Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Takin' up the Cup

A few months ago, I went to confession and was given the penance to say prayers of gratitude for all the good things the Lord has given me. It was a good penance, and I did it dutifully, and I meant it. I have lots to be grateful for, more than most people on earth, I think. But feeling grateful is another thing. As it happens, gratitude has not been my prevailing mode of late. I've been tied up tight in the grip of acedia.

You know acedia. It's a bitter, superior state. It's the hot knot of disgust in your gut for everything and everyone. It's "A pox on both your houses!"and "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Max Lindenman sums it up nicely:
This is a kind of acedia, which, in the words of St. John Cassian, “begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritual-minded persons.” I’ll admit, though I don’t have brethren the way a monk does, or claim the right to accuse even an orangutan of spiritual laxity, I do at these times tend to think of my fellow Catholics as Pharisees and fascists, along with some other bad things that begin with the same sound.
I take my acedia with a more ecumenical flair. Everything is fair game. Jokes are stupid, not funny; scholarship is dry and pompous; the inspirational is insipid and the enthusiastic is juvenile. It is dry and joyless, all the languor of ennui without the erudite French flavor.

St. John Cassian, whose writings on the Desert Fathers and their monastic practices laid the foundations for Western monasticism, discusses acedia in his Institutes. He equates acedia with the "noonday demon" of scripture, which makes sense. At noon, you're at the middle of your workday -- far enough in to look back and see how little you've accomplished; far enough away from quittin' time that the afternoon hours seem like an endlessly futile stretch of same old same old.
It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place, as if he were one who, though he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none, nor profiting any one by his teaching and doctrine. He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; and besides this he paints the intercourse with the brethren there as sweet and full of spiritual life. On the other hand, he says that everything about him is rough, and not only that there is nothing edifying among the brethren who are stopping there, but also that even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty. Lastly he fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell (in which he is sure to die if he stops in it any longer) and takes himself off from thence as quickly as possible. Then the fifth or sixth hour brings him such bodily weariness and longing for food that he seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey, or some very heavy work, or as if he had put off taking food during a fast of two or three days. Then besides this he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone. Then the disease suggests that he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities to the brethren, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks too about some dutiful and religious offices; that those kinsfolk ought to be inquired after, and that he ought to go and see them oftener; that it would be a real work of piety to go more frequently to visit that religious woman, devoted to the service of God, who is deprived of all support of kindred; and that it would be a most excellent thing to get what is needful for her who is neglected and despised by her own kinsfolk; and that he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly and with no profit in his cell.
Acedia is, in short, wanting anything and everything other than what you have.
AND whenever it begins in any degree to overcome any one, it either makes him stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work, and it makes him continually go round the cells of the brethren and the monasteries, with an eye to nothing but this; viz., where or with what excuse he can presently procure some refreshment. For the mind of an idler cannot think of anything but food and the belly, until the society of some man or woman, equally cold and indifferent, is secured, and it loses itself in their affairs and business, and is thus little by little ensnared by dangerous occupations, so that, just as if it were bound up in the coils of a serpent, it can never disentangle itself again and return to the perfection of its former profession.
It manifests in two extremes of idleness: either in an extreme indolence and lethargy, in stupor of mind and soul; or in a manic desire for activity, any activity so long as it's something different and distracting and shared with someone "equally cold and indifferent". (It's as if Cassian could see, 1700 years in the future, the advent of the internet.)
ALL the inconveniences of this disease are admirably expressed by David in a single verse, where he says, "My soul slept from weariness," that is, from accidie. Quite rightly does he say, not that his body, but that his soul slept. For in truth the soul which is wounded by the shaft of this passion does sleep, as regards all contemplation of the virtues and insight of the spiritual senses.
Cassian gives the remedy as being "patience, prayer and manual labor", and not just any labor, but exactly the wearisome labor which you are supposed to be doing, no more, no less. No grandiose spiritual exercises or expensive equipment required: the daily grind, which would seem to be the cause of acedia, is actually the cure. The antithesis of acedia is constancy and faithfulness.

Since receiving my penance of gratitude, I keep returning to these verses from Psalm 116: "How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord." This cup is the joyful eucharistic chalice, but also the chalice of suffering which even Jesus himself begged might be taken from him, if it was the will of his Father.

In my case, I believe the cup of salvation is my vocation, my daily work, which is filled and drained every day, and refilled the next day, and sometimes dumped on the floor or spilled all over the table. So I take up the cup of salvation, and I put it in the dishwasher again.

And then there's this.

Gratuitous baby picture of smiling William in a dino onesie.  


Brandon said...

I hadn't thought before about the opposition between gratitude and acedia; it's a good point.

The remedy for acedia is very difficult for me to get into the habit of; there's a sense in which precisely the point is not to rush off into grand spiritual exercises and the like but just to do the work -- Cassian's monk thinking up hospitalities and visits to the sick and religious duties to avoid doing the good thing that's there to do. And I have exactly the kind of mind that is always exposed to the temptation to jump in this way, and jump and jump and jump, until in the end I'm shortchanging every good by constantly trying to come up with a better one.

Otepoti said...

I can't think of a better gratuity than a smile from William.

BettyDuffy said...

I second Otepoti.

I have to say though, that I think setting short term goals and plans is sort of a good way to dig out of acedia. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I feel much more inclined to unload the dishwasher today knowing I'm going to visit my sister in a week.

Let's put a party on the calendar and see if it helps anything.

Jenny said...

"I take my acedia with a more ecumenical flair. Everything is fair game. Jokes are stupid, not funny; scholarship is dry and pompous; the inspirational is insipid and the enthusiastic is juvenile. It is dry and joyless, all the languor of ennui without the erudite French flavor."

This exactly. ^^^

I have always (as long as I remember) been prone to cynicism. I fuss at myself thinking if I only I weren't so cynical about everything. Maybe it isn't cynicism after all.

I know that I do feel better when I get up and do something. Where I can point and say that was done by me. But taking the first step of actually moving is stupidly hard. I feel paralyzed by the noise in my head.

"but also that even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty."

When I first read that I thought it said, "even food for the baby." I thought you (mr. monk) don't know the half of it, as I think of my daily appointments with the pump.

Having something to look forward to does ease the mental cramp. Just think of how quickly the house gets cleaned up when you know company is coming.

Emily J. said...

Does Mr. William have red hair? Does anyone else think he resembles his father? Is sitting and staring at a cute baby all day long acedia or a form of contemplative gratitude? That's a great smile.

Jenny said...

And let me say that I love that you got a useful penance that bears fruit for you.

Our parish priest has a very idealized view of motherhood which is a double-edged sword. It's great when you need a pick-me-up as he is definitely your cheerleader. It's frustrating when I go to confession with my various mommy angsts and griefs and his response is usually, "You're a hero. Makes this Sunday's Mass your penance." I think, "Actually I'm pretty lazy and moody, but okay."

bearing said...

I use Ps. 116 as my thanksgiving prayer after Mass -- well, part of it anyway. These verses:

How can I repay the LORD
for all the great good done for me?

I will raise the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD.

I will pay my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all his people.

LORD, I am your servant,
your servant, the child of your maidservant;
you have loosed my bonds.

I will offer a sacrifice of praise
and call on the name of the LORD.

It's short and it's to the point, so we can get downstairs for doughnuts before the kids flip out. I have it mostly memorized, but to be honest, I probably get the order of the clauses all mixed up.

But what I really like about it is that it tells us how to make a start on repaying God for all He has done for us.

(1) Raise the cup of salvation
(2) Call on the name of the Lord, i.e., in acts of supplication
(3) Pay our vows to the Lord in the sight of all His people, i.e., be obedient to Him -- in a public way
(4) Offer a sacrifice of praise, i.e., acts of adoration

Notice too the acknowledgement of Mary (we are "child of the maidservant" or in some translations "handmaid") and of our freedom to choose to do these things ("you have loosed my bonds") all of which is part of what we are thanking Him for. It's really perfect.

MrsDarwin said...

I find that I'm able to carry out both extremes of acedia at once, in that it makes me restless and full of plans, but so easily distracted that I never carry any of them out.

One of the frustrations of acedia is the obnoxious hyper-rational voice which keeps reminding you how petty your irritants are, and how stupid it is to let them get under your skin so. And it's frustrating because it's true -- like Cassian's monk, who doesn't really have anything to complain of except that "even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty". Isn't difficulty and novelty what we're looking for? But the acedic want difficulty on their own terms.

In his Conferences, Book 10, chapter 10, Cassian recommends as a constant prayer the verse we now use at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Hours: "O God, come to my assistance: O Lord, make haste to help me." (Psalm 70:2)

"And so for keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. "O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me,"[591] for this verse has not unreasonably been picked out from the whole of Scripture for this purpose. For it embraces all the feelings which can be implanted in human nature, and can be fitly and satisfactorily adapted to every condition, and all assaults. Since it contains an invocation of God against every danger, it contains humble and pious confession, it contains the watchfulness of anxiety and continual fear, it contains the thought of one's own weakness, confidence in the answer, and the assurance of a present and ever ready help. For one who is constantly calling on his protector, is certain that He is always at hand. It contains the glow of love and charity, it contains a view of the plots, and a dread of the enemies, from which one, who sees himself day and night hemmed in by them, confesses that he cannot be set free without the aid of his defender. This verse is an impregnable wall for all who are labouring under the attacks of demons, as well as impenetrable coat of mail and a strong shield. It does not suffer those who are in a state of moroseness and anxiety of mind, or depressed by sadness or all kinds of thoughts to despair of saving remedies, as it shows that He, who is invoked, is ever looking on at our struggles and is not far from His suppliants. It warns us whose lot is spiritual success and delight of heart that we ought not to be at all elated or puffed up by our happy condition, which it assures us cannot last without God as our protector, while it implores Him not only always but even speedily to help us. This verse, I say, will be found helpful and useful to every one of us in whatever condition we may be. For one who always and in all matters wants to be helped, shows that he needs the assistance of God not only in sorrowful or hard matters but also equally in prosperous and happy ones, that he may be delivered from the one and also made to continue in the other, as he knows that in both of them human weakness is unable to endure without His assistance."