Do you spend time alone contemplating what Life is all about? Ever worry that it has no meaning? Like your efforts are futile? Like your life has become a prison where the hours and days stretch on and on and on and on...? That might sound like the adult working life to some, but the early Christian desert monks had a name for it: Acedia.
If you’ve never heard of it, it’s probably because not too many people have used the term over the past few hundred years. The modern phrase “dark night of the soul” is close, however. Ever the bane of early Christian hermits and solitary monks, one might speculate that it has made a comeback in our own time; assuming it ever left.
The Desert Fathers of early Christianity were the first to report Acedia as a condition among their brothers and sisters. They were the leaders of early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who exchanged the pleasures of the city for the harshness of life in the desert. By withdrawing from society, they believed that they could become closer to God. Their style of living would give birth to what later became Christian monasticism. While some formed communities, where sharing and working together was the goal, others preferred solitude. These individual contemplatives were the hardest hit by Acedia.
Acedia had both a physical and psychological dimension, and was said to be the worst in the early afternoon – it therefore came to be known as the “noonday demon”. It was viewed initially as demonic since it aimed to cause the monk to give up on their spiritual lifestyle.
Acedia’s physical symptoms included chills, headaches, sleepiness, a bodily heaviness, and an inability to pray. Psychologically however, it was much more devastating. A strong sense of alienation, dejection, and listlessness would lay hold of the sufferer, and cause him to see all of his efforts as futile. He might also become hypersensitive and critical of fellow monks or the monastic way of life in general; believing he could do better elsewhere, with different people, with a new teaching. A species of bitter indifference and indignation would begin to permeate his thoughts. This resulted in a form of spiritual inertia: Either in overzealous efforts at asceticism and work, to the point of obsession (what we would call workaholism), or the inability to focus even on a few passages of scripture (boredom or ennui). The sufferer may also indulge in overeating/drinking, oversleeping, or flipping back and forth between lethargy and nervousness. This is why Acedia would later become lumped under the category of the deadly sin of sloth in the Middle Ages, and depression by psychologists. But neither sloth nor depression really captures the nuances of Acedia.
It was more than both of these actually. Much more existential, as it were. It’s when existence itself gets put on review and there’s little to answer for it. Like looking at life and saying, “Is this all there is?” To which life responds, “Sorry, bruh.” Or worse, doesn’t respond at all.
One website, “The Hermitary”, which deals with the history of hermits and solitaries, cites John of the Cross (1542-1591) (the same who originally coined the term “dark night of the soul”), when he identifies Acedia as an ailment that afflicts mostly newer monks. He reasons that their thoughtful nature, not yet tempered by experience, causes them to have a lower threshold of “non-virtue”. This means that they are less able to tolerate all the nastiness in worldly culture and essentially become disillusioned with their own pursuits as a result.
Disappointed dreamers and idealists everywhere, know just how easy this can happen.
The same site concludes that Acedia is “a personal statement against the contrivances of culture, the hypocrisy of public morality, alienation from the natural patterns of nature and simplicity.”
Does anyone with a conscience NOT feel this way today?
A strong sense of community and fellowship in itself might provide a good enough remedy to this. And it’s why Acedia doesn’t show up all that much in literature dealing with monks who lived in more communal settings. But for the introverted and the overly thoughtful, this was, and is, less of an option.
In a 2005 article for the Harvard Theological Review, Dr. Andrew Crislip advances the hypothesis that Acedia was in fact, a response to the concept of “anomie”. The renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim first introduced anomie in 1897, in his book, Suicide. In societies where individual achievement is heralded as supreme, when an individual feels he or she is unable to meet the standards set by that society they experience anomie. They become alienated and withdraw from “social norms and obligations.” As Durkheim pointed out, this also results in an increased rate of suicide - hence the title of the book.
When placed in the context of the early solitary monks, Crislip argues that Acedia happens as a result of the anomie they felt when, in their solitude, they were unable to reach the lofty heights of communion with God as quickly as they anticipated. Thus, their anomie gave way to Acedia and life’s purpose became as barren as the desert they lived in.
Seen in this light, when we translate anomie and Acedia to today, we see conditions for it are fertile. In fact, as recent as the middle of the 20th Century, Aldous Huxley said Acedia was the primary affliction of his age. And it’s only gotten worse. This is not to imply that there’s been a rise in contemporary populations of solitary desert monks, but rather, with advances in communication technology and the dissolution of traditional sources of community, solitude has become a much more common phenomenon. Meanwhile, the social standards we’re meant to strive for have become ever more artificial and/or hard to reach.
So what’s the antidote to Acedia? Older sources advocate perseverance, courage, and detachment. In modern parlance, one might translate this to the phrase, “keep on keeping on.” The Hermitary, proposes that gratitude for living and consciously altering one’s “threshold for non-virtue, in the ability to seek contentment” might do the trick. One might also consider some honest soul-searching and holding fast to teachings and traditions that are enduring and offer meaning. They do exist, but in the modern “winner-take-all”, disposable, culture we live in, they are largely forgotten or ignored. Regardless, we can take solace in knowing that even though the Noonday Demon has visited countless people throughout history, for those who persist, he eventually goes away.
“Acedia, Bane of Solitaries.” Hermitary, http://www.hermitary.com/solitude/acedia.html
Crislip, Andrew. “The Sin of Sloth or the Illness of the Demons? The Demon of Acedia in Early Christian Monasticism”. The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 143-169.
Norris, Kathleen. “Got Acedia? Who Cares?” The Washington Post, September 16, 2008. http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2008/09/got_acedia_who_cares.html
Robertus Magnus is the creator of Totally Awesome History. He hold and MA in History, B.Ed, Hons. BA (History and Classics), and a post-graduate Scriptwriting Certificate. He is also the author of "Perduo: Obadiah Emerson in the Place Where Lost Things Go".