Do You Have Any of These 3 Signs of Acedia?

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:12)

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1416), “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things” (detail of “Acedia”)
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1416), “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things” (detail of “Acedia”) (photo: Public Domain)

Summers are hot and arid along the southern coast of Turkey. Sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean makes the heat more bearable, but the terrain remains rough along the hills and water-carved bays. St. Paul traveled these lands millennia ago on foot to spread the good news he received on the way to Damascus. In a matter of centuries, countless churches popped up as the residents of the Roman Empire received the news. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, when one can travel the globe in a matter of hours, no Catholic church to be found in one of the major cities of the area where St. Paul, St. Ignatius of Antioch and many others hailed from. Obviously, Islam is a major factor. The systematic suppression of Christians of Asia Minor under the Ottoman Empire is no secret to inquisitive minds. Even though Muslim lands are notoriously hostile to the Gospel, that hardship had never stopped many a saintly missionary before. In an age when the internet, mass media and air travel melt the physical boundaries before our very eyes, why has the missionary zeal diminished so?

The reluctance to spread the faith is not unique to unreached hostile worlds. In our daily lives and encounters, there is always a certain reluctance to mention one’s beliefs. Talking about justice, abortion or anything stronger than ginger ale is considered impolite. 

Often, many mistake material aid with fulfilling one’s duties toward their neighbor. I knew all too well what it meant to be poor, but the most precious gift I have ever received came not in the form of banknotes but in the form of spoken words and kind deeds of the Gospel preached by Protestant missionaries. My life eternally changed because of people who took Christ’s word seriously: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

I am eternally grateful for their obedience, however I cannot help but wonder what happened to the Catholic missionary spirit. How is that the Church that singlehandedly spread the Gospel across continents, that produced thousands of martyrs and brought millions into the Kingdom of God became so lazy and indifferent? 

For a long time, a long list of reasons and excuses came to mind, but finally the answer revealed itself among the pages of a little book in the form of a word my non-native speaker mind had never heard of: acedia, the vice often misleadingly translated as sloth. 

Dom Jean-Charles Nault’s excellent work The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times summarizes this far-reaching sin of our day:

 On the one hand, acedia is a sin against the joy that springs from charity; it is sadness about what ought to gladden us most: participation in the very life of God. On the other hand, acedia is a sin against charity when it crushes or paralyzes activity, because then it effects the deepest motive force of activity, namely, charity, the participation  of the Holy Spirit. (p. 80)

The results of rampant acedia not only influence our daily lives as children of God, but that lack of joy infects everyone around us, and eventually cripples our ability to carry out Our Lord’s last instructions to His Church. The three symptoms of acedia that affect the missionary spirit are loss of joy, lukewarmness of comfort and indifference toward nations’ salvation.


Loss of Joy

In the post-Christian world of the West, Christ’s message gets lost among vague references and swear words. Minimum amount of exposition to the Gospel is satisfactory as long as Baby Jesus is in the manger for Christmas and no chocolate is eaten during Lent. Acedia affects those who has already received the ultimate grace. It rears its head when we forget the deep darkness we were saved from. The joy of conversion whether we are converts or reverts slowly dims as the hustle and bustle of modern lives darken the light of the saving grace. Like the proverbial frog who is boiled to death slowly, we are not aware of this loss, until we have no desire to talk about why abortion is wrong or whether marriage is a private affair or not. 

This loss of joy poisons us from inside, and then we spread it around like a disease.


Lukewarmness of Comfort

For most of us, even those who live in poor areas, a car parked in the front, satellite dish on the roof and ice cream for dessert are not luxuries. This is the wealthiest country in the world, and with that privilege there comes the lukewarmness. When life is easy, there is no need for God, even for Christians. As long as, we go to Mass on Sundays, do not cheat on our spouses and pray before meals, all is well. We settle into a familiar rhythm that lulls us into a spiritual sleep where we ignore rampant contraception or refuse to talk about what we, not the state, can do for our neighbor. 

What does it really say about our faith if we are not willing to share it with others? Maybe, after all, it is not that important. The biggest worry of our lives is whether we can get a babysitter to see a movie or which new gadget to acquire. It is no wonder that Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) We have become rich, and lost sight of things of importance.

Again, it is that noonday devil that makes us desire constant motion and entertainment so that we do not fix our eyes on heavenly treasures. 


Indifference Toward the Nations, Including Our Own

It would be all too easy to blame Nostra Aetate, the document that is often used to curb missionary efforts and shun criticism of other religions. Phrases like “elements of truth” and “holding other religions in high esteem” came to mean that Catholics could not, and even should not, try to convert people of other religions, at home or abroad. All the joyless heart needed was an excuse to stop missionary efforts, and this document provided ample support, because we have stopped caring for others and gave into the darkness.

Surely, it is very difficult to serve in countries that are hostile to the Good News of Christ. During the years I was involved in Protestant churches in Turkey, I saw what a strain it is to be constantly challenged because of your faith as the hardships of living among people who has an eschewed understanding of masculinity, an exaggerated and hollow sense of shame and an unequal view of women. Many a time marriages fell apart under such pressures and children got estranged. It is not easy, but it is the one mission we were given before Christ left the Earth. 

Indifference toward the nations is just another symptom of missionary acedia where the Faith has come to be seen as a private affair. No longer does it matter that people living thousands of miles away know about Christ, because it does not even matter whether our next-door neighbor knew about Him. The joy of our salvation is so extinguished that we have no desire to share the hope that is within us. 


What to Do?

Since, I’ve read this book and understood the nature of my ailment, the sin of acedia has been mentioned in the confessional almost every month. The remedy Father Nault suggests is “joyful perseverance.” From micro to macro, we need to persevere as individuals, invoking the grace of the sacraments; then as a community and as a Church that does not shy away from proclaiming the truth. Then as our joy spreads from within, the Lord will raise up more religious and laymen to spread the Gospel to the nations. 

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:12)