I bought a used book recently titled The Spirit of Discipline by Francis Paget (London: Longmans 1902). Paget was the Anglican bishop of Oxford from 1901 to 1911.
The book includes an “Introductory Essay” called “Concerning Accidie”. “Accidie” was a new word to me, but is apparently a very old idea. Frankly I’m amazed that it is no longer preached on or taught, because I suspect it is not at all rare, and a lot of people could stand to be helped with it.
Accidie is apparently something like sloth, but encompasses also things like lack of enthusiasm for prayer and spiritual good works, lack of fortitude, a tendency to be listless, restless, and failure to appreciate the gifts and graces you have received and instead be discontented or worried and complaining.
Chaucer says, “Envy blindeth the heart of a man, and ire troubleth a man, and accidie maketh him heavy, thoughtful and raw,” and says it’s “the anguish of a troubled heart”. The person with accidie “doeth all things with annoyance, with rawness, slakeness(?), and excusation, with idleness and unlust.” Dante depicts them in one of the circles of hell, saying that they groaned when they were walking in the the sunlight and the summer breeze, and now they groan here in the muck (or something like that).
It strikes me as being akin to what we now call depression, except that it’s considered a spiritual malady and not a physical one. This from a USA Today article about a book on accidie by Kathleen Norris: “Sloth is one of the Catholic Church’s seven deadly sins; acedia is defined as spiritual sloth. Unlike the grave illness of depression, acedia is a conscious choice, a moral choice; that’s what makes it a sin, Norris says.”
Some of Paget’s suggested remedies for accidie are (1) thinking about people who have real problems like starvation or terminal illness, (2) doing whatever work you can do; if you find yourself unable to do “higher” work like studying or meditating, then do lower work like washing dishes or raking leaves, (3) ponder the passion and death of our Lord, and (4) carefully watch your “leisure thinking”, in other words, the things you think about when you don’t need to be thinking about anything in particular. Make sure you follow St. Paul’s injunction to always think and talk about what is good and excellent.
I really liked what Paget said about no. 4, which was in a sermon of its own (the book is a collection of sermons). He said that although we don’t realize it, what we think about during our leisure thinking comes through in our countenance and personality, and affects what other people think of us. This is why people who are thoroughly good seem radiant to us, because they don’t just act good when they’re around other people, they’re good even in their private thoughts and actions.
In a way, this is all obvious stuff. But I’m finding that having it all tied together and given a name, is helpful to me. For example when I find myself thinking of useless or frivolous things, and feeling slightly down (maybe as a result), recognizing that it’s a symptom of accidie often makes me able to consciously shake it off; and also realize that I can do something about it, like go change the oil in my car or whatever, or even just change my train of thought to something “good and excellent”.