Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ACCIDIE: A Long Forgotten Spiritual Ailment

The Vows of our Oblation seem to bind, but in reality they set us free. Our Oblation is our self-offering to God, a glad response to His freely given love for us.

In making an Oblation of our lives in the context of our Monastery, the Oblation (a gentle vow) gives us freedom from ourselves, from distractions, from emotional ups and downs, and from unbalanced fervor and dryness. We make our Oblation in the context of a specific community but also in the context of the state of life in which we are called. That state of life affects the pattern of spirituality that develops, but my own observation is that it should not determine it. The Rule of Life that springs from our Oblation calls us out of our state of life into the Presence of God.

What St. Benedict says is, “At the hour for Divine Office, as soon as the signal is heard, let them abandon whatever they may have in hand and hasten (to prayer) with greatest speed, yet with seriousness, so that there is no excuse for levity. Let nothing be put before the Work of God.”1

It is very difficult to drop everything “when the bell rings.” What is often called into question by the Rule are our priorities. Work is hard to set aside, but so also is accidie - that mingling of despondency and listlessness so clearly identified in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

To us today accidie appears as depression and its’ resulting sluggishness. Abba Poeman says, “Accidie is there every time one begins something, and there is no worse passion, but if a man recognizes it for what it is, he will gain peace.”2 In later times accidie was too simplistically as laziness or sloth, but it original meaning was closer to the way it was used by the Desert Fathers.
Ultimately whether or not accidie is regarded as despondency and listlessness or as laziness the cure for it rests in taking action, not on the basis of sudden inspiration, but in taking action as a fulfillment of a Rule of Life that springs from our Oblation.

The late medieval mystic Van Ruysbroek reminds us that "love cannot be lazy"3 The antidote for accidie, whether it is despondency and listlessness or sloth and laziness, is action. St. Benedict himself says, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”4 Part of the state in which all of us find ourselves is enmeshed in the dynamic principle of the second law of thermodynamics, “heat flows from a higher to a lower temperature but that it does not do the reverse.” In a spiritual context that means that, when you are a week away from a retreat, spiritual energy tends to cool off unless it is sustained by the balance provided by a Rule of Life. The Rule of Life should be strong enough to provide an adequate challenge, but not so strong as to be unattainable. As St. Benedict says, “that strong may have something to strive for and the weak nothing to run from.”5

I also note that it seems to be a spiritual principle that God expects us to do more than we expect ourselves to do. That has a direct application to our Oblation. In my experience He always tends to be right.


1The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 43.
2Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975), p. 188
3 Jan Van Ruysbroeck, The Sparkling Stone, The Library of Christian Classics, Late Medieval Mysticism, ed. Ray C. Petry, (PhiladelphiaL The Westminster Press, 1957), 308
4Rule, Ch. 48.
5Rule, Ch. 64.