Acedia: The Ancient Word for Covid Blues

This year throughout Lent I will be writing about the desert monastic tradition and the way they understood thoughts and our relationship to them. In another article, which you can find by clicking HERE, I talked about the imagery used by these early Christian monks which describes unwanted thoughts and feelings as demons. This is a different way of understanding demons than is often presented in modern Christian circles. It is a psychological understanding which uses the imagery of demons to describe thoughts and feelings which seem to come from outside of us and happen without our consent, and that’s why they are considered to be entities other than ourselves.

In modern language we would likely say that these are subconscious thoughts that come from our past experiences or from our biology and animal nature. Not everything which comes from our subconscious or biology is automatically unwanted or bad and we will see over the course of this series that there are both angels and demons to be found lurking within the hidden recesses of our souls.

In this article I will be talking specifically about the demon of acedia. I think that acedia is something which almost all of us are struggling with on some level right now. It was said that this demon affects most strongly monks who live a cloistered life of solitude and social isolation. It being Covid and all, we are all living a kind of forced monastic life lacking in human contact. Our lives begin to feel repetitive as the same uninteresting things happen with each passing day. We lose track of time and while each hour seems to pass incredibly slowly, the months seem to fly by and blend into each other. And that is an essential part of understanding acedia, it has something to do with the distortion of time.

Acedia was often referred to as the noonday demon because it came upon monks in the middle of the day when the sun was at its height. At noon the newness of morning has passed and the rest of night feels far off. It is here, in the middle of the fight, that one often feels the most exhausted. Acedia is, in a certain sense, a broken relationship with the present moment. The person who is experiencing acedia is dissatisfied with the way things are and cannot find spiritual comfort in their situation.

A monk who was being attacked by the demon of acedia would start to feel like their chosen vocation is a waste of time. It was described by Cassian as kind of tedium and numbness of the heart. We feel bored and unappreciated, like we are meaninglessly toiling away in obscurity. This leads us to look elsewhere for meaning and tends us toward blaming others for our discomfort. It leads one to feel frustrated with authority figures for creating this unwanted feeling. It leads to gossip and grumbling about how others are not doing this or that right and places the blame for our dissatisfaction on others. In many ways, acedia opens the door for other vices to creep in.

Many people, when they feel this sense of listlessness, anxiety, and hopelessness turn to other vices to fill the perceived gap. It is not uncommon for people to try and find meaning in food, alcohol, sexual satisfaction, and other consumable things. Another common response is to flee. The monks in the desert would often report wanting to return to the city where they could do something useful and be noticed by others.

But neither of these approaches really help. The feeling of acedia is not caused by isolation so much as it is revealed by it. Those who flee into a life of public attention and meaningful action often find that their loneliness and boredom leave their cell with them and follow them into the city. Those who try to change the feeling of the present moment through alcohol, drugs, and other such things rarely find they are any more satisfied afterwards. The hard truth about acedia is that even though it feels like it is imposed on us by an uncaring abbot or a lazy government or a global pandemic, those outer things are only illuminating an inner condition which is not at peace with the world as it is.

Acedia is the feeling that there should be a shortcut to happiness and spiritual fulfillment which bypasses the hard inner work of healing the soul. It’s sort of like when a student feels overwhelmed by the amount of reading they have to do and they try to watch the movie instead of read the book or google the answers instead of truly learning the material. The looming immensity of the spiritual journey makes us want to quit and find an easier way. But, and any experienced student will tell you this, we usually end up wasting time looking for a shortcut and it’s actually more efficient and fulfilling to bite the bullet and do the reading.

The contrary virtues which are the opposite of the vice of acedia are perseverance, patience, and hope. There are a few ways to transform our feelings of acedia into these things. Firstly, acedia often makes us resentful of others and so one of the first things to do is to take the advice of a wise person, maybe even an elder, who you know. Resist the temptation to feel like no one else understands or that nobody has any good advice for you. Seek out some advice, and assuming it has a ring of wisdom in it, follow it.

Secondly, because acedia is a broken relationship with the present moment and a distortion of time, it can be helpful to mark out the hours of the day rather than letting them blend into each other in a meaningless blur. The monastic pattern of praying the hours served this very purpose and is still a good option if you feel called in that direction. You may also simply choose to have set times throughout the day for various activities. A time to eat and a time to clean, a time to rest and a time to exercise, a time to call a friend and a time for watching TV.

Thirdly, be gentle with yourself. Encourage yourself by remembering the good things in your life. Spend time thinking about everything you’re grateful for. Remember God’s goodness and let the love of Christ fill your heart and soul. Listen to some uplifting music. Don’t watch too much depressing TV. Choose life giving things to surround yourself with and focus on what is right instead of dwelling on what is wrong.

The demon of acedia may well make you feel like you don’t want to do these things. It may make you feel like they are just more unwanted burdens and meaningless tasks. But you don’t have to listen to it, that’s not true. It is common to feel like avoiding the very things which we know will help. For some reason, even if we know intellectually that exercise will help, we feel like it is too much and so we stare out the window longing for someone else to come and fix the problem for us instead. But when we resist that tendency and persevere in what we know is good for us, we are better off. When we fight that feeling of procrastination and laziness and go to the gym we almost always feel at least a little better because of it.

The demon of acedia will tell you that the solutions which you know help are just as meaningless as everything else. It will tell you that there’s no point in doing them. It will tell you to eat handfuls of chocolate chips (or is that just me?) or to find escape in endless hours of Netflix instead. So, we need to encourage ourselves in the other direction. We have the inner voice of acedia telling us to make the wrong decisions and we can talk back to that demon by encouraging ourselves to do what we know is going to help. We need to remind ourselves that we are able to be at peace with the world despite the tedium which we feel.

I would like to end this article with some advice from Evagrius on instilling hope in ourselves. The quote below is saying number 27 in his book Praktikos. The verse taken from Psalm 43 which he gives can be repeated in your mind and heart whenever the demon of acedia raises its ugly head. Give it a shot and see if it doesn’t help.

“When we meet with the demon of acedia then is the time with tears to divide our soul in two. One part is to encourage; the other is to be encouraged. Thus we are to sow seeds of a firm hope in ourselves while we sing with the holy David: “Why are you filled with sadness, my soul? Why are you distraught? Trust in God, for I shall give praise to him. He it is who saves me, the light of my eyes and my God.”

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