Acedia: Been There, Done That

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ACEDIA: A common malady of the soul manifesting itself in despondency, depression, listlessness, a particular distate for spiritual things, and a distaste for life in general without any specific reason.


Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
Psalm 89:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17
Luke 9:7-9

All Is Vanity

The beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes is dismal and pessimistic. “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). Qoheleth looks around and sees the same old things interminably recycled. He sounds jaded, bored, and depressed. “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Eccl 1:8). Qoheleth —his name means “the preacher in the assembly”— is hardly a bearer of good cheer and glad tidings. “The fate of the sons of men,” he says, “and the fate of beasts is the same, as one dies, so dies the other” (Eccl 3:19).

Nothing New Under the Sun

In the monastic life, especially after thirty, forty, or fifty years, one begins to ask the same questions posed by Qoheleth. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun” (Eccl 1:3)? One feels that nothing really matters, that nothing will ever change in others, in myself, or in the colour of the paint on the walls. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).


A general weariness sets in. Everything becomes burdensome, tedious, and dull. Things that formerly fired us with zeal seem intolerably stupid. Customs we once found charming and quaint dissolve into a routine of drudgery. Prayer gets stuck, like dry peanut butter, on the roof of the mouth. We become discouraged with ourselves, impatient with others, and indifferent to everything around us. The Fathers and Mothers of the Desert called this spiritual ailment acedia. There is no vaccination against acedia. If such a vaccine had been invented, we would, long ago, have begun giving it to novices with the holy habit.


When we come down with a bad case of acedia —and we all do sooner or later— we lose all sense of perspective? We forget that the monastic life, like the habit we wear, is cruciform. We forget that we came to the monastery, in the first place, not to gain anything but to lose everything; not to win but to lose; not to be first, but last; not to live, but to die. This is the meaning of every jubilee of monastic profession. “ Fifty years a loser! Thanks be to God.”

The Paschal Perspective

“Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35). “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). The paschal perspective turns everything upside down. The loss of the paschal perspective makes us grim, introverted and, ultimately, far more pessimistic than Qoheleth was on his worst day.

Scripture: The Mirror of the Soul

Curiously, each of us thinks that he or she is the first to suffer from acedia. Perhaps that is because we fail to recognize it when it appears in the pages of Sacred Scripture, in the very psalms we sing by day and by night. The Bible is a mirror of the human soul. It reflects every emotion, every passion and every lack of passion, every human response to life, to love, and to God, including weariness, boredom, and that vague dissatisfaction with everything that saps the vitality of the soul.

The Remedy

Sacred Scripture also contains the antidote to every interior malaise, the remedy for every sickness of the soul. The Fathers and Mothers of the Desert found in the Scriptures the cure for acedia, a medicine that, with repeated and skillful application, brings relief.

Harmonies and Contrasts

Paradoxically, although the whole Word of God is contained and communicated in the smallest fragment of the Bible, no single page of Scripture is self-sufficient. The light of divine Revelation dawns when we complete one passage of the Scriptures with another, when we begin to hear not only the harmonies, but the dissonances as well. In the Bible, as in community, dissonance is an indispensable part of the search for truth. The most beautiful harmonies emerge from the most dissonant contrasts.

The Liturgical Context

The liturgy uses both contrasts and harmonies in the treatment of Sacred Scripture. The liturgy never focuses on just a single page of the Bible. The liturgy plays with Scripture, completing one passage with another, giving us antiphons, verses, and responsorial psalms, changing the descending Word into ascending prayer, turning the text this way and that, singing it first in one mode and then in another, editing, juxtaposing, and finally, creating a whole new context for the hearing of the Word in every celebration.

The Remedy of the Liturgy

I would not want to be left with today’s gloomy passage from Ecclesiastes and nothing else. I need the Responsorial Psalm, the Gospel, the Introit, the Preface, and the Communion Antiphon. The light of truth is reflected from a mosaic of texts that bring to each hearer of the Word just what is needed at any given moment. The liturgy is the repeated and skillful application of the Scriptures to the soul, the remedy for acedia, the restoration of the paschal perspective.

God’s Choice

Basically, Qoheleth says that we are all losers. We expend great quantities of energy pretending we are not losers, trying to keep up appearances. The Gospel tells us that there is no need for that. The Gospel tells us that losers win and winners lose. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27-29).

Light From the Altar

This memorial of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and his Companions serves but one purpose: to place us again in the paschal perspective, to flood the dreary twilight of our introversions with the saving light of the Cross. As for the Eucharist we celebrate, it is the saving light of the Cross radiating from the altar, illuminating the inner recesses of every gloom, every failure, every monotonous repetition, with the hope of glory. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Ps 33:20).

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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