Concerning Accidie (Acedia)

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”.

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7 thoughts on “Concerning Accidie (Acedia)

  1. In the current issue of “The Oblate” (newsletter of the Oblates of St. John’s Abbey) there is an article speaking of Kathleen Norris giving a talk at a Day of Reflection at St. John’s Abbey, where she described Acedia as the demon of this age. “It proceeds from boredom and restlessness, to the search for distraction, to a negative mindset, sadness and giving up of one’s life meaning.”
    This seems to describe our society today quite well
    As a therapist, very often I find myself having conversations with people about how “empty” they feel.
    I have had people describe it as a God shaped hole.
    I work in a community mental health center, and have been suprised at how often conversations go to the spiritual

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  2. I can understand acedia occurring among non-religious people. It’s more surprising that it would occur among Christians, who should know the key to filling the God-shaped hole. Which, I suppose, is why it’s a sin, at least for Christians: How can you mope knowing what the Christian religion has taught you, and believing it to be true? Yet people do (including me).

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  3. I suspect in modern society it is because we are surrounded by “quick fixes” to feeling bad, things that give the illusion of feeling better. I am discerning/inquiring into becoming a Benedictine Oblate, an am (once again) seeing how easy it is to get “distracted”. The internet, games, superficial interactions, food, tv, the radio, a novel…all pull me away from what I am trying to focus on. Keeping one’s focus on God and what God wants from your life takes discipline, especially if he calls you to be different from your friends and family. There is a reason it is called “practicing your religion” because that is what we do, we practice.

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  4. Excellent, Brian. I think you’re right. During Lent I gave up listening to popular music and talkradio. Since Easter I have not gone back to those things (so far anyway) because after doing without them for so long, I am more aware of how much of a distrction they would be if I were to revert.

    Then shortly after Easter I went on a silent weekend retreat. Obviously there was no TV, music, Internet, etc., and all I did between scheduled activities was read good, substantial books. That made me realize how good it feels to spend all your time doing worthwhile things rather than indulging in pointless distractions.

    Then, I came across the book that this post is about, explaining how to overcome accidie, much of which is by doing the things I have found myself doing since Lent!

    So I think you’re right: People don’t know how the things you named affect them. It takes discipline to give them up, but before you can begin to exert that discipline you have to realize why they’re a problem. When a thing is not evil in itself, it’s hard for people to believe that it’s necessary or beneficial to give them up. I have only realized it (to the extent I have) by coincidence — or should I say Providence? Whether I persist remains to be seen!

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  5. The story of my faith life seems to be one step forward, a half step back.
    It also seems as though the more i try to focus on God, the more those things that have been my temptations in the past present themselves.

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  6. Pingback: All these will be given you besides … « Agellius's Blog

  7. Pingback: On penance, self-denial and heroism « Agellius's Blog

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