The Beatitudes and Acedia
Acedia in Advent
A Christmas for Curmudgeons
"Have Yourself a Grumpy Little Christmas"
Fr. Michael Dodds, OP
"Every who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot.
But the grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not.
The grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season.
Now please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It may be his head wasn't screwed on quite right.
It may be his shoes were a little too tight.
But I think that the likeliest reason of all
Was that his grinch heart was three sizes too small."
Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
I suppose you've all heard of Dr. Seuss' Grinch who stole Christmas. What was his problem? His heart? His shoes? Just innate nastiness?
—Or did he perhaps just find the joy of the Christmas season itself a little bit too much for him?
It does take a bit energy to be joyful. Back in the sixties— in those days of burlap banners in churches— there was one banner that proclaimed: "To be a Christian is to be an alleluia from morning to night." I remember one parishioner who looked at it and said wearily, "I'd find that exhausting."
Perhaps we find the same thing some years as we look forward to all the hustle, bustle and activities of the Christmas season— the cards to write, shopping to do, gifts to wrap, trees to trim, stockings to hang, cookies to bake. Does it seem a bit much? Do we look forward to it all with delight or a sense of — dread? Do we find Christmas a season of exultation or just — exhaustion?
Maybe it's just that Christmas has become too commercialized, robbing it of its promise of quiet joy and peace at the Lord's coming. But perhaps part of it is that as we look forward towards this season of "Joy to the World," we find ourselves touched, not by angels, but by acedia— that spiritual affliction that the Fathers of Church talked about so many centuries ago, a condition that convinces us that the whole business of being joyful just takes too much energy.
So, perhaps it's worth looking once again at what they had to say, especially as we enter into this time of preparation for Christmas— when we so hope to be surprised by joy.
The Beatitudes offer us a promise of joy. Acedia may threaten to rob us of that promise. So, maybe it's not wholly inappropriate to hear an Advent talk that puts Beatitudes and Acedia together.
I came across acedia a few months ago, when I started listening to a new book on my mp3 player. I like listening to books as I walk back and forth from DSPT to St. Mary Magdalen's Parish in Berkeley, where I live. Being a cheapo, I download books from the Berkeley Public Library. Usually, I choose a mindless mystery story or something. But one day, among the available books to download, I stumbled across Kathleen Norris's Acedia and Me. I liked her book, The Cloister Walk, years ago, so decided to give it a try.
My brother and I had just republished our book on the Beatitudes: Happily Ever After Begins Here and Now: Living the Beatitudes Today . [i] So as I walked around the idea of acedia started tumbling together in my head with the spirituality of the Beatitudes.
Kathleen Norris presents acedia, not just as an affliction of ancient monks, but as a major contemporary problem. (A quick google search for "acedia" shows that quite a few people share her opinion— over 952,000 websites in two nanoseconds.) Acedia looks like the polar opposite of the Beatitudes. Acedia makes even the smallest step towards God, or the spiritual life, or even simple human flourishing, seem impossible, not worth the effort. The thought of God does not awaken joy, but sadness. The Beatitudes, on the other hand, begin with eight seemingly impossible propositions, and proclaim that they not only lead to happiness, but are themselves portraits joy.
Acedia literally means "absence of care" ["a" + "kedos", in Greek]. But this is no careless absence. In fact, Evagrius, one of the Desert Fathers, describes acedia as a demon, "the noonday demon". He says:
The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour [from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m.]. First of all, he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. ... He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. [ii]
Kathleen Norris gives us a contemporary description of acedia. She says: "The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn."[iii] It comes over you when the task of life itself begins to seem too demanding.
Acedia may manifest itself in lethargy but also sometimes in that intense but superficial busyness that we call "avoidance." Evagrius describes the first symptom very well. (I imagine the mindset of the monk he speaks of here will be familiar to many scholars.)
The monk often yawns when he reads, and he gets tired easily. He rubs his eyes, he stretches out his arms, and he looks up from his book. He looks at the wall, then comes back to read a bit more. Flipping through the pages, he kills time looking at the end of the book. He counts the pages, calculates the number of fascicles, complains about the print and the design. Finally, closing up the book, he lays his head on top of it and falls asleep, but not a deep sleep, since hunger wakes him up and he begins to think about lunch. [iv]
Another Desert Father, John Cassian, describes the second symptom— how acedia may manifest itself in busyness:
The monk looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or perhaps in the solace of sleep. Then the disease suggests that he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities to the brethren, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks too about some dutiful and religious offices; that his kinsfolk ought to be inquired after, and that he should go and see more often. [v]
John Cassian concludes that acedia usually ends in a general disgust with everything and everyone. He says:
And when acedia has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place, as if he were one who, though he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none, nor profiting any one by his teaching and doctrine. He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; and besides this he paints the intercourse with the brethren there as sweet and full of spiritual life. On the other hand, he says that everything about him is rough, and not only that there is nothing edifying among the brethren who are stopping there, but that even food for his body can be procured only with great difficulty. [vi]
Today, we're far from the cells of the desert monks, but acedia is still with us, manifesting the same symptoms: a weariness with the very plethora of options the world offers to us and a restlessness about remaining in one place or one commitment. Kathleen Norris remarks: "In our consumer culture we're advised to keep our options open, so that we are always free to grab the new, improved model when it appears. It's not easy for us to recognize acedia in ourselves, as it prompts us to see obligations to family, friends, and colleagues as impediments to that freedom. [Often acedia] urges us to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions. ... How could we ever have imagined that we might find self-fulfillment in this place, among these people? ... But soon we discover that no place will satisfy us, and no one person, no group of friends, can meet our needs. The oppressive boredom we had hoped to escape is lodged firmly within us." [vii]
If you've seen the film, "Up In the Air," you might recognize the symptoms of acedia in George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, lost in a sea of small creature comforts and superficial relationships. Or, you might think of Hugh Grant's character, Will Freeman, in the movie "About a Boy"— another self-absorbed man, pursuing a completely superficial existence until redemption appears in the form of a pudgy kid. [viii]
But, as Paul Wadell and Darin Davis note, acedia is not just the stuff of comic relief. Acedia, they say, "characterizes persons who move through life engaged by nothing hopeful or worthwhile because they have come to believe such goods, no matter how alluring, are beyond a human being's grasp. They focus their lives not on 'lofty and joyous things,' such as goodness, service, holiness, or friendship with God; but on trivial distractions that not only corrupt, but will eventually make them oblivious to the hope they have lost. Those who exhibit acedia are committed to distracting themselves through the rest of their lives because there is nothing beyond a cascade of distractions to, if only momentarily, enliven them. Acedia dominates because anything truly magnanimous seems not only out of reach, but unthinkable. [ix]
Wadell and Davis are particularly concerned about the young people they encounter in high school and college classrooms. "Like the adults who have formed them," they say, "these students, armed with cell phones and i-Pods and X-Boxes in their dorm rooms, float on an ocean of pleasant distraction." [x] When the distractions of the moment become less interesting and the future begins to open as a vast expanse of endless monotony or insuperable obstacles, the end is sometimes tragic.
Acedia is the enemy of joy. It shuts us off from joy. It makes joy itself seem not just unattainable, but simply too tedious to bother with.
I think this is where we may begin to look at the Beatitudes as answering the overwhelming impossibilities posited by acedia with eight simple, but also seemingly, wholly impossible, pathways to joy.
I wonder sometimes if St. Dominic saw this connection between acedia and the Beatitudes. We're told that, in his travels, this "joyful friar" always carried the Gospel of Matthew, with Jesus' teaching on the Beatitudes, as well as the Conferences of Cassian, with the wise monk's admonitions on acedia.
Certainly Thomas Aquinas saw a connection between acedia and the Beatitudes. To him, acedia is not only a sin against charity, but against the very "joy of charity." [xi] Instead of joy at divine goodness, acedia reacts with sadness, leading to inaction. According to Aquinas, "Acedia is an oppressive sorrow that so weighs upon one's mind that one wants to do nothing." [xii]
Acedia looks at the greatest possible good, our life of union with God, and finds only sadness. Steeped in sadness, one is left unable to act, unable to move one's will to love of God or love of neighbor. So, acedia is opposed to the highest virtue, which is charity. Aquinas says: "To be sad about this special good which is an internal and divine good makes acedia a special sin, just as to love this good makes charity a special virtue." [xiii] He points out that since acedia is opposed to charity, it is also opposed to joy: "The joy which arises from charity, to which acedia is opposed, necessarily belongs to spiritual life, as does charity itself..." [xiv]
With keen psychological and spiritual insight, Aquinas sees that our response to the sadness of acedia will be either withdrawal and lethargy or superficial busyness, both of which give rise to other moral faults. He says:
Since no one can long endure sadness without joy..., therefore two effects follow from sadness, one of which is that a person withdraws from the saddening things; the other is that he turns to other things in which he finds pleasure. [xv]
As the Benedictine monk, Jean-Charles Nault, remarks: "Acedia ... turns the human person away from his original orientation toward relationship with God and the joy which pours forth from it." [xvi] It "is a profound withdrawal into self" that cannot see human action "as a gift of oneself, as the response to a prior love that calls us [and] enables our action." Instead, it sees human action as "an uninhibited seeking of personal satisfaction" pursued "in the fear of 'losing' something." Ultimately, however, the "desire to save one's 'freedom' at any price [results in] a deeper enslavement to 'self." [xvii]
Our true freedom is found only in the death and resurrection of Christ, in that daily dying to self that leads us out of ourselves and into life and joy. As Nault explains:
For St. Thomas Aquinas, acedia is the enemy of spiritual joy, the joy engendered by charity and that is its first fruit. This joy (gaudium) of charity is born of graced participation in divine life, that begins on earth and comes to completion in heaven and transformation in God. Extraordinarily dynamic, this joy powerfully enables action, as it is the unfolding of love in the presence of the loved Reality, God himself. The one who brings us into relationship with the God of love is the Holy Spirit: it is through the Spirit, therefore, that spiritual joy comes to us. Having been saved from acedia by the Incarnation of the Son, we must allow ourselves to be moved by the Spirit, to be true children of God (Romans 8:14). [xviii]
Living the Beatitudes Today
Acedia makes joy impossible, since it views the goodness of God (which is the only true foundation of our joy) as a source of sadness rather than joy. The Beatitudes, on the contrary, offer us eight apparent impossibilities that promise to open the way to joy. At least they sound impossible, don't they?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. [xix]
Rejoice? You've got to be kidding! These people are happy? You must be joking! How can the poor, the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty, the very ones who are mourning, be happy? Yet the Beatitudes describe them as "blessed", that is, as "happy"— right now, not just in some future age. They don't just say such people "will by happy by and by." They tell us that these are the happy ones, right now, present tense: "Blessed (right now) are the poor, the mournful, the meek, the hungry..." We might say the Beatitudes present us with eight icons of true human happiness. Happiness is not only possible: it's here right now, all around us (if we know where to look). It's here, right now, right within us, when we live, and love, and act in Christ.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Until we discover true poverty of spirit, we fail to find the joy of letting go and occupy ourselves instead with the worries of hanging on. We live our lives in fear and anxiety, trying to hold onto what it's not in our power to grasp. Only if we recognize our poverty, our neediness, our indigence before God, do we discover our true riches in God's generosity to us. God gives us nothing less than the Kingdom, which is to say, he gives us nothing less than himself. Our lives may be fragile and fleeting, as one psalm teaches us:
Our days are like the grass;
like flowers of the field we blossom.
The wind sweeps over us and we are gone;
and our place knows us no more.
Yet our trust is not in ourselves, but in God's love and faithfulness, which are unfailing, as the psalm continues:
But the LORD'S kindness is forever,
toward the faithful from age to age. (Ps 103: 13-17)
Unless we see, admit and acknowledge our own poverty, we will not be able to receive the riches of the Kingdom. If our hands are closed, clenched, always grasping what we think we can attain and hold onto by ourselves, then they cannot be open, empty, cupped to receive the gift of God. Unless we are willing to be empty, we cannot know the fullness of God.
If, at first, the poor seem unlikely candidates for happiness, the mournful must seem even more unlikely. So the second Beatitude seems equally impossible: "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted." The phrase encompasses all who suffer: the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the dying, the grieving, the penitent; those who suffer their own pain, as well as those who open their hearts to share the pain of others. Why are they happy? Perhaps it's because only those who have truly known mourning can discover the depth of God's consolation. They find the God of the prophet Isaiah: "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" (Is 66:13).
Those who know the consolation of God's promise, the tenderness of God's care, can themselves become messengers of compassion to others. The role given to the prophet is ours also: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated" (Is 40:1-2).
Those who have known sorrow themselves can be compassionate with others who suffer. In this way, there is a kind of completeness, a circularity, to the practice of the Beatitudes. One leads into another. From the blessedness of those who mourn, we go on to consider the joy of the compassionate, of the merciful: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." Dietrich Bonhoeffer once described the merciful response of the Christian community to the sufferings of the world:
The community of disciples does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity... Sorrow cannot tire them or wear them down, it cannot embitter them or cause them to break down under the strain; far from it, for they bear their sorrow in the strength of him who bears them up, who bore the whole suffering of the world upon the cross. ... They find their true home with their crucified Lord, both here and in eternity. [xx]
Though the world's sorrows can move us to compassion, they can also engender anger at the injustices which are often their source. But anger is a tricky thing. A righteous anger can move us to action, but a self-centered anger can leave us debilitated. Such is the anger that springs from acedia, as we brood year after year on real or imagined offenses against us.
Against such anger, the Beatitudes propose meekness: "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth." What does meekness have to do with anger? Meekness is a much-maligned virtue. It's often dismissed as something weak or namby-pamby.
As Aquinas explains it, though, to be meek is not to be a milquetoast. He describes meekness as the virtue (the power) that moderates or controls the passion of anger. Anyone who's every been really angry knows what a powerful and towering emotion that can be. A virtue that's able to rule anger, must be pretty powerful. If anger can enslave us, meekness sets us free. As Aquinas explains, "Anger is, on account of its impetuousness, a very great obstacle to one's free judgment of truth; so meekness, which mitigates anger, makes one self-possessed."
Once we're sure that we're not simply being ruled by our own anger in our response to injustice, then perhaps we can pursue true justice. The Beatitudes teach us that the search for justice and righteousness may not only feel like hunger and thirst, but may also involve persecution: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." "Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
A simple desire for justice is easily aroused. Just let someone cut us off in traffic, or slip into the parking place we've been patiently waiting for, or barge into a checkout line ahead of us, and we feel mildly outraged. We want justice: "There ought to be a law..."
But what is our sense of justice, and is it in accord with the gospel? Servais Pinckaers argues that gospel justice isn't so much about "getting our rights" as it is about "getting us right", that is, getting ourselves into right relationship with God, since it's from that relation that our just relationships with one another flow. [xxi]
Unfortunately, we often think of justice only in terms of personal rights. In that context, to demand justice is to demand my rights, to demand that someone give me what should be mine.
This is quite different from the gospel notion of justice which doesn't have to do with what others must give me, but with what I should give to them. The instinct behind the gospel notion of justice is giving; the instinct behind our modern conception of justice is taking. And with that, the note of personal relationship is lost. Justice becomes merely a matter of preserving my rights over against the hostile world around me. [xxii]
But if justice is viewed as a spontaneous and generous will (a desire, a hunger) to give to each person that which is due to them, it is found to flow from love, from the desire to do good to others.
Charity still outstrips justice—to give someone more than is due them is a greater virtue than to give merely what is due them— but the wellspring is the same, the directedness and concern for others rather than for oneself: not looking at myself and what others owe to me and should give to me, but looking toward others, and desiring to give to others—whether to give what is due (in justice) to give more than what is due (in charity and compassion). [xxiii]
Our hunger and thirst for justice must be rooted in love, and so, rooted in God. Living in right relation with God, we can then live in right relation with one another. We can seek justice, but our seeking will not be a self-seeking, preoccupied with personal rights and personal injuries, but a real seeking of the good of the other.
How do we know whether we're really seeking another's good or just our own? We need a certain transparency, to see ourselves as we are. Our tendency, though, is to put on masks, to hide— from others, from ourselves, and even from God (something we've been doing ever since Adam tried to hide from God in the garden of Eden).
If we hide from others, ourselves and God long enough, we eventually get so good at it, we don't even remember that we are hiding; we don't see the masks that we've put on. [xxiv]
Another Beatitude can help us here: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
Getting to know ourselves, becoming transparent to ourselves, is our way to become pure in heart. For only if we first know ourselves can we begin, with God's grace, to change what needs to be changed. St. Catherine of Siena says that to embark on the way of holiness, we must first enter the cell of self knowledge. Knowing our need to change, we can, with God's grace, become more and more the image of Christ, until like St. Paul we might say: "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).
I suppose we do manage to have little self-epiphanies (brief moments of transparency) every once in a while. I think of the character of Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, as she describes a sudden moment of self knowledge, after discovering how wrong she has been in her assessment of two acquaintances. She says:
How despicably have I acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment. ... How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation. Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away... Till this moment I never knew myself." [xxv]
Our moments of self-knowledge may not be so dramatic, but can be equally shocking. -Perhaps I usually see myself as a pretty amiable guy, and then suddenly realizing what an arrogant and quarrelsome jerk I am. -Or maybe I believe I'm a generous creature, and suddenly see how stingy I am, hoarding my time and energy. -Or perhaps I think I'm pretty industrious, and suddenly realize how much time I idle away on nothing at all (like Cassian's monk, gazing out his window).
(A friend of mine, who played with a solitaire game on his computer in what he thought were occasional spare moments, recently told me that he was shocked when a little sign suddenly appeared on his computer screen with the message: "Congratulations, you have now spent 100 cumulative hours enjoying this program.")
Our deepest and truest identity is in Christ. And when we are in touch with that deepest identity, with who we really are, we find peace. No more worry and pretending; we can be ourselves (warts and all), the creatures that God has made in his own image; the creatures that God loves. At peace with ourselves and with God, we can then be instruments of the Lord's peace.
So, we are ready to enter upon yet another path to joy: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."
Sometimes we may think of peace as a simply absence of conflict (and even that's often hard enough to get!). In scripture, though, peace is a richer notion. True peace springs from our relationship with God, and any peace that is not rooted there will be only superficial and fleeting.
So, the prophets of the Old Testament recognized that there could be no peace if the people were not living in right relationship with God, since all peace has its roots in that relationship. In the New Testament, peace is again rooted in our relationship with God, a relationship now founded on Christ and his cross. As the letter to the Ephesians tells us:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us... that he might ... reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2:13)
We who have shared in Christ's peace, in his reconciliation of all things with the Father, are to be messengers of peace, ambassadors of peace. We cannot rest content with peace in our own hearts: our desire must be to share the peace of Christ with others.
We might notice that in this Beatitude, Jesus doesn't say, "blessed are the peaceful," or "blessed are the contented, or complacent or self-satisfied, the calm, the blasé," but "Blessed are the peaceMAKERS." To be a peacemaker is not to be passive, but active: it's a task to be done.
Today, we might think of all the places in the world and the situations in our own lives where the task has yet to be accomplished. How can we become peaceMAKERS? Faced with an enormous need, I think it's all too easy to sense how little power and influence we have, to feel that we really can't do very much, and then to do nothing at all. This would be to give in once more to acedia: the task is overwhelming so I'll avoid it by diving into other activities— or perhaps just take a nap.
In moments when we feel overwhelmed, we should remember that Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the international peacemakers," but simply "blessed are the peacemakers" at any level. There's probably lots of room for peacemaking as we live our lives each day.
The Beatitudes are invitations to see ourselves and our world in a new way— to see ourselves as dependent wholly upon God ; to see our world as under God's providential care. If I were to summarize all the Beatitudes with one of my own, I suppose it would go something like "Blessed are the incomplete (for they are half-baked)." -Blessed are those who haven't got it made; those who haven't quite got their act together; those who haven't yet got it all figured out: Blessed are the incomplete.
A character in one of Flannery O'Connor's novels preaches about a Church in which "the blind don't see and the lame don't walk." [xxvi] I think it's a vision of our Church.
Sure, we believe in miracles, and we know that God can do all things. But for the most part, we find ourselves living in a world where, for the most part, the blind don't see and the lame don't walk. -Yet it's a world where God is very much alive and present.
-How is that? -How can God be present in lowliness, in helplessness, in weakness and limitation? Yet, that's precisely where God chose to manifest himself: in the helplessness of an infant born in the poverty of a cave in Bethlehem; in the powerlessness of a man, condemned to death on a cross.
-Why is that? Why does the omnipotent God choose the way of powerlessness? Perhaps to teach us that what we consider limitations, weaknesses and failures are really places to find the presence of God. However big our plans and ideas, they will always be too small for God. So, to show us how small we really are, God chooses to dwell in the very small. And so it's only in smallness, in the neglected, the inconsequential, the marginalized, and the powerless, that the greatness of God is manifested.
To find God we must look in those places we least expect to see him: among the poor, the outcast, the mourner, the hungry, the thirsty— among those who seem to have nothing. And to find God, we must discover our own need—our own smallness, hunger, thirst, and emptiness, which God alone can fill. Perhaps that gives me the second half of my beatitude: "Blessed are the incomplete, for they shall know the fullness of God." If we recognize our need for God, then we are truly blessed, for in that need we also find the true source of our happiness.
Can we see ourselves, can we see our need, in those images, those icons, that Jesus paints for us in the Beatitudes? In those eight impossibilities, can we find the God "for whom all things are possible" (Mt. 29: 26)? Have we become foolish enough to recognize the wisdom of God, instead of exhausting ourselves trying to figure it all out on our own? Have we become small enough to fit into God's providential plan, instead of trying to fit God's plan into our own grand schemes? [xxvii]
Have we become weak enough to do the work and carry the burden, carry the cross, that Christ gives us, rather than pretending to possess a strength of our own making that would allow us to carry, on our own, all the useless burdens that we make for ourselves? [xxviii]
Do we find ourselves among the blessed that Jesus describes in the Beatitudes? Do we find in our hearts some tug toward that off-beat brand of happiness that they offer, for that consolation that exceeds all our imaginings, because it is the very life of God?
If we give ourselves to God in true poverty of heart, who knows what we may learn, what we may become, what we may do, what we may be in Christ. As St. John teaches:
Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. [xxix]
[ii] Evagrius Ponticus [345-399], The Praktikos, as quoted in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: a Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), xv-xvi. Back to text.
[iv] Quoted in Norris, 5, and Jean-Charles Nault, "Acedia: Enemy of Spiritual Joy," Communio 31 (2004), 238; http://www.secondspring.co.uk/media/NaultFormatFinal.pdf, accessed 10/15/2010. Back to text.
[viii] You might also know Binx Bolling, the main character in Walker Percy's novel, The Moviegoer, who watches movie after movie, looking for some kind of meaning, and describing his vague search as "what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life." http://www.amazon.com/Moviegoer-Walker-Percy/dp/0375701966/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1288131922&sr=8-1
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[ix] Paul Wadell and Darin Davis, "Tracking the Toxins of Acedia: Reenvisioning Moral Education," in The Schooled Heart : Moral Formation in American Higher Education, ed., Michael D. Beaty and Douglas V. Henry (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 135-36. Back to text.
[xi] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica [ST] Part I, Question 35, article 1, prologue (New York: Benziger, 1946). "Sorrow in the divine good about which charity rejoices, belongs to a special vice, which is called sloth" (ST II-II, 35, 2, co.). "Any sin which by its very nature is contrary to charity is a mortal sin by reason of its genus. And such is acedia, because the proper effect of charity is joy in God..., while acedia is sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a divine good" (ST II-II, 35, 3, co.). See also Nault, 241. Back to text.
[xii] ST II-II, 35, 1, co. "Acedia is a tedium or sadness concerning a spiritual and internal good" (Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, Q.11, a.1, co. [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995). Jean-Charles Nault points out that for Aquinas, acedia entails both "a sadness at the divine good (tristitia de bono divino) and an aversion to acting (taedium operandi)" Nault, 241. Back to text.
[xiii] On Evil 11, 2, co. "Acedia signifies a kind of sadness from the repugnance of human affections to a spiritual divine good; indeed such repugnance is obviously contrary to charity, which adheres to a divine good and rejoices in it" (On Evil 11, 3, co.). God himself can never be the source of sadness, yet we can convince ourselves to see God in this way: "Since an internal and spiritual good is really good and can only appear to be evil, namely, inasmuch as it is contrary to carnal desires, it is evident that acedia is of itself a sin" (On Evil 11, 1, co.). "God, inasmuch as he is present to the mind, does not permit sadness or mortal sin with Him; hence acedia is not sadness about the presence of God himself, but sadness about some good pertaining to him which is divine by participation" (On Evil 11, 3, ad 3). "Among the virtues, love, i.e., charity from which joy arises, is regarded as the principal virtue because the divine good and the good of our neighbor are themselves loveable; and are not of themselves hateable but only inasmuch as they are saddening on account of something accidental" (On Evil 11, 4, ad 1). Back to text.
[xiv] On Evil 11, 3, ad 7. "Joy in a spiritual and divine good pertains to a special virtue which is charity, according to the text of Galatians 5, 20, 'But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace'"(On Evil 11, 2, ad 1). Back to text.
[xv] "...[O]ut of the sadness which is conceived about spiritual goods, there follows a wandering of the mind after illicit things in which the carnal soul finds pleasure; but in the flight from such sadness the process observed is that first a person flees from those things, secondly he attacks them. And to the flight from spiritual goods [towards carnal things] which can give pleasure pertains both the withdrawal from the divine good hoped for, and this is despair, and in turn a withdrawal from spiritual good works to be done. [With respect to the things that are] necessary for salvation, [this is] sluggishness about the commandments. As regards the arduous things which fall under the counsels, it is ... faint-heartedness. [But] if a person is kept occupied against his will with spiritual goods that sadden him, [his first reaction may be] indignation against ... [those who keep] him occupied with such matters. This is rancor. [But eventually] he may [develop] anger and hatred even against the spiritual goods themselves, and this is malice" (On Evil 11, 4, co.). "Sluggishness about things to be done is not sadness itself, but the effect of sadness. Hence sadness arises from acedia, as though from acedia's very constricture, the heart is weighed down; and consequently, the heart fleeing such heaviness wanders after other things" (On Evil 11, 4, ad 3). "This tendency to wander, if it reside in the mind itself that is desirous of rushing after various things without rhyme or reason, is called 'uneasiness of the mind,' but if it pertains to the imaginative power, it is called 'curiosity'; if it affect the speech it is called 'loquacity'; and in so far as it affects a body that changes place, it is called 'restlessness of the body,' when, to wit, a man shows the unsteadiness of his mind, by the inordinate movements of members of his body; while if it causes the body to move from one place to another, it is called 'instability'; or 'instability' may denote changeableness of purpose" (ST II-II, 35, 4, ad 3). Back to text.
[xx] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 122. Back to text.
[xxi] See Servais Pinckaers, O.P., La quête du bonheur (Paris: Tequi, 1977), 96. Back to text.
[xxiv] This can get complicated, as the duchess explains to Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: "The moral of that is, 'be what you would seem to be'; or, if you'd like it put more simply, 'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise that what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise." Back to text.
[xxvi] Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007 ), 101. Back to text.
[xxvii] Peter seems to be doing this, when he responds (just after Jesus has predicted his passion): "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you" (Mt. 16: 22); or when Jesus predicts that all the disciples will all desert him, and Peter answers: "Even though they all fall away, I will not. ... Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you" (Mark 14: 29-31). Back to text.
[xxviii] Peter lays down the burdens he's made for himself in his own imaginings about Jesus and himself, and at the same time he takes up the burden of Christ, when he answers Jesus's simple question: "Simon, Son of John, do you love me?", saying, "Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you." And Jesus gives Peter the real work he is to do: "Feed my sheep" " (John 21: 17). The work, the burden, the task that Jesus gives to Peter is the same one he gives to us: "Feed my sheep," that is, "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13: 34). But since we have been made for love, this burden, as Jesus promises, is light: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light" (Mt. 11: 15-17). Back to text.