I didn't choose to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing this year, but I did decide to go to one lecture by Kathleen Norris, author of one of my favorite books, The Cloister Walk. It was a pleasant read, but it probably wouldn't have made my favorites list if it hadn't been for one small chapter entitled "Acedia." In it, Norris quotes a 4th century desert monk named Evagrius who describes the experience of the "Noonday Demon" making time drag on endlessly and seem totally meaningless. Acedia is ultimately a life-denying condition, causing one not to care and not to feel. I bookmarked this chapter, referred to it often, and even referenced it in a post last year. I attended the lecture this morning hoping that Norris would address this spiritual condition that I have been so fascinated...and afflicted by.
To my surprise...and delight...Norris's next book is going to be all about this very topic and her lecture contained a lot of reflecting on it. In a life of routine and drudgery, the mantra of so many people is, "who cares?" "Why am I doing this? What's the point?" She quoted this poem by Phillip Larkin:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
It's freaky if you think about it long enough. We spend our lives breathing, eating, and excreting in 24-hour cycles, and for what? I think that the "and for what" part is acedia. Where's the meaning in the monotony? There's one part of our liturgy that goes, "The faithfulness of our great Provider gives sense to our days and hope to our years." Norris suggests, and I want to tinker with this idea a little, that a liturgical approach to life is an anecdote to acedia. The two counterpoints to acedia that Norris identifies, story-telling and zeal, are both rich in the liturgical life of the church.
Storytelling, said Norris, is the most significant way in which we humans create meaning in our lives, citing a quote that humans are "hairy, story-telling bipeds." I used to beg my aunts to tell me stories about my dad, my teachers told my parents stories about me, and so on. We get together as a family and my grandpa regales us with tales of struggling through the Depression and the "Great Tornado of 1954." And every week we gather to recount the story of Christ through the Word, the Lord's Supper, and the Apostle's Creed. Whether it's around the dinner table or the alter, the liturgical act of storytelling affirms our communal identity.
Zeal, I think, is connected to eschatology and the mission of the church. Our liturgy says, "In the joy of his resurrection, and in the hope of his coming again, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices." The words "zeal" and "zealot" have pretty bad connotations, but the truth is, people can't live without a cause. As Christians, our cause should be the glory of God and the salvation of the world. With our eyes looking to the day when Christ will make all things new, we set about the task of ending injustice and inhumanity, doing our best to peel back the darkness in whatever corner we find ourselves.
I think, too, that the basic idea of liturgy helps to combat acedia and this feeling of hopelessness. In a liturgy, every act means something; it points beyond itself. We pass the peace to the people sitting around us as we're supposed to share God's peace with the people in our everyday lives. We bring monetary offerings to the front as we're supposed to sacrifice our entire lives to God. Setting my alarm and going to bed the other night, I thought about how it was a liturgical act of surrender and trust. God keeps my body functioning and the earth whirling through space even as I'm dead to the world for (preferably) eight hours. Every act in the liturgy and in our lives means something because it's part of our larger story, and part of God's.
I wish I could develop these ideas a little further, but in general I lack the time and the vocabulary. I'm sure Kathleen Norris will do a great job, though.