Of all the “deadly sins,” I would say that the least exciting yet most widespread, just might be the sin of sloth. Sloth, or acedia, is not simple laziness. The desert fathers called it the “noonday demon,” the bone-deep weariness that set in on monks and hermits as they tried to pursue their daily prayers, giving them headaches and making them want to give up their spiritual disciplines. Acedia, as it affects all of us, is a lack of caring that is difficult to distinguish from clinical depression and contains, according to author Kathleen Norris, “weariness, despair, ennui, boredom, restlessness, impasse, and futility.” It is a “wearied heart,” a tiredness so deep that it prevents us from caring. It drags us down so that even evil fails to rouse us, and we give up trying to fix the wrongs that we see around us. “Oh well,” we sigh, “Nothing that I can do matters.”
In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris claims that acedia is an affliction that is rampant in our 21st century culture. Not only does it attack the spiritual lives of solitary monks and the productivity of introverted writers and poets, but Norris sees acedia even in the busyness of our ordinary, over-scheduled lives. “Acedia has come so far with us,” she writes, “that it easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.” When we spend our short moments of leisure flipping restlessly through 130 TV channels, finding nothing that interests us, that is an attack of acedia. When we sign ourselves and our families up for activity after activity just so we don’t have to stop and hear the quiet voice inside that wonders if any of it really matters, that is an attack of acedia. When we are forced to sit quietly after a storm in a house with no electricity, and feel as if, without something to do, the weight of the world has descended on us all at once, that is an attack of acedia. When we read headlines about rapidly increasing poverty and shrug, “Isn’t that a shame,” as we plod on with our own lives, not caring enough to do anything and not able to muster the energy to care, that is an attack of acedia.
The prophet Isaiah knew something about acedia and the weariness and hopelessness it brought to the ancient Israelites exiled in Babylon. “What is the use of following the Torah,” the exiles must have sighed, “it won’t do us any good. We might as well just live like the Babylonians. Even God can’t do anything about our struggles, or we would be out of here by now. If God is powerless, then we might as well give up. What’s the use? Why does any of it matter, anyway?” Isaiah tries to shake the despairing people of Israel out of their torpor by crying, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Of course they know that God’s ways are incomprehensible to mere mortals. Of course they know that God is so far above the nations and their kings and their gods that God cannot be compared with them. But acedia has made the people forget all that they have been taught about God. Acedia has worn away at their spirit, so that they shrug their shoulders even at the power of God, no longer able to take spiritual nourishment from the stories of their ancestors. Isaiah calls on the people to remember, to shake off the drowsiness that has closed in on them and to open their eyes, to open themselves up to what they see and know of God all around them.
In just the last five verses of Isaiah’s ringing call to the truth of who God really is, the prophet mentions some kind of “weariness” ten times. God, who does not faint and grow weary, is the One who can deliver us from the weariness of acedia, Isaiah says. All we have to do is “wait for the Lord,” and we shall “run and not be weary …. Walk and not be faint.” We don’t have to bat our wings furiously, flapping around on the concrete like a wounded sparrow trying futilely to become airborne. Instead, we need to stretch out our wings like an eagle standing on a cliff, waiting patiently for a gust of wind to lift him, soaring, into the skies. Like the eagle, Isaiah points out, we have to wait for the wind, however. “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength,” he warns. We must acknowledge our complete dependence on God, giving up all of our own frantic efforts to get off of the ground, and stand in confident expectation at the edge of the cliff.
Many of you probably know the popular song, “On Eagles’ Wings.” I will spare you my version of singing it, but of course I dug it out as soon as I decided that I would preach on the Isaiah passage. The words of the song are beautiful. The chorus goes: “He will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.” But—all of the verses taken together do not seem to honor the struggles of our very real weariness. “If you are with God,” they seem to say, “if you are saved, then nothing bad will ever happen to you. You don’t need to be afraid of anything, for you will be ‘raised up,’ riding effortlessly on the wings of God’s giant eagle. The Hebrew words of the text from Isaiah, however, do not really say that we will be raised up on eagles’ wings. Literally, they say that those who wait on the Lord will stretch out their wings as the eagles. God isn’t going to put us on some divine carousel ride, plopping us down on an eagle so that we can soar into the sky, away from our tasks on this earth. Isaiah is telling us that, if we trust in God, then we will be willing to stand on the edge of the cliff and hold out our wings, waiting to be carried out of our exile by the breath of God.
While we must be careful not to confuse the spiritual malady of acedia with clinical depression, a disease which indeed requires medical treatment, Kathleen Norris and the desert fathers also seem to agree with Isaiah that the only way out of the spiritual doldrums of acedia is through careful and prayerful waiting. We must begin our daily tasks with prayer and pursue them with dogged discipline, even when our efforts seem hopeless, like the monk who was given the task of watering a piece of dry wood until it bore fruit. Norris points out that keeping our marriages going or finishing a project can feel like watering a piece of dead wood, but our patient waiting as we put one foot in front of the other, recommitting ourselves to each new day, is the only way through. Henri Nouwen points out that our real "rest” in God is not the absence of pain or conflict, like we might hope, but it is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle. The “rest” comes from unceasing prayer.
Our Gospel lesson shows us that Jesus, too, practiced “prayerful waiting.” Instead of forging his way through the Galilee, healing and doing great works without ceasing, as the disciples and the crowds apparently expected him to do, Jesus gets up early and sneaks out in the dark to a deserted place to pray. Perhaps Jesus was tired, too, spiritually empty from the healings and exorcisms that he had done, weary of the daunting task before him, threatened by the despair and restlessness of acedia. Mark tells us that Jesus was in the dark and in the wilderness, certainly the haunts of hopelessness. But Jesus knows that he must wait patiently on God the Father, that his ministry and mission can only be accomplished if he begins each day by opening himself to God in prayer. So he leaves the disciples looking all over for him, and he prays. And then he goes out to “do what I came out to do.”
Kathleen Norris uses a prayer from our Prayer Book in her own struggles with acedia. One of the personal “prayers for the sick,” it goes: “This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me more ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the spirit of Jesus.” This is the prayer of the eagle who stands in exile on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the wind to come. This is a prayer that we can pray as we struggle to care, to get through the boring tasks of life, to persevere despite the tempting voice of the “noonday demon” saying, “it doesn’t matter, just take a nice, long nap and forget about it.” God doesn’t expect us to live our lives on our own power, doing everything ourselves by getting busier and busier, by flapping our wings more and more frantically. But God does expect us to trust God enough to stretch out our wings in readiness daily and to wait, finding rest in prayer.