When I was the Vocation Director of the Diocese one of the things I was expected to do was have what’s called a “social media presence,” which meant posting content on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. I quickly realized how social media can easily suck up all your attention and waste huge amounts of time with things that are not very edifying. While using it, I’ve said to myself countless times, “ok, just one more article” or “just one more video” or “let me just check to see of so-and-so has posted something new.” Rather than focusing on the work that I need to do, I end up wasting time with these things. It was ironic, then, that I recently came across the Twitter account of someone who was posting information about the sin of acedia.
Acedia is one of the seven deadly sins, more commonly known as sloth. Acedia is a better term, however, because the word sloth is too closely associated with laziness and acedia is more subtle and complex an affliction than just being lazy. In his helpful book The Noonday Devil, Fr. Jean-Charles Nault, OSB explains that the word acedia has its roots in a Greek word that denoted the lack of care that people showed when they failed to bury their dead, thereby neglecting a sacred duty. With the rise of Christianity, acedia took on a different meaning. It no longer referred to the lack of care shown to the deceased but a lack of care given to one’s own spiritual life and one’s salvation.
Acedia is the deadly sin that no one talks about. We all know about pride, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, greed. Acedia seems to fly under the radar. But it’s pervasive. Cardinal Schristoph Schonborn of Vienna once said: “the deepest crisis in the Church today is that we no longer dare to believe in what God can do for the good with those who love him. The spiritual masters traditionally call this torpor of mind and heart acedia.” It is the habitual disposition that stifles the desire to contemplate God and the things of God. What makes this sin so devastating is that we are made to contemplate God. It is in contemplating God, ultimately in the Beatific Vision of heaven, that we know greatest happiness. Acedia attacks this desire to contemplate God, and this leads to deep sadness. It is the feeling of dissatisfaction with everything, accompanied with a lack of interest in the one thing that can satisfy us.
Acedia, according to Nault, manifests itself as an interior restlessness. This restlessness makes you feel like you constantly need a change of scenery because you feel trapped where you are. It’s this restlessness that leads us to mindlessly surf the web, seeking novelty to distract us for a few moments, before we get bored again. It can manifest itself as an aversion to work, which is why it’s often associated with laziness. But work can also serve as a distraction that feeds acedia, and so unreflective hyperactivity can also be a sign of acedia. A general feeling of discouragement with one’s life and situation is also a sign of acedia. Unfortunately, acedia is so subtle and elusive that the one who suffers with it often doesn’t recognize it for what it is, which makes it difficult to root out of our lives.
Fighting the “noonday devil” requires making frequent acts of the will to resist it where we find it. There are some things we can do to help in the struggle. We should get out of bed promptly when the alarm goes off (no snooze button!). We should try to set aside our phones and avoid the distraction of screens for an hour at a time. This actually might be harder than we realize, but doing it helps us develop a taste for living in the moment and being present to others, ourselves, and God. Another thing we can do is to be intentional about what we eat rather than mindlessly snacking or grazing. We also should be intentional about our leisure, planning to watch a particular movie or show, rather than surfing around for entertainment. Setting aside time each day for prayer – maybe 30 minutes, preferably in the morning – is essential. It could be quiet time reflecting on the scriptures, or daily Mass, or the rosary, or some spiritual reading. And we should do that especially when we don’t feel like it.
The fight against acedia is a long battle. As with any other sin, if we fail in our struggle against acedia, we must resist discouragement and turn back to God. We ask Him for help, go to confession if needed, and start again. Acedia keeps us from treating our existence as a great gift (which it is even when life is hard), and living our lives under the loving gaze of God (which He offers us even when we struggle with sin). The poet Leon Bloy famously said: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Acedia is the terrible sin that saps us of our desire to be a saint, and that’s why we must strive to recognize it and resist it with all our strength, with the help of God.