Day 66. Acedia & Depression


I am neither a spiritual director nor a psych-anything. This is a meditation.

Two of my favorite podcasters (who do not podcast together), Fr Harrison and Gomer, have been talking about acedia in their podcasts and/or social media. This topic has interested me since before I was Catholic. My first visit to an Orthodox monastery, a priest was reading The Noonday Devil by Dom Jean-Charles Nault, OSB. Although Fr David and I had a brief talk about it at that time and the title stuck with me and I was able to buy it on Amazon. It was my first grasp at understanding that the sin of “sloth” is not really the same thing as being lazy.

Acedia, according to St Thomas, is:

It should be said that acedia, according to Damascene, is a certain oppressive sadness, which so depresses man’s mind that he can do nothing freely, as things which are acidic are also cold. And therefore acedia implies a certain weariness in working, as is evident from what the Gloss says about Psalm 106:8, “their soul abhorred all meat”; and some say that acedia is a torpor of the mind that neglects to begin good things. Now such sadness is always bad, sometimes in itself, sometimes with respect to its effect. For sadness in itself is bad when it concerns that which is apparently bad and truly good, as conversely delight is bad when it concerns that which is apparently good and truly bad. Therefore since spiritual good is truly good, sadness that concerns spiritual good is bad in itself. But also sadness that concerns something truly bad is bad with respect to its effect if it weighs a man down so much as to draw him totally away from good work; hence the Apostle in 2 Cor 2:7, does not want “the penitent to be absorbed by greater sadness” about sin. But since acedia, as we take it here, names sadness regarding spiritual good, it is bad in both ways: in itself, and with respect to its effect. And therefore acedia is a sin, since evil in appetitive movements we call a sin, as is evident from what was said above.

Summa Theologiae, II-II 35:1

St John Cassian has an entire book on the subject, writing of a Monk who, instead of praying, “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.”

Other Fathers have written about this sin. They have something like St Thomas’ description: “a certain oppressive sadness, which so depresses man’s mind”. And yet… does that not sound like what we, today, in psychological terms might call clinical depression?

Remember this Zoloft commercial from 2005 (ish)?

I know a lot of folks who take anti-depression meds, many with the approval of their confessor or spiritual director. So, meds can’t get rid of sins.

What’s the difference between depression and acedia? I’ve asked this on Twitter and in other places… I’ve not gotten an answer at all. Then, early in the Quarantine, my HMO assessed me as living with mild depression which can be managed without meds. My response was something along the lines of, “This is only MILD?!?!?! I don’t even want to know what cross is borne by those who have the sort of depression that needs meds. OMG THIS SUCKS. Or words to that effect. This question of the difference between acedia and depression became personal.

It seems to me that – as with other sins – one must have a tendency or a weakness that needs exploiting. This tendency can be styled, perhaps, a Melancholic temperament, although not always – many folks deal with depression right now. But the tendency, once present, allows for temptations to be triggered.

Depression is not acedia. But the Noonday Devil can use depression for its own ends.

So: sometimes I wake up and don’t feel up to getting out of bed. Sometimes, I’m just too down to get dressed and get on with the day. Sometimes, I’d rather sit and sit, and sit. And I can actually see that happening… I might be able to catch myself, to be able to move away from that… or perhaps, like the gif above, it feels like it follows me anyway. That’s depression.

But I know I can and should get up and pray. I can ask for help: St Catherine of Siena is my go-to intercessor for my mental health, as is my patron, Stanley Rother. But asking for help takes. just. too. much. time. and. I. can. lie. here. for. a. long. time…

But I should ask for help… too… much… work…

It strikes me that’s acedia.

The blog post two weeks ago on NSFW Satanism took me nearly 4 months to write (even from before Covid). It was a struggle. I knew it was important, but I kept avoiding writing it. I would sit down and get up again. That was acedia. This post was about to become hard to write: but I decided to put my foot down. It seemed important to note.

Depression is a cross. Manageable or not, medicated or not, it is a cross to bear – and one to offer to God. It’s ok to ask for help (God has help for us, as solid as St Simon of Cyrene was for Our Lord). But it’s not ok to use any tendency, any psychological state, struggle, or damage to fall into sin. The addict may or may not be spiritually culpable for actions committed in the throes of his passion, but that does not mean those actions are free of harm to himself or others. That harm may be physical, mental, or emotional but it is also, often, spiritual in which latter case, it’s sin. I think acedia can show the same pattern: it can arise where one crosses the line from depression to causing harm (of a spiritual sort) to oneself or to others. I can be depressed: I can pray and go to bed. Or I can sit and not-move until I find myself watching NSFW content… when I should be praying. The process by which I go from depression to triggering my addictive behaviors seems to be where acedia feeds in.

I could be wrong: I am open to correction. As I said at the top, I’m neither a spiritual director nor a psych-anything. I didn’t even take psych 101 in college.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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