It’s the noon hour. All of a sudden, you have a need to escape or, conversely, to surrender to torpor, into the throes of an afternoon nap, even if you’re not really tired. Perhaps you also have an urge to daydream about a romantic and exciting place beyond confined walls.
A tale in the age of coronavirus isolation? Not exactly: the ancients wrote extensively on this feeling centuries ago. These descriptions go back to desert monks of the fourth century, who were warned about the dangers of what was called acedia.
These monks left society to live the harsh existence of contemplation amid bleak landscapes. Many saw acedia as succumbing to demons intent on severing their connection to God. Others tried to see it as a gift from God which, when left behind, could result in a deeper faith and a greater sense of humility.
The Irish priest psychologist Martin McAlinden notes that acedia was literally a demon, or one of the eight temptations experienced by monks. (The others were the Seven Deadly Sins.) As Evagrius of Pontus wrote, “the demon of acedia attends the monk around midday, causing him to grow weary or bored.” The withdrawal results in a restlessness, a sense of meaninglessness, and an agitation directed toward others.
Literary scholar Susan E. Colón writes that the ancients saw acedia in theological terms, as a failure of charity toward God, which invariably led to failure of charity toward other people.
But even as society became more secular over the centuries, says Colón, there were people who found inspiration in the religious concept, even in modern times. For example, T.S. Eliot wrote about acedia as a place where silence and stillness could not be had: an encounter with existential meaninglessness that the mystic John of the Cross described as a “dark night.” Eliot believed that the insistent search for religious meaning in his time was an attempt to escape modern malaise.
Conversely, some see the modern search for self-help cures as another symptom.
McAlinden, advising modern clergy, notes that acedia is a common modern plight. He counsels nurturing a prayer life, creating a support system, and fighting the temptation to leave one’s calling by abandoning duties and landing into the throes of noonday sleep. Acedia needs to be confronted head on, argues McAlinden, joining many of the ancient seers who offered advice on the topic.
Ironically, modern life in the age of coronavirus may well require a revisiting of the concept of acedia, as indulgent escapes in a time of forced confinement become impossible for much of the modern world.