struggles disguised as good

One of the important conversations in the church, I think, needs to be discernment. Discernment is often tricky because it’s not often a list of absolute wrong or absolute right. Sometimes a person can be doing what seems to be right, only it’s coming out of something wrong. This is a huge danger in the church because an over-dependence on structures, order, systems, or habits can make us keep doing what is wrong, because at another point, for another motive, it might be right.

One really tricky one is acedia. This is a spiritual depression, in which anxiety and faithlessness take root. It can have two expressions. A withdrawal, in which a person becomes nominal and inactive or, more peculiarly, an ove-ractivity, in which a person is characterized by an almost frenzy, never sitting still, always talking, far from contemplation or depth.

Here’s Cassian on Acedia, from his “Institutes” a book in which he talks about the characteristics of a monk in one section and the eight deadly sins in another:

Once this has seized possession of a wretched mind it makes a person horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell and also disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers who live with him or at a slight distance, as being careless and unspiritual. Likewise it renders him slothful and immobile in the face of all the work to be done within the walls of his dwelling: It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading.

He groans quite frequently that spending such a long time there is of no profit to him and that he will possess no spiritual fruit for aas long as he is attached to that group of people.

He complains and sighs, lamenting that he is bereft and void of all spiritual gain in that place inasmuch as, even though he is capable of directing others and of being useful to many, he is edifying no one and being of no help to anyone through his instruction and teaching.

He makes a great deal of far-off and distant monasteries, describing such places as more suited to progress and more conducive to salvation, and also depicting the fellowship of the brothers there as pleasant and of an utterly spiritual cast. Everything that lies at hand, on the contrary, is harsh, and not only is there nothing edifying among the brothers who dwell there but in fact there are not even any of hte necessities of life to be obtained there without huge effort.

Thereupon he says that he cannot be saved if he remains in that place. He must leave his cell and get away from it as quickly as he can, for he will perish if he stays in it any longer.

Then arise listlessness and such a yearning for food that he feels as worn out as if he had been exhausted by a long journey and very heavy labor or as if he had put off eating for the sake of a two- or three- day fast.

Next he glances around anxiously here and there and sighs that none of the brothers is coming to visit him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting. So filled is he with a kind of irrational confusion of mind, like a foul mist, and so disengaged and blank has he become with respect to any spiritual activity that he thinks that no other remedy for such an attack can be found than the visit of a brother or the solace of sleep alone.

With that the same malady suggests that he should dutifully pay his respects to the brothers and visit the sick, whether at a slight distance or further away. It also prescribes certain pious and religious tasks.

And so the unhappy soul, preyed upon by devices like these of the enemy is agitated until, worn out by the spirit of acedia as by the most powerful battering ram, it either learns to succumb to sleep or shakes off the restraints of the cell and gets in the habit of finding is consolation in the face of this onslaught by visiting a brother, although it will be all the more painfully vulnerable not long after having used this remedy as a stopgap.

For the adversary will the more frequently and harshly try a person who he knows, once the battle is joined, will immediately offer him his back and who he sees hopes for stafety not in victory or in struggle but in flight, until he is gradually drawn out of his cell and begins to forget the reason for his profession.

Thus it is that the solder of Christ, having become a fugitive and a deserter from his army “entangles himself in worldly affairs” and displeases “him to whom he engaged himself”.

Cassian continues:

And so the true athlete of Christ, who wishes to engage lawfully in the struggle for perfection, must strive to cast out this disease as well from the depths of his soul, and he must also contend on both sides against this most wicked spirit of acedia in such a way as neither to be cut down by the sword of sleep and collapse nor to be driven out from the bulwark of the monastery and depart in flight, even for a seemingly pious reason.

For the person whom it has begun to conquer, to whatever degree, it either allows to stay in his cell without any spiritual progress, in as it were a state of inactivity and surrender, or drives him out from there and makes him, in addition, unstable and feckless.

For our purpose, we who don’t live in monastic cells, it might be good to replace the word ‘cell’ with whatever place we are presently at, where God has called us to work and grow spiritually with others in local community.

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