by the Rev. Doug Earle
In my bestiary of the Seven Deadly Sins, the icon of Sloth would not be the slow-moving, three-toed, leaf eating, tree dweller from South America, but the gloomy, gray donkey named Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, who has a fine tail he keeps losing and will probably lose again in “days or weeks or months—who knows?”
“Sloth” connotes to us laziness, which is actually just an extremely minor aspect of a more serious spiritual state called accedia. Admittedly, accedia sounds terribly quaint and archaic to our ears, but it is a word that our culture ought to reclaim, for it describes a constellation of symptoms that erode a healthy spiritual life.
Accedia describes a restless, chronic boredom that makes ordinary tasks too dull to bear. It has been called “the demon of the noonday sun,” the outlook on life that makes everything seem hopeless or pointless and the days 50 hours long.
Under accedia’s grasp, nothing seems right, life has no savor, everything is somebody else’s fault. The only alternative is to move on to something new, leave everything and go off somewhere else.
Accedia induces a lack of perseverance in the spiritual life, an unwillingness to grow into the image and likeness of God, a chronic refusal to take joy in things, a steadfast outlook on life that believes nothing can be any better. It is the cause of repetitive job hopping, serial monogamy, numerous divorces, shop-a-holicism, burnout and that experience of churches to get excited about a new program but then not support it after the bloom goes off the rose.
Evagrius of Pontus, the wise fourth century spiritual director, taught that accedia caused the most serious trouble in the spiritual life, and that it came from two sources. One was exhaustion from too little sleep or not enough leisure. The other was the attempt to find ultimate meaning from things that do not give ultimate meaning: work, marriage, hobbies, relationships, possessions. The remedy for the first is the reclaiming of Sabbath. The remedy of the second comes from Abba Poemen: “Do not set your heart on things that do not satisfy the heart.”
I don’t know how many times over my life I’ve started out to pray the daily office, study the Bible daily, or do centering prayer, only to discover in a short while that accedia has me in its grasp and the discipline has been set aside, leaving a despairing inertia about starting again. For, like Eeyore and his precious tail, I’ll surely lose my discipline again, in “days or weeks or months, who knows?” Forgive me, Abba Christopher Robin, for I have sinned.
The Rev. Doug Earle is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.