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Ancient spiritual affliction leads to modern despair

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Do you sometimes wonder whether your life has amounted to much? Are there times when you just don't care what happens to you, or the world?

You've worked hard, helped others, loved God, gone to worship services on a regular basis, prayed, read the scriptures, lived a decent life. But it all seems so pointless now -- why bother trying to be faithful, anyway? It doesn't seem to make any difference; the world is in as terrible a shape as it ever was, and nothing you can do will make it better.

I know I sometimes feel that way. Am I depressed? Maybe not, says Kathleen Norris. Maybe what I'm experiencing is acedia.

Acedia is an old spiritual affliction. At its Greek root, it means the absence of care. In personal terms, it means refusing to care, or even that you can't care. Acedia was a bane to ancient monks and hermits, who considered it one of the greatest threats to monastic living. Once a monk succumbed to the notion that his efforts at daily prayer and contemplation were futile, life loomed like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

Evagrius, who lived in the fourth century, experienced acedia. It "makes it seem that the sun hardly moves, if at all, and that the day is 50 hours long," he wrote. John Climacus, a sixth-century monk, said it led to a "slackness of the mind" and a "hostility to vows taken."

Few of us are monks, but we can all relate to times when life feels like we are swimming through oatmeal -- times when God feels a million miles away and it's just too hard to keep going. We want to pray, worship or just carry on our normal daily activities, but we are filled with apathy, torpor and despair. Life, it seems, just doesn't feel worth living.

In her new book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, Norris writes about her own struggles with the affliction, which left her listless and apathetic.

"I think of acedia as the great disconnector," she says, adding that, for her, it was the "profound indifference" that was really debilitating.

The terrible thing about it is that even though you know you have it, you can't stop it, she says. "You know the pain is there, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn."

Acedia makes people feel disconnected from people, relationships and communities.

"Anything that helps you connect with the human race somehow is stripped away," she adds. "Anything you can think of to do to help you get out of it, you go, 'Nah, I don't want to do that.' "

It's not just religious people who can suffer from acedia, she adds, noting that "anyone whose work is self-motivated, and that would be any writer or artist," can experience it.

Acedia is also a danger for relationships, making marriage seem oppressive and meaningless. "All those things that acedia will feed on are going to happen in a marriage sooner or later," says Norris. "Anybody who makes a lifetime commitment is going to face it."

How can people overcome acedia? For Norris, author of books such as The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, writing this book about acedia was a way out. She also turns to the Lord's Prayer when she feels it approaching. It reminds her that "the life in which we ought to be interested is daily life... our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow."

Other ways to deal with it, she says, include going to worship services, connecting with others, or just carrying on with the normal things of life -- even when those are the last things you really want to do.

"The ancient remedies are prayer and psalmody," she says. "Prayer, fasting, tears. That sounds kind of weird to modern people, but I think refusing to disconnect and maybe staying in this place that you have chosen: your job, a marriage, a monastery, whatever it is. Saying, 'No, I'm going to stay here. This is where I've made my stand. The grass is not greener. I am going to remain faithful to my commitments.' "

For a long time, the concept of acedia was lost to western culture. It was subsumed into the sin of sloth, as opposed to a sense of profound existential indifference.

But today the ancient wisdom about acedia seems to be making a comeback. For Norris, this is a welcome turn of events; if people understand what is happening to them, they can identify it and combat it.

"I am convinced that the word returned to us because we needed it again," she says.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2009 B9

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