Most of us are familiar with Psalm 90 (91) which is said every evening at Compline, that wonderful intimate Office that monks sing by heart in the darkness. As Christ was comforted and protected in the desert, despite the Devil using the words of this psalm to pervert its meaning, we find homeliness and protection.
Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday devil.
In our Prayer Book, the translation reads:
Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night : nor for the arrow that flieth by day. For the pestilence that walketh in darkness : nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day.
There is the possibility, not only of considering the demon as a spiritual personality seeking to tempt us and deviate us from our relationship with God, but also of seeing the enemy as a sickness within ourselves. My subject today is that of acedia, ἀκηδία, the state into which many of us fall both through sinfulness and psychological reactions to the stresses of life. As we remember from our catechism, sin is committed when there is matter and intention, an element of deliberation and consent to temptation. The condition of those who have arrived at a point at which they care about nothing and life means nothing to them is not so obvious to condemn in moral terms. Illness can also play its part, reducing the moral guilt, at least to a point.
Much of French existentialism of the period following World War I hinges on this pitiful condition, and it is rooted in us all, especially in Europe. I see it in politics, in those I know, in my own wife and in myself. Why go on? What good is anything? It is a part of the mechanism of addiction on which I have already written. Christian moralists often seize upon the ills of our society. It’s all sex! they proclaim. I am not sure that this is true. It seems to me to be more of a consequence than a cause.
The Greek word ἀκηδία is usually translated as sloth or spiritual apathy. It is more than just seeking an easy and effort-free life. The scholastics class it among the capital sins. If this apathy continues unchecked, we fall all the way to the bottom of the abyss. We lose our sense of vocation and we cease to relate to God or even to ourselves. The only conclusion is suicide or at least an ardent desire for death. At a more intermediate stage, we seek to fill the void with pleasure and entertainment. Because such pleasures cannot bring satisfaction, the result is addiction to ever-stronger stimuli. Acedia removes the joy of living and burdens us with unending sadness and boredom. It is a sin insofar as we can prevent it with due care and diligence, and an illness insofar as our will is diminished and we need help.
The disease has infected most of our society, and is at the root of the consumer culture – buying and possessing for its own sake. We are bombarded with commercial advertising and pornography. God “dies” and humanity loses all sense of dignity. These are the bare bones of modern secularism. Some of the Church Fathers wrote about acedia in a context of monastic life, and the same teaching shines through in the Rule of Saint Benedict. So, now, are we going to cure it with the usual conservative moralist rhetoric? Medice, cura te teipsum?
One thing opened my eyes with these old patristic and scholastic notions in my mind, the modern psychological notion of burnout. I googled the word and came up with more or less useful sites in the vast market of therapy and self-help. It is something that can happen to us all. Understanding and consciousness are the elements that can help make a turnaround rather than the moralistic rhetoric that submerges our self-esteem ever more in guilt. If nothing else, it is an example of the harmony of faith and reason, of the transcendence of God and the dignity of humanity that is called to incarnate the former.
The cause of burnout is stress, whether at work, family life, vocation or anything to which we are or have been totally committed. Problems then seem to be without any solution and everything looks bleak. The culture we live in reinforces that view: bad news, rumours of war and the end of everything we know, the destruction of the planet and human greed being largely its cause. It is piled on all the time. We are constantly harassed for our money, and we can never have enough of it. In the end, we stop caring, and down we go. We become cynical and lose any sense of wonder. Why am I writing this article? I have been going through a time of inertia and alienation from the things I love the most. The symptoms match!
Whether it is a moral fault on a part or an illness we suffer, we need to do something about it. I have noticed over the past week that something is happening on the internet and the blogs I regularly consult. The postings get more sparse. Of course, we are living through a premature end of the summer, and we have October’s weather in September. There is even an article somewhere that tells us that we are going to get a winter like 1963-64 or 1947-48. I remember the former one when the sea froze in Morecambe Bay. To be taken with an enormous pinch of salt!
I live in Europe. We don’t have the “therapist” culture that prevails in America. There are counsellors, psychologists and specialised members of the medical profession. Quacks abound in this country (France) of hypochondriacs. The one thing most of these have in common is that they want your money – lots of it. I have had to learn not to depend on other people, most of whom suffer the same malady – and care but little. We have to manage on our own, analyse and rebuild. I can’t give advice for everyone who suffers from acedia / burnout, because any two human beings have so little in common, but I can relate something of my own experience.
I find that sailing has done me a considerable amount of good, not just taking the boat out for an afternoon – but a real retreat for several days alone, camping in the boat and living an absolutely minimalist life. Those who don’t sail can do the same thing as hikers, with a friend or two, or alone. Some like to go to monasteries and immerse themselves in the regular routine. It’s not a bad idea, but not very practical when they and I don’t belong to the same institutional Church. But, that’s not enough…
The first thing is be conscious of what is burning out our souls and eating away the inside. The first reaction is to run – but we can’t. We have to face the enemy and fight. We are up against emptiness and boredom, two little beasts that feed on each other – and you. We can cease to care and fall all the way, or decide to take back what we have left, pick up the pieces. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of depression psychiatrists treat by means of drugs and psychoanalysis. It is something we can deal with ourselves.
I think I have been through this several times, more or less badly. I recollect the time when the TAC was in turmoil and there was the ordinariate euphoria. I had a bad time with the predecessor of this blog and The Anglo-Catholic which has been in mothballs for a long time now. I take a much more detached view of trolls and religious fanatics, but I have to be careful not to make them a justification for an “I don’t care” life view.
A healthier way of life is essential. We can do that by several means: physical exercise, just getting outdoors, getting out of town and into the country or out to sea. The Fathers and scholastics often tell us to repress the imagination and senses. I can think of nothing more unhealthy. There are ways we can use the imagination and enjoy things without sinning against the laws of God. Getting a rest from technology and reading books made of paper is something we need to do. When was the last time we wrote something by hand other than signing cheques and documents? We also need to learn to say “no” to people who would suck us dry with their own disordered minds also plagued by acedia and boredom, yes – including nagging wives.
There is also our creative side, which tends to be brushed aside when we have to work and “do our duty”. If we have talents, putting them to good use is as much of duty as our religious observances and family life. I am trying to push ahead with composing music, which is just hard work most of the time – using the imagination to put a good melody together, using the rules of harmony and counterpoint to put something together that is both music and original. I have a project going at the moment, using some verses from a piece of Walt Whitman’s poetry, for a vocal quartet. I have been on the slow 3/4 section for a while, but I have some ideas for a haunting introduction and a fugue for the final section. Much of it is still unclear, and it is dragging. Blasted sloth again! It’s got to be done, and it is a part of healing.
This malady can be a sign that something fundamental has to change in life. There is our attitude in regard to the past and our hopes for the future. Are our goals unrealistic? They probably are, and we need to know more about the virtue of humility. Also, at a certain age, ambition is complete folly. We can get one or two little bits and pieces. I learned to sail a boat in my 50’s, but I wouldn’t like to start learning the piano or the organ at this age! There are some new bits and pieces. We need to set small and realistic goals. I was pleased with myself when I successfully rowed my heavy and beamy cruising boat ten miles. That’s a nice little achievement. How about a few more? Write a symphony? That’s a no-no, but some nice little pieces for a choir or quartet with or without accompaniment – that’s more like it.
Around 2012 when my part of the TAC fell and when we had to take stock of realities, it really set in with me. I still feel scarred. When I was interviewed by the Board of Ministry of the English ACC diocese, I did quite poorly trying to explain my vocational motivations! I know all the standard answers, but I just wanted to be myself. All I could really give was a notion of a duty in regard to a priesthood I had already received, however tainted it was with “vagante-ism” or whatever barbarism you want to use to call it. Put it a different way – what good comes out of ceasing to exercise the priesthood? Perhaps, if a higher good can come of it like leaving home to look after Syrian refugees in a camp in Turkey… Only something incredibly heroic could bring about a greater good than the priesthood. Or could it? I was accepted, and try to get along as best I can in a place where the ACC means absolutely nothing – even to my own wife.
We also have to know when to write off losses. I have my memories of Gricigliano and the hopes of being a “professional” priest. When you’re in the “official Church”, people are interested in your priesthood and will support you so that you can take care of their pastoral needs. You get real pastoral responsibilities. It would seem to make sense to be a priest where the flock is. To get there, you have to jump through hoops, negotiate with or submit to bureaucracy – and compromise your very conscience for the sake of expediency. Is it right to sell your own soul to save others? We launch ourselves into the maelstrom of cognitive dissonance and suck up or give up. The loss is painful, but a tiny segment of the vocation is saved, and perhaps it will mean more to God than we imagine. In the heady days of Archbishop Hepworth, it all seemed so tempting to start jumping through the hoops again. But, I knew the result before starting, and quietly pulled out. I deprived the Roman bureaucrat the pleasure of writing the trite and condescending letter of refusal. I have much to be thankful for, but the pain is still there.
Grief is something very real, and it is added to each time the blows come. My mother died two and a half years ago, and that loss is now expressed in a quiet prayer for her each day at Mass and an occasional glance at her photo. There are other blows too, but about which I should keep quiet and discreet. Many threats loom on the horizon, like questions of retirement. The Church I belong to is not designed for the present, but only for the future – perhaps fifty years down the line. I’m not in it for money – just as well.
I have just received a project of an explanatory leaflet from our priest in Wales. He is concerned for the Christian people living around him. Here are reasons for joining the ACC. Certainly, in Wales, this is a part of Fr Maylor’s duty as a parish priest. The idea would be absolutely absurd where I live where people are either committed Roman Catholics (they become fewer and fewer) or people plainly not interested in religion for whatever reason. I have come to believe that the very notion of priestly ministry and vocation have changed. I may have absorbed some of the ideas going around in France in the post World War II era – priests maintaining a simple benevolent presence where people are found. The worker priests sought to do this through working in factories and getting involved in trade unions and workers’ rights to decent and safe working conditions and a living wage. Other associations were founded to inject a leaven of Christianity into farming, schools, hospitals, humanitarian work and culture. I met a “vagante” priest some ten years ago here in France. He set up an association in memory of Max Jacob, an artist and poet of Jewish origins and converted to Catholicism, who died in the hands of the Nazis. The priest in question believed ardently in the value of a small group of artists and musicians around a priest, an artist among artists. I haven’t had any contact for years, but I think the little group continues in some way. The idea has remained with me, but I am not a leader. I since married, and that has put many limitations on my life. However, I spend time with musicians, but who are all atheists or non-religious – but who recognise the cultural contribution of Christianity over the centuries. It is a beginning, but I feel very much like Fr Charles de Foucault among the Muslims of Algeria. The ministry can only be purely human and through extreme discretion. I have differentiated myself totally from the conservative and traditionalist RC elements in France – notably by growing my hair long in the manner of men of the early nineteenth century and before. It is important to stand out from stereotypes and provoke original thought.
It is not altogether satisfactory in terms of a priestly vocation. I live in probably the most spiritually barren country in the world outside the Muslim countries. Some have suggested that I move. It’s simply a question of money. Housing is still affordable in France (outside Paris). So I have to manage with what I’ve got.
Burnout doesn’t always happen because we are overloaded and stressed, but because something is in the wrong place or our sense of self worth is challenged by the apathy of others also suffering from the same boredom and flat batteries. I do believe we can always recover enthusiasm and a sense of awe, and import them back into our vocation in some way. Getting back into music and going sailing did me a lot of good. They are radically separated from my priesthood. That’s the rub.
Acedia and burnout seem to be two ways of explaining an illness from which many of us suffer, especially when we are at odds in our vocation, what seems to give meaning to our lives. The same thing happens to doctors, nurses and lawyers, to social workers and anyone whose work means more than simply earning one’s living. In the light of modern insight, it seems unfair to moralise a priest or lay Christian in “preachy” terms. The whole notion of priesthood needs to be re-thought and related to what the person in question is doing in life. The shepherd and the flock no longer seem to mean anything. Perhaps the man as one of the people, but with insight and knowledge from education and experience, might fit the bill a little better. What about the liturgical life? So few people are remotely interested, so the church of the future is the priest’s private chapel where he says Mass and Office regardless of the absence of anyone other than perhaps his pet cat.
There are things we priests can do to help ourselves. I have already mentioned some. My own case is radically different from that of the overworked Roman Catholic or Church of England parish priest. This is one of the reasons I diversify what I write in this blog, especially my articles on sailing and dinghy cruising. Many priests go and play golf with each other on Mondays. I can’t think of anything more ominous! Our Church (the ACC) is conservative and traditionalist in its liturgical and doctrinal orientations, but we are not afraid to be seen out of cassocks. My Bishop often likes to be dressed as a gentleman in suit, tie and hat when not actually engaged in Church business. When at Synod or at Council of Advice meetings, I wear my cassock (or clerical suit as appropriate) with my ponytail. Elsewhere, I tend to wear modern casual dress like most of the young people and let people figure out the things that don’t seem to tie up in neat little packages. This is very healthy in our Church, and highly conducive to our perennity and stability as a human community in God’s service. That is much more healthy than the perpetual cassock, collar and sash at the seminary of Gricigliano and the unrealistic expectations.
When these things happen to us, it is a sure sign that something is wrong and needs putting right. It doesn’t necessarily mean discarding what we have treasured for much of our lives. We have to be less reliant on others whose priorities and belief systems are totally different from ours. I believe it is possible to get the mechanism back into kilter, but it takes work and dedication.
The mainstream news (and the conspiracy blogs too) leave us with foreboding. I tend to consider that we came to being within an inch of nuclear Armageddon several times in my lifetime. I think of the Cuban missiles crisis when I was very little and we were on holiday in Devonshire. I remember the ashen expression on my father’s face as we heard a loud boom in the sky, a plane breaking the sound barrier, but we feared the worst – a nuke going off. I had nightmares throughout the 1960’s of nuclear war. We are still here. In spite of our sins, God has protected us. Many things tell us that something is about to shift and humanity will know about the spiritual dimension (quantum mechanics as the scientists call it) that will finish off crass materialism and greed. I can only hope so.
We have to have hope, even if only our prayers bring it about.