Thursday, 22 September 2016

Week 25 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; Psalm 90; Luke 9:7-9

At the end of some readings from the Bible it can feel very strange to say 'this is the Word of the Lord / thanks be to God'. Today's first reading is an example, the famous 'vanity of vanities' passage at the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth). What is the point? Where is it all going? Days come and go, months and years, there is nothing new under the sun, we wear ourselves out, have nothing to show for it, and in a hundred years time what difference will it have made?

The monastic tradition in Christianity has given us reflections on the seven or eight deadly sins or principal vices among which we find sloth or acedia, a kind of listlessness in which everything seems pointless and meaningless. Evagrius of Pontus is one of the monastic teachers who writes about these sins or vices which he calls 'thinkings', or 'thoughts'. Logismoi is his Greek term, we would perhaps use the term 'fantasies'. They refer to things we find insinuating themselves into our minds, mixtures of thought and feeling that distract, disturb, darken, and fragment. From different directions they take away our serenity and peacefulness. With acedia specifically we lose a sense of purpose and energy, things come to seem pointless.

The sun plays an important role in all this. Ecclesiastes speaks of human toil and effort under the sun. The sun rises and sets as day unendingly follows day. Is there anything new under the sun? Acedia was also called 'the noonday devil', noon being the time when the sun is at its highest and hottest, the time of day when this problem is most acute. But Evagrius says the problems start at 10.00am and goes on until 2.00pm! The monk looks out his window, wondering whether the sun is moving at all. When will it be 3.00pm? Perhaps there was food, or a break, at 3.00pm. Or perhaps it was just that the heat of the sun has eased by then.

Anybody who has lived through a Roman summer will have some idea of the effect of intense heat day after day. There is a story of a Scottish Cardinal who claimed that it was impossible to commit a sin when the scirocco was blowing in Rome, the hot wind from the Sahara, on the grounds that nobody could think straight in such conditions.

So what is the solution to acedia? It is not clear that the spiritual masters who wrote about it - Evagrius, Cassian, Gregory the Great, Isidore, Aquinas - have any easy solution. Perhaps it is enough good news to know that this human experience is recognised and acknowledged in the Bible and in Christian traditions of spirituality. Whatever its roots - physical, emotional, intellectual - it seems to be a universal and perennial human experience.

One solution is to bring ourselves, again and again, into our present reality and to remind ourselves that the life of the Spirit is flowing in us for the 'here and now', with these actual people, and through these actual responsibilities. Acedia will tell us that we would be happier if things were different (so we re-arrange the furniture in the room), or if we knew more (so we buy yet another book on the spiritual life), or if we lived with different people (so we think about living in another community or perhaps we should have married a different person), or if we lived at a different time (so we fantasise about living in other countries at other times). But our faith is incarnational, about here and now, and these people, and these responsibilities which are mine today. We are to find meaning - and a meaning deeper than all our imaginings - in the experiences that are ours today: this is what faith assures us. Sometimes we 'feel' this re-assurance, have a lively sense of it, but often we don't, in which case we keep going, placing our trust in the One in whom we believed and continuing to serve Him as best we can.

It is good to know that this experience is recognised and acknowledged in the Bible, in the liturgy of the Church and in our traditions of spirituality. Thomas Aquinas adds a thought of his own about acedia: it is called the noon-day devil, he says, because the mid-point of any work is a difficult moment. It is as if every important human undertaking will encounter a moment of 'mid-life crisis'. Is it too late to turn back? The end is not yet in sight. Was it a mistake to begin in the first place? Like Peter walking on the water we need to keep our eyes on the One who is calling us, the End of our journey. Whether we are afflicted by doubt or oppressed by acedia, keep looking to him, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the sun of justice who assigns us our daily tasks in the service of his kingdom.

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