Look at the ant. This tiny worker, milling about the tunnels, always fulfilling her duties. Look how strong her back is. She can carry 10 times the weight of her own body. What a marvelous creature, constructed so as to be constantly working. A marvel of industry, the ant. A cog in the perfect machinery of the anthill.
Yet when does she stop to raise her eyes to heaven?
Acedia — which I previously defined as a kind of melancholy that is closely wed to aversion to effort — is not merely a matter of failing to work. It is also a matter of failing to work toward one’s final destiny. The “worker states” proposed by socialism, and the world of efficient productivity proposed by capitalism, are just different flavors of the same modernist heresy: They are worlds in which man is made for work, and not work for man.
The Desert Fathers proposed physical work as a cure for acedia — and that is very good advice for men who sink into spiritual lethargy in the darkness of their cells after hours of continual prayer. It is not so helpful in addressing the acedia of the anthill. The spiritual malady of our culture is not exemplified by the idle monk who uses prayer as an excuse to avoid work but by the information-overloaded workaholic who sets his cell phone to buzz quietly instead of turning it off altogether during Mass.
Our Lord’s words to Martha are particularly apt in describing this vice: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:41-42). Martha is suffering the sort of uneasiness of mind and restlessness of body that the Desert Fathers characterize as “daughters of sloth.” Rushing around from one task and preparation to another, she fancies that she is doing her duty as a hostess. Yet Christ susses out something else beneath this.
What is it that keeps Martha busy? What is it she fears hearing if she stops working and sits at Christ’s feet?
It is easy to fall into the habit of frantically rushing around, distracting oneself with various tasks, because there is always important work to do. Spiritual and emotional work, especially, gets put off by external busywork. Every woman knows that the house suddenly turns into a disaster zone in need of immediate cleaning when the marital boat starts to capsize.
In the short term, that can be okay. Physical work can serve as a safety valve, opening up a period to calm down. But when this goes on and on over days, weeks, months and years — when you start to feel that the plates being slightly askew in the cupboard is a more important task then spending the evening with your spouse — then sloth moves into the picture. The housework is really just an excuse not to work on your marriage.
The same is true of a man who works overtime obsessively to provide his family with ever-less-essential “necessities” when, in fact, his real aim is to avoid facing the reality that he finds his children boring, troublesome or difficult to relate to. Or with the devout lay Catholic who fritters away the days scrupulously fingering rosary beads, praying elaborate novenas and interfering with the duties of the parish priest in order to justify her failure to actually minister to people in her community.
What these examples have in common is that they are all engaging in second things first. They are engaging in second things in order to avoid first things, which are more difficult. Underneath the flurry of activity, there is a fear of hard work.
The paradox is not merely a matter of fooling others. The overly busy family man can deflect his wife’s and kids’ complaints by saying “But I slave all day for you.” But that’s not all. The busyness also absorbs his energies and enables him to forget about the things that are neglected. The real painful sorrow of acedia is put on the back burner to simmer quietly. Only in moments when, accidentally, a little silence creeps in, is this sadness felt. It looms over the heart like a bird of doom, until, for relief, the soul scuttles into hiding under the rock of worldly troubles and anxieties.
When this vice takes over, it becomes impossible to relax. Anxiety, meddlesomeness, fear and resentment all crowd in around the soul. Endless empty “responsibilities” clamor with great urgency at the hems of the mind. It becomes impossible to find time for quiet, time for prayer, time for oneself. Ultimately, one ends up feeling like a martyr, sacrificed in a series of thankless tasks, constantly doing “good” and never reaping any reward. The fruit? Despair, self-pity, depression and quiet desperation.
How do we resolve this problem? Next time, we’ll look at some solutions.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer