Abbot Philip: Staying in the Struggle for Life

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.

In my own life, perhaps too often, I have known this vice. It tells me in my mind and sometimes in my heart: just stop. You will never win. Sometimes I give in for a while and really believe that I may as well stop fighting because I will never win. Then, usually, I realize that this is just the deception that stops me from struggling. It is not as important that I win as that I keep on struggling. The goal of the spiritual life is to keep on seeking God, no matter how often we fail or how often nothing seems to be happening. If we begin to base our actions on whether we feel good, whether everything makes us happy, etc., we will be totally misguided. How long do we have to wait? All of our life, if that is necessary. The goal is not something that we can claim in this life. The spiritual life is about seeking every day. Yes, we can have glimpses of God, glimpses of change within ourselves, touches of joy and fulfillment. This life, however, is not the life of the world to come. This life is about remaining in the struggle. Thus we cannot claim any kind of permanent victory in this life. Instead, we commit ourselves to daily struggle. Where can we possibly get the inner energy to keep on struggling with this lack of energy?

We must ask the Lord each day to give us our daily bread, to give us strength to keep on struggling, even when we have no desire at all to struggle. Athletes have to keep on training even when they do not feel like it. We Christians often want things easier. We forget that the spiritual life is a struggle every day. We are happy when we feel good. We are delighted when we feel some inner sense of God. The test, however, is to serve God always. It is the same in any committed life. If we are married, we must strive to love our spouse whether we feel that love or not. If we have children, we must choose to love them, even when they—at times—may seem unlovable. If we are vowed religious, we must keep on loving our sisters or our brothers in the community, even when that seems at times impossible. When we look at this kind of love, we see that it is a commitment to love no matter what. That commitment means that we must be able to go beyond our own feelings and desires and do what is really the good of the other person—rather than what seems good to us. Saint Benedict counsels this in his Rule, but often we just read such counsel instead of taking it to heart. Almost every parent has had this kind of experience with a child at some point in life. Probably most spouses had also gone through fire in order to honor their commitment. Certainly any monk who has persevered for many years has been through this kind of purification. The spiritual life is always about living out the commitments that we have made with a total dedication.–Abbot Philip, OSB

Read Abbot Philip’s complete post here.

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