In her book, she takes the reader on a journey through the desert, first with the Desert Fathers and then in her own life in struggling with Aceida.
She defines Acedia as "the absence of care. The person afflicted with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acdeia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can't rouse yourself to give a damn." It is difficult to define acedia exactly because it goes way beyond just not giving a damn. It is a state of mind that blocks out pain, protecting oneself from feeling what hurts and losing interest in what makes one feel good as well. It is similar to depression, but not exactly the same. Where depression can be an actual bio-chemical illness, acedia is, in fact, the sickness of the soul. Joseph Pieper, in his excellent book "Leisure, the basis of culture" explains it this way:
Acedia is the "despair from weakness" which Kierkegaard analysed as the "despairing refusal to be oneself."Metaphysically and theologically, the notion of acedia means that a man does not, in the the last resort, give the consent of his will to his own being; that beneath the dynamic activity of his existence, he is still not at one with himself; that as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness overwhelms him when he is confronted with divine goodness immanent in himself (that sadness which is the tristitia seculi of Holy Scripture."
In this state of mind, it is difficult to care at all, about your own well being, or about your responsibility to the world at large. And in coming to this place, you arrive not out of disgust, or apathy, but out of deep sorrow. For Kathleen, the sorrow arose out of the loss of her husband to a long illness. For me, in reading her book, I realized that my Acedia comes from a a sad year of loss and betrayal, coming finally to a point where I just can't feel anymore and I have no idea where to put my spiritual foot down. The earth underneath is too unstable.
So how does one move from this place of refusal? It is not as easy as saying, "oh, I am fine, I will be fine" for the roots of self loss and pain go deep. Kathleen suggests that one thing that may help is to realize that God uses our spiritual deserts to draw us closer to him, that it is not a sin to feel sorrow and pain, but it is a sin to allow that sorrow to overwhelm and numb you to a point of not living life. And it is not just pulling way from life, but going about life with a lack of purpose and direction, a lack of desire.
When I was in England and France, I saw many beautiful places, yet I had a very hard time placing myself in the moment. I was not there, I was nowhere, standing in the chapel on Holy Island, or looking out over the sea in Dieppe. I wanted to be there, to be alive and full of joy, but for all the beauty and cultural inspiration, I felt dead inside. I was not connecting with the NOW. I did not have, as Pieper says, "(a) happy and cheerful affirmation of (my) own being, (my)acquiescence in the world and in God-which is to say love."
The trip was good, and I did manage to get something out of it, if only something that revealed in me a need. I realized that I longed for feeling so badly, that I was in fact struggling hopelessly to find some. I felt emotionally dead. Pieper states: but those who are open to everything; not those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves-almost like a man falling asleep, for one can only fall asleep by letting go." I had closed up.
Spiritual dryness is the state explored by the sixteenth century Carmelite John of the Cross, a patron saint of poets, in his long poem, Dark Night of the Soul. His characterization of the signs of this condition is easily recognized by anyone who has ever felt stymied, whether in writing, art , prayer, marriage, or parenting. At the first sign of difficulty or obstruction you try and think of ways to move past it, but at every turn you defeat yourself, shooting each fresh idea down as unlikely to work. How foolish of you to have every believed in that person, project, that God. You tell yourself that whatever may have worked in the past won't help now, and you grow cynical in your despair. At second stage, you are severely tempted to abandon whatever once gave your life joy and meaning. This is a time of great spiritual aridity, when desire itself seems dead and forsaking hope seems the only adult thing to do."
But, as always, there is hope. The hope comes in recognizing the spiritual wasteland you have found yourself in, and as T.S. Eliot found, moving through it with Love as your ultimate guide. This is not earthly love, but the Love that is at the end of the poem Little Gidding and also at the end of The Wasteland...that fusion of the peace the passes understanding and the purging fire and enveloping rose. Love that is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter. Love that is always there.
In her search to find a way out of Acedia, Kathleen turns to those from long ago who fought it on it's spiritual turf; those medieval monks who knew that to combat acedia, you need to take it one day at a time. Saying the Lords Prayer...which is a daily beseeching of God to give us what we need today, to get through today. As Peiper says, it is letting go.