I had the pleasure of attending a series of talks you gave recently in Cork on the Desert spirituality of the 3rd and 4th centuries. You mentioned briefly their struggles with ‘accedie’. It struck a chord with me immediately, but I didn’t get a chance to ask you to expand on it. I have looked it up on the internet, along with the other spelling, ‘acedia’, but nothing struck me with the same force it did that day. I retired from work last year, and boredom is a bigger reality for me than it used to be. Could you “bring it home” to us, in the way you are able to do with every topic you touch? I would be very grateful. J.
Nice of you to say it was a pleasure! One of the places you didn’t google was this website! In the archive of ‘Between Ourselves’ you can find two questions on boredom (2004, Jan. and Dec.). It is a topic that keeps returning because it is not ‘out there’; instead it is part of ourselves. That's why it is so interesting to see the Desert Fathers and Mothers, so long ago, trying to cope with it. We can see our own struggles mirrored in theirs.
In the list of the Seven Deadly Sins ‘accedie’ turns up last: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth. That list that we all learned by heart in school (in case we should neglect any of them later on) originated in the Desert, but for those ancient men and women it was not a list of sins. It was a list of what they called ‘logismoi’: the sort of thoughts that put you on the slippery slope to sin. It was a kind of primitive psychology. They were trying to understand the human mind and how it goes.
Those men and women fled the decadence of the declining Roman Empire and sought a way of heroism in the desert. They were certainly not looking for entertainment; there was a surfeit of that in the cities. They fled to the desert in some such way as people today take up meditation. Theirs was a radical departure, almost unthinkable today. Our attempt to enter the desert (meditation), carried out in the comfort of our homes, is always in danger of becoming another form of entertainment. But those ancient people, so heroic, were also remarkably honest about their struggles and failures. They set a heroic standard, but they also give us hope.
Their circumstances could scarcely be more different from ours, yet the task is the same. I took a friend to the airport the other day, or rather the other night: it was 4 am. On the way back I turned on the radio and heard a very quiet and thoughtful programme, a medley of reflections, music, and poetry. At midday I took another friend to the airport, and again on the way back I turned on the radio, to the same channel. This time it was the usual diet: one strident song after another, with a cackle of ads, mixed with comments that were just as lunatic as the songs. It would make you want to return to night. Some do just that. The famed Flemish theologian Edward Schillebeecks used to work all night and sleep some hours during the day. Many of his monumental works were conceived and born at night. Another great man, an Irish Jesuit, does something similar, I hear. It is a radical move, like Desert spirituality. Those ancient people went into the desert to get away from the distractions of the city and to engage fully with reality. We have to find some way of doing the same.
Today’s world is full of entertainment and boredom, and they are not opposites. Many discover this daily when they say with disgust, “There’s nothing on television,” having watched it for hours. When we watch television we are not usually engaging deeply with what is happening on the screen (except in rare moments, as when our team scores a goal). That gap between us and what we are engaged in (but not deeply) is the fatal gap through which our life leaks away.
Right then, so we turn off the television and switch off the computer. Just for a while, not forever. What then? We soon get the taste of boredom, the listlessness, the ‘will-lessness’ they called ‘acedia’ or ‘accedie’. Then what? We jump up and begin to do something – anything. An onlooker would never guess that we are still bored. When we picture someone who is bored we tend to imagine someone slumped in an armchair, with a gloomy face and dead eyes. But many people who are very active or hyperactive are driven by boredom or the fear of boredom. Boredom can hide itself in what looks like its opposite: activism. So what is boredom? It is the state of not being related to what we are doing. It is a kind of alienation.
No external rearrangement will get rid of boredom, because it is not about external things; it is about us. We have to face and go through the psychological barrier of boredom in much the same way that marathon runners face and go through the famous psychological wall. “Boredom is the beginning of wisdom,” a Zen master once said to me. In meditation we try to be ‘single-pointed’, not scattered. We relate directly to what and where and how we are. ‘Relate’ is not the best word, because it suggests two. We become one with everything in and around us at that moment. When you try this over an extended period you begin to see the forces of resistance to it in you. But don’t give up. Keep coming back to single-pointedness. Then when you finish and you go about your ordinary activities, remain in that state of mind as far as you are able. When you become distracted from it return to it. Many call this ‘Mindfulness’ today. That's the cure for boredom.
Boredom (or Sloth) is not a deadly sin in itself; it may even be a sort of blessing. It is a reminder (a painful one) of the chink that is part of us. That chink remains, defying all our ordinary efforts to ignore it, or cover it over, or fill it in. It drives us eventually to meditation, or mindfulness - or call it coming to our senses. It is what keeps us open to infinity, open to God.