labor, while also allowing oneself the essential experience of recreation in Christ, are both two important experiences for the maturing disciple of Christ.  It is as important,  no, far more important, to know how spend ourselves in the Lord’s presence, than to know how we may spend ourselves for the Lord’s service.  The norm in this life is not delight and pleasure.  It is labor and pain.  In the words of Father Edward Leen in his Progress in Mental Prayer, “the purpose of life is to purify us, not to gratify us.”

In the context of current events, I cannot help but see the evil spirit of Acedia far more than I see the spirit of lust, disobedience or pride.  Where and when do people seem to lose their way?  How many Priests entered the ministry with high ideals and great love, much like many young couples on their wedding day?  Unless the corruption was so endemic that it perverted so many so young, I would like to hope that every man who gave his life to Christ and the Church on their day of their Sacred Ordination(s) did so with the hope that they would spend their whole lives in integral holiness.

We are all susceptible to the same temptations which afflict the greatest sinners and saints alike.  It is imperative that all our actions be imbued with faith and charity, because if we become scandalmongers and armchair judges, we are more liable to become agents of the demon of acedia than the Spirit of the Lord, because inevitably we spread not the perfume of Christ’s healing, but the putrefaction of bitterness.  It is in this vein that the author of the Book of Hebrews urges us “[not to fail] to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).  Saint Paul likewise says, “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”  (Galatians 6:1-2)

Saint Paul knows, as did all the Ancient Fathers, that the desire to correct and to reform others, itself a spiritual work of mercy, always possesses the danger of presenting us with various sorts of temptations, the most dangerous being those of pride, wrath and complacency.

To remedy this, the Church’s summer journey through the Gospel of John teaches us how we may be refreshed, by drawing deeply from the charity of Christ, especially in the Most Holy Eucharist, but also by time spent lovingly in the presence of the same Sacrament, and in prayer in general. These are the preservatives that will keep our hearts from turning into stone, and save us from fainting on the way as we labor together in the vineyard of the Lord.