“It’s July when the summer begins to wear even the most dedicated of sun lovers down. Life begins to feel sticky; nights get close; days get long and dry. Everything becomes a major effort; we slow down like rusted cogs on old wheels. Time suspends. Nothing much gets done. Day follows day with not much to show for any of them. Oh, yes, monastics know all about that kind of thing. In ancient monasteries the warning of Evagrius of Ponticus to “beware the devil of the noonday sun” loomed large. Acedia they called it. Spiritual sloth.
July is the month that teaches us, as the Desert Monastics said, to prepare ourselves for the “heat of the noonday sun,” for those times in life when going on and going through something will take all the energy, all the hope we have. Then, July reminds us that on the other side of such intensity, such demanding effort, comes the harvest time of life when we see that all our efforts have been worth it.
The question in every life, of course, is how to keep on going when it seems fruitless. A Zen saying: “O snail, climb Mount Fuji, but slowly, slowly.” If we are to persevere for the long haul, we must not overdrive our souls. We must immerse ourselves in good music, good reading, great beauty and peace so that everything good in us can rise again and lead us beyond disappointment, beyond boredom, beyond criticism, beyond loss.
The prayer from Mary Lou Kownacki’s, The Sacred in the Simple, calls us all to new energy at the break point of every day. It reads:
Let not the heat
of the noonday sun
wither my spirit
or lay waste my hopes.
May I be ever green,
a strong shoot of justice,
a steadfast tree of peace.”
I chose a longish excerpt today from Abbot Philip’s writing because of the topic: acedia. Some of you will have read Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life where she digs into the ancient wisdom and modern rediscovery of this spiritual malady.
Abbot Philip from Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico expands on the topic. Here’s an excerpt from his recent newsletter:
Sometimes we find ourselves trying to be spiritual and don’t have much energy for it. This happens even to monks. Sometimes we go to the prayer services, we read Scriptures and we work—all without much energy or focus. Some monks in the early periods of monastic life called this acedia. The meaning of the word is simply without energy to do much of anything. It is not a clinical depression, just an inability to do much at all. This type of inner lack of energy can go on for days or months or even years. Part of the spiritual combat is learning how to fight against this lack of energy. That does not mean that we will always be highly energized. It does mean that we keep working at doing what we are supposed to be doing. That is a deep meaning of perseverance: working at something even when we don’t want to work at it. We can do this against acedia. We can continue struggling against it. That is why acedia can really help us learn how to struggle. With other vices, sometimes we feel that we can do certain things or take certain actions and overcome them, but often with acedia there is a sense of helplessness. To continue in the struggle, we must overcome that helplessness and pay no attention to it.