A Reflection on Acedia, Eros and Christian Joy
Prior to reading these encyclicals, I had always thought of agape as the higher love in which the person makes a gift of himself to the other. A loving or covenantal relationship, therefore, is one of mutual self-gift. Eros, on the other hand, is a lower, self-serving desire for the other. With eros, therefore, the best form of personal relationship one can have is a lower “contractual” arrangement in which self-interests are aligned. In the Christian life, I thought, we are offered the possibility through grace of raising up our natural tendency to eros into one by which we are capable of self-gift – agape – in a new way.
Benedict offers us something different. He describes how Christianity does not eradicate eros at all. Rather, it raises it up into a desire for the other which is consummated in an ordered acceptance of the gift of the other. He makes the point that a gift cannot be given if it is not received by the one to whom it is given. Thus, in the loving interaction, both agape and eros are happening simultaneously in a dynamic process. Each is giving themselves to the other, while accepting the gift of the other in an ordered way.
Furthermore, this being the case, the reception of the gift of love is our first act of love, for we cannot love others or love God without first accepting love from God. This is not passive, it occurs to me, but an action, an assent of the will; it is the spirit reaching out, so to speak, and grasping that hand of God that is offered to us every moment of the day.
Suddenly eros seems vitally important. If we reject God’s love, then we are incapable of living the Christian life in any degree, and the joy that is available to us all through the Church is shut out of our lives. The place where that acceptance of God’s love in our hearts might occur most profoundly, powerfully and effectively is, of course, in the sacred liturgy. Eros is the first act of an “active participation” by which He abides in us. By this we participate in the transfigured Christ and become capable of taking the light of Christ out into the world.
If I were the devil, therefore, I would make it a priority to subvert the capacity for an ordered eros in mankind. If I look at myself, there are two forces that work strongly in me to cause me to reject God’s love. The first, which should be no surprise, is pride, which tells me that I don’t need God because I am self-sufficient. The second is one that is perhaps as powerful, acedia.
As I understand it, acedia is a sloth or inertia against doing what is right, that arises through a lack of faith or trust in God. It is felt as self-pity and is a form of despair. It says, “What’s the point?” It can be manifested in a whole range of degrees of depression, by which we sink deeper and deeper into despair, and refuse to take the actions that will lift us out, even if we are aware of what those are. It creates the spiritual equivalent of the couch potato, who is so lacking in hope that he can’t be bothered to run for the fire escape when his house is burning down, because he thinks he’s doomed anyway.
Acedia can also lead to a desperate search for distraction by which we try to look for the answer to our yearning for the Good in lesser goods, and try to forget that despair we feel deep down. Many destructive ad compulsive behaviours are extreme examples of this: workaholism, alcoholism, computer-game addiction and so on. I have heard the compulsion to look at pornography as one that has acedia at its root. One should not be surprised if this is the case, it seems to me, for if acedia really does undermine our capacity for an expression of eros, one would expect a result to be a distorted expression of eros, such as a grasping at the erotic as a distracted and misguided search for love.
Articles I have read about acedia talk of it as an “old sin”, one referred to by the Fathers, especially those of the Eastern Church, but one not addressed much in recent times in the Western Church. Now it seems to be coming back in fashion, even here in the West. There are books and articles about it in the Catholic sphere, and recently even in an article in the LA Times.
The question that arises at the end of all this is: How can we develop our facility for eros, and remove or at least lessen our inclination to indulge in pride and acedia…or for that matter any sin?
Good spiritual direction helps here. Nearly 30 years ago, I was shown a series of spiritual exercises by the man who eventually became my sponsor when I was received into the Church. I still practice these exercises today daily, and attribute them to the beginning of the spiritual journey that led to my conversion.
Even before I became Catholic, he gave me a daily program of prayer, meditation, contemplation and good works that was simple and powerful. It included exercises that I was told to practice daily so that they might become habitual. For example, beginning and ending the day praying to God on my knees, writing of a list of blessings for which I thank God (regardless of how grateful I actually feel); good works, by which I volunteer regularly to help out with people who are not connected to me, and not in a position to give back.
I was actually a desperate atheist when I started this and it was presented to me as a sort of Pascal’s wager – what have you go to lose? Try it for 30 days and if you don’t like it we’ll return your misery with interest! It worked so well that I still do them today. He sold it to me originally by presenting it as part of a process by which I could find my calling in life and actually see it happen. I wanted to be an artist and he promised me that this could happen if I followed his suggestions.
This man (who was called David, and who died of a heart attack nearly 20 years ago now), also showed me how to root out misery by looking at the spiritual cause. It was through this that I learned about pride and acedia, and was given a way to deal with the misery they were causing me. What he taught me was that any unhappiness I might feel is caused by my reaction to events around me, rather than the events themselves. Through God’s grace there is always hope that transcends any bad situation, and I can feel that hope, so to speak, by rooting out the negative, self-centered responses to events around me.
This was an unusual approach to an examination of conscience. As well as the usual question “What have I done wrong?”, I was taught to ask myself, “What am I unhappy about?” The cause is always some form of unhappiness about something that has happened in the past (resentment, anger, irritation, guilt, remorse and so on), or a fear about something happening in the future which I think I’m not going to like, or a combination of the two.
Then I analyze to see how my sin – a rejection of God – has caused it. My experience has been that I have found no form of unhappiness, regardless of the external events that might trigger it, that was not caused in this way. The reaction that caused me to feel bad was a self-centredness that shut out God – sin by any other name. David then showed me a technique by which I would write down all these unhappy feelings, and then attribute them to a whole combination of sins that caused them. Pride and acedia are just about always there, along with all the self-centered impulses that they lead to, for example, envy, anger, lust and so on – it depends on the situation. I feel acedia, by the way, as self-pity – I feel down about my situation.
To my delight, this exercise really did help to change how I felt, and so gradually, as my discomfort decreased, my faith and joy of living have increased. I still practice this technique daily. and while I cannot help the first reaction to events around me, when I reflect on unhappiness that I feel it always seems to locate the problem, which is in me. When I ask for forgiveness, the resentment, anger, self-pity or fear lifts. While I do not offer every detail of this analysis, I do bring a general statement of this personal reflection to confession on a regular basis as well.
Regardless of what technique is used to focus our attention on our failings, the sacraments must play a part in the remedy. Ultimately, is it the mercy of God that will save us and through Christ we can be free.
Over the years I have passed on what David showed me to perhaps 50 people, and nearly all experience the same change that I have; when they do the whole process that David gave me, they also discern their personal vocation. I recently started a rolling cycle of eight workshops at St Jerome Catholic Church in El Cerrito, California, where we show people these exercises, including the final stage of discerning personal vocation. I wrote up the text for these workshops in this manual. We also stress also man’s need for the worship of God as the practice of what St Thomas calls the virtue of religion, in order to be happy to be fulfilled in life, and close each week with Vespers (in the Anglican Use).
As a postscript, today (Friday of Week 12 in Ordinary Time), I read St Gregory of Nyssa in the Office of Readings. It was a homily on the Beatitudes which begins with the following passage:
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. God’s promise is so great that it passes the furthest limits of happiness. Given such a blessing, who could desire more, having already received all things by the fact of seeing God? Remember that in Scriptural usage ‘seeing’ means ‘having.’…So whoever ‘sees God’ receives, in this act of seeing, possession of everything that is good: incorruptible life without end, blessedness that cannot fail, a kingdom without end, happiness without limit, true light, the true voice of the Spirit, glory never before reached, perpetual rejoicing, and all else that is good.
St Gregory then goes on to explain how purity of heart sufficient to see God and to experience these fruits, albeit perhaps with some work and patience, is attainable by all if they choose to follow the call.
When I look at this passage by St Gregory, I realise now that this is exactly what David promised me would be the result of my doing this process. He also told, some time later when I was sold on it, that it was available in its fullness through the Church. It is available in its perfection in the next life and by degrees, but nevertheless significantly in this life. David was adamant that life is not the miserable waiting room where we sit out, hoping we have the ticket for the train to heavenly blessings when we die. Supernatural transformation, Christian joy – these are available to us now.
I grasped it eagerly and have not been disappointed. The surprise for me when I got into the Church is that many Catholics didn’t seem to realise what they have…but that’s another story.