Oblate Conference: On Acedia, Part II

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

—Blaise Pascal


Dear Oblates,

As we explore together what it means to live ‘Benedictine spirituality’ according to one’s state of life in the world, it seems to me important to spend one more conference on the tempting thought, or vice, of acedia.  Evagrius and John Cassian both insist on the danger of this spiritual disease that particularly targets monks.  In my previous conference, I identified it with the modern phenomenon of ‘burnout’ and the associated behaviors of multitasking and workaholism.  Since then, I have encountered a series of writings by Protestant pastors making the same connection, which encourages me to press on in this direction.  I would like to offer some reflections on ‘consecration’ as providing opposing thoughts to the temptation of acedia.

Monks and nuns are consecrated persons, in the canonical sense.  This means that we are ‘set apart’ for God.  Just as a chalice is consecrated and used exclusively for the Holy Eucharist—we wouldn’t use a chalice for drinking our morning latté—a consecrated person is removed from quotidian concerns in order to devote herself or himself to God.  The new life of a professed monk is one, therefore ‘hidden in God’, lived close to the mysteries of Christ, which are visible only to the eyes of faith.  One reason that contemplatives withdraw from the world is to reduce the distractions presented to the bodily senses in order to allow these ‘spiritual senses’ to develop, that we might learn to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Now, in the first sentence of that previous paragraph, I added the qualifying phrase ‘in the canonical sense’.  This is because all Christians who receive the sacrament of baptism are consecrated to God.  Within the Mystical Body of Christ, we receive different gifts from the Holy Spirit in order to carry out different callings, and yet, as the teachings of Vatican II stress, all are called to holiness.  Just as the Church is at once in heaven and on earth, the Church must contain both the contemplative and active life, but in such a way that the active is ordered to the contemplative and things of time to things of eternity.

This seems to me to be one helpful way of characterizing the spirituality of the Benedictine Oblate.  An Oblate remains ‘in the world’, in the state of the laity or the secular clergy, but also is called to maintain a higher awareness of our final goal of blessedness, modeled by the Benedictine community to which the Oblate is attached.  Through the practices of the monastic life, adapted to life outside the cloister, the Oblate lives his or her baptismal consecration in a more conscious way.  This includes making time for the liturgy and for prayer, contemplative prayer, to the extent that we can manage it.

Over the years, I have met with many persons for spiritual direction.  The number one problem I encounter in directees is an aversion to prayer.  Most people won’t use these words, of course.  We all know that good Christians are supposed to pray and even like it.  But many of us simply don’t.  We are all so busy!  After a difficult session of spiritual direction, perhaps a chastened directee will make an effort really to pray for a few days, but inevitably distraction sets in.  Lurking just behind our consciousness is the uneasy feeling that some or other commitment we’ve made is being overlooked; that various people will be upset if we don’t get such-and-such task finished; that so-and-so expects me to email or call or text-message or Skype; that the cat needs to get to the vet and I have to schedule a dentist appointment…

What’s more, no one seems to know how busy I am.  Few people write or call to cheer me up.  Few recognize the things I actually do accomplish…(see how Evagrius characterizes acedia here—number 12).

So sitting still in my room and simply praying to God is quickly swallowed up by all these worldly concerns.  I will pray—we say—tomorrow!  And tomorrow comes with twice as many worries as today had.

Making time for prayer requires us to make a serious act of faith.  Not only must we believe that God is listening and cares what we have to say (why not turn to Jesus or even St. Paul for encouragement?), but we must also believe that He is the one in charge of the affairs of the world.  St. Thérèse, whose feast we just celebrated, liked to remind herself and others of how very limited we are by our human frailty, much as we enjoy imagining ourselves to be influential, and how unlimited God is.  Cast your cares on the Lord and He will support you.

Acedia is the thought that leaving the world wasn’t such a good idea.  Presented with the chance to leave behind all the worries of the world and entrust ourselves to God entirely, we blink.  Because this has the appearance of a dishonorable action, we tend to dress up acedia as something virtuous, calling it instead ‘good works’ or ‘pastoral care’.  These are, of course, genuine goods, but must flow from our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  Without me, you can do nothing.

To do battle with acedia, the desert monks counsel stillness and perseverance in prayer no matter what.  In the world, of course, there are practical limits to the time allotted to prayer.  Therefore, let’s return to the idea of consecration, of our incorporation into the Mystical Body to understand another way of combating acedia.

The wonderful thing about our consecration in baptism is that it is permanent.  No matter what happens in life, we belong to Christ.  Even when we commit grave sin, the Good Shepherd does not abandon us, but willingly leaves the ninety-nine sheep to seek out the one stray whom He calls by name.  This permanent ‘belonging’ is a greater reality than any of the myriad and assorted actions we carry out.  Even more: all of our actions are forever those of one of God’s children and as such, have greater merit than they would have otherwise.

As I like to tell the brethren, when we sweep a floor, or practice piano, or make a bed in the guesthouse, it is a member of the Body of Christ who is doing this action.  This is true whether we are personally aware of it or not.  The work that we do is holy by virtue of our doing it, by virtue of our baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.  This means that all work can be a kind of prayer.  We don’t necessarily need to do lots of it, either.  In fact, once we become aware of the sacrality of all that we do (one thinks of Benedict’s counsel to treat the tools of the monastery as the sacred vessels of the altar), we might be inclined to work more slowly and attentively, rather than distractedly tilting at five jobs at once out of a pressed conscience.

“Surely there must be more to it than that!”  The voice of acedia will issue this sort of rejoinder.  Aren’t we supposed to be doing great things for the Lord?  To this I would respond, “Why not allow the Lord to do what He thinks is great in you?”  His thoughts are not our thoughts, and indeed are more merciful to us than we are inclined to be to ourselves and others.

In any case, what I have laid before you is simply the Little Way of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse, a Doctor of the Church.  What matters is not so much the greatness of the deed, but the love with which we do it.  And this love springs from the awareness that God loved us first and continues to love us with an everlasting love.  We do not need to earn this love or fear losing it.  We should rather fear forgetting it, and we will never learn to be fully mindful of God’s loving presence if we do not make some time for prayer.

So let us pray for each other, that we will be truly women and men of prayer, whose knowledge of God’s love is such that we can truly be apostles of the New Evangelization that the Spirit is undertaking in the Church today!

1 Comment

  • Nancy Farrell says:

    Thank you so much, Fr Peter. The insight you share is enlightening, affirming, as well as encouraging. No matter the logic of thoughts that want to pull us away from prayer, the discipline of commitment to prayer with stillness of body at set time(s) never fails us.
    StTofL is a wonderful role model of praying even when we can’t think straight; her humility & ours in admitting acedia battles draws us to “let” Christ carry us, loving him by our presence of body & effort of mind & heart, empty & pitiful to us. How could we show our love of God any better than this?
    +rose of cypress,
    little bud of StTofL