A Sin Against the Gift of Self

I had a startling realization over this past Christmas that I might be getting old.

My son received an album by The Who as a present and I ended up reacquainting myself with their music as we listened to it together in the car.  Hearing again especially some of their earlier music, all the fuss “eggheads” made in the 1960’s about rock music destroying the youth, and ultimately destroying our civilization, made total sense.

How could this be happening to me?  It could possibly have something to do with the minivan in the driveway . . .

My reaction came not so much from their penchant to destroy their instruments (which I always just found pointless and hardly scary or “revolutionary”) but from the lyrics, rhythm, etc.  Everything seemed to be about angst, alienation, anger, emotional distress, “I’m better than you,” and so on.  Again — some of this changed as they matured as people and musicians in the 1970’s.

“Kid’s these days!”

But if one reflects on popular music in general we see that The Who (who at least were interesting and talented) probably were not nearly as “dangerous” as some other bands/pop stars.  So much even of the best pop music (even early Beatles) aims for the lowest denominator of teenage emotional distress.*  So much of it seems so small, petty, narrow, trapping us inside ourselves.  When we consider that the goal of the Christian life is “contentment in all things” through union with God and our fellow man, we see how obviously such music works directly against that.

In her recent interview with Tyler Cowen the always engaging Camille Paglia talked of how she finds the culture of today small and largely pointless.  In contrast, the culture she grew up in celebrated the large and grand.  The Ten Commandments has the huge statue of Pharaoh move across the screen, or the vast expanse of the desert in Lawerence of Arabia.  Today the internet opens up a whole world and yet we sit fixated on tiny screens.

Perhaps there is a connection between the two.

In the Church’s patristic era a variety of monks described a spiritual state they called “acedia.”  Through a series of unfortunate twists and turns the sin of acedia would come to thought of as mere laziness.  But originally, it meant something deeper and more profound than this.  Abbot Jean Charles Nault seeks to recover its original meaning and its relevance for today, in his book The Noonday Devil.  He attempts to explain the meaning of acedia with roots in apathy, boredom, and indifference.  The middle section, where he discusses the work of Thomas Aquinas, got a bit tedious for me at least (which is a shame because St. Thomas is not tedious).  Despite this, one sees clearly that Abbot Jean has written a useful and timely work.

Abbott Nault begins by tracing the development of the idea of acedia, first recognized, or at least, written about, by the early desert monastics.  Anyone familiar with the writings of such fathers know they possessed profound spiritual and psychological insights.  We can see this when they called acedia the “noon-day devil.”  In the middle of the day in the desert the sun comes to its height and the heat–and the torpor of the day– reach their peak.  Bodies and minds alike become wet noodles.  But more than this, with the sun at its height we see no shadows and are not conscious of time passing.  Without shadow and the passing of time, we lose a sense of mystery.  Without mystery, we grow disenchanted with the world.  Soon enough, we grow not just disenchanted with the world, but our very selves.  In due time, disenchantment leads to disgust even with our very existence.

Hence, Abbot Nault brilliant summation that acedia is a “sin against the gift of the self.”

Since the first to discuss acedia were desert monastics the original applications had to do with desert monastic life.  Acedia took a variety of forms:

  • Temptation to leave one’s cell/calling — variety is the spice of life, so we say.  For the monastics no monk needed anything that was not already in his cell.  The temptation to seek variety led to a dissipation of spiritual energy.  A love of variety only masks a disgust with creation itself.
  • Too much concern for one’s physical health–this seems hardly akin to “disgust with oneself” or creation.  But if we look closer . . . hypochondriacs are navel gazers.  They  misplace their vision and will not look at the stars.  This obsession leads down the path of disenchantment, first  with creation, and then with the self.  Some recommend frequent meditations on death as a special cure for this.  Take care of your body all you like, but death will take you all the same.  In addition, meditation on death will mean meditation on a mystery, and the possibility of re-echantment with the self, creation and ultimately, with God.  In fact, meditation on the brute fact of one’s death was a frequently prescribed remedy for acedia.
  • Neglect in observing the rule–often the temptation is to ‘minimize’ the rule and make things easier.  Sometimes others sought to go beyond the rule to great extremes.  Both paths seek one’s own way in the spiritual struggle, however, and this leads to isolation from community.  Both paths fail the discipline of “staying in your lane” and contentment with what has been given.
  • Aversion to manual labor–this seems more like what we would expect to hear
  • Desire for “worldly pursuits”–service, activity, and so on.  Surely these are good things!  And they are, but “remain in your cell.”  Stay in your lane.

The monks gave various cures for acedia such as exercise, combining work and prayer, and so on.** But none of the remedies allowed the monk to avoid his true calling, and hence, his true self.  “Have the discipline and the desire to become truly human.”

The devil has craft.  He masks acedia in various ways, one of them being the desire for self-preservation.  We feel that our routines suffocate us.  We need fresh air, a change of pace–surely God created such variety for a reason!  But this desire to embrace the so-called fulness of ourselves is false.  In reality we seek to escape ourselves.  This subtle deception makes itself evident when we switch from an “open” approach to life rooted in love to a “closed” approach rooted in obligation.  No lover seeks to perform the minimum to show his intention to his beloved.  But most of us get out of the dentist office as soon as possible.  We take a “closed” approach to our disciplines when we see them as taking instead of giving life.  We erect walls and a moat around our identities.  This so-called self preservation actually shrivels and dissipates us.  We avoid the self by scattering it to the four winds. Without true self-knowledge we will end up dealing with God only when we “have to.”

Many years ago I met very briefly a bishop not terribly unlike some of these desert monastics in terms of his habits.  He was old, thin, and spoke in a quiet though melodious voice.  Yet he easily seemed to me the most “solid” person in the room.  The weight of his personality struck me with great force.  Here, I thought, is a real person, whose discipline of heart and will have made him an infinitely stronger man than myself.^  I recall thinking, “If for some reason he tells me to jump, I will certainly ask, ‘how high?'”

One can easily see how acedia would have a field day in our modern world.  Good evidence exists that the multiplicity of choice in fact makes us less free. We have a hard time avoiding distraction, but the real problem is that we do not want to avoid it.  Many of us crave distraction to keep us away from ourselves, and most of us carry an easy means of distraction in our pockets.  To return to Paglia’s observation, a world of small screens will lead to small minds and a great dullness.

Despite the appalling landscape of our own hearts, I see some ground to build upon.  The Church still understands that monogamous marriage leads to great fulfillment and a true understanding of love of God.  Many often say that they did not really know their spouse until marriage.  So too, many of us did not really know ourselves until practicing marriage either.  We understand here the value of “staying in your lane.”

But progress in our culture on this issue may involve a different understanding of human experience and our place in the world.  We should remember the “middle way” of the desert fathers.  “If you are hungry, eat.  If you are tired, sleep.  But . . . do not leave your cell.”

— Dave


*This was not the case as much with groups that came out a more weighty blues tradition, like the Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, and especially, . . . most especially, Jimi Hendrix.

**In a whole other section Nault describes that a frequent remedy for acedia involved lamenting and weeping over one’s sins.  A trivial person, just like a trivial culture, will not be able to take anything seriously.  A true sense of personal sin will give you the  humility to “stay in your lane.”

^The desert fathers have a reputation for extreme severity that the many quotes in the book do not support.  Obviously their monastic life included more asceticism than exists in the world, but all in all, they strove for the “middle way.”