Autumn had the potential to be an exciting season. My daughter started her freshman year of high school. She loved all her classes, flourished in the drama department, and was content in ways that delighted me. My son played fall football and began his final year of middle school. Both of them were happy, settled, and more established in our community than I’d seen before, which was nothing less than an answer to prayer. Vocationally, I felt directed and secure in what God was asking of me, with enough challenges in life to push me but not so much difficulty that I feared all out failure. Everything seemed set up to be perfect and good. And good, it was. However, as the fall days darkened and the rains began their incessant pitter-patter against my roof, I noticed an all-too familiar visitor come knocking on my door: boredom.
I’ve been a Christian since I was 16 years old, and now, as a woman setting out on her 40s, I know that God is not boring. God is good, and does great and marvelous things. God leads us onto right paths and fills our lives with light and life. And yet, there I was waking up each morning, bored, wondering what adventure I might sign up for to alleviate my spiritual apathy.
Almost every day, for over 20 years, I have woken up and read Scripture. I write in my journal. I pray my way through the Lord’s prayer. I lift my needs to God and invite God into my day. I usually read the morning and evening Psalms. I write down verses that speak to me.
It all felt stale, worthless, maybe even pointless. For a few days, I wondered if I needed to call my doctor and receive treatment for depression, which I have done in the past. But this malaise felt different than clinical depression. It felt like good old-fashioned boredom. My spiritual life tasted like dry toast. I began to struggle to even care about the affairs of the world, and started to feel my boredom creep into torpor. It was then that the lights went off and I remembered an old word I learned many years ago, a word that changed the landscape of my spiritual life. That word is acedia.
There was a time in the history of the English language when the word acedia disappeared from our usage altogether. According to Webster it means, “spiritual or mental sloth; apathy.” It comes from the root word in Greek for listlessness, or without care, torpor.
Evagrius Ponticus talked about acedia in the 300s as the noon-day demon. He suggested that acedia is the vice that causes the most trouble. “First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Acedia tends to trouble those who live habitual lives, particularly monks, but it can plague anyone who’s vocational life is long and reward is slow in coming.
As one who has practiced faith most of my life, it seems honest to admit that for the Christian, reward is often slow to come. The spiritual life in general is not a life of immediate gratification or quick fixes. Instead, it is a steady, focused life turned toward God, on pilgrimage, for all our days. Any of us who have walked with God for many years are keenly aware of the temptation to turn off our feelings, to nurture despondency, to shun hope because we’re afraid of disappointment, and because we get tired of caring, tired of trying to change the world, for we know the world is slow to change. It’s exhausting to care so much, and it’s right there, inside that exhaustion, when acedía sets in.
According to Kathleen Norris in her book, Acedia and Me, “Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century—or a hang up of some weird Christian monks, but a force we ignore at our peril. Whenever we focus on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the real world—the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain forests, the social and ecological damage caused by factory farming—acedia is at work. Wherever we run to escape it, acedia is there, propelling us to the “next best thing,” another paradise to revel in and wantonly destroy.”
This fall, as the days shortened and we made our way out of Ordinary Time and ventured into Advent, and then to Christmas, it was to Epiphany that my mind turned. I’m always ready for a new journey, a new excursion to carry my passions. However, as much as I tried to ignore the plain truth niggling in the back of my mind, I couldn’t. The wise men discovered, inside their vocational life, that the star of David had risen and the King himself was born. Their epiphany did not come from venturing off into something unusual and new. God met them right in the middle of their ordinary vocation. It was only after they discovered Jesus had been born, that they set out to pay him homage. They did not journey to have their epiphany; they walked toward Jesus because of one.
The epiphany of lights and big ah-ha moments that many of us seek may not be what we really need. We are taught in our culture to go big or go home, to upscale as soon as we can afford it, to search high and low for newfound pleasures. Still, even as we do these things, we clamor and crave for more. Acedia, spiritual apathy, knocks on our doors dressed up as boredom with the mundane and begs to be let inside. Despite our desire for it to be otherwise, the mature Christian life is, in large part, a life of tedium. It is one of stalwart unflinching commitment to feel the groans of the earth and, despite the earth’s long ache, we choose to bow our knees to the One and continue to hope in him for our redemption.
While most of us cannot walk hundreds of miles to kneel and worship Jesus in the place where he was born, we can make a different journey. The journey in our hearts, the road from apathy, however that might manifest in your life, to clarity, to authentic worship. In an age where consumerism and noise is altogether overwhelming and present at all times, we are invited into Epiphany and the season of Ordinary Time all at once. The wise men followed a star that they might pay homage to the One who hung the stars. We follow the quiet road of the heart, throw off that which entangles, and kneel to the same King once more.
In the gospels we see over and over that God does not delight in the great and mighty, in the big and lofty. Our acedia is stilled and quieted, overcome, if you will, in the same way we encounter the living God. Not by loud and bold, not by chasing after the epiphany of lights and fireworks, but with silence and simplicity, at home with the small.
As Wendell Berry puts it in his lovely poem, “What We Need is Here”:
Geese appear high over us, pass, and the sky closes. Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here: and we pray not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart and in eye clear. What we need is here.