After the world shuttered last March, I turned to my kitchen. I made cinnamon rolls and blueberry muffins. I fried doughnuts and braided Finnish coffee bread. For many, bread-baking was our collective, cloistered privilege. We had time to watch something rise.
But those days, dusted in flour, now seem remote. Hundreds of thousands have since died. Businesses have closed, never to reopen. Many children have never returned to school. Many churches, including my own, have never re-opened for corporate worship. Our pandemic year, while experienced differently, has whittled all of us down and apprenticed us in losses of many forms.
It begs the question: How can we rouse the will to practice Lent—its deprivations, its renunciations—after a long Lenten year?
On the surface, these 40 days of self-denial might seem like the very last thing we need. And yet I would argue the opposite. Our pandemic lives have brought us face to face with the same temptation that plagued the monks centuries ago—the sin of acedia. It’s the inability to “rouse yourself to give a damn” as Kathleen Norris writes in Acedia & Me. In that context, the structure of Lent offers us not a millstone but a lifeline. It provides a way out of the dark waters of acedia.
During the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus identified the first formal list of eight deadly vices that were common to the desert hermetic. Among that list of recognizable sins—gluttony, lust, greed, pride—Evagrius also included sadness and sloth, which centuries later came to be understood together as acedia.
Rebecca DeYoung explains in Glittering Vices that acedia is not laziness as we might traditionally conceive of it. It comes in twin forms. It’s the restless spirit that calls the monk away from his cell and the work of prayer and study. It’s also the indolent spirit, which produces spiritual and vocational listlessness.
Acedia can be an act of motion, or it can be an act of inertia, but in DeYoung’s formulation, it is always “resistance to the demands of love.” In other words, its sloth is less a failure of work and more a failure of love.
In one form, the monk will want to flee his cell. He’ll invent good reasons for evading his work. Surely there is a widow to visit, a deathbed to attend! In another form, acedia produces languor—an unwillingness to engage the work God has given the monk to do. Acedia’s only cure, writes Evagrius, is to stay put and keep at it. In Norris’s words, “endurance cures listlessness.”
Acedia provides a helpful lens for seeing our pandemic year. The enforced restrictions on movement have mortified the kind of acedia we might previously have indulged. It used to be that when life got boring (and we got bored with ourselves), we planned vacations, went out to dinner, and busied ourselves with errands and children’s activities, even church events—anything to keep us from the dangerous quiet where God might speak. We fled the cell and its call to caretake the turbulence within.
But while the pandemic has curtailed our ability to “flee the scene,” so to speak, it has magnified the very conditions of acedia’s other form—inertia and sloth. There are simply so many things we can no longer be bothered to do. After months of carrying life in its most tedious and banal forms, we feel exhausted. I know people who are giving up on church, giving up on marriages, or giving up on faith because it all feels like a lot of work and very little fun. “I have this intense craving for something new,” a friend recently said to me.
So what’s the cure for acedia?
During this past year, most of us have involuntarily renounced cherished forms of life together and likely experienced little sense of spiritual progress. Must we keep at this self-denying work? The answer is “yes.” As Benedict of Nursia writes, the Christian life is a “continuous Lent.” It is our daily business “to hate the urgings of self-will.”
As I think of my own struggle with acedia in this pandemic year, it seems there is yet more sin to mortify, even the sin of feeling entitled to something more than banality. I have even more reasons to turn to God for these 40 days and recommit myself to confession and repentance.
Perhaps most importantly, Lent reminds me not simply to turn inward but to turn toward Christ. This Christ-ward gaze is the thrust of the book of Hebrews, addressed to Christians suffering not from a pandemic but from the trials of persecution, imprisonment, the loss of property, and much more.
Look to Christ, the writer of Hebrews pleads, who ran his own race with endurance (Heb. 12:1–2). Look to Christ, your brother and faithful high priest, who readies himself to help (2:14–17). Look to Christ, Son of God, who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8, ESV).
“Therefore do not throw away your confidence which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Heb. 10:35–36, ESV).
If endurance is the cure for acedia, we must ask Christ to give it to us. Why? Because most of us are good at evading the work that grace makes possible, whether or not we’re confined at home. Wherever we find ourselves, we want life at its most cosmic and extraordinary—not the dishes, not the homework, not the next small group Zoom meeting. We are frequently tempted to think, “Maybe it isn’t worth the work ,” writes J. L. Aijian. “Acedia hurls thoughts like these at its victims in a strategic effort to get them to stop pursuing their spiritual vocations.”
By contrast, Lent and its habits ask us simply to stay put—and keep keeping on with the everyday tedium of love.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want, Keeping Place, Surprised by Paradox, and most recentlyA Habit Called Faith. She lives with her husband and their five children in Toronto.
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