14 March 2010

'The Demon of Noonday—St Cassian & Evagrius on Acedia

The subject of that vice known as ‘acedia’ (from the Greek, ἀκηδία), classically translated as ‘sloth’, but perhaps more accurately rendered ‘despondency’ or ‘listlessness’, is an enormous one, with an enormous literature to boot. The poet and writer on things ‘spiritual’, Kathleen Norris, recently followed up the brief chapter on the subject in her best-selling The Cloister Walk with an entire book devoted solely to acedia—Acedia & Me. A blog post is obviously a paltry thing compared to a book, and this is not the place to look for a comprehensive treatment. I intend merely to post a couple of passages on acedia from patristic authors that interest me, and one or two comments from modern writers on the subject.

In her classic anthology of Desert Fathers material translated from Latin sources, Helen Waddell prefaces her selections from the writings of St Cassian with the following words:

The two passages translated are not from his high rare moments of exaltation—their habitation is eternity. These illustrate his ironic human perception, and make intelligible the more alien experience of the desert, its concentration within the four walls of one’s cell. To read Cassian on Accidie is to recognise the ‘white melancholy’ of Gray in Pembroke, [1] and the sullen lethargy that is the sterile curse of the scholar and the artist. [2]

The passage Waddell refers to is from The Institutes, Book 10. [3] This book, which is entirely taken up with the subject of acedia, was translated into Greek in a greatly condensed version and included in the Philokalia. [4] Here is Waddell’s selection:

1. Of Accidie

Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call ἀκηδία, and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. [5] It is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul. And so some of the Fathers declare it to be the demon of noontide which is spoken of in the xcth Psalm [Ps 90:6 LXX].

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is not health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.

Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell. . . .

The blessed Apostle, like a true physician of the spirit . . . busied himself to prevent the malady born of the spirit of accidie. . . . ‘Study to be quiet . . . and to do your own business . . . and to work with your own hands, as is commended you’ [I Thess. 4:11]. . . .

And so the wise Fathers in Egypt would in no way suffer the monks, especially the young, to be idle, measuring the state of their heart and their progress in patience and humility by their steadiness at work; and not only might they accept nothing from anyone towards their support, but out of their own toil they supplied such brethren as came by, or were from foreign parts, and did send huge stores of victuals and provisions throughout Libya, a barren and hungry land, and to those that pined in the squalor of the prisons in the towns. . . . There was a saying approved by the ancient Fathers in Egypt; that a busy monk is besieged by a single devil: but an idle one destroyed by spirits innumerable.

So when the abbot Paul, revered among the Fathers, was living in that vast desert of Porphyrio secure of his daily bread from the date palms and his small garden, and could have found no other way of keeping himself (for his dwelling in the desert was seven days journey and more from any town or human habitation, so that more would be spent in conveying the merchandise than the work he had sweated on would fetch), nevertheless did he gather palm leaves, and every day exacted from himself just such a measure of work as though he lived by it. And when his cave would be filled with the work of a whole year, he would set fire to it, and burn each year the work so carefully wrought: and thereby he proved that without working with his hands a monk cannot endure to abide in his place, nor can he climb any nearer the summit of holiness: and though necessity of making a livelihood in no way demands it, let it be done for the sole purging of the heart, the steadying of thought, perseverance in the cell, and the conquest and final overthrow of accidie itself. [6]

Of course, St Cassian is greatly indebted here to a corresponding passage in the Praktikos of Evagrius Ponticus which Norris calls a ‘classic description’ of the vice. [7] Indeed, according to Siegfried Wenzel, it was Evagrius who, ‘as far as the present state of patristic and Oriental scholarship allows us to tell, was the first to describe the peculiar temptation of ἀκηδία in full detail’. [8] Here is that text:

12. The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon [Ps 90:6 LXX]—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle. [9]

Having carefully read these passages, I confess I have doubts about Helen Waddell’s hasty identification of Thomas Gray’s ‘white melancholy’ or scholarly lethargy with monastic acedia. For one thing, the chances of an 18th-c. English poet, no matter how Christian he may be, reproducing some obscure aspect of patristic ascetic teaching, seems rather improbable. For another, I think Solomon Schimmel, a professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, has rightly emphasised the specifically spiritual nature of acedia. He makes the interesting observation, ‘Sloth is the most explicitly religious of the seven deadly sins’, [10] and goes on to write:

The special religious essence of sloth is first of all evidenced by the lack of attention to any such vice in the Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition which dealt extensively with the other six deadly sins. Sadness and depression (or tristitia) are ascribed to the ‘disease’ of melancholia rather than the realm of moral vice. Only Judaism and Christianity link these phenomena to man’s resistance to divinely imposed obligations. [11]

Gray strikes me as standing more in the tradition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, where the impression I have had is almost certainly one of a disease rather than a moral vice. Indeed, while I may be mistaken, I don’t believe Burton ever actually mentions the word ‘acedia’, whether in its Latin or Greek forms—an odd oversight for an author such as he. Anyway, I certainly find the history of this notion an interesting one and would love to pursue the matter further some day.

[1] The phrase is from a ‘celebrated’ 1742 letter of Thomas Gray to Richard West. Here is the text, taken from this site:


A poet’s melancholy

London, 27 May, 1742.

Mine, you are to know is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy for the most part; which, though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one called Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state, and ca ne laisse que de s’amuser. The only fault is its insipidity; which is apt now and then to give a sort of Ennui, which makes one form certain little wishes that signify nothing. But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has somewhat in it like Tertullian’s rule of faith, Credo quia impossibile est; for it believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! for none but he and sunshiny weather can do it. In hopes of enjoying this kind of weather I am going into the country for a few weeks, but shall be never the nearer any society; so, if you have any charity, you will continue to write. My life is like Harry the Fourth’s supper of Hens, ‘Poulets a la broche, Poulets en Ragout, Poulets en Hachis, Poulets en Fricassees’. Reading here, Reading there; nothing but books with different sauces. Do not let me lose my desert then; for though that be Reading too, yet it has a very different flavour. The May seems to be come since your invitation; and I propose to bask in her beams and dress me in her roses.

Et caput in verna semper habere rosa.

[2] Helen Waddell, tr., The Desert Fathers (NY: Vintage, 1998), p. 163.

[3] St John Cassian, The Institutes, tr. Boniface Ramsey, OP (NY: Newman, ), pp. 219-34.

[4] The Philokalia, Vol. 1, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1983), pp. 88-91; The Philokalia, tr. Constantine Cavarnos (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2008), pp. 208-13

[5] Here I like Ramsey’s translation—‘a wearied or anxious heart’ (St Cassian, p. 219).

[6] Waddell, pp. 163-6.

[7] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (NY: Riverhead, 1996), p. 132. Norris also offers a couple of interesting epigrams to this chapter:

The malice of sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair.—Evelyn Waugh, Acedia, in The Seven Deadly Sins

Amma Syncletica said: There is a grief that is useful, and there is a grief that is destructive. The first sort consists in weeping over one’s own faults and weeping over the weakness of one’s neighbors, in order not to lose one’s purpose, and attach oneself to the perfect good. But there is also a grief that comes from the enemy, full of mockery, which some call accidie. This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody.—The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (p. 130)

[8] Siegfried Wenzel, ‘Akedia. Additions to Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon’, Vigiliae Christianae 17 (1963), p. 176.

[9] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), pp. 18-9.

[10] Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, & Classical Reflections on Human Nature (NY: The Free P, 1992), p. 197.

[11] Ibid., p. 198.

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