acedia

I’ve been reading a small book I came across while browsing on Amazon.com. (I love browsing books there even more than at a bookstore, because I get instant feedback from others who have already read and reviewed them!)

The book is entitled, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” , by Kathleen Norris. (Paulist Press, 1998) It’s the type of book you read slowly and ponder. I haven’t finished it yet because I don’t want it to be over, so I’m slowing it down and savoring it bit by bit.

In it, Kathleen talks about acedia. I’d never heard that word before and thankfully, she gives the definition as found in the American Heritage Dictionary: acedia – spiritual torpor or apathy; ennui.

Don’t you just love it when the definition of a word you are trying to understand uses more words you don’t understand to explain it?! So, I pulled up the dictionary on my trusty battered iPhone (Dictionary.com, Random House, Inc. 2010) and looked up the words torpor and ennui.

Torpor means sluggish inactivity or inertia, lethargic indifference, dormancy. It comes from a Latin word that mean numbness, as if to be stiff or numb.

Ennui means a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety (being full) or lack of interest, boredom.

In this amazing little book, the author is showing the connection between boring, daily, mindless tasks (hence the name ‘quotidian’- see my post on January 11) and our spirituality.

We often think of spirituality in terms of ‘mountain-top experiences’ like retreats, conferences and deep or profound revelations, when in reality, true spirituality is how we live and love God in the every-day-ness of life, doing those things we do on a regular basis because we should, because we need to.

Acedia can slip in and mess with our minds (which then affects our behavior.) Kathleen asks the question if acedia could be the cause of depression and even suicide today. You see, the dailiness of life, the sometimes tedious repetition, can wear a person down. The thought of going to bed and waking up to the same day all over again, can be overwhelming. We can go to bed wishing we wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

For anyone who hasn’t felt that way, be sure to thank God, because it is a horrendous and loathsome way to feel.

When (during my second battle through cancer), I’d endured four months of chemotherapy and had a radical bilateral mastectomy a month later, and dealing with pneumonia, life became more of a drudgery than I’d ever imagined possible. I was so appallingly miserable every moment from weakness, inactivity, and months of dizziness. The person I was seeing in the mirror seemed like someone else – someone I didn’t know – someone I didn’t want to get to know.  I’d go to bed at night despising my life. I couldn’t see it ever improving; my body ever feeling better, or anything ever changing. Every day had become like the one before and I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up to the same day again over and over and over. . . .

I remember feeling a little bit like this after I had my first baby. My life was turned upside-down; the postpartum depression, the baby crying and projectile vomiting; the feeding and changing and crying and feeding and cleaning and cooking and feeding and changing and on it went. Tedium. Worthlessness crept in. It seemed as if everyone else was accomplishing meaningful things and I was changing diapers ad nauseam.

A certain ‘acedia of mothering’ can set in and cause one to think, why pick up the house today? It’ll just get messed up again. Why make the bed? I’ll just be getting back in it tonight. Although acedia is defined as spiritual torpor, isn’t mothering a spiritual behavior, a God-given task that, to perform well, causes us to grow spiritually?

Acedia also means ‘lack of care’ or the indifference to one’s welfare. (p. 40) It means getting to the point where we don’t bother to take care of others or ourselves any more, we’re just too weary of it all. We give up. We stop trying. We stop caring.

Kathleen says in her book that care isn’t passive. The word care actually comes from an Indo-European word which means “‘to cry out’ as in a lament.” (p. 41)

I’m quoting her at the risk of being sued, and just hope she’ll be so glad I’m giving her publicity that she’ll extend grace!  She says: “Care asserts that as difficult and painful as life can be, it is worth something to be in the present, alive, doing one’s daily bit. It addresses and acts on the daily needs that acedia would have us suppress and deny.” (p. 41)

Though we don’t often enjoy the common, everyday bits of life, somehow repetition is still very important. It’s the air we breathe in and out continuously, the heart that beats without our acknowledgment or will, and it is the food we eat, daily, day in and day out. (“Give us this day our daily bread . . . .”) God values repetition. He planned it into our lives. He gives us weeks each starting with a sabbath, he planned the sunrise and sunset, the rotating, repeating seasons, the birth to death progression and so many other repetitious acts that compile our earthly lives. Those common practices, whether doing chores or flossing our teeth, are the stuff of life. Real life is the compilation of little ordinary, repetitive things. Real living is noticing and acknowledging God in the everyday. It isn’t wishing now away for later, for something better.

There is holiness, set-apart-ness, even in the everyday mundane tasks we do. Kathleen phrases it as “the sanctity of the everyday.” (p. 71) We can live holy (uncommon) lives even in the midst of commonplace life. Wow! That’s encouraging!

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “God is so great that all things give him glory if you mean that they should.”

There is much more to be said about acedia and it’s effect on our lives, and if you get and read Kathleen’s book you’ll realize I’m barely skimming the surface of her deep well. But she’s got me thinking.

I’ve realized how over the last five years or so, facing cancer and recovering from numerous surgeries; facing difficult issues and difficult people, these have all poked holes in my ‘hope bucket.’ Hopefulness drained out and acedia was happy to slip in and take residence.

Weariness and grief can be discouraging, overwhelming and incapacitating. Even being a neat-freak, living in real-time dealing with piles of the paper kind and the dog kind, can make a person want to give up! Piles, unfinished tasks, low energy, never enough time, we all face these challenges, daily!

After reading a portion of Kathleen’s book, this is what I wrote in my journal: “I’m learning about acedia and realizing I’m affected by it in my own life. Please give me insight into myself here – I don’t want to fall prey to it. I want to live above it – not be pulled down and made ineffective by it. Lord, would you breathe on me? Would you blow away the acedia that has clung to me? Would you invigorate me with hope and life and vitality?”

And then, to poke my finger in acedia’s eye, I went upstairs and made the bed!

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10 Responses to “acedia”

  1. Nanci Hinman Says:

    Kris…Thanks…..I so needed to read your post…Have spent the summer feeling very tired …very lethargic due to overload and brain fog…mainly due to taking care of two parents who have moved in with us and are both losing their sight, their freedom and health…
    It is refreshing to read your blog and realize that it is okay to be tired, drained, and sometimes want to be away from the “hectic do it all” schedule…I haven’t been able to be in church since April due to family needs and the need for time away from home…
    Even so, deep down my love for God grows amidst it all. I wanted to thank you for a reminder that I can still feel Him close if I just take the time to spend time with Him, all my tasks will get done one day at a time…..and the “acedia” in my life only draws me closer to Him

  2. Patricia Says:

    Kathleen Norris also wrote a book, Acedia and Me. I read it a while ago–was an eye opener. In the book she mentions that acedia was once the eighth deadly sin but is now included in the sin sloth.

    Like your blog–look forward to reading more…

  3. jenny black Says:

    Kris I had to laugh first at myself and then at you when I began to read your blog. Got a little worried and almost ran for the dictionary until I read a little further and realized u Didn’t know the meaning of the word either. Made me giggle then feel instant reliefe. than after I read further down – wow I have so been there on many different occasions. Thanks for giving it a name and reminding me I’m not the only one!

  4. Marva Says:

    Thank you a million times over. What a precious message my heart needed today! And my bed is happy, too ….

  5. Tracy Says:

    This is a great post, and I love learning new words!

    I also have been guilty of thinking…”Why bother making the bed…” LOL Which is silly. We all know you feel better overall when your living space is neat and tidy – we just sabotage ourselves when we give in to that kind of thinking.

  6. Sherry Says:

    I did not realize there was a word for that kind of thing. The term really does bring light to what myself and many others struggle with off and on in their daily lives. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Valerie Bosselman Says:

    This may be one of your most beautiful entries, and one that I can whole-heartedly relate to.

  8. Bonnelle Says:

    Wow! That’s awesome! I have felt those things many times throughout my life and now starting school at full speed ahead, I’ve almost felt overwhelmed again. Thank you for putting a name to it. Your post has shown me once again that HE is our Hope and through Him we CAN get through anything!

  9. Karen Says:

    Boy you hit the nail on the head. I wrote in my journal this morning.
    It seems like just yesterday I just feed the office staff, and here I am
    again the next day doing the same thing. I am stuck in a Ground Hog’s
    Day. After reading your blog, I know see that it is my calling to do
    what I do. Thank you, you do not know how much your writing has
    lifted my spirit. You Rock.

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