It happens all the time: we know what we must do, and yet we fail to do it. Then we cast blame: tiredness, a lack of motivation, a need to rest from a busy life, a lack of inspiration, being easily distracted or a whole host of other scapegoats. What we do not understand is that this is often not rooted so much in the above excuses we too often make, but it’s rooted, rather, in a deeper spiritual condition, what the Desert Fathers called acedia.
Acedia is the Christian East’s way of talking about sloth. But it is much more than a simple laziness or lack of desire to do anything worthwhile. It is an infliction of the soul that attacks desire: we listen to it and become unable to follow through on our intentions. Because we don’t act on intentions, we feel dull, numb and spiritual dead. To put the definition in a more pithy fashion: acedia creates in us the inability to choose the good.
Let’s break this down a bit more. Desire resides both in the soul and in the body. And acedia attacks desire. But it doesn’t misplace desire — as can happen with other sins such as lust, greed and avarice. Acedia is more subtle: it attempts to reduce desire. Instead of misguiding desire, it wants us to not experience desire at all. It creates a state of soul in which we simply would prefer to not choose anything at all. Hence, acedia gets expressed in its more popular form known as sloth — a laziness, an inability or lack of desire to choose to do the task or duty of the moment.
But acedia can also take us in the opposite direction. In an attempt to reduce our desire, it fills our mind with the idea that busyness is a good thing. By doing many tasks, it dulls our senses to the essential tasks of life. By being busy with activities, hobbies — all which seem good! — the acediac avoids the duties that are essential to life: the duties that build up his vocation and the duties of seeking out God through prayer and liturgy.
Ultimately, acedia, as a spiritual malady, creates in us a spiritual malaise. By reducing our desire, it limits our capacity for God. It inspires us to not choose the duty of the moment but instead to choose whatever is self pleasing — whether we avoid the task through laziness or busyness. By doing so, we reduce our desire for God, who reveals and makes himself present to us through our tasks that build up our vocation. To avoid the duties of the day, to avoid choosing the good, we avoid choosing God. The choice for God is never direct, but is always mediated through the duties and responsibilities of life. Hence why acedia is one of the most dangerous and subversive sins of our age: it creates in us a spiritual malaise that slowly dulls our sense for perceiving and choosing God.
Taking the above general overview into account, it must be noted that this sin, though it is more spiritual in nature since it deals with desire, has a remarkably long litany of practical tools to overcome it. The key is rediscovering that one has a freedom to choose the good, and orienting actions around this. The following tips are not exhaustive. And they all must be read in the light of building new habits. This means that, at times, there will be failures, at times you will still give into acedia and choose the bad instead of the good. Do not beat yourself up! Building new habits in the fight against acedia is akin to training for a marathon. You do not begin to train for a marathon by running a marathon. You start with a few blocks, and even then may have limited success. So it is with this sin: start with one thing, grow in it, and then move on to another habit to build or vice to fight.
Schedule Your Life
So often we can go about our days listlessly. It is easy to put off checking our emails at work, getting back to phone calls, spending time in prayer, etc. By the time the end of the day comes, we see all the tasks we failed to do.
While people may be able to schedule their life to differing degrees according to their state of life, a schedule is a great way to keep ourselves accountable. A schedule helps remind us what we are to choose in a given moment.
When building your schedule, the best thing to do is to ensure the day begins with prayer. If you don’t have a regular prayer routine together, choose a 15-minute period for the same time every day — mornings are encouraged though. Choose those essential duties of each day and try to fit them in at the same time. When you get to work, perhaps spend the first 20 minutes every day with emails as another example. Be flexible and patient with yourself, but you’ll find that if you do the same thing at the same time every day, the task gets much easier to choose to do. Ritual can be greatly to your benefit.
The Desert Fathers loved to say that one of the great cures to acedia is manual labor, such as yard work, chores around the house, or working on a hobby project or doing something with our hands, etc. Such work helps us discover that we need not give into our emotions in front of a task, but that we really can, with God’s grace, gain control over our bodies to offer them to God in worship in all things.
There are many other tools to achieve victory over acedia. Remain patient with yourself, choose one thing to improve at a time and be gentle with yourself when failure happens, because it will happen. Choosing the good of the moment, even if it is something we do not want to do, will begin to open our hearts. And we will begin more deeply to God and to see his goodness in all things, that in every action, it is ultimately God whom we are choosing.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.