We have a stained glass window in the Lady Chapel depicting St. Andrew holding a net. The Andrew of this window is rather preoccupied with eternal verities, so he gazes serenely ahead, without paying much attention to what’s in his hand. As you may have noticed, Andrew’s fish here are not actually in his net, but on it. So there seems to be a good chance that, without some rather careful handling, they could slide back off, and so end up back in the sea.
The Apostle’s net, let us say, is a symbol of the grace of Christ, or the communion of salvation, or the royal road towards heaven. While this life lasts, it remains unfortunately true that if, by the grace of God, we’ve got ourselves into it, we can also, by our own fault, fall back out. Obviously it’s a really good idea to be inside this net, and a really really bad idea to leave it. Satan and all the demons of hell urge us to join them out of it. But we are helped to get in, and to stay in, by the Holy Catholic Church, by her preaching and Sacraments; also by the teaching and example and prayer of the Apostles, and by the assistance of all the Holy Angels.
In order to anchor ourselves ever deeper and more securely within the net of the Apostle, we need to exercise the virtues: faith, hope and charity; prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude; patience, generosity, chastity of body and heart, loving compassion, readiness to forgive and the rest. We need also to give ourselves to properly spiritual exercises like prayer with tears, acts of penance, reading holy Scripture, participation in the liturgy of the Church etcetera. But alas! the carnal man within protests against all of that. So our attachment to this net is rather easily loosened, if we lower our guard, and capitulate to our base instincts, to the vices, to impurity and hardness of heart; if we slacken off or even abandon our spiritual exercises, and if we start to take liberties with the commandments. Like the fish in our window, our progress will then be a gradual, maybe even imperceptible slide downwards: from the centre to the edge, from the edge to the extreme fringe, and finally, unless we convert, back out into the sea of destruction.
Of all the vices which tend to separate us from the Apostle’s net, there’s one to which monks are particularly susceptible. It has no English name: the French call it “accidie”; the Latin word, borrowed from the Greek, is “acedia”. I say this because recently I got around - finally! - to reading a book everyone has been talking about which is on this very subject. It’s called The Noonday Devil, and is by the Benedictine Abbot of St. Wadrille in Normandy, Dom Jean-Charles Nault. You will find, incidentally, an excellent review of this book in the current issue of our magazine.
Acedia may be defined as spiritual torpor, or disgust with spiritual things, or a sort of profound and intolerable boredom which seeks distraction and escape by any means. This is not a sordid vice of secrecy and darkness, but it flourishes precisely in full light; it’s a protest against too much light, too much truth, too much grace. Face to face with God, alone in the desert, the monk tormented by this demon is confronted also by his own inner poverty, emptiness, inadequacy, wretchedness. He reacts in the first place by dejection, sadness, listlessness. This then easily morphs into discontent, resentment, cynicism, anger, envy, infidelity. His heart being captured in this way, the monk persuades himself that he is wasting his time in his cell, or in his monastery. He must seek and accepts advice from a spiritual elder. Otherwise, he will give up the struggle, and leave.
The desert fathers of 4th century Egypt spoke about acedia with brilliant psychological insight, and their conclusions remain as valid now as they were then. Much later, in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas analysed acedia from his own theological standpoint. His conclusions also remain very profitable and fruitful for us. Nault helpfully goes into all that in his book. His central thesis though is disturbing. He thinks that people in general, and even monks, have nowadays forgotten how to recognise acedia, how to combat it, even what it is. Worse, he thinks that acedia is the very vice that predominates in our society today.
If monks are principal victims of this affliction, they are also the ones who have most convincingly worked out its antidote. According to the desert fathers, this can be stated simply as joyful perseverance. Perseverance in the first place. We stay put. We endure. We tough it out. We don’t run away. When things are difficult, we live by faith, not sight. We continue to live faithfully according to our Rule. Above all, we refuse to give up prayer, even when it’s difficult or apparently empty. We cry to God for his help. And we know he gives it.
Perseverance: qualified, though, by joy. Give me again the joy of your salvation cries the monk, with the Psalmist (50:12). And he then bears witness to the world, by his life of austere and monotonous and stable routine, not only that life is endurable, but that it’s wonderful. Time is not a dreary process we need somehow to fill or fritter away. On the contrary, it’s full of God, and each moment of it is precious, bearing us ever closer to our destination in Him.
Suffering and trouble there may be, of course. We assume that. But because of God, because of his presence, his goodness, his love, his call: every day and all day is utterly worth living. Just to be alive is constantly to receive God’s lavishly poured out gifts. So the joyful monk exists in a state of thanksgiving and praise.
St. Thomas Aquinas knew the desert tradition, and of course entirely respected it. But his own proposed antidote to the vice or affliction of acedia is more radical. It’s simply Jesus Christ. He is the definitive proof of God’s loving concern for us. By his poured out blood, Christ overcomes, washes away our sin. Therefore, while life lasts, we never have grounds for despair. Jesus Christ proves also that God wants us to come to him, to be united with him, to be transformed in holiness, to live with his own divine life in us. Ultimately God wants to give us, wants us to have, beatitude.
So we cleave to Jesus Christ, come what may. We look at him, steadfastly. We pray to him, unceasingly. We live in him, constantly. We love him. We obey him. We desire him. And we joyfully confess: He is our all. He alone can fulfil us. He alone ultimately matters.