Acedia: The Two-Faced Demon
This article is originally written by Fr. Jeremy McKemy.
Most of us struggle with “acedia” without knowing it. This sinful passion quietly contributes to both spiritual and mental unwellness. There are two opposite ways in which it acts, either through activity or inactivity. That is, either through vain, restless movement or slothfulness and sadness.
What Is Acedia?
The sinful passion of acedia, as described in the Orthodox tradition, often manifests itself as:
- vague feelings of unwellness
- sadness for no apparent reason
- loss of interest in spiritual things
- inability to be alone without distractions
- desire to frequently relocate (home or job) in search of happiness elsewhere
- idle curiosity and conversations
- and in today’s society, as social media addiction
Christian monastics have dealt with this passion for centuries. Through years of battling it, they knew exactly how it worked. Their wisdom is what I will share here.
Ways It Plays Out
Many times while praying or during spiritual reading, an ardent desire to check social media overcomes me. I wonder about a friend or perhaps something that I’ve written. Have there been any updates or responses? Other times I have had an immense feeling of fatigue as I begin spiritual reading. Suddenly, I can hardly keep my eyes open.
In my Protestant years, acedia exhibited itself as a relentless restlessness. I tried to combat it by staying busy with various forms of ministry and study groups, but after the meetings, I would always feel a nagging restlessness creep back into my heart. No matter how purpose-driven my life was outwardly, I was miserable inwardly.
For desert monks, acedia often tempted them to seek out social interactions with other monastics. The longer a monk tried to stay in the silence of his cell, the more powerful the urge became to walk out the door. But the desert monks also noted that, while giving in to social interaction granted temporary relief from the feelings of unease, the conversations usually lacked spiritual depth. And eventually, they would have to be alone again, which meant the feelings of unease and restlessness would return.
Today, we don’t have to leave our monastic cells to seek shallow social interactions. They follow us everywhere. Social media on our phones has given us the ability to capitulate to acedia at every moment of the day or night. But even as secular research affirms, the result is an unhealthy and unhappy state of being. And of course, the more we surrender to the urge to check social media, the more habitual it becomes. No longer are we fighting demonic suggestions alone. We are also up against habits that engrain themselves in the brain, creating neural pathways and dopamine reward systems that are even harder to fight.
Sinful passions such as acedia are a sickness of the soul. Fortunately, there is a remedy for every spiritual sickness. But all remedies require two things of us: that we acknowledgment our sickness and that we fight it. We are engaged in a spiritual war, and it would benefit us to ask, “What are the tactics of the enemy and why is he attacking in this way?”
Regarding tactics, both types of acedia (active and inactive) can afflict the same person, even on the same day. Additionally, the time of day often has an impact. Acedia has been called “the demon of noonday” because it is usually the worst between the hours of 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. For that reason, the office of the Sixth Hour includes Psalm 90/91. However, acedia can show its ugly face any time of the day or night.
Next is the question, “Why are we attacked this way?”
The purpose of acedia is to prevent us from becoming fully alive in Christ by communing with God through prayer. The only moment we can pray is the present one. There is no later in the spiritual life – only now. Acedia tries to get us to give up or procrastinate in prayer and spiritual reading.
Let’s turn to the two faces of acedia to see exactly how it works.
On the inactive side, we are tempted toward sloth, hopelessness, despair, uneasiness, sadness, and anxiety. There is an inner desire to procrastinate in spiritual work, or perhaps to quit entirely. “I’m so terrible I’m beyond saving” or “I’m tired, I’ll try to pray later,” are thoughts whispered from the inactive face of this demon. We eventually stop praying because we always feel too tired or distracted. We might feel that God won’t listen, or that He’s angry with us, or prayer won’t do any good anyway. We stop struggling because it feels hopeless.
The other face of this demon, the active side, compels us toward fruitless and restless activity or wanderings. Our spiritual enemy doesn’t want us to be comfortable with being alone while undistracted. If we can be alone and quiet, then we can begin to pray deeply. For most of us, there’s a world of darkness, sinful desires, and emotional wounds hidden in the heart. The enemy takes advantage of our discomfort with these things to push us toward perpetual distraction. So, we seek out shallow social interactions or other distractions that take us away from interior work.
Facing the inner darkness of the heart is difficult – it is hell itself. We may be tempted to flee to distractions rather than face that darkness. But our Lord descended into the depths of hell at His death on the Cross, and so must we. However, from those depths, we begin resurrection and the heavenly ascent.
1. ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Since acedia wraps the mind and soul in darkness, the first remedy is to acknowledge it. Once recognized and confessed, it begins to lose some of its power. Also, we need to acknowledge unhealthy habits (such as frequent social media use) that make it worse. I always recommend people remove social media apps from their smartphones.
It may seem strange to say lethargy, sadness, restlessness, and idly checking social media are sinful. In the Orthodox Tradition, however, we define sin as that which draws us away from God. Being tired or sad, for example, are not sinful in themselves. But when we use those things as excuses not to pray, then they have separated us from God. Additionally, having a social media account is not sinful, but when it distracts us from prayer, from engaging with others offline, and from responsibilities, then it is a problem.
2. PATIENCE: Secondly, we must patiently endure acedia’s relentless pull toward idle activity and social things (electronic and otherwise) on the one hand; and sleepiness, hopelessness, and sadness on the other. It’s not an enemy that will go away in a day or even a week. In battling this demon, St. Maximus the Confessor recounts the words of our Lord, “In your patience, possess ye your souls” (Lk. 21:19/Centuries on Love, 1.67). Seek the counsel of a spiritually mature Christian to help you endure.
3. HOPE: The more we have yielded to acedia in the past, the stronger its hold on us. Yet no matter how strong it is, the grace of God is always stronger. That is why the third remedy is hope. We must trust God’s faithfulness to help us in this struggle, knowing God wants to heal us. St. John of the Ladder wrote that the hopeful person “slays acedia, kills it with his sword” (The Ladder, 30.34).
4. REPENTANCE: This fourth remedy heals in many ways. Sin acts as a barrier between our heart and the love of God. Like insulation on a wire, we unintentionally insulate ourselves from God’s healing embrace by our sin. Facing our inner darkness and repenting of the evil that we find in our hearts draws us closer to God’s healing.
5. MEMENTO MORI: All of us will die – some sooner than others. Some expectedly and many unexpectedly. The spirit of acedia sometimes “depicts life stretching out for a long period of time” (Evagrius, Praktikos, 29) either through hopelessness or a temptation to procrastinate. Remembrance of death reminds us, along with the psalmist, “My days are like a shadow that lengthens, and I wither away like grass” (Ps. 102:11, NKJV). Today is the time for us to draw near to God. There’s no point in waiting until tomorrow nor beating ourselves up for missing it yesterday. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
6. WORK WITH YOUR HANDS: A little manual labor has helped me in numerous ways. The point, however, is not to distract ourselves. Instead, we work on something – chores, cleaning up a room, making or fixing something – with God beside us. We ask Him to bless the work, and then pray something simple like the Jesus Prayer or a verse from Scripture. Taking a walk often clears the mind as well.
Many of the Desert Fathers would weave baskets to occupy their time and hands while they prayed. Most would sell their work to buy provisions and give alms to the poor. Regardless, we are commanded by the Apostle to work, “Aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you” (1 Thess. 4:11).
7. PRAYER: Jean-Claude Larchet reminds us that all remedies “should always be accompanied by prayer, which establishes them in God and makes of them not just simply human means.” He writes, “It is from prayer that they in fact derive all their power” (Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, 123).
Prayer is communion with God, entering into the heavenly age to come, and abiding with the saints. Because it is powerful, the enemy opposes it. Therefore, it comes with struggle. We are attacked with acedia to stop prayer and sever us from communion with God.
Much of what was written here comes from (or was inspired by) Jean-Claude Larchet’s Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing. In the words of Larchet, we see in the example of acedia “how the psychic is integrated into the spiritual plane, and is dependent on it for both etiology and treatment. But we also see how the spiritual dimension exceeds and transcends the psychic dimension.” Modern psychology, being one of the sciences, operates under the assumption that there is no spiritual dimension. Yet much suffering in our society has either a spiritual basis or is worsened by spiritual illnesses. Therefore, to find complete healing, we must treat the whole human.
Excellent article ! Thank you for writing this.