by Sarah Colyn
I have been writing recently on the power of perseverance, what the Desert Fathers named stabilitas. This virtue is wanted today because it answers a chief vice of our time: acedia. There is much in our flesh and the world around us that undermines stability of purpose. The vice of acedia has opposed perseverance in the lives of Christians in every time and place. The desert fathers, who were among the first wrestlers with this enemy of our Christ-life, named it akedia (from the Greek a-kēdos, “without care”). The vice of acedia is endemic yet unrecognized in our day. In his beautiful little book On Hope, Josef Pieper shows how modern Christians are embroiled in acedia and no longer discern it as a vice (it is well worth your time to undertake an in-depth study of Pieper’s On Hope). Perseverance is a powerful weapon our good Lord places in the hands of His followers as we battle the vice of acedia.
In essence, acedia is a slothful sadness that rejects the reality that we are here to become what God has in mind. When settled into the sin of acedia, one feels a sad resistance to the divine goodness God intends for one’s true self. Acedia is linked to the “worldly sorrow” Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 7:10. Under the grip of this opposition to God, a deep despondency grows, like a continual underground sighing in the soul. Some feel this sorrow as emotional pain, while others cover it by senseless overwork and busyness, inner restlessness, grasping after temporary comforts and distractions, and instability of commitments and purpose *. Acedia turns us aside from the noble purpose of our existence. As Pieper laments, “One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is” (p. 56).
The desert fathers had a nickname for acedia: the noonday demon. This vice does not attack the beginning of our efforts – it comes as the day stretches on. If we gave acedia a voice it might say, “I have been doing this for awhile, but what do I have to show for it? Is it working? Why should I be so rigid, so hard on myself? Isn’t there something better out there?” We experience this noonday demon at every MPC school as participants confess feeling restless, distracted, or dissatisfied as they press in to God’s healing presence over the course of five days. The vice of acedia has a listless quality, and Aquinas categorizes acedia as a sin against the third commandment: “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10a NASB). True Sabbath is only experienced by yielding to God’s ways, and the spiritual sloth of acedia grants no rest. Rather than staying the course, the one in bondage to acedia spends their efforts on a struggle “to break out of the peace at the center of his own being” (Pieper, p. 58). Stabilitas, in contrast, enables us to rest our spirit in God.
A discouraged counselee once asked me how to answer when her concerned friends and family questioned the effectiveness of her counseling. Her mind was swarming with the doubts and distractions that acedia poses: “Why keep pressing on? Isn’t there another way that would work faster? I won’t really change, much less be transformed.” I gave her what, on my part, sounded like a self-serving answer: “Tell them it’s working.” She and I had a good laugh about my apparent self-promotion. But our laughter also came from a deeper well of joy because I was inviting her to the rest that is granted by stabilitas: to trust Christ in herself and in me, and trust that God was at work in her healing process. The dynamic between acedia and stabilitas is a bit of a paradox (like so many hopeful truths). We answer acedia’s temptation not with an immediately triumphant solution, but through a stabilizing posture of perseverance: “I will stay, remain open, and continue to wait on the Lord.” If we succumb, acedia deprives us of the gifts that only grow with persistence over time. If we endure, we will inevitably enjoy the privilege of witnessing God’s perfect, immense faithfulness to every one of His promises.
Christ with us and within us empowers us in the virtue of stabilitas, overcoming the vice of acedia simply through the choice to carry on. Distrust? Distraction? Temptation? Stabilitas is an act of the will that stays the course, sticks with the program, and continues with the daily choices that make a Christ-follower. The staying is part of the healing itself. Choosing to continue with or without comforting reassurance, choosing to stay when we feel like it and when we don’t, works a gradual conversion in our souls. Staying heals the soul as it restores something deeply human in us: the precious and glorious will with which we can say “yes” to God. Staying forms Christ’s own character within as we repent of the vice of resistance to God’s will and seek instead the virtue of stable obedience. Through this persevering, our Father grants our souls rest, delivering us from the misery of the sin of acedia and assuring us of His faithfulness. As Josef Pieper writes, “Natural man can never say as triumphantly as can the Christian: It will turn out well for me in the end” (p. 50). Praise our gracious and merciful God who grants the grace that opens to us the path of life!
* I am discussing here what church tradition has identified as the vice of acedia. Depression, which may be linked to this vice and is sometimes also referred to as acedia, can require different approaches for healing than what I am discussing here. I recommended Clay McLean’s teaching series on Recovery for Depression for an excellent discussion of the role of identifying childhood losses, self-pity, and burnout for the healing of depressive symptoms.
Thanks to The Heritage of the Desert Fathers project and their website, desert-fathers.com for the images of the West Thebes hermitages.
Remembering what the Lord has done builds our faith – as the Spirit shows you ways He has cleansed you of the sin of acedia and taught stabilitas in its place, please write in and share with me! firstname.lastname@example.org