Tag Archives: spiritual malaise

Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care

Sooner or later even the most devoted hermit or spiritual seeker will discover that this solitude and silence shtick does not seem to be all that it is cracked up to be.
Saintly souls and books far and wide, which recommend and extol solitude, may not include the whole truth of the experience. At some point the solitary pray-er is likely to ask this question:

What on earth do I think I am doing out here
in the middle 
of nowhere by myself!

Next the individual may pace back and forth in his holy abode, while the walls begin to close in. A suffocating boredom descends upon the person like a choking cloud. Her whole spiritual exploration takes on the character of a really bad afternoon spent as a child with an insufferably tedious old aunt. You sit fidgeting in the rocking chair with your feet wagging in the air looking at old Readers Digest magazines and listening to tiresome adults drone on and on about dead relatives.

Now your lovely hermitage grows dull and lifeless and smells faintly of mothballs and Vicks VapoRub. You are sure all your friends are going to wonderful places and having exciting experiences, while you are trapped at Great Aunt Hannah’s and doomed to a lackluster life of gradually increasing obscurity and dull mediocrity. Your back itches. Your tummy hurts. Your neck has a cramp in it. Your brother keeps sticking his tongue out at you. And you realize now that you actually hate him. Your mom ignores you, even when you fake a faint, slide off the rocker, and lie on the floor in a lump.

It can be like this, my friends, as some of you know. You pick up a Bible, read a verse, and it leaves a taste in your mouth like an open bottle of soda that has been in the fridge for a month. A kind of angsty horror rises up in your craw and an overpowering desire to get out of there floods your being.

If someone has not seriously questioned Love’s call, and has not encountered an all- encompassing indifference, even, perhaps at times, revulsion, toward the things of God, I would suggest they simply have not been at it very long. When we enter solitude, whether we find it in the bathroom or at the lovely cottage on the beach, we bring along our retreat provisions, books, journals, music, food, as well as our illusions, expectations, hopes and dreams of what this time will be like. Here we may be in for a rude confrontation of fantasy with Reality, or my will with the will of the One I am seeking.

When I hosted guests at The Sanctuary Foundation hermitage, I watched them haul bags of books and provisions up the slope to the cabin.

“I hope to plan my sermons for the next six months,” some would tell me brightly.

“I hope not.” I would say to myself.

We bring an agenda to our solitude: I want to deepen my awareness of God. I need help in discerning the next steps of my life. I am looking for peace and resolution of conflict.

We come hoping to accomplish some task, relieve pain, even to be entertained. Then lo and behold, we are met with dryness of spirit, dullness of mind and heart, a ho hum listlessness, and growing sense that nothing fun or good is going to happen to me here.

What we fail to see is that God comes to the hermitage as well us. And God has an agenda too. At some point God’s agenda may include a healthy dose of the demon of the noonday sun.

The name the early Christians gave for the dullness can settle over us is acedia.
The desert fathers and mothers called this oppressive state of spiritual apathy the demon of the noonday sun. Evagrius warned, AThis demon attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving or not moving at all, and the day has at least forty hours. Ardor and passion for the things of God are replaced by indifference and boredom. The miserable soul is sick both of God and self.  

Acedia, engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th c...


The purpose of this dry discontent is seen as part of the final purification of the will so that it may be merged without any reserve in God. Acedia abolishes spiritual gluttony as it strips us of our fascination with glamour, ease and sensory delights. Since God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, a soul’s worship of God grows over time to be less founded in the satisfaction and entertainment of the senses and more in the dark knowing called faith. Through the harsh succor of the demon of acedia the soul is weaned from its attachment to sensory gratifications to a more mature love.
From my book: Letters from the Holy Ground, Seeing God Where You Are (Chapter 24)

As unpleasant as it is, I believe that acedia helps to rid us of the three tendencies of our age, which militate against contemplation, according to Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser identifies these tendencies as our narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness. The Shattered Lantern – Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God  (Chapter 2)

The excessive self preoccupation of narcissism makes everything we encounter about us and our needs. The cult of the individual deifies the personal and encourages focus on our private concerns and preferences.

“Pragmatism,” Rolheiser writes, “asserts that the truth of an idea lies in its practical efficacy. What that means is that what is true is what works.” We become obsessed with what Thomas Merton identified as the leading spiritual disease of our time: efficiency.

Our unbridled restlessness fuels our driven, compulsive, hyper lifestyles of multi-tasking and instant gratification.

So what’s a body to do? You have come all the way out here. Are you going to turn tale and sneak back home?

Try this: Sit there or go for a walk. Watch your discomfort. Settle into your body. Be curious about your indifference and learn from it. Breathe deeply, as the anxiety and pain of withdrawal from narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness grip your soul and cramp your body.

Surrender your agenda. Stop demanding things to be different. Cease resisting what is so, what is real for you.

Gradually a shift will occur.

Perhaps you notice the splotch of light on the wall across from Great Aunt Hannah’s china hutch. Where did the light come from? The late afternoon sun is stretching its long arms across the carpet and up the china hutch, where it touches a crystal goblet which has sat there for thirty years, and just now catches fire as your eyes lay upon it, dazzling you with brightness. You lean back in the rocker, feeling your back sink into the cushion, and watch the dust motes moving lazily above the carpet. You notice the pictures woven into the carpet – a man on a white horse, a house with a red roof, people in olden clothes walking down a lane.

The light splotch on the wall moves and dances. Why? You look at the flaming goblet across from the wall and back to the wall. Then you see through the window in the wall tree branches swaying, sweeping back and forth covering and uncovering the path of the sun.

For a moment you and the dancing splotch and the fiery goblet and the man on the horse and the tree branches swaying, and your great aunt are all laced together with tiny tendrils of light and you yourself catch fire. And you say to yourself, oh this is the way the world is. Everything is all hooked up and intertwined together.

The grown ups are still talking. You feel safe. You see your brother reading his comic book. A sudden rush of love and gratitude for him pours over you. You decide to take a nap. As you doze off, you think, I really like that mothbally VapoRub smell.

Come to me all you who are weak and heavy burdened.
And I will give you rest.     Matthew 11:28


Solitude Practice:

  • Have you been afflicted by the demon of the noonday sun? How did it manifest in your life. How did you respond?

  • Does it help to learn that the negative experience of indifference might be a necessary part of your deepening love for God?

  • In the essay above what do you think happened as the child character moves from fidgeting to discovering peace. Do you see anything here that might help you in your acedia attacks?

  • How do narcisscism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness hinder your contemplation?

  • Want to learn more about acedia? Here is a good article: Acedia, Bane of Solitaries  See also Katheleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
And everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand . . .
W.B. Yeats

The animals were talking about taking a trip. The holidays were over. They had eaten their treats and chewed up their toys.  A kind of malaise had settled over them. “Is this all there is,” they wondered, “an empty bag of kitty treats and a few shreds of raw hide doggie chews?”

Ahs, the collie dog, stretched and yawned. A few months back he lost his best friend, Amos Moses Wigglesworth. The exuberant pup gave Ahs a new lease on life. The two wrestled and tore about the yard, chewing up flower pots and dragging tools from the garage. Then one night while chasing rabbits Amos found an opening in the woods and followed the scent to the highway where he was killed chasing cars.

Seal, the grey cat, said, “I told you he was dumb as a stump.”

Her son Gavin, who avoided the ill-mannered canine as much as possible, came out of the woods, “Whatever. It was all so random. A dog comes. A dog goes. Hey, would you like to see my new tattoo? I’m thinking about getting my nose pierced too.” His mother sighed and wondered why he couldn’t be happy just catching mice like cats did when she was young.

Unlike Gavin, the black rabbit, Captain Midnight missed the dog. He shared his food with Amos, who had a taste for alfalfa, and Captain got a kick out of watching him chase the possum.

“Do you think I will ever see Amos again?” Ahs asked Captain Midnight. There had been altogether too many deaths and departures in the household for Ahs’ taste. Captain’s sister, beautiful Isabella Hepzibah died barely two years before of a virus. The girl who fed Ahs left last fall and didn’t come back for months. Creatures, coming and going all the time, who ought to stay put in the fold, were making him cranky. How could he keep track of things? And now there was a new dog, a big nosy golden retriever named Gregorian Chance, who wanted to be the lead dog.

That was how the idea of a trip came into his head. Maybe I just need to get away. Maybe I can find Amos. Then the star came out. After that it wasn’t hard to convince the others to go with him. A star tossed into the heavens like an enormous twinkling ball shone brighter than the full moon. Gregorian Chance said right away they should go fetch it. Captain Midnight said they should just follow it and see where it led them.

Gavin said, “Whatever.”

Seal said they had all that they needed right here and everyone would feel better, if they just had a little tuna fish and took a nap.


The season following Epiphany (January 6) to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of lent, moves us from the intimate scene of Jesus’ birth toward the task of sharing a personal truth with the rest of the world.

The lectionary scriptures for these Sundays emphasize that in God’s sight there are no distinctions that make some people clean and others unclean, nor differences that leave some people outside the embrace of God’s care. The focus is that Jesus came for all people.

The challenge today as well as in the first century is that Jesus is a gift many have no desire to receive or see any use for. Theologian Marva Dawn writes that “the major characteristic of the postmodern condition is the repudiation of any truth that claims to be absolute or truly true. ‘Christianity might be true for you, but not for me,’ our children used to say with modernist relativity – but now they are learning in their schools and from the media that any claim to truth is merely a means of hiding an oppressive will to power. The result is the malaise of meaninglessness, the inability to trust anything or anyone, the loss of any reference point or ‘web of reality’ by which to construct one’s life.”

Little appears in our postmodern culture to hold the human family together in a shared focus of purpose and meaning beyond the latest escape into entertainment or sensationalized news event.

Dawn says that the effects of postmodern life “on young people seem more like catastrophe, confusion and chaos.” She notes along with other scholars that “postmodernism has moved young people from the alienation of the 1960s to the schizophrenia or mutiphrenia (a legion of selves with no constant core of character) of the 1990s and 2000s. Having no point of reference, no overarching story, no master narrative, people don’t know who they are.”


Then the star came out. Of course it had to be something like that – something bigger than they, beyond their ken. It needed to be something they couldn’t chew up, pee on, or hide in the hay.

What they were looking for was something worthy of their faith, worthy of making the trip – worth the courage and energy it would require. They were looking for something to kneel before.  Was there anything in the world to lay out their passion for like that? Was there anything commensurate with the largeness of their souls, anything worth being valiant and noble for?

Hearts are made for giving away, yet it seemed every time they did, something bad would happen. Usually it meant one of them would get lost or die or be betrayed. They were seeking one true thing – but they were afraid that the only true thing might be that there was no true thing.

The star glimmered in the bitter air. “That is so random,” said Gregorian Chance.

“Whatever,” said Gavin.

Would they hear the voice of the falconer?

Would they risk getting hurt again? Would they make the trip?

Will you?

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