Aug 13, 2023
Being stuck in our thoughts can have us reaching for distractions and escape.
Have you ever had the feeling of listlessness or numbness that seems to keep you from moving forward? Have you ever felt like no matter how hard you try, you just can't seem to break free of this overwhelming feeling of inertia? If so, you may be experiencing acedia.
Acedia is a spiritual concept that has been around for thousands of years, originally described by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It is sometimes confused with depression or sloth but differs from these in its spiritual implications; it is linked to our relationship with God and our faith. Acedia creeps into our lives when we become disconnected or distracted from our sense of purpose and our higher selves. It can keep us stuck in a cycle of negative thinking which prevents us from living a more meaningful and connected life. It causes us to reject the present moment.
In this article, we will explore what acedia is, how it works in the mind, as well as discuss the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Evagrius on this topic. We will also share practical tips on how to deal with acedia so that you can break free from this feeling of unease and move forward on your spiritual journey.
Who were the Early Desert Fathers?
The Early Desert Fathers were Christian ascetics who lived in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the late 200’s, AD. They lived in solitude and in community, either as hermits or cenobites (no, not the brainwashing kind). These spiritual adventurers often renounced the world to pursue a higher path and search for greater meaning in their lives. One of the primary motivations for this type of life was to combat acedia, or spiritual torpor.
A few of these early Desert Fathers were Evagrius (the primary thinker behind acedia and book ‘The Praktikos’), Anthony, Macarius, Abba Moses, and Poemon. Women also sought spiritual nourishment from the desert, such as Syncletica, Theodora, and Sarah.
These ascetics practiced rigorous prayer schedules coupled with manual labor. The Early Desert Fathers wrote about their experiences with acedia — how it affected their thoughts, mind, and spirit. Evagrius called it "The Noonday Demon". From these accounts we learn that acedia is not depression or sloth per se; rather, it keeps one stuck on an emotional loop: feeling drained yet unable to rest, resulting in productivity paralysis. Today, we can consider it boredom, though modern technology always offers us its salvation from boredom.
Evagrius' Eight Logismoi
In the 4th century, Evagrius of Pontus (or Evagrius Ponticus) developed a comprehensive list of eight powerful thoughts, which he called the Eight Logismoi: gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Do these sound a little familiar? They would eventually be reformulated and rebranded as the seven deadly sins.
I know, using the word “sin” these days can either turn off people or attract people, so perhaps we need to use a different word than "sin." But if you ever sit down for a few moments with your thoughts, take notice how many of them will take on a certain energy. At first, they might be fleeting, such as your shopping list or a jingle from an ad you saw an hour ago. But as you sink deeper, some of your inner conflicts will give rise to more torturous, intrusive thoughts. As you ruminate on them, they can take hold of you and perhaps motivate you to action (or inaction).
Evagrius Ponticus and His Writings on Acedia
Evagrius Ponticus wrote that acedia was the most burdensome of all the demons because it creeps up on us and keeps us from engaging with our lives in a meaningful way. He described it as a sense of apathy, listlessness, and an inability to move forward with tasks. This spiritual boredom tempts us to move away from our calling and pursue more exciting ventures. We continually stare out the window because the day seems too long to bear. We yearn for our previous life rather than one that’s been promised us.
It has a strong link with the ego, as it seeks to keep us wallowing in our own identity. It’s a discouraging force that distracts us from seeing beyond ourselves; it keeps us willfully ignoring our true potential. Acedia does not mean physical laziness; instead, it is an inability to detach from our limited understanding of self-satisfaction for any meaningful progress to be made in life.
How Acedia Works in the Mind: Keeping Us Stuck
Acedia affects us in different ways than depression or sloth. Unlike other mental states, acedia is usually accompanied by a sense of guilt and despair, as if we have been wronged or forgotten by the world. The monk John Cassian wrote that acedia often has us comparing ourselves with others who might have more spiritual gifts, leaving us restless to stay with ourselves.
This lack of care can manifest as an overall feeling of hopelessness. We become stuck in our own thoughts and beliefs, which can lead to feelings of being spiritually barren or dry. We lose touch with the world around us and forget that we are connected to something greater than our individual selves.
This spiritual stuckness is further compounded by the fact that we live in a society which values action-oriented productivity over intentional stillness. Acedia leaves us unable to muster up the energy to make meaningful change beyond simply being consumed with our own thoughts. We become isolated from the world both mentally and physically, feeling unable to reach out or move forward in any meaningful way.
Why Acedia Is Not Sloth or Depression
Acedia is often confused with depression and laziness, but it is distinct from both. Unlike depression, acedia is not marked by feelings of sadness or despair; rather, it creates a spiritual paralysis that causes one to be “horrified” and “disgusted” with one's position in life. And while sloth manifests itself in the lack of physical action, its spiritual cousin acedia occurs on an emotional and mental level—it's an apathy that makes it difficult to take action on anything. It's interesting that sloth seems to combine Evagrius' melancholy and acedia rather than recognizing the differences between all three.
At its core, acedia is about stagnation: being stuck in the same situation with no hope for change. It keeps us focused on our own suffering while making it impossible to move forward; we become trapped in our own thoughts and unable to escape them. The Desert Fathers had a unique method for dealing with this kind of malaise: immersing oneself in the present moment and letting go of the past and future. They sought out acts of contemplation as a form of meditation, helping to lift them out of the deep spiritual lethargy they felt.
Overcoming Acedia: Lessons From the Desert Fathers
The early desert fathers assumed manual labor was the cure for acedia and its corruptive influence. They prescribed physical activity to purge the body of any oppression from the noonday demon, and saw work as an activity necessary for spiritual growth. To this day, many Eastern Orthodox Christian monasteries set specific periods of time during which monks must engage in manual labor (such as gardening), finding that it refreshes their physical and mental states.
By utilizing this practice of hard work along with prayer and meditation on Scripture, these early spiritual guides were able to have a real impact in helping others overcome the overpowering emotion of acedia. Even if you are not a religious practitioner or monk, understanding the wisdom that these historic figures have imparted can help you gain insight into your own inner struggles with depression or feeling 'stuck'.
John Cassian’s writings on acedia says that we can’t run away from acedia or deny it exists. That only makes it stronger. Sure, distracting yourself from the noonday demon might entertain you for the short-term, but acedia will come back when you’re the most weak.
As we’ve seen, understanding the noonday demon can help us to recognize and move through the spiritual struggles we all face. It’s worth understanding to make sure we don’t mistakenly attribute it to simple laziness or depression, but instead recognize it as something all of us could face during our spiritual journey.
Acedia can be a troubling emotion that can keep us stuck, preventing us from moving forward. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Acknowledging our experience of the noonday demon and reflecting on how we can use it as a tool to better understand ourselves can ultimately be a freeing experience, allowing us to move onward with our lives.