Recently my Paschal Mystery classes listened to a podcast episode from the Thomistic Institute entitled “Acedia and the Bleaching of Being” by Dr. R.J. Snell, the Director of Academic Programs at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. This episode was the first of four recorded at the aptly named retreat “Avoiding Acedia: An Intellectual Retreat” offered for students of Providence College.
We had just read the chapter on prayer in our text, and among the five main reasons discussed for our struggles with prayer was that of acedia or sloth. Before we listened to Dr. Snell, I proposed that not only was acedia one of the five, but it was the main reason and the one from which all the others sprang. Why do we lack the time to pray? Acedia. Why are we distracted in prayer? Acedia. Why do we experience dryness or aridity in prayer? Acedia. Why do we lack the faith to pray? Acedia.
For a little over an hour, Dr. Snell described acedia in all of its many facets. He spoke of acedia within the context of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He spoke about it through examples from literature. He used the works of philosophers and social critics and applied all of these to the lives of those who sat in front of him during the retreat. His conclusion: acedia is THE great sin of our age.
People may disagree with Dr. Snell’s conclusion, but they would have difficulty disagreeing with his mountain of evidence for what the medievals called “The Noonday Devil.” The Noonday Devil was that manifestation of acedia that crept into the mind and heart of a monk sometime in the middle of the day when he would rather be doing anything other than what he had been assigned to do. The poor monk, trapped in the scriptorium, expected to copy yet another page from a manuscript, looks out the window and looks for something - anything - to pull him away from the task at hand. The medieval equivalent of “going down a rabbit hole” on Wikipedia or YouTube or TikTok or Instagram or Twitter or …
When Dr. Snell asked his students what things they have done in order to avoid the work at hand, they came up with some typical, as well as some unique, answers: they rearranged the clothes in their closet, they charted out their academic careers with different colored highlighters, they went thrifting for a lamp and chair, and one young woman even went to Mass to avoid her organic chemistry reading.
This talk was given at the beginning of Advent, yet it applies just as well - and maybe better - for the session of Lent that starts this week. For those students on retreat, to be reminded of acedia in the days leading up to finals made great sense: they were tired after a long semester, and pretty much any activity looked better than writing term papers or finishing up projects, or cramming for exams. But for anyone who happened to listen to the retreat talk on the Thomistic Institute podcast, what was looming in the near future was not the end of the semester but the beginning of Lent.
In a world where people brag about how tired and worn out they are from all of the things that they are doing, acedia is a forgotten sin. Maybe Lent 2023 is a good time to look at how acedia has crept silently into our lives without our noticing it, and maybe there are ways to use the traditional triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to pull ourselves away from what the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen as not only an attitude of laziness or lethargy or ennui, but as that frantic busyness that keeps us from the good that we should be doing.
Lent can be a powerful season if approached with intention and diligence - the opposites of acedia. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can replace all of those activities that have cluttered our lives and, in doing so, can help us to get out of our favorite rabbit holes. Who knows, maybe once back on firm ground, we may realize that returning to a lifestyle of acedia would only appeal to someone as mad as a hatter.