Thursday, June 05, 2008

Akedia

The first saying of Abba Anthony finds him afflicted with akedia, a Greek term variously translated as despondency, listlessness, sloth or, as Kevin Edgecomb does, melancholy. Akedia is sometimes called the Noonday Demon. It is a condition similar to what we today call depression, but with an element of restlessness. The afflicted monk finds himself all but paralyzed when he tries to pray and turn his mind to God, but has great bursts of energy to pursue distraction. If you would like to see the phenomenon in action on a less spiritual level, consider the thought processes of a child with a pile of homework waiting on one side of his room and a video game console with glowing TV screen on the other. Of Abba Antony it was said that "his mind was darkened by a multitude of imagined things, (Edgecomb)" or as Sr Benedicta Ward's translation puts it, he was "attacked by many sinful thoughts." This is quite a statement to make about the prototype of monks, the first great contemplative saint of the Church. As we shall see later, it is part of Abba Anthony's teachings that it is not in spite of our struggles that we become holy, but because of them. Abba Anthony cries out to God, wanting to know how he can be saved while trapped in the futility of his own thoughts and distractions. The story goes on to tell that:
Anthony saw someone like himself, sitting and working, then rising from work and praying, and again sitting and plaiting a rope, then again rising for prayer. It was an angel of the Lord, sent for the correction and insurance against stumbling of Anthony. And he heard the angel saying, Do this, and you will be saved. And when he heard this, he had great joy and courage, and did this, and was saved.
Now, we (or at least I) do not expect a vision of Angels to snap us out of habitual listlessness. If we read carefully though, the key point is not the angel, but what the angel shows to Anthony. There is no great revelation, no secret wisdom, no instant cure. The angel shows Abba Anthony that he needs to do what is set before him, simply and without drama. Work a little, pray some, work some more, pray some more. Nothing fancy, no mysteries beyond the mystery of God working secretly in us as we approach what is set before us with prayer and perseverance. There is scandal in the Church, what should I do? I have horrible thoughts, what should I do? Those around me don't understand me, don't appreciate me, what should I do? The answer given to Anthony is simple. Do the work you have been given, pray, and let God do his work. And when he heard this, he had great joy and courage, and did this, and was saved.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

this is wonderful -- i am looking forward to the continuance of the series.

CowPi said...

Stumbled upon your weblog today, apparently just in time to follow your meditations on Abba Anthony. Thank you.

In a semi-recent podcast by Peter Kreeft called "Shocking Beauty", he comments on boredom and sloth:

[Sloth] means the passivity and inactivity of the will and the passions even in the presence of the true good. In other word, it is the soul's refusal to eat its food. As violence is spiritual junk food, boredom is spiritual anorexia.