September 23, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
On Friday night, I spent a half an hour tucked under my basement stairwell doing absolutely nothing. The emergency alert on my phone had gone off, warning that a tornado had been seen in the vicinity and telling me to seek shelter immediately.
“Do not wait until you see or hear a tornado,” it added ominously. “Seek shelter now.”
So I did. I headed toward my basement and urged my two dogs to follow. Dexter came easily and without argument but Cody balked. I’m not sure why — usually he’s excited about the basement because that’s where I keep the dog food — but he also has a knack for knowing just how to drive me crazy and perhaps sensed that I would be short on patience and so this was the perfect time to annoy me. He scooted out of my reach and headed upstairs instead of down. I thought about chasing after him and dragging him into the basement but I knew the chances of there being a real tornado were actually quite slim and Dexter was now bouncing around me barking while my phone continued to blare its warning and all in all, I decided to leave Cody to his fate just so that I could get to my hiding hole and have some peace and quiet! It felt a little like Sophie’s Choice taking Dexter and leaving Cody behind and I’m sure that had a tornado actually swept him away, I’d be feeling very guilty now and this would be a very different sermon, but since no tornado ever developed, I’m glad I didn’t have to spend my half hour cramped in a small space with a disgruntled, restless, and extremely willful dog.
On the other hand, perhaps Cody’s bad temper would have broken the tedium of my confinement. In 2014, the journal Science reported that many people prefer pain to being left alone with their thoughts. Researchers asked people to spend 15 minutes alone in an empty room with no reading material, no phones, and nothing on the walls to look at, and then asked them to rate the experience. Most found it very discomforting and didn’t enjoy their time at all. The researchers pushed the experiment further, placing subjects in the same empty room but this time provided them with the option of pushing a button to give themselves a harmless but painful electric shock. 2/3 of the men and 1/4 of the women chose to shock themselves at least once during the study. One man shocked himself over 100 times during the 15 minutes! The researchers concluded that a majority of people — especially men — will chose pain over tedium 1 so maybe if I was a man, I would have worked harder to drag Cody into my hidey hole with me feeling that the suffering I would endure from Cody’s bad temper would have been preferable to being alone with my thoughts. But I’m not a man, and I hadn’t brought Cody with me, and Dexter spent the 30 minutes sleeping quietly on my lap, and my cell phone didn’t get any reception under the basement stairwell, and consequently I had nothing to do for thirty minutes during the tornado warning on Friday night but think about studies like the one I just cited.
And what I mostly thought about was how incredibly appropriate my situation was to this sermon. I had in fact read the study I just cited only that afternoon, along with many other studies and commentary like it as I pored over material for today’s sermon. 2 The theme for today’s sermon is boredom, or more specifically what fourth century monks dubbed “acedia.” Although ‘boredom’ and ‘tedium’ are listed in the thesaurus as synonyms for the word acedia, acedia is more than just being bored for 1/2 hour sitting under your basement stairwell. Acedia is a Greek word that literally means “not caring,” and it describes a state of boredom that lingers. Acedia is the sense that your life has become nothing more than tedious routine and repetitive responsibilities, and the thought of another day of the ‘same old same old’ leaves you restless and dissatisfied, and moreover, you are so tired of the whole thing that you can’t even rouse yourself to care about the dangers of indulging in your self-pity. Acedia – not caring — is a listlessness that affects your spiritual life, that can damage your relationship to others, to God, and to your own sense of self, that can become so insidious that the early church listed it with pride and anger as one of the most dangerous thoughts. 3 The monks called acedia the “noon day demon.” In the morning they would wake refreshed and hopeful that the day might bring something new and different to contemplate, and in the evening, they knew they would be able to look forward at least to the escape of sleep, but at noon, when those doldrums hit, there was no escape from them. By noon, the monks could see clearly that the day was unfolding to be no different from all of the days that had gone before and yet there were still many hours to go before they slept, and so there at noon, the noon day demon of acedia would hit, and their hearts would grow heavy with the inescapable repetition of it all. And the biggest danger of this smothering acedia — the reason the church listed it as one of the most dangerous thoughts — was the resulting “if only’s” that came flowing in its wake:
“If only I lived in a different monastery,” the bored monk would find himself thinking, “life would be so much better.”
“If only Brother Joseph weren’t such a chatterbox, I would be able to enjoy this day.”
“If only I didn’t have to do these dishes after every meal but had more time to study, then I would be happy.”
I don’t think you have to be a fourth century monk to be subject to the effects of acedia. How many of us have felt the lethargy of a dreary routine cause us to daydream about the “if only’s?”
“If only I had a better boss, I’d be happy at my work.”
“If only my retirement account were a little bigger, I could travel and get out of this rut I am in.”
“If only my kids would pick up after themselves, I wouldn’t be so cranky.”
“If only the sun shone more in western NY, I would love life so much more more.”
Of course, sometimes troubled relationships or difficult life situations are the cause of our problems and do require change, or sometimes a person’s listlessness is a result of serious depression that requires professional treatment. Not all listlessness is acedia, but you can usually tell the difference between acedia and real depression by the time it most often occurs. Depression is pretty continual, but as the monks pointed out, acedia is the noon-day demon: acedia steals upon you when you are folding the fourth basket of laundry and have many piles still to go or when you are trying to figure out what to make for dinner for the trillionth time in your life. Acedia is the dullness that comes over your heart when you look at the week’s schedule and the most exciting thing you see is a doctor’s appointment. Acedia is what stay-at-home parents feel when they are afraid they will go stark raving mad if they have to watch ‘Dora the Explorer’ one more time. Acedia is the cause of mid-life crises when men and woman look at the years of work and family stretching before them and say, “Is this it? Is this all there is?”
As I said, sometimes our lives do need to change but acedia is a spiritual restlessness with the necessary routines and responsibilities of life. The fact is that whether we are a 21st century American or a fourth century monk, not every moment of our lives will be exciting and not every moment can be unique. Every job has its tedious responsibilities that must be fulfilled on a regular basis; every household requires the repetition of work that will never be finally done — your house will never be permanently clean. And even our relationships must sometimes be run on autopilot because young love must give way to the practicality of mature lives with less time to gaze adoringly into one another’s eyes. In other words, the reality is that life can sometimes be dull but acedia is the dangerous thought that tries to deny that reality and delude us into believing that “if only” something were different, our lives would be exciting and more meaningful. Acedia seeks ways of relieving life’s tedium, even if the cure is worse than the disease. Is giving yourself an electric shock really the answer to boredom? And for those of us who are quick to judge the self-shockers, a quick and honest self examination will reveal that each of us has our own unhealthy strategies for coping with acedia. We are bored and so we eat, we binge watch ‘Friends,’ we shop for things we don’t really need, we bury ourselves in books, we escape into alcohol; or in our most modern form of denial, we distract ourselves with our phones, Youtube, and computer games. All to avoid a reality that is in reality unavoidable; namely, that life is sometimes tedious.
Fortunately, the fourth century monks not only named this condition but suggested a treatment for it, the same treatment proclaimed by the Psalmist who wrote, “For God alone my soul waits in silence,” or by the prophet Habakkuk who said, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” The treatment for acedia, the monks said, is silence. The treatment for acedia is to enter into your boredom fully in order to quiet your dangerous thoughts, to chase away their false assumptions, and allow the silence and tedium itself to speak to you. Blaise Pascal said, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”
The scientists discovered that we are afraid to be alone with our thoughts, but the gospel tells us that there is nothing to fear because if we stay with the silence, if we stop trying to distract ourselves from our boredom and our restlessness but quiet the “if only’s” and trust in even the most tedious moments of our lives, we will discover that we are not truly alone with our thoughts, but God is there with us in the silence. We seek earthquakes, wind, and fire — we seek novelty and excitement — but God speaks to us in the most ordinary moments, in the quiet hush of drying dishes, grading papers, driving the kids to a soccer game, weeding the front garden, and drinking a cup of coffee watching the grass grow. It can feel so dull and routine, and yet when we settle into it, when we sit in silence and allow our soul to wait as if we really expected something extraordinary to happen in that moment, we will discover that the ordinary becomes extraordinary because we will see God infused throughout it all. The novelty of our experience will no longer come from something outside of us, but from an internal sight, an awakening of our brains to the sacredness of the most mundane. The author Kathleen Norris called the fourth century monks the first psychologists because they understood that the only way out of our tedium is to enter into it more fully and focus our brains into a heightened attentiveness to the purpose of what we are doing and the preciousness of each moment. Like a runner hitting a wall, we learn to accept the momentary suffering of our tedium and exhaustion, trusting that if we keep going we will also experience the runner’s high when the routine becomes effortless, and we know we have accomplished our purpose without defeat.
Norris said that in the silence, God breathes love once again into our spirits and we are able then to breathe that love out again even into the most ordinary and tedious of our routines. Acedia — the not caring — is washed away in a sacred holiness of caring — for that moment, for God in that moment, for ourselves in that moment, and for those we love for whom we are living that moment. We are re-engaged and re-invested and the ordinary becomes extraordinary and sacred. Norris writes,
“I empty the washer,
and gather what I need for the return:
the basket of wet clothes,
and bag of clothespins,
a worn, spring jacket in need of mending.
Then I head upstairs,
singing an old hymn.”
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” because this moment and every moment of your lives, even the most tedious, is infused with the breath and love of God. Keep silent and listen.
- When Pope Gregory eventually finalized the list of the seven deadly sins, he dropped acedia and replaced it with sloth. Many scholars believe that Gregory felt acedia was specific to monks while even lay people struggled with sloth. Our modern day culture suggests that acedia is more wide spread than Gregory assumed.