If the demon you know really is better than the demon you don’t, we might expect on abundant evidence that societal intimacy with lust, pride, greed, envy, wrath, and gluttony would yield some positive results. This is not the case. For we seem only to know the vices, not the virtues. What’s more, we know the vices not as vices but as virtues of self-expression, individual freedom, alternate living, and unlimited choice. Sloth, or acedia, is rarely named or acknowledged in our time except myopically as a synonym for laziness. This demon, it seems, has convinced a morally uninterested world that it doesn’t exist. It took no great effort. It is a testament, then, to Eastern University professor R.J. Snell’s sense of timing and urgency that he published Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. By no means is he the only one to have written on acedia in recent years. But the particular charm of Snell’s book is that it is a slim volume of penetrating depth. This is a powerful book, powerfully written.
Other books in recent years demonstrate a resurgent interest in this most ancient of demons. Cistercian Publications has done a great service publishing scholarly but accessible books on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Evagrius, and John Cassian, all of whom constitute the first line of diagnosis and defense. On the popular side, Penguin brought us Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writers Life by Kathleen Norris and Ignatius Press published Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.’s The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil Of Our Times. Each of these books offer excellent introductions to the demon of acedia and prescriptions for confronting it.
Norris gives a very personal account of her experience with the demon and is particularly helpful in distinguishing acedia from depression or sadness. A learned laywoman, she availed herself of centuries of monastic wisdom as a defense against the demon. Jean-Charles Nault, Abbot of Saint-Wandrille, guides the reader through a comprehensive examination of the demon’s attributes, tactics, and history. Calling upon the writings of Evagrius, Aquinas, and more recently, Pope Francis, Abbot Nault explores acedia in the lives of priests, religious, married couples, and lay individuals. He deftly traces acedia’s gradual disappearance from the list of vices and bad thoughts, and its largely ignored potency in the modern age. Great gain awaits readers of both books.
Professor Snell moves in a deeper current. At first glance, it seems Acedia And Its Discontents is more about societal discontent than acedia. But Snell’s harrowing depiction of our society’s lethal covenant with acedia is no mere screed against our collective ills. It is the preeminent sign of the demon’s presence. Acedia, he says, “reveals frustration and hate, disgust at place and ‘life itself.’” It “rejects the burden of order, choosing instead the breezy lightness of freedom” and, most poignantly, Snell says, it is an “addiction to freedom.” This description is most apt, especially in an America where individual freedom constitutes the supreme good. Our whole political discourse has become a race to the bottom in which the limits of our freedom are governed only by the limits of our imagination. Given our fallen nature, a nature the world rejects, we submit to the deadly embrace of sloth. In recognition of this fact Pope John Paul II taught the faithful about the culture of death. Such was his accuracy that it has become our currency. Indeed, Snell concludes that “We cannot avoid the culture of death now; it hunts us, asserting its control, seeking our embrace, claiming covenant over all things.”
The brilliance of Professor Snell’s approach is that he shows us, albeit in a density the reader must be patient with, that we can slip the squeeze of sloth by returning to the truth of our being in God. Simple, but not easy. Why? Because in returning to our calling, the vocation of Adam and Eve to relationship, responsibility, and good work—to tend God’s garden and fill his temple—we forego the false freedom of the Serpent. It requires us to recognize what God gives us is good, to be responsible for his gifts, and to return them to him with increase. Rejecting the goodness of God by rejecting the goodness of things, using and exploiting rather than cultivating and growing, we are increasingly constricted by a “sloth that would rather be free than well.” We are then given to boredom and despair. Left unchecked, the rejection of goodness and the violation of things ultimately becomes an all pervasive nihilism and impulse to death.
Snell’s expanded exploration of acedia generously includes sources beyond the Catholic and monastic heavyweights found in Norris and Nault. He draws upon the Jewish and Protestant traditions, as well as contemporary philosophers, poets, and novelists. It is this breadth that rounds his work and gives us more than a thorough spiritual understanding of acedia. It also gives us a deep, delicate, and truly beautiful reminder of who we are and to whom we belong. A necessary reminder in these times, it seems, but one that can restore us to the joy of being.
Snell locates the joy of being in doing good work. There are three tests of good work: “(1) Does it respect the integrity of things, including the integrity of the worker? (2) Does it contribute to the capacity of the created order, including the human person, for dynamic development and intelligent progress? (3) Does the work suit the feasting halls of New Jerusalem or the gluttonous meals of Babylon?” But it is not all work and no play. Along with doing good work, Snell argues the damage of sloth must be countered by instruction in the practice of Sabbath. This is not, he says, “an absence or negation of work but a full presence of festive delight in goodness.” Acedia’s persistent presence in human society makes this a truly radical reorientation of our stance toward the world and God. It is an embrace of our Edenic vocation with the redemptive help of Christ. Certainly something to think about next Sunday.
Professor Snell, in getting to the heart of our discontentment in the covenant with sloth, also gets to the heart of true human freedom. We have, as he has it, made an idol or a god of our freedom. We refuse to be bound to the boundlessness of God, slaves to true freedom in Christ. Instead we sell our birthright for the chains of an Empire of Desire. Only our desires never satisfy. “As vice, sloth is a failure of love—an aversion to being, a sadness at the good, and an inability to act well.” One has only to look within and around to see the truth of this. Virtue then, is the path to true freedom and contentment in the goodness of things and the goodness of God.
This is a book that must be read. And it is a book that admits of different kinds of reading. It can and should be read intellectually, to be sure, but its primary benefit accrues to the spirit, even as it gives us a theological and philosophical framework to understand the demon of acedia. I suggest it be read prayerfully, meditatively, and deliberately. And then read again.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Parable of the Wheat and the Tares,” was painted by Abraham Bloemaert in 1624.