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It Might Just Be Acedia

If we simply endure, God will deliver us

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AckermanFor preschool graduation one year, our students sang the song “Frère Jacques,” the famous children’s hymn about a friar sleeping through morning prayer. The kids thought the song was hysterical, but I can empathize with the poor cleric who needed rest. If we are honest, assuredly we all have felt tired or have had difficulty focusing, periodically, on the task at hand. I have watched several clergy fall asleep live on a Zoom call, stare blankly out the window at a vicariate meeting and even nod off into a pie during a support group meeting. I really cannot criticize too much, because I once fell asleep in an empty confessional only to be awakened by a highly amused penitent.

Perhaps this tiredness is due to aging or the pace of schedules, but it just might be acedia. When I first heard the word used, I thought it was an immunodeficiency disorder. Thank God for good spiritual direction! However, acedia is subtler and more troubling to the soul.

Pope Francis talked about acedia during a Wednesday audience in February of this year. He explained: “Acedia is defined as ‘the noonday devil’: It grips us in the middle of the day, when fatigue is at its peak and the hours ahead of us seem monotonous, impossible to live” (Feb. 14, 2024).

This is nothing new. The Desert Fathers often reflected upon the dangers of acedia as a “lack of care” for the spiritual life. In the fourth century, Evagrius and John Climacus wrote frequently of the need to guard against acedia and torpor. Although it can be as hard to identify as an honest politician, Pope Francis calls acedia “a sweet sorrow” that “breeds discouragement, desolation and despair” and “disappointment with life” (Letter to Priests on the 160th Anniversary of St. John Vianney’s Death, Aug. 4, 2019).

My grandmother always told me that if you’re disappointed with life, join the club and deal with it. I suppose that is not bad advice, but the problem often stems from how we deal with it. I knew a priest who sought a new assignment every year and a half. He was affectionately known as the “no good nomad” among his friends. Whenever he was asked why he wanted a new assignment, he often complained about his living arrangements, lack of fraternity, ill use of his gifts and the need to be appreciated.

“His wanderlust is so great, that he probably will ask to leave his coffin,” I heard his pastor comment.

Sheryl Crow once sang “A Change Would Do You Good,” but changing more times than Taylor Swift at a concert is probably not a good thing. Acedia makes one long for what one does not have, and believe that if one did something else things would be better.

“How many people,” Pope Francis said, “in the grip of acedia, stirred by a faceless restlessness, have stupidly abandoned the good life they had embarked upon!” (Audience, Feb. 14, 2024).

Acedia fosters boredom with life that can make one listless, lethargic, bitter and uninterested in the current state. Indubitably, it is not always possible to get excited about every aspect of ministry. Capital campaigns, anyone? However, as I learned when I was 5 years old, running away never solves anything. In Scripture, Peter gives the perfect reply to acedia, as the Gospel of John recounts: “Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:67-68). If we simply can endure, God will deliver us and allow us to see his will in our battles.

Evagrius offers us a method to combat acedia well: “Perseverance is the cure for acedia, along with the execution of all tasks with great attention and the fear of God.” (Jean-Charles Nault, “The Noonday Devil,” Ignatius Press, $17.95).

Dissatisfaction and sluggishness will inevitably come, but we can prevail if we offer up our sacrifice and remain stable in Christ. The Carthusians’ motto has it right: “The Cross is steady while the world turns” (Stat crux dum volvitur orbis). Honestly, I have a profound appreciation for “Frère Jacques.” Yes, the soporific friar was negligent in duty, but the bells roused him, and he fought that noonday devil to matins. 

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the pastor at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

 
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