Early Christian monks believed in something they called acedia. More colloquially, they called it the Noonday Devil, a name that essentially describes the concept. Acedia, for them, was different from ordinary depression in that it didn’t draw you into the dark, chaotic areas of your mind and heart, to have you diseased before your own complex and infinite depth; it was more of a flattening out, a dearth of energy, that put you into a semi-vegetative state that simply deadened all deep feeling and thoughts.
The early Church considered it one of the seven capital sins. Later it was renamed as sloth. There’s an abundance of good spiritual literature on the concept of acedia, not least Kathleen Norris’s definitive work on how acedia was understood by the early Church.
But until recently acedia hadn’t been studied in depth as a psychological concept. Happily that’s changing, with important implications for spirituality. To offer just one example: I recently attended a lecture on acedia given by a Jungian specialist, Lauren Morgan Wuest. I cannot do justice to her full thesis here, but let me risk a simplified synopsis.
Having read the literature of the Desert Fathers and the various commentaries on the idea of acedia, she attempted to interface that spiritual literature with the insights of contemporary psychology, particularly those from the Jungian school of thought.
What were her conclusions? In brief, her view is that acedia is not a clinical diagnosis, meaning that it isn’t a pathology requiring treatment. Nor is it an ordinary depression. Rather, the symptoms of acedia are the result of a healthy instinctual reflex of our bodies and minds which, when they are not given something they need, sometimes forcefully shut us down, much like an ordinary depression shuts someone down. Except that in the case of acedia, the shutdown of energy is for the purpose of health. Simplistically put, because we won’t sit down on our own and give our bodies and minds the rest, nourishment and space they need, our bodies and minds conspire together to sit us down, forcibly. In essence, that’s acedia, and, in essence, it’s for our own wellbeing.
As a psychologist, she didn’t go on to draw out the potential ramifications of this for spirituality, particularly how this might relate to the practice of Sabbath in our lives, but all the implications are there.
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