The Conversation: Acedia: the lost name for the emotion we’re all feeling right now … or, the deep well of ancient Christian spirituality continues to speak wisdom we need today.
What is this feeling?
John Cassian, a monk and theologian wrote in the early 5th century about an ancient Greek emotion called acedia. A mind “seized” by this emotion is “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading”.
He feels: “such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast … Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.”
This sounds eerily familiar. Yet, the name that so aptly describes our current state was lost to time and translation.
Reviving the language of acedia is important to our experience in two ways.
First, it distinguishes the complex of emotions brought on by enforced isolation, constant uncertainty and the barrage of bad news from clinical terms like “depression” or “anxiety”.
Saying, “I’m feeling acedia” could legitimise feelings of listlessness and anxiety as valid emotions in our current context without inducing guilt that others have things worse.
Second, and more importantly, the feelings associated with physical isolation are exacerbated by emotional isolation – that terrible sense that this thing I feel is mine alone. When an experience can be named, it can be communicated and even shared.
Learning to express new or previously unrecognised constellations of feelings, sensations, and thoughts, builds an emotional repertoire, which assists in emotional regulation. Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.
As we, like Cassian’s desert monks, struggle through our own “long, dark teatime of the soul”, we can name this experience, which is now part of our emotional repertoire.
I spent most of my twenties thinking and teaching about how Christians must embrace social justice in order to be truly orthodox. Now I’m spending my thirties insisting that social justice must still cling to orthodoxy—to truth—in order to remain just. I remember going to a conference full of young social justice radicals and hearing a speaker confess his fear that he was raising his daughter to be committed to recycling, but not necessarily to the gospel of Jesus.
I’ve seen this same trend in the spiritual formation world of which I am a part. We love talking about practices of faith—fasting, silence, prayer labyrinths, and pilgrimages—but talk of orthodoxy and doctrine can feel abstract, dry, unwelcome, or even troubling.
It is wrong to separate the doctrinal truth of the gospel from justice or Christian practice—not just because it tells a false story about justice and formation, but because it is untrue. Justice and spiritual practice are never free floating ideas untethered from larger claims about reality: about the gospel, about who humans are, who Jesus is, and what he has done.
The Beautiful Truth That Frees
Truth is comprehensive reality.
If our view of truth is truncated—if it does not encompass the fullness of the human person, if it does not infuse our minds, our bodies, our ethics, our views of justice, our sense of wonder, our imaginations—we will inevitably live by a false reality. And false reality always diminishes, always oppresses, always imprisons.
That’s why Jesus promised that the truth will set us free. He didn’t say, “The truth will make you right” or “The truth will make you rational.” By its very nature, truth frees us. Living in Comprehensive Reality is the way to be most human, most humane, and most alive. If we truncate truth, we truncate freedom, and we truncate the abundant life that Jesus promises.
In his book The Cruelty of Heresy, C. FitzSimmons Alison wrote, “We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one way or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart” (emphasis original). Heresy always, inevitably, proves to be cruel.
But truth frees us—not just our beliefs or ideas, but the whole of us. To the extent that my own imagination about “the good life” was shaped not according to Comprehensive Reality but to the American consumerist dream (even my own hippie version if it), I was bound and imprisoned.
I need to learn, ingest, imagine, and submit to truth, and as a church, we must proclaim truth, not so that we can “fall in line” or, worse, pat ourselves on the back, but because this big, sweeping, full Comprehensive Reality sets us—and indeed the whole world—free.
Dorothy Sayers said, “There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy, nothing so sane and so thrilling.” This is orthodoxy when our imaginations have run away with Truth. And it is unimaginably beautiful.
Wisdom from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Meditating on the Word, pages 35-36.
Now, we can only seek for what we already know. If I do not know what I am really looking for, then I am not really looking for anything. So, we must already know which God we seek before we can look for him. If I do not know that, I will just rummage around, and seeking will become my main purpose instead of finding anything at all. So I can only find if I know what I seek. Now, I either know about the God I seek from my own experience and insights, from the meanings which I assign to history or nature—that is, from myself—or I know about him based on his revelation of his own Word. Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found.
If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place that at first is not agreeable to me at all, that does not fit so well with me. That place is the cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the cross in the manner that the Sermon on the Mount requires. That does not correspond to our nature at all; it is, in fact, completely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only the New Testament but also the Old (Is. 53!). In any case, Jesus and Paul understood it this way—that the cross of Jesus fulfills the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The entire Bible, then, is the Word in which God allows himself to be found by us. Not a place that is agreeable to us or makes sense a priori, but instead a place that is strange to us and contrary to our nature. Yet, the very place in which God has decided to meet us.
Do You Want a Better Version of You … or Do You Want God? [Note: the excerpt below originally comes from an article written for a men’s ministry, hence the (perfectly understandable) masculine pronouns in the original. The truth it names, however, is something we all need to be confronted with and is more generally applicable; thus the brackets are my adjustments to this effect.]
The spiritual life is sometimes spoken of as the seeking after perfection. If this be understood to mean that [those] aiming at spirituality [are] to set before [themselves their] own perfection as an object after which [they are] to strive, it is apt to lead to serious mistakes in the spiritual struggle. It is true that the development of a full spiritual life involves in its attainment [human] perfection; yet it is not precisely at this perfection that [they] must aim, but at God. God is the final end of [every person] and therefore the object after which [they] must strain in all [their] spiritual and moral endeavors.Fr. Edward Leen
God is the object of our devotion. He is what we are after, what we love, what we seek. And because of that, He is the reward. He is the end of it all. The reward is not a better us. How disappointing that would be. The reward is the Most High. The road of prayer goes there, to Him, or it’s the wrong road.
Sometimes its good to remember that – whether we’re in a state of despairing over our spiritual progress or worse, gloating inward at the current version we’re sporting – “God is the final end of [every person] and therefore the object after which [they] must strain in all [their] spiritual and moral endeavors.”
You should definitely read everything you can find from Fr. Esau McCaulley, including this: I Can Pray Heartily for the President and Still Hold Him Accountable
Furthermore, we believe that all life is sacred—from the president in the hospital to the baby growing in the womb to the person facing police arrest for unjust reasons. In the other words: The same faith that demands we respect the sanctity of black life lost to unjust violence requires us to respect the sanctity of the life of the president, even when we have sharp disagreements.
Of course, some will call the president’s illness a form of divine retribution. But that remains very dangerous territory for the Christian. We cannot always draw a straight line from a particular form of suffering to its cause. Nonetheless, we do believe that suffering often has the ability to teach us something about ourselves, God, and the world. The focus on Trump’s illness gives us a chance to gain further empathy for the hundreds of thousands who have suffered and died from this disease.
Hopefully, the next few weeks will help us recommit to the most basic form of neighborly love—namely, attending to the health of the most vulnerable. We show this love by engaging in the monotonous and often thankless work of vigilance. We heed the advice of medical and scientific experts in order to hinder the spread of the virus. We love in word and in deed. And we pray for those at risk.
We pray especially for those we love and like. But we’re doubly called to pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and those with whom we disagree. That Christlike love forms the very foundation of our faith.
From the Christian History Institute: The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church by Catherine Kroeger
From the Journal of Missional Practice: Renewing the Covenant: Churches and the Building of Local Relationships. Its incomplete IMHO, but this article at least goes part of the way toward the kind of ecclesial imagination which can heal the poisoning wrought by our individualism.
This grief is a malady of the soul. It consists of two elements.
First, the presence of a story that is no longer working. Implicit in The Plague and the Parish is a critique of what the modern story has done to our civic space, to our parishes, and to the congregations that dwell in these spaces. The story of the modern West is about a society built around transactional exchanges, managed by contract, determined by globalized economics. The results are increasingly clear – the evisceration of civic life, the thinning out of local forms of a common life that would enable communities to work out their challenges with one another, and social isolation, even between people who live in the same neighbourhood.
This overarching story has been shaped around the idea of “progress” and by the belief in radical individualism as the dominant operating system. In this context, our churches have complied with an unofficial social contract, and have continued to make “socially useful” contributions, but their influence has drained away. Our distinctive calling as witness to the sacred and as a faithful neighbour has diminished. This has left many church leaders confused about their place in society and even in their identity as leaders.
The second element is the absence of alternatives to this failed story. The dominance of this ideology has resulted in a loss of memory that things could be any other way. The result is the emptying out of civic life, the unravelling of our social systems and our confusion as followers of Christ in how to respond.
FROM CONTRACT TO COVENANT: A FIRST STEP TOWARDS THE NEW CHAPTER
We are convinced that there is another story. There is within the memory of the church a story of being a people who do not need to be shaped by social contract, consumerism and individualism. Our vocation is rooted in the reality of Christ living in us and, therefore, by God’s relationship with us. We know that apart from him we can do nothing. Covenant, not contract, is at the heart of our vocational calling. Our vocation is not to be useful but transformative.
The Christian story breathes an alternative imagination expressed in the embodied Christ and through the language of covenant. This is an alien word for most of us. Simply put, as followers of Jesus, we know that human beings are not to be defined primarily by function or transaction, but by our inherent God-given dignity, and by relationships that are characterised by trust and mutual flourishing.
Covenant in Scripture has an expansive meaning which can have a transformational effect on our relationships, our churches and our civic communities. It is about God’s unconditional promise to us in Christ. It speaks to the ties that bind us together in ways that lead to the remaking of social life. It re-weaves the bonds of trust between generations and interests. It requires a commitment to love one another, and an accountability earthed in the place where we live – in biblical terms, the land itself is treated as a covenantal partner – and in our local institutions. Through our Scripture, we learn that our institutions are to be formed and judged on the basis of this covenant rather than on contract or economics. They are to be durable and faithful across generations. Historically, we can see that in their origin and intention, church, parish, trusts and endowments, the common law, Parliament and our liberties come from this covenantal understanding of Christian life.
Missio Alliance: Why Ecclesiology Matters in the Age of COVID-19. A much needed reflection, plus I love when Beth Felker Jones gets quoted in anything.
Andrew Sullivan: America’s New Religions (or, why fundamentalisms of the left and right are so often mirror images of each other).
Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.
By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).
Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer. …
Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives. And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”
But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper. Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural. …
Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
William T. Cavanaugh: Killing for the Phone Company: Why the Nation State is not the Keeper of the Common Good. Admittedly, including the endnotes this is 32 pages long (be sure not to skip the notes!), but you really should read it in full. Though originally from 2004, Canvanaugh is as timely as ever here. In this piece he does three things that are vitally important for contemporary ecclesial witness: 1) he challenges the over-inflated presence of the nation-state in the formation of our social identity, 2) he deconstructs idolatrous ecclesial co-dependence on the nation-state, and 3) he helps to reinvigorate and enliven our distinctive ecclesial imaginations.
From Cavanaugh’s conclusion (at length):
The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation-state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc cooperation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money.
The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division.
The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order—mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. …
The problem is not limited to liberal Christians who rely on the welfare state but in a different way captivates conservatives as well. The example cited at the beginning of this essay is a case in point. In regarding the nation-state as responsible for the common good, the Church’s voice in such crucial moral matters as war becomes muted, pushed to the margins. Just war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the Church to grapple with questions of violence. The Church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association”, whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the Church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians can kill, and not abdicate that authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual.
How is this appeal “common” and not particular and divisive? In the first place, if the analysis of this paper is correct, then the nation-state is simply not the universal community under whose umbrella the Church stands as one particular association. Not only does the nation-state carve the world up into competing national interests, but internally as well, it is destructive of forms of commonality that do not privilege the sovereignty of narrow individual self-interest. In the second place, the Church is not a merely particular association, but participates in the life of the triune God, who is the only good that can be common to all. Through the Eucharist especially, Christians belong to a body that is not only international, and constantly challenges the narrow particularity of national interests, but is also eternal, the Body of Christ, that anticipates the heavenly polity on earth. Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history, but simply is the story of God’s rule—not yet completely legible—over all of history. God’s activity is not, of course, confined to the Church, and the boundaries between the Church and the world are porous and fluid. Nevertheless, the Church needs to take seriously its task of promoting spaces where participation in the common good of God’s life can flourish.