If we thought that Jesus was coming at the close of this year, what would we do? Probably, make our peace with anyone with whom we were alienated and make our peace with God, including confessing our sins. What would we not do? If you were employed, you might not bother going to your job. If you were a student, you probably wouldn’t finish your assignments.

The early Christians expected that Jesus would come soon. Some were so sure that Jesus’ coming was imminent, that they stopped working.

In the beginning of his ministry, Paul thought that Jesus’ coming would be soon. Nevertheless, he had little sympathy with those who disengaged themselves from the responsibilities of life.

Paul tells the Thessalonians, “You ought to imitate us… We worked day and night, laboring to the point of exhaustion so as not to impose on any of you.”

People in our time may not expect Jesus to return soon. Actually, when He does come, they probably won’t expect Him either.

Whether Jesus’ coming is imminent or not, the balance between our confidence in God and our own efforts remains important. At times, we expect God to pick up the pieces of the things we should have done. No one believed in God’s help more than Paul and yet he worked hard.

Our attention to our responsibilities may fluctuate. At times, we may concentrate on our own efforts so much that we neglect to bring God into what we are doing. Practically speaking, we are convinced that it all depends on us. People with expertise in certain areas may put their entire confidence in their own skills and never consider that God is involved in what they do.

However, as some of the people in Thessalonika did, we may neglect our responsibilities, in our employment or in our homes. We seem to be doing something but our engine is on idle. Paul speaks of busy bodies who meddle in other people’s affairs to avoid what they need to do. We can be “escape artists,” who avoid the less pleasant aspects of our responsibilities. Most of us don’t just shut down. We can do what needs to be done but do it half-heartedly.

In the third, fourth and fifth centuries, monks and the nuns lived in the Egyptian deserts. They experienced a common affliction, acedia, that is, boredom or apathy. The monks and nuns called it “the noonday devil,” because in the heat of the day, their spirits began to wilt. They felt overcome by lethargy and tired of praying or working. The monks and nuns became convinced that acedia was a “capital sin,” one it could lead to other sins.

Perhaps everyone can experience some version of acedia. People who provide various services, such as health services, might grow tired of being attentive to other people’s needs. A teacher may do everything required but with a certain emptiness. A married person or a parent can feel some boredom at the demands of marriage and parenthood.

Priests and pastoral ministers may also lose their “fire.” In reference to preaching, Pope Francis laments: “… both the congregation and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (Evangelii Gaudium, 135).

The fire or zeal for preaching diminishes when we preachers don’t realize that God is saying something in the Scriptures and so we don’t seek to find it. We can give in to our personal challenges in communicating or be defeated by previous bad experiences and so don’t make the effort to speak to the hearts of the believers. We can even be convinced that our efforts won’t make any difference to anyone, any way.

In his Summa Theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas devotes four articles to discussing acedia. Some translate this as “sloth” or “spiritual apathy.” Thomas considers acedia to be a sin against charity, that is, “joy in God” (2a2ae. 35, 3). Thomas affirms that acedia is not turning aside from any possible spiritual good but “from the divine good to which we should hold onto” (2a2ae. 35, 3, ad 3).

Thomas describes acedia as “a certain weariness about work” (2a2ae. 35, 1)[1] or “sorrow over spiritual good” (2a2ae. 35, 2). Thomas affirms: “Such sorrow is always bad.” It can be bad in itself when what is actually good, such as a spiritual good, is seen as bad. It can also be bad in its effects when “it drags a person away from good work.” Thomas states: “Acedia or sorrow over spiritual things is doubly bad, both in itself and in its effects and so it is a sin” (2a2ae. 35, 1).

Thomas makes an important distinction related to how we deal with our spontaneous reactions:

The emotions in themselves are not sins. We censure them only when they follow after something bad, just as we praise them when they follow after the good. Sorrow in itself is neither praiseworthy or worthy of blame. Moderate sorrow over true evil is worthy of praise. However, sorrow over the good or immoderate sorrow over evil is blameworthy. Thus, acedia is a sin (2a2ae. 35, 1, ad 1).

There is a difference between the initial reactions and whether we stay with those reactions and cultivate them. Thomas understands that, as with other sins, the initial reaction, in this case, spiritual weariness, is not a serious sin but the deliberate choice by our own reason to stay with such apathy is serious (2a2ae. 35, 3). Thomas reflects that even holy men felt the beginnings of spiritual apathy but did not make them deliberate choices (2a2ae. 35, 3, ad 3).

Thomas explains that a negative attitude towards one’s self is not genuine humility:

Humility means that a person, knowing his or her own deficiencies, does not exalt his or herself. But it is not humility but rather ingratitude for us to disregard the gifts that God has given to us. Acedia follows from such contempt because we are saddened at what we consider to be bad or vile. Therefore it is necessary that we not extol the gifts given to others in such a way that we belittle the blessings given to us by God. This would turn them into sorrow (2a2ae. 35, 1, ad 3).

Many people don’t make efforts because they do not appreciate that they have been given gifts by God just as other people have been given gifts.

Thomas says that some sins are best avoided simply by fleeing; others are resisted by fighting. It is best to run from thoughts about sexual sins rather than to think about them. Other sins can be resisted by thought: “This is so with acedia because the more we think about spiritual goods the more pleasing they are to us. By this means acedia diminishes” (2a2ae. 35, 1, ad 4).

If we look at the psalms, we see many affirmations that go counter to acedia, short phrases by which we affirm that God is our “rock,” our “fortress,” our shield,” our shepherd. Many people repeat the name of Jesus when they feel discouraged. Paul declares, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:13).

In our Christian life, we cooperate with God. God is always working with us. The Letter to the Philippians declares, “God works both the willing and the doing” but we cooperate and do our part, assisted by God’s grace.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

 


[1] References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in this case, is the second part of the second part (The second part is divided in two). Then the number of the question is given, which here is question 35 Then the article is given, which here, is the 1st article. If the reference is to Thomas’ response to an objection that he raised in the beginning of the article, the number of the objection is added, with the Latin word, ad, meaning “to.”