Acedia—raise your hand if you know how to pronounce this word correctly. If you don’t, click on the word. But what does it mean? The term derives from the Greek word akēdeia. The ancient ascetics used it to signify a specific spiritual condition that afflicts monks and indeed all people. Possible renderings into English include “boredom,” “inertia,” “sloth,” “apathy,” “repulsion,” “indolence,” “lassitude,” “dejection.” Hieroschemamonk Gabriel Bunge proposes “despondency” as perhaps the most apt translation, “if it is understood that in the term despondency the other shades of meaning are heard together” (Despondency, p. 46).
Evagrius Ponticus puts acedia right in the middle of his list of the eight fundamental passions or thoughts (logismoi): gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. He describes them as generic thoughts because, as Bunge writes, “not only are all other thoughts generated from them, but these eight themselves are interwoven in many various ways” (p. 40). One immediately notes that the list begins with the most sensual of the passions and concludes with the most immaterial. Underlying the eight is the unlisted root vice—philautia, love of self.
Those who have seen Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their brilliant movie Bedazzled may be surprised to learn that before there were seven deadly sins there were eight. St Gregory the Great identified the capital sins as superbia (pride), invidia (envy), ira (anger), avaritia (avarice), tristia (sadness), gula (gluttony), and luxuria (disordered desire or lust). Over time tristia was replaced by otiositas or dēsidia (sloth, indolence). In Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, sloth is described as tepid love, the failure to love God with all of one’s being (lento amore). In the popular imagination sloth has become equivalent to laziness, yet the Eastern Christian understanding of acedia enjoys a much richer meaning. Acedia, says Evagrius, is the “noon-day demon” that attacks the believer when the sun is at its highest and the heat unbearably oppressive. It is more than a flaw of character but an alien power that drains the person of energy and life, ultimately leading to spiritual death and sometimes even suicide, tearing “the soul to pieces as a hunting-dog does a fawn” (p. 121).
The eight logismoi of Evagrius combine in various ways, generating different psychic-spiritual outcomes; but acedia appears to be unique in one respect: “If it is true that, for the others, at any given time they are a link in a colorful and variously assembled chain, so it is said of despondency that it is always the terminus of such a chain, and is therefore not followed immediately by any other ‘thoughts'” (p. 53). It’s as if acedia makes it impossible for the other passions to operate, so enervating is the gloom. For this reason Evagrius identifies acedia as “the most oppressive of all demons” (p. 46). On the day that it strikes, “no other thought follows that of despondency, first because it persists, and then also, because it contains in itself nearly all the thoughts” (p. 57). Hence it is one of the most dangerous of the vices and the most difficult to combat, especially if it settles into a more or less permanent condition. The frustration of desire, inevitably accompanied by anger, fuels the deadly torpidity. “A despondent person hates precisely what is available,” Evagrius writes, “and desires what is not available” (p. 57). He is thus reduced to a state of irrationality, “dragged by desire and beaten by hatred” (p. 57). Bunge elaborates:
Acedia, therefore, has a characteristic Janus head, which clarifies its partially contradictory manifestations. … Frustration and aggressiveness combine in a new way and produce this “complex” (that is, interwoven) phenomenon of acedia. It is this very “complexity” that makes it so impenetrable for the affected one, who really feels that he is a “poor animal.”
Finally, a characteristic time factor may be added. The other thoughts come and go at times even very rapidly, for example those of impurity and blasphemy. In contrast, the thought of acedia, because of its complex nature, which unites in itself the most diverse other thoughts, has the characteristic of lasting for a long time. From that duration arises an entirely particular state of mind, such as is typical for depression. When it is not recognized in a timely manner, or rather when one refrains from applying the appropriate remedies, it can become more or less manifest as a permanent condition.
In the life of the soul, acedia thus represents a type of dead end. A distaste for all that is available combined with a diffuse longing for what is not available paralyzes the natural functions of the soul to such a degree that no single one of any of the other thoughts can gain the upper hand! (p. 58)
Not surprisingly, Evagrius observes, the resulting lethargy leads to the neglect of prayer and the despisal of all things spiritual:
A despondent monk,
is dilatory at prayer.
And at times, he does not
speak the words of the prayer at all.
Then, just as a sick person carries no heavy burden,
so the despondent monk never, at any time, performs
the work of God with care.
The sick person, indeed,
has lost the strength of life,
while in the monk, by contrast,
the resilience of his soul has gone slack. (p. 77)
Bunge summarizes the Evagrian understanding of despondency:
Acedia is a vice, a passion, from which man suffers in the truest sense of the word, as from all passions or diseases of the soul. And, like all passions, it has its secret, invisible roots in self-love (philautia), that all-hating passion, which manifests itself in a thousand ways as a state of being stuck in oneself that renders one incapable of love. Its secret driving forces are anger, aggressiveness, and that irrational desire which distorts all creation in a selfish way. (p. 133)
At this point, I suspect, most readers will probably recognize the passion of acedia as one that has plagued them at various points of their lives. We call it “depression,” and it enjoys multiple diagnostic codes in the DSM. How might we understand the relationship between the passion of acedia and the mental disorder of depression? Are they identical, mutually related, or totally different? Unfortunately, Bunge does not discuss this important question, perhaps feeling that it is beyond his scholarly competence, and leaves it to the reader to take up the challenge. One might be tempted to choose between the Evagrian and modern psychiatric understandings. This, I believe, would be unwise.
Bunge devotes a chapter to the ascetical remedies to acedia. He presents no magical cures. Unlike the modern physician who is likely to give his patient a prescription for Zoloft or Cymbalta and leave it at that, Evagrius understood that the condition, particularly in its severe forms, requires sustained attention and disciplined application of the appropriate remedies. The demon does not flee easily. Yet despite the demonic stubbornness and the complexity of the passion, Evagrius believes that through patient perseverance the believer can achieve genuine victory:
Patience: a crushing of despondency. (p. 90)
The spirit of despondency
drives the monk from his cell,
but the one who has endurance will always have rest. (p. 117)
A deified intellect is an intellect that from all agitation has arrived at peace and has been adorned with the light of the vision of the Holy Trinity and begs of the Father the fulfillment of a desire that is insatiable. (p. 131)
Evil is a parasite and has already been defeated on the cross of the Son of God. Alien and unnatural to the world, it has no future. “There was a time when evil did not exist,” asserts Evagrius, “and the time will come when it will exist no more” (p. 44). Humanity was not meant for despondency. Those of us who have struggled with chronic depression will be understandably skeptical. We know too well the limits, and disappointments, of counseling and pharmacology in the treatment of our depression; yet Evagrius understood something that we moderns have forgotten: we are beings who live simultaneously in two realms—the physical and the spiritual—and the spiritual realm is populated by demonic agencies that are seeking to destroy us through passions and mental disorders. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). We are involved in spiritual warfare, whether we believe in demons or not. Our skepticism does not change the reality. The ascetical tradition provides us with weapons and therapies that may and should be employed both against the evil supernatural powers and our disordered desires.
I will not discuss the Evagrian remedies in this review. It is best that you purchase or borrow Despondency and slowly and carefully read the book yourself. You may well discover, as I did, that you need to read it a second time. Then discuss it with a wise spiritual guide and soul friend. One word of advice: do not throw away your meds or terminate your secular counseling. I saw such counsel being dispensed on an Orthodox internet forum and was horrified. The relation between brain chemistry, moods, and spiritual states is a mystery. We must not toss aside the knowledge and wisdom we have gained from science and depth psychology.
In the beginning of his book Father Gabriel quotes a story of St Antony the Great. This story will serve as a fitting conclusion to this review:
When the holy Abba Antony lived in the desert he was beset by acedia and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down again and plaiting a rope, then getting up to pray again. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct him and reassure him. He heard the angel say to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
Take heart, my friends. Christ has conquered the world (Jn 16:33).
[Originally published on 9 August 2014; mildly edited]