Last week we began our Finding Happiness series by learning about happiness as being equated with purity of heart, that state of inner freedom where we are able to leave behind negative thoughts in order to embrace the good.
The early desert mothers and fathers–experts in this field–identified eight negative thoughts, which afflict everyone to varying degrees, and which ruin our sense of well-being and happiness.
Eight Thoughts or Seven Deadly Sins
The list of ‘Eight Thoughts’ may well remind you of the so-called ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, and you’d be right. It’s the same list, but edited down to seven, for various reasons, in the 6th century.
The ‘seven deadly sins’ – not the happiest subject for a chat over coffee, or a church teaching series, and they often get a bad press, perhaps because of the way in which that list conjures up all sorts of negative images of judgementalism, hellfire and punishment. But as Abbot Christopher explains, this list was originally about helping people become self-aware. ‘…their usefulness is dependent on a belief that spiritual awareness is a vital dimension of human life and that without such self-awareness there is no happiness.’ (p56).
There’s a subtle difference between:
- Introspection: only looking at me
- Self-awareness: considering how I interact with the world around me – being attentive to the way I relate to people and things, and how my outlook affects the way I see the world.
There’s is a modern–quite simplistic–belief that something is good and fine if it doesn’t harm anyone else. But the approach of this book, and all the centuries of teaching behind it, would question that belief. ‘My own inner world is a place that can do harm or do good not only to myself but to other people as well.’ (p58).
The things that we do and say start from in here (our ‘hearts’).
But that cannot be policed or legislated for.
It’s something that we can only master through the discipline of self-awareness (and if we help our children with this from an early age, we equip them well for their futures).
It’s an insight that Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount…(“You’ve heard it said, “Do not murder”, but I tell you, whoever has anger towards his neighbour is guilty of murder…”)
‘Acedia’ is a Latin word meaning ‘boredom/ apathy’, but used by the monks and nuns to refer to something quite specific: spiritual carelessness; loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life.
It’s a shame acedia was edited out of the ‘seven deadly sins’ list, because it’s a helpful word for describing an important feature of the spiritual life, especially in the Western world today.
‘Until the modern era, the Church and especially its religious orders provided a constant reminder to ordinary people of their need to examine their conscience every day and to reflect deeply on their way of life.’ (p60)
We’ve created ‘a culture of spiritual carelessness that neglects the disciplined life of the soul’ (p61).
Jamison believes this underlies so much unhappiness in today’s world. That’s why he deals with it first in this book.
These are largely matters that we can’t see, but that’s where the Abbot draws a parallel to hygiene:
- Before germs were discovered, hygiene wasn’t taken as seriously as it is now. Many deadly infections were passed on, caused by these germs.
- Similarly, our so-called ‘demons’ are unseen thoughts, making us unhappy, ‘and spiritual hygiene is as important as medical hygiene if these diseases of the soul are to be healed.’ (p62)
So what does Acedia look like? Feel like?
First, as one teacher put it,
- ‘It makes a person horrified at where he/she is disdainful and contemptuous of the [others] as being careless and unspiritual.
- Then the [person] becomes ‘slothful and complains and sighs, lamenting that he/she is bereft and void of all spiritual gain in that place.
- Basically a deep sense of being in the wrong place, with the wrong people, doing the wrong things!
- the person decides they will perish if they stay here any longer, so they decide to go off somewhere else far away, a sort of ‘grass is greener on the other side’ mentality.
These symptoms of acedia have often been compared to what someone experiences in a mid-life crisis.
They can also be experienced in a marriage, where after a number of years, one of the couple leaves for ‘someone better’. The acedia of marriage can be a very tough experience for the couple, and Abbot Christopher suggests that ‘to name it as such may be a helpful starting-point to enable the relationship to grow beyond it.’ (p65)
Acedia has been commonly associated not with a phase of life, but a time of day. It has a nickname: ‘the noonday demon’ because, as the old stories tell it, the monk is exhausted and hungry in the middle of the day as if he’s been working all day, when in fact he’s done very little. He looks up at the sun and thinks it’s hardly moved!
Then he starts complaining that no-one else comes to visit him. ‘He’s so disengaged from the spiritual life that he craves either a visitor or sleep as the only things he wants.’
So he comes up with all sorts of reasons––good and pious reasons––to convince himself that he should visit all the other people. “Oh, they’ll need me to pop in there so I can help with that”, or “So and so needs looking after, so I’ll go and see them.” and so on.
Acedia is about substituting outward movement for inner perseverance.
Abbot Christopher also points out how this can become a tendency in unhappy homes, where someone spends longer and longer hours at work, or out doing other things, because they can’t face the pain of going back home. So the things ‘out there’ become painkillers. ‘Recognising this very modern acedia can be a liberation leading to a better way forward.’ (p67)
What’s the remedy for Acedia?
There are some very simple, helpful steps.
- Regular reading of spiritual books and reflect on what they’re saying about our own lives.
- Putting good stuff into our inner lives, rather than gossip or reading rubbish, which are mechanisms for avoiding our inner self-awareness.
- The practice of Lectio divina is highly recommended – a slow, prayerful reading of the Bible or other good spiritual material.
- A disciplined and sustained life of prayer
- Prayer is a way of making us live in the present moment – living our lives consciously and fully before God, in the here and now.
- Acedia tries to make us live in future fantasies, rather than facing the challenges of our present life; it makes us envious of others and their lives, and this lies behind a large amount of what we might call ‘consumer envy’ – “Let’s go out and buy the stuff that will make us like them!” It’s another avoidance mechanism.
- But prayer heals and transforms these tendencies. All the better when it’s sustained and disciplined, so that it’s woven into our lives in the same way that a good healthy diet or exercise routine would be.
- On p69 we find some brief but helpful advice for setting up a prayer space in our own homes.
A friend of mine jokes that every sermon preached in an Evangelical church can be summed up in two points: “Read your bible and pray more!”
That’s not far off what Abbot Christopher is saying here, but that’s because these are tried and tested ways of dealing with acedia.
And when we deal with acedia, we are on the way to finding true happiness.
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on Sunday 11th September 2016