Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The plague that destroys at midday...

One of the perils of the contemplative life that our age seems to have forgotten to watch out for is a condition called accidie, or acedia. The excellent if brief Wikipedia article describes it as follows:

Acedia (also accidie or accedie, from Latin acidĭa, and this from Greek ἀκηδία, negligence) describes a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one's duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression. Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life...

The demon of acedia holds an important place in early monastic demonology and psychology. Evagrius of Pontus, for example, characterizes it as "the most troublesome of all" of the eight genera of evil thoughts. As with those who followed him, Evagrius sees acedia as a temptation, and the great danger lies in giving in to it.

In her remarkable A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland remarks,"It is very difficult to describe the effects of accidie, because its predominant feature is a lack of affect, an overwhelming sense of blankness and an odd restless and dissatisfied boredom." (p. 108) It is pre-eminently the sin of social networking, and of the online life generally.

I often used to wonder what this was that came over me, so that I could spend hours  messing around at the keyboard, and have nothing to show for it at the end. Now I think I begin to understand. Just as the enemy of our souls uses other good and wholesome things about being human, like sex, and food, and companionship, so these new means of communication and learning become means of our being pulled off course, diverted from the ways God has prepared for us to walk in.

John Cassian compared acedia to "the plague that destroys at midday" of Psalm 91 (90 in the Greek numbering). This affliction is not depression properly speaking, though I think some contemporary psychiatrists would so diagnose it, but a spiritual issue, sin if you will. Certainly the old eremitical writers like Cassian recognised it as such. It is prayer, and simplicity, and plain obedience to the order of one's own rule, as well as simple physical work, that will set us free. But perhaps above all prayer. We could do worse than start with Psalm 91...


  1. Kathleen Norris has an interesting book on the subject, depressing though. I believe I struggle with acedia. The internet does indeed have a huge role to play. Lent is around the corner. I am looking for an exorcist. ;)

  2. Aren't we all looking for an exorcism of some kind? I don't think enough can be said about the plauge of acedia. It's so sneaky, and so easy to give in to, and at times one doesn't even know it's happening! Like you said, 'obedience, prayer and hard work will help to set us free' and also to keep vigilant always for the 'sneaky sins'. thanks for the post. k