Acedie is a sin and, as such, Catholics have a responsibility to resist it and, when indulged in, to confess it. It happens to be a sin to which I am particularly prone, but I have discovered that it is the rare priest who knows what it is.
What makes acedie a capital sin is that it is a rejection of God’s goodness. Unfortunately, it also disposes one to reject the cure — regular Mass attendance and confession. The predominant manifestation of acedie is indifference — “What does it matter?” — a generalized indifference to everything, including the world’s welfare, even the welfare of one’s own soul.
That indifference extends to the Church and, in my case at least, it is often brought on by the Church. When I observe the almost derisory spectacle of what passes for worship in my own parish; when I hear the Church’s beautiful liturgy recited with mind-numbing boredom; when I listen to homilies delivered without preparation or forethought; when I look around at our steadily waning congregation and observe how everything — especially the music — seems calculated to drive people away, then I find myself given over to the spiritual torpor called acedie.
The fundamental claim of the Christian faith is that our Creator is a God of love, that the spirit which animates the universe and gives life its meaning, is benign. This, of course, is an unprovable assertion. It is based on faith, made in the face of much contradictory evidence (e.g. the prevalence of suffering). In the depths of acedie, doubt, despair and defeat rule the person’s mind and heart.
Curiously enough a man who has written illuminatingly about acedie was neither a mystic, theologian or priest. In 1962 Robertson Davies (1913-1995), the Canadian novelist and man of letters, made acedie the subject of his convocation address at Queen’s University. Davies called acedie “the deadliest of sins” and he explained why it was wrong to conflate it with sloth.
“You can be as busy as a bee. You can fill your days with activity, bustling from meeting to meeting, sitting on committees, running from one party to another in a perfect whirlwind of movement. But if, meanwhile, your feelings and sensibilities are withering, if your relationships with people near to you are becoming more and more superficial, if you are even losing touch with yourself, it is acedie which has claimed you for its own.”
Several of the capital sins (lust, gluttony, etc.) make their primary appeal to the young. Not so acedie.
Davies again: “As one grows older, one learns how to spare oneself many kinds of unnecessary pain, but one is in great danger if one ceases to feel pain of any kind. If you cannot feel pain at some of the harsh circumstances of life, it is very likely that you have ceased to feel joy at some of the satisfactions and delights of life. When that happens, one lives at all times under a mental and spiritual cloud; it is always wet weather in the soul. That is acedie, and it was called a deadly sin because it dimmed and discouraged the spirit, and at last killed it.”
Just so. When overwhelmed by acedie, I find it nearly impossible to worship or to pray. Life seems pointless and I wallow not so much in self-pity as indifference. Nothing seems to matter and I discover that I have lost the capacity (in C. S. Lewis’s descriptive phrase) to be “surprised by joy.”
Davies concluded his convocation address by telling the Queen’s graduates of a medieval proverb: Time Jesum transeuntem et non revertentem (Dread the passing of Jesus, for He does not return.) Davies said: “Thus it is with all great revelations, religious or not. Seize them, embrace them, let them engulf you, draw from them the uttermost of what they have to give, for if you rebuff them, they will not come again. We live in a world where too many people are pitifully afraid of joy.”
The Church’s message is — or should be — a message of joy and hope, the only proven antidote to acedie.
(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)