In a culture driven by individual progress and production, one would think that our culture’s only problem would be finding enough space to put all of our accolades and awards, but recent studies have found that the enormous social pressure to produce actually manufactures the opposite. For many, finding motivation and energy has become a colossal task that usually ends in anxiety, despondency, and hopelessness from fear of failure. Apathy, melancholy, and disillusionment plague the footsteps of the up-and-coming generations more than ever, especially in the realm of religion, and it’s worth asking, “Why?”
Deeply intertwined with these psycho-social issues, the Church has historically recognized another dimension to these problems, a spiritual one, at work alongside the earthly. And while the gifts of modern science, medicine, and counseling should not be crassly dismissed, Holy Scripture and Christian tradition offer a unique and decidedly pre-modern perspective on this particular human experience. This perspective allows us to name a great spiritual evil that has plagued the saints of God for millennia, which in our present-day is largely misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and widely unknown. Its name is “acedia.”
The first mention of acedia in Christian literature comes from the 4th-century Desert Father, Evagrius of Pontus, in his Antirrhetikos, the first and most complete early Christian book on demonology. In this work and others, Evagrius lists “eight wicked thoughts” that afflict Christians, each with a particular demon associated with it as its cause or catalyst. He lists gluttony (gastrimargia), sexual infidelity (porneia), greed (phylargia), pride (hyperephania), despair (lype), anger (orge), boasting (kenodoxia), and finally acedia (akedia).
This same list is passed down to us by Evagrius’ student, John Cassian, who translates and slightly modifies the list giving us what we know today as the “seven deadly sins.” Oddly enough, when translating the list from Greek into Latin, Cassian left acedia untranslated. His choice to leave the word in its Greek form has persisted to the present because of how slippery and multifaceted it is. The most common English word used to translate acedia, “sloth,” has some merit but still doesn’t quite capture its breadth and depth.
In practical terms, this looks like indifference, boredom, avoidance of responsibility, self-indulgence, or sluggishness.
Both Cassian and Evagrius associated the demon of acedia with the “plague that stalks at noonday” described in Psalm 91:6, which in the Latin and Greek Old Testament can be read more literally as “noonday demon.” It was the demon that struck at the time of day when it became too hot to work outside in the monastery and when the monks would habitually return to their cells for prayer and the study of Scripture. In his Praktikos, Evagrius describes the assault of this demon in a way that hits too close for comfort.
He describes a gnawing boredom with one’s living situation, a general contempt for one’s brothers, a disdain for the hard manual labor outside, and an overwhelming sense of listlessness and inertia. He notes a deep lack of motivation for reading and studying the Scriptures alongside despairing of oneself in light of others’ great success and piety. He further describes a mindless craving for food and heavy exhaustion despite not having done anything strenuous or toilsome. He depicts monks sitting in their cells looking blankly out the window, watching the passage of time by the sun, desperately hoping to see another brother walking by so they might strike up a conversation to distract themselves from their spiritual practices. And when finally the monk is overwhelmed by all of these, attempting to find solace in sleep.
Evagrius finally notes that a person afflicted by the demon of acedia is marked by being resistant to prayer and devotional reading. They are moved neither by rebuke or exhortation. They are spiritually numb and completely inert. In practical terms, this looks like indifference, boredom, avoidance of responsibility, self-indulgence, or sluggishness. It feels like discouragement, being unfocused, withdrawn, jaded, hopeless, irritated, and worthless. In biblical terms, this is like the Church of Laodicea described in Revelation 3, which is “neither hot nor cold,” but spiritually apathetic and inert.
The story of Israel in the wilderness expressed in Psalm 106:24-26 can also be seen as a national narrative of acedia: “Then they began to despise the pleasant land. They did not believe God’s promise. They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord. So the Lord swore to them with uplifted hands that they would fall in the desert.” This last passage vividly depicts the deadliness of acedia. The Psalmist traces a direct line from boredom, distaste, and weariness with the things of God, to dissatisfaction with God himself and finally to unbelief.
Originally Evagrius and Cassian conceived of acedia as a demon that uniquely afflicted the monastic class. But later, theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther saw that this was an affliction for all who took up the study of God’s word. Luther’s own threefold rule of becoming a theologian includes as its consummation anfechtung or “spiritual attack/affliction.” In light of this, instead of using the word “sloth” to describe acedia, I think spiritual “apathy” is much more apt because acedia is fundamentally an unwillingness to suffer or, put positively, a desire to be “a-pathos,” without suffering.
So what is to be done about acedia? First is always Confession and Absolution: we confess before God that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and left undone, not having loved God or our neighbor as we ought to have. And quickly after this, we must have the gospel promise personally applied to us that we are indeed forgiven and that the blood of Christ covers even the sin of acedia. Though we are faithless, God is faithful to his promise.
Alongside absolution Luther’s consistent advice for those afflicted by the devil is always to surround oneself with other saints for mutual conversation and consolation. By this fellowship, the low are brought up, and the discouraged are given hope. In one place, Luther humorously recommends the saints devote themselves to raucous singing, drinking, and crude jokes to spite and rebuke the devil because where Christians are gathered together, Christ has promised to be.
Perhaps nowhere is this promise of presence put before our eyes as explicitly as when Christians gather around the altar. At the altar, we set aside the work we do, and Jesus himself goes to work to be our host, butler, and main course. At the altar, Christ gives us his own flesh and blood for the forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation. At the altar, Jesus himself puts us into the position of passivity, knees bent and hands outstretched, so that we suffer his work and finally rest, not in ourselves, but in him.
In this way, the Supper is Christ’s own gift of hope in the midst of the hopelessness generated by one’s own efforts and consequently one’s own failures. Christ breaks in and frees us from the cycle of self-creation according to works and creates in us a new heart, a willing spirit, and a simple faith in the Gospel. Unlike our own efforts and works, the work of Christ never fails, and contrary to our legal logic, it is only when we finally rest in Christ that anything is done.