Prescribing a remedy

Fighting acedia with a focused, intentional stability was considered [..] vital in maintaining a good relationship with God and one’s fellow monks[…]. [One elder] counseled, “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do not work, only do not leave your cell.” […A]nother elder advised, “Don’t pray at all, just stay in the cell.”
—Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me, p39, emphasis mine

I’m further along, Chapter 6 to the above in Chapter 3, but as of yet she’s not delivered the modern translation of this prescription. As I mull my margin notes, I half-remember that she never does; I gobbled this book down two years ago while on a retreat and I’m pretty sure I would’ve scribbled down any bona fide instructions.

That’s why I’m re-reading, after all. Because, as she quotes Andrew Solomon as saying, “You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance” (p38). Having a name for the feeling, acedia, goes a long way in shifting my coping skills away from vague hand-flapping. Telling myself, “Ah, this feels like acedia,” gives me an anchor point where I can begin. The question remains: begin what?

The “procession of vagaries” quote on my bathroom mirror is, I think, a step toward stability. And while I haven’t been feeling acedic (hush, you, now it’s a word) since then, I have narrowed my morning waking window and have established a <gasp> habit-cluster. They’re good things to do, and I do them—leaving them outside my critical thinking functions. I see that I have few activities that can withstand critical assessment of their worth and impact, so I now deliberately don’t assess them beyond the basics.

That’s a little more stable, anyway.

“Do not work” and “don’t pray at all” map effectively into my contemporary non-monastic life, check.
But what is the modern “do not leave your cell?”

Lemme pause. Lemme define cell, for desert monastics:

Who were walking away from the newly-institutionalized and -sanctioned Church into pure expressions of faith. Who formed no communities, no rules of faith or life, no fixed times of prayer. Who stopped and stayed in some isolate place, where they chose “humility, prayer, patience, and introspection.” In one characteristic anecdote, Abba Antony chose to be fundamentally guided by Matthew 6:34: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today,” and divested himself of absolutely everything. [1]

Place becomes the primary structure, and then the occupation of hands as the mind occupies itself in prayer.
Focus driven into the moment becomes the backbone of the primary activity, praying.

So when focusing into the moment becomes impossible, becomes overlaid with grey waste, the monk uses her intention to stay within the space. To stay in the room where it happens, as it were. And does…what? Within acedia, work-of-hands turns optional as work-of-prayer fades out. What is left? The cave? The light through the slats of the hut?

Maybe what happens is less of what is to be done and more of what’s not-done. Nothing grandly new: no moving to a new cave. Nothing outside the truly ordinary: no trip into town to drop off the stack of baskets, no trek to the neighboring cell if one’s heart can still wait. Eat, drink, sleep…do laundry, I suppose, if kind pilgrims aren’t providing your laundry service. Hold to the schedule. Monitor the outward signs.

Strangely enough, this resembles a prescription for shifting beyond depression. Go through the motions of the day, whether one “feels like it” or not. Keep going through the motions until the condition cracks open, and one can shed the shell.

I suppose the key difference is that depression sinks into its own weight, a black hole of living. Acedia has a taste for the restless new, a potato chip kind of craving where indulgence gets the eater precisely nowhere. Or backwards.

If the lying craving says, “Changing what you’re doing will surely cause you to smile and sparkle!” then it makes sense that the core of the cure will be: keep on keeping on. But make sure you’re both keeping and on.


[1] Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, “Introduction”

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