Acedia and Sabbath


Early Christian monks believed in something they called, Acedia. More colloquially, they called it, the Noonday Devil, a name that essentially describes the concept. Acedia, for them, was different from ordinary depression in that it didn’t draw you into the dark, chaotic areas of your mind and heart, to have you diseased before your own complex and infinite depth; it was more of a flattening out, a dearth of energy, that put you into a semi-vegetative state that simply deadened all deep feeling and thoughts.

The early church considered it one of the seven capital sins. Later it was renamed as Sloth. There’s an abundance of good spiritual literature on the concept of acedia, not least Kathleen Norris’ rather definitive work on how acedia was understood by the early church.

But until recently, acedia hadn’t been studied in depth as a psychological concept. Happily that’s changing, with important implications for spirituality. To offer just one example: I recently attended a lecture on acedia given by a Jungian specialist, Lauren Morgan Wuest. I cannot do justice to her full thesis here, but let me risk an over-simplified synopsis.

Having read the literature of the Desert Fathers and the various commentaries on the idea of acedia, she attempted to interface that spiritual literature with the insights of contemporary psychology, particularly those from the Jungian school of thought. What were her conclusions?

In brief, her view is that acedia is not a clinical diagnosis, meaning that it isn’t a pathology requiring treatment, nor is it an ordinary depression. Rather the symptoms of acedia are the result of a healthy instinctual reflex of our bodies and minds which, when they not given something they need, sometimes forcefully shut us down, much like an ordinary depression shuts someone down; except that in the case of acedia, the shutdown of energy is for the purpose of health. Simplistically put, because we won’t sit down on our own and give our bodies and minds the rest, nourishment, and space they need, our bodies and minds conspire together to sit us down, forcibly. In essence, that’s acedia, and, in essence, it’s for our own health.

As a psychologist, she didn’t go on to draw out the potential ramifications of this for spirituality, particularly how this might relate to the practice of Sabbath in our lives, but all the implications are there.

When you read the Judeo-Christian scriptures, particularly the early sections in Genesis which chronicle the creation of the world and how God “rested” on the Sabbath, you see that there’s a divinely-ordered rhythm to how work and rest are supposed to unfold in our lives. Briefly stated, there’s to be pattern, a rhythm, to our lives which works this way: You work for six days, and then have a one day sabbatical; you work for seven years, and then have a one-year sabbatical; you work for seven times seven years, and then have a Jubilee year, a sabbatical for the whole planet; and then you work for a lifetime, and go on an eternity of sabbatical.

In essence, our lives of work, our everyday agenda, and our normal anxieties, are to be regularly punctuated by a time in which we lay down the hammer, lay down our agenda, lay down our work-a-day worries and simply sit, rest, vegetate, enjoy, soak-in, luxuriate, contemplate, pray, and let things take care of themselves for a while. That’s the biblical formula for health, spiritual, human, psychic, and bodily. And whenever we don’t do this voluntarily, in effect, whenever we neglect to do Sabbath in our lives, our bodies and minds are likely to do it for us by shutting down our energies. Acedia is our friend here: We will do Sabbath, one-way or the other.

It’s no secret that today the practice of Sabbath is more and more disappearing within our culture. Indeed, our culture constitutes a virtual conspiracy against the practice of Sabbath. Among the many culprits responsible for this, I highlight our addiction to information technology, our current inability to go for any stretch of time without being connected to others and the world through a phone, a commuter pad, or a computer screen. We are finding ourselves less and less able to step away from all that we are connected to through information technology, and consequently we are finding ourselves less and less able to simply rest, to let go of things, to be in Sabbath-mode. Perhaps the most important ascetical practice for us today would be the practice of Cyber-Sabbaths.

Already seven hundred years ago, the Sufi poet, Rumi, lamented: I have lived too long where I can be reached! That’s a cry for Sabbath time that went up long before today’s information technology placed us where we can always be reached, and that cry is going up everywhere today as our addiction to information technology increases. One worries that we will not find the asceticism needed to curb our addiction, but then acedia may well do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Taking our Wounds to the Eucharist


Recently a man came to me, asking for help.  He carried some deep wounds, not physical wounds, but emotional wounds to his soul.  What surprised me initially was that, while he was deeply wounded, he had not been severely traumatized either in childhood or adulthood. He seemed to have just had to absorb the normal bumps and bruises that everyone has to absorb: some belittling, some bullying, never being the favorite, dissatisfaction with his own body, unfairness within his family and siblings, career frustration, unfairness in his workplace, the sense of being chronically ignored, the sense of never being understood and appreciated, and the self-pity and lack of self-confidence that results from this.

But he was a sensitive man and the combination of all these seemingly little things left him, now in late mid-life, unable to be the gracious, happy Elder he wanted to be. Instead, by his own admission, he was chronically caught-up in a certain wounded self-absorption, namely, in a self-centered anxiety that brought with it the sense that life had not been fair to him. Consequently he was forever somewhat focused on self-protection and was resentful of those who could step forward openly in self-confidence and love. “I hate it,” he shared, “when I see persons like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul speak so with such easy self-confidence about how big their hearts are. I always fill with resentment and think: ‘Lucky you!’ You haven’t had to put up with what I’ve had to put up with in life!”

This man had been through some professional therapy that had helped bring him to a deeper self-understanding, but still left him paralyzed in terms of moving beyond his wounds. “What can I do with these wounds?” he asked.

My answer to him, as for all of us who are wounded, is: Take those wounds to the Eucharist. Every time you go to a Eucharist, stand by an altar, and receive communion, bring your helplessness and paralysis to God, ask him to touch your body, your heart, your memory, your bitterness, your lack of self-confidence, your self-absorption, your weaknesses, your impotence.  Bring your aching body and heart to God. Express your helplessness in simple, humble words: Touch me. Take my wounds. Take my paranoia. Make me whole. Give me forgiveness. Warm my heart. Give me the strength that I cannot give myself.

Pray this prayer, not just when you are receiving communion and being physically touched by the body of Christ, but especially during the Eucharistic prayer because it is there that we are not just being touched and healed by a person, Jesus, but we are also being touched and healed by a sacred event. This is the part of the Eucharist we generally do not understand, but it is the part of the Eucharist that celebrates transformation and healing from wound and sin. In the Eucharist prayer we commemorate the “sacrifice” of Jesus, that is, that event where, as Christian tradition so enigmatically puts it, Jesus was made sin for us. There is a lot in that cryptic phrase. In essence, in his suffering and death, Jesus took on our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities, and our sins, died in them, and then through love and trust brought them to wholeness.

Every time we go to Eucharist we are meant to let that transforming event touch us, touch our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities, our sin, and our emotional paralysis and bring us to a transformation in wholeness, energy, joy, and love.

The Eucharist is the ultimate healer. There is, I believe, a lot of value in various kinds of physical and emotional therapies, just there is immeasurable value in 12-Step programs and in simply honestly sharing our wounded selves with people we trust. There is too, I believe, value in a certain willful self-effort, in the challenge contained in Jesus’ admonition to a paralyzed man: Take up your couch and walk! We should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by hyper-sensitivity and self-pity. God has given us skin to cover our rawest nerves.

But, with that being admitted, we still cannot heal ourselves.  Therapy, self-understanding, loving friends, and disciplined self-effort can take us only so far, and it is not into full healing. Full healing comes from touching and being touched by the sacred. More particularly, as Christians, we believe that this touching involves a touching of the sacred at that place where it has most particularly touched our own wounds, helplessness, weaknesses, and sin, that place, where God “was made sin for us”. That place is the event of the death and rising of Jesus and that event is made available to us, to touch and enter into, in the Eucharistic prayer and in receiving the body of Christ in communion.

We need to bring our wounds to the Eucharist because it is there that the sacred love and energy that lie at the ground of all that breathes can cauterize and heal all that is not whole within us.

Orthodoxy, Sin, and Heresy 


Recently, while on the road giving a workshop, I took the opportunity to go the Cathedral in that city for a Sunday Eucharist. I was taken aback by the homily. The priest used the Gospel text where Jesus says, I am the vine and you are the branches, to tell the congregation that what Jesus is teaching here is that the Roman Catholic Church constitutes what is referred to as the branches and the way we link to those branches is through the mass and if we miss mass on a Sunday we are committing a mortal sin and should we die in that state we will go to hell.

Then, aware that what he was saying would be unpopular, he protested that the truth is often unpopular, but that what he just said is orthodox Catholic teaching and that anyone denying this is in heresy. It’s sad that this kind of thing is still being said in our churches.

Does the Catholic Church really teach that missing mass is a mortal sin and that if you die in that state you will go to hell?  No, that’s not Catholic orthodoxy, though popular preaching and catechesis often suppose that it is, even as neither accepts the full consequences.

Here’s an example: Some years ago, I presided at the funeral of a young man, in his twenties, who had been killed in a car accident. In the months before his death he had for all practical purposes ceased practicing his Catholicism: He had stopped going to church, was living with his girlfriend outside of marriage, and had not been sober when he died. However his family and the congregation who surrounded him at his burial knew him, and they knew that despite his ecclesial and moral carelessness he had a good heart, that he brought sunshine into a room and that was a generous young man.

At the reception after the funeral one of his aunts, who believed that missing mass was a mortal sin that could condemn you to hell, approached me and said: “He had such a great heart and such a wonderful energy; if I were running the gates of heaven, I would let him in.” Her comment wonderfully betrayed something deeper inside of her, namely, her belief that a good heart will trump ecclesial rules in terms of who gets to go to heaven and the belief that God has wider criteria for judgment than those formulated in external church rules. She believed that it was a mortal sin to miss mass on Sunday but, for all the right reasons, could not accept the full consequences of that, namely, that her nephew was going to hell. Deep down, she knew that God reads the heart, understands human carelessness, welcomes sinners into his bosom, and does not exclude goodness from heaven.

But that still leaves the question: Is it orthodox Roman Catholic teaching to say that it is a mortal sin to not go to church on a Sunday and that such an ecclesial lapse can send you to hell?  No, to teach that categorically would itself be bordering on heresy.

Simply stated, Catholic moral theology has always taught that sin is a subjective thing that can never be read from the outside. We can never look at an action from the outside and say: “That’s a sin!” We can look at an action from the outside and say: “That’s wrong!” But that’s a different judgment.  From the outside we can judge an action as objectively wrong, but we can never make the judgment that it’s a sin. Moreover this isn’t new, liberal teaching, it is already found in our traditional Catechisms. Nobody can look at the action of someone else and say: “That’s a sin!” To teach that we can make such a judgment goes against Catholic orthodoxy. We can, and must, affirm that certain things are wrong, objectively wrong, but sin is something else.

Probably the most quoted line from Pope Francis is his famous response to a moral question where he simply responded: “Who am I to judge?”  He’s in good company. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “You judge by appearances; I judge no one.” That, of course, does not mean that there isn’t any judgment. There is, it’s real, and it can condemn someone to hell. But it works this way: God’s Love, Life, Truth, and Light come into the world and we judge ourselves apposite them. God condemns no one, but we can condemn ourselves. It is God’s Love, Life, Truth, and Light against which we weigh ourselves and these determine who goes where, already here on earth and in eternity.

In our catechesis and our popular preaching we must be more careful in our use of the term “mortal sin” and in our judgments as to who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, fully aware that there wasn’t any group that Jesus was harsher on than on those who were making those kinds of judgments.