Fr. Andrew Armond – The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, August 8, 2021
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The spiritual state of acedia is probably the most important spiritual concept you’ve never heard of. Indeed, it is so important that, eventually, it made its way into the infamous catalog of the “Seven Deadly Sins” as the sin of sloth. But make no mistake—acedia is not just some kind of laziness. It is not simply a moral failure to shake off the cobwebs and get to work. It is a very real spiritual malaise that is bound to afflict all of us at some point in our lives.
The fourth-century desert monk Evagrius described this condition as the “noonday demon.” Its effects on himself and his brother monks were manifold. Evagrius says that the noonday demon comes on the monk around 10 AM and lasts till around 2 PM. The day seems to lengthen during this time; the monk not only feels the stillness of the oppressive heat outside, but within his soul. He begins to feel a kind of spiritual restlessness, a dislike for his cell, for his brother monks, for his work in the monastery. He begins to remember old hatreds and wounds. And, perhaps most importantly, the monk feels as though his life’s work is in vain, that nothing he has done or will done in his life of prayer and fasting really matters. It is a hardening of the heart, a callousness of the soul, a spiritual torpor.
The prophet Elijah was probably suffering from something akin to acedia. In the previous chapter of First Kings, he had achieved a great triumph over the priests of Ba’al, the God whom the Israelites were tempted to worship instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah had followed his vocation and calling as God’s prophet, showing the might and power of the true God in a dramatic and grandiose fashion, calling down fire from heaven and routing God’s enemies.
And what does Elijah get for it? What is his reward? King Ahab and Queen Jezebel announce that they are coming for him, to hunt him down and kill him for the way that he embarrassed the prophets of Ba’al.
And that is where our passage from First Kings picks up the story. Alone, afraid, lost in the wilderness, Elijah loses all motivation to continue; loses his physical and spiritual energy, doesn’t understand what God is doing—or not doing—in his life; doesn’t want to go on.
“I have had enough, Lord.” Elijah says, a sentiment all of us can identify with. I have had enough; I am tired of this fight, I am fearful, I am anxious, I can’t go on.
Into Elijah’s acedia—into his difficulty to rouse himself to prayer, or love, or anything resembling a spiritual awakening—into that acedia, the messenger of God simply says “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”
I want you to notice what is not here. There is no condemnation of Elijah, and there is no judgment of his condition. In fact, the angel of God agrees with Elijah’s self-assessment: “the journey IS too much for you.” And so, a second time, Elijah is asked simply to get up and eat.
God provides food in the wilderness for Elijah’s journey. Elijah’s acedia, his spiritual battle, is not over, but God’s grace gives him what he needs. It is enough. It is enough to rouse Elijah and allow him to continue for “forty days and forty nights,” echoing God’s provision for Noah and his family, for Moses preparing to receive the Law on Mt. Sinai, for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and foreshadowing Jesus’s own time of temptation in the desert.
There is no condemnation for those of us who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, acedia. Jesus knows what these times of spiritual barrenness are like, because he experienced them himself. And both the Scriptures as well as the record of the lives of many great saints throughout Christian history show us that acedia is a common theme in our faith.
What emerges from our understanding of Scripture and the lives of the saints in their struggles with acedia? I’d like you to remember three things.
First: honesty. Elijah brings his life before God in complete transparency. He tells God how he is feeling. We need to remember that prayer opens us up to the channels of God’s grace, not only by praying for the needs of others, but also in being genuine and candid in our communication with God. The Psalms are of great help to us in this project, reminding us that a cornerstone of faith is simply telling God how we feel. Lord, I am frustrated. God, I am upset. In fact, I am angry with You. Why is this happening? This doesn’t make sense. This wasn’t the plan. I thought things would go differently.
One of the monastic remedies for acedia, according to Evagrius, are the tears of those who pray. “Tears shed before God are stronger than both sadness and acedia,” he says. God welcomes our prayers with tears, because in shedding those tears, we bring the burden of a humble and contrite heart before God. We unblock our emotional and spiritual lives in shedding tears of honesty before God.
Second: perseverance. Now by perseverance I don’t mean simply a dogged determination to go on despite how we feel, or a rugged individualism that says we can pull ourselves out of acedia. Our faith is, and must be, grace-filled, and we must recognize that we cannot persevere without God’s assistance. But sometimes faith means getting up and eating—a simple act, but a first step toward wholeness and restoration of both body and soul.
Maybe perseverance for some of us is the literal act of eating. But perseverance can also mean continuing the acts of prayer and Scripture reading even through times of spiritual distress.
There is a groundedness in the spiritual traditions of our faith that is meant to carry us through our times of spiritual dryness, for when we pray the same prayers night and day, week by week, month by month, year by year, we cannot even consciously process the ways in which they root themselves deep in our psyches, deep in our souls.
The Spirit can work in and through the repetitive nature of our worship, reminding us that our corporate offering week by week is not only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of those around us.
Maybe we come to worship in a state of spiritual apathy or dryness, and often we can be touched by the prayers of the faithful surrounding us. Perhaps we are just going through the motions at times, but even in that, God will bless our efforts at connecting with God and with those around us.
Third: Finding God in the Ordinary. While I’ve seen the meme about our passage from I Kings that says something like “this proves that all we really need is lunch and a nap,” it’s really not too far off from the point of this entire chapter. God’s display of God’s grace to Elijah does not come through the flashy, fiery display of the previous chapter’s triumph over Ba’al. It does not come through a supernatural vision. It comes to Elijah through food, drink, and rest. Ordinary things blessed by God.
While there are countless ways that God speaks to individuals, nearly all of us can find God’s benevolent and healing presence in some aspect of the Created Order, whether that be a restorative hike in the woods, an early morning on the lake, or in the simple pleasure of cooking one of our grandmother’s recipes.
As Romano Guardini puts it, “Everything is a mouthpiece through which the eternal speaks; every tree and creature, the breadth of heaven and the sea, the implement before me and the food I eat.”
Or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!”
God comes to us in and through the stuff of this world and the people of this world.
This is what we call incarnational theology, and it is from this type of theological reflection that we draw great inspiration and comfort as Christians: we serve a God who comes to us in the flesh, in history, in a real person, Jesus Christ. And we serve a God who does not disappear into the heavens, but continues to visit us in and through the Ordinary. The Eucharist, that is, the Sanctification of the Ordinary elements of Bread and Wine, thus becomes a pattern for all of human existence: a means by which we discern the presence of God in simple but profound things.
There is no silver bullet with which we can easily slay the demon of acedia in our own lives. But following in the examples of the Saints who have come before us, we can walk the way of Honesty, Perseverance, and Finding God in the Simple Pleasures of this world to be of great comfort as we walk this journey of faith together.
The spiritual writer Kathleen Norris has written extensively on acedia, and in particular, on the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated our temptation to this spiritual malaise. I’ll close today with a prayer that Norris believes is a prayer “with which to silence the nihilistic voice of acedia,” from the 13th century saint Gertrude the Great.
Be my honor, Lord,
My consolation in sorrows,
My counsel in uncertainty,
My defense in everything unfair,
My patience in problems,
My abundance in poverty,
My food in fasting,
My sleep in vigilance,
And my healing in weakness.