Acedia During the Coronavirus Pandemic: A 5th-Century Term for a 21st-Century Problem

Acedia, engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th century (source)

As regular readers of my blog well know by now, I have a tendency to go off on tangents. Today is most definitely a tangent, but it is a topical one in this time of pandemic, so I hope you will indulge me.

Today is officially Day 205 of my working from home in self-isolation for my university library system. This morning, in my biweekly telephone chat with my psychiatrist (we suspended face-to-face sessions at the start of the pandemic), she mentioned a podcast that she had listened to, and a word which I had never heard before: acedia (pronounced ‘uh-see-dee-uh’ in English, sometimes “uh-kee-dee-uh”).

Father Harrison Ayre, a priest in the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, who was interviewed in a recent article from the Catholic Saskatoon News, says that acedia “manifests itself specifically in listlessness, distraction, and wanting to avoid the task at hand…Paradoxically, it could look either like sitting around and doing nothing, or busying oneself with anything and everything but the task at hand.” Sure sounds a lot like me, trying to be productive while working from home!

Acedia was first identified by 5th century monk and theologian John Cassian. According to an article on the topic published in The Conversation, by Jonathan L. Zecher, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University:

Etymologically, acedia joins the negative prefix a- to the Greek noun kēdos, which means “care, concern, or grief”. It sounds like apathy, but Cassian’s description shows that acedia is much more daunting and complex than that.

Cassian and other early Christians called acedia “the noonday demon”, and sometimes described it as a “train of thought”. But they did not think it affected city-dwellers or even monks in communities.

Rather, acedia arose directly out the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.

“Spatial and social constrictions” are also a rather apt and concise description of governmental and societal responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing limits physical contact, and quarantines and lockdowns constrict physical space and movement. Working from home day after day, and rarely leaving that home, means a distinct lack of external stimulation. In other words, the 21st-century coronavirus pandemic conditions we face ironically approximate those of 5th-century solitary desert monks. The article goes on to state:

Reviving the language of acedia is important to our experience in two ways. First, it distinguishes the complex of emotions brought on by enforced isolation, constant uncertainty and the barrage of bad news from clinical terms like “depression” or “anxiety”…

Learning to express new or previously unrecognized constellations of feelings, sensations, and thoughts, builds an emotional repertoire, which assists in emotional regulation. Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.

As we, like Cassian’s desert monks, struggle through our own “long, dark teatime of the soul”, we can name this experience, which is now part of our emotional repertoire.

So I did a little librarian sleuthing (something I’m quite good at), and eventually, I found the podcast which my psychiatrist had mentioned this morning.

It is an episode of The Table, a podcast hosted by Evan Rosa, and produced by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, which is titled Fighting the Noonday Demon: Kathleen Norris on Acedia, Boredom, and Desert Spirituality. Here is an excerpt from that fascinating podcast, which was recorded two years before the pandemic hit, and which I recommend you listen to in full (even if you’re an atheist like me):

What are those original 8 deadly vices? The list Cassian translated into Latin from Evagrius was: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice or Greed, Superbia or Pride, Despair or Sadness, Anger or Wrath, Vainglory, and Acedia.

These 8 deadly terrible thoughts became the 7 deadly sins in the 6th century, when Pope Gregory the Great wanted to consolidate and develop the list in order to respond to the spiritual needs and pathologies of Christians at that time. So, vainglory and superbia are combined into pride. Envy is added to the list. But we want to hone in on just one that was removed and forgotten: Acedia. Despair or sadness and Acedia were often confused, thought irrelevant to life outside the monastery, and used interchangeably; so they were combined and renamed as Sloth.

Dante Alighieri thought of each of these deadly sins as corruptions or deprivations or negations of love. Four of them deal explicitly with the corruption of the mind—vainglory, sorrow, pride, and acedia—which is perhaps what makes it possible to see these exercises as psychology, which exists, at least in part, to heal corruptions of the mind, or mental illness.

So what’s the point of this listing of vices and the examination of temptations? Evagrius himself was worried about too much theorizing about temptation and sin, because of the way it can introduce bad thoughts to otherwise innocent minds. I’m sure there are many reasons, and I won’t list them all, but giving temptations and vices a name has a way of helping us respond. The 8 vices are presented as spirits or “demons” in Cassian’s Institutes. There is a meaning found in naming the enemy or attacker, or diagnosing an illness. Until you know what plagues you, it can be hard to formulate a resistance or treatment plan…

When Gregory the Great consolidated the list, it was seen as a good thing—it allowed Christians of that time to focus on the most problematic of temptations and try to root them out. But as a result, Acedia was taken off the list and hidden away. It didn’t seem to apply beyond the solitary, individual lives of monks, who were constantly tempted to abandon their cell, abandon their monastery and simply give up on the life they were called to.

In this podcast, Evan Rosa interviews theological author Kathleen Norris, who wrote a 2008 book titled Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, and who makes a distinction between depression (a concept which we are familiar with) and acedia (which has become a all-but-forgotten concept in modern society):

The Greek word acedia just means not caring. It’s come to mean as seriously not caring to the extent that you no longer care that you care. I described it as a spiritual morphing. If you really give in to it, it becomes this numbing effect on your life.

Just knowing the name of what it is, it’s not depression, it’s not just sadness. It’s not just boredom and restlessness, but all those things are part of it. Just knowing the name of it, and when it strikes it, seems to come out of nowhere.

If I’m depressed I usually know why. That something really bad has happened. Of course, I’m a little bit depressed. I’ll work through that. If someone has died, or a bad thing has happened, with acedia it can come out of nowhere. At least now I recognize it and I say, “Oh, you again. OK, well, I’m not going to give in.”

Depression is an illness, whereas acedia is a temptation. Because it’s a temptation, it can be resisted. You can struggle against it and win, whereas, if you’re seriously depressed, you probably need medication. You need a psychiatrist, or a psychologist to work with you on it.

With acedia, it is a temptation. You can resist it, once you know what it is, and you recognize it.

So, how that we have identified acedia, how do we cope with it? In a separate interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Kathleen Norris offers some suggestions:

So how do hundreds of millions of newly minted, if reluctant, “monks” cope with the experience?

…it helps to establish a daily routine. Monastic living is established with a routine, for a good reason. Times are set aside for morning prayer, mealtimes, afternoon prayer and work. It’s like a scaffolding, akin to the way buildings are kept together, much like our spiritual and emotional lives, she said.

Her other bits of advice: Take a shower and wash your hair every day. Little items of grooming, when neglected, can create a “feeling of ‘Why bother?’ ” Take a walk, keeping in mind social distance concerns. There’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures as well. “I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going,” said Norris.

Researching and writing this blogpost has helped me feel better today, and I hope what I have learned helps you too. (Makes mental note to add chocolate to my next Walmart grocery pickup.)

Stay sane and stay healthy!

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2 thoughts on “Acedia During the Coronavirus Pandemic: A 5th-Century Term for a 21st-Century Problem”

  1. Different. Informative. Fascinating. This is the sort of stuff I’ve bookmarked your blog for. Keep it coming. Thank you.

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