Accidie in America

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 13, 2004

The Medievals had a word for that feeling of listlessness, apathy, and lethargy that strikes when one is alone–accidie (ak-sid-ee).  We’ve all felt this.  We are sitting at home alone, or perhaps with our spouse or roomate.  There are lots of things we could be doing…but we lack motivation.  We feel bored, restless, apathetic, and lazy all at the same time.  Apparently monks–particularly those of a hermetic sort–dealt with this feeling enough to warrent the attention of writers such as St. John Cassian and Thomas Aquinas. 

You’d think, in this well-connected culture of ours that the spiritual disease of accidie wouldn’t be so prevalent in our society.  After all, it appears to be a malady particular to those within medieval society that were isolated.  However, much study has shown how pervasive loneliness is in our society.  The technologies that were developed to help us stay connected, or to make our lives easier so that we could focus on the luxuries of life, have caused a sense of fragmentation.  In spite of the business around us, social research shows that we are plagued with relational disconnectedness.  It is epidemic.  Those who don’t believe this to be the case have probably lived their whole lives within this social reality to the extent that they don’t know what authentic community and relationality is like. 

And so, we are isolated within the throng.  And our isolation breeds accidie.  Our first responce to the onset of accidie is probably to entertain it away–go to a movie, turn on the tube, play a game.  However, the medieval "cure" was persistent prayer, manual labor, or the contemplation of death.  In other words, they didn’t yield to accidie; they dealt with it head-on. 

So much of how we deal with problems like accidie in our culture is to distract ourselves with entertainment or succumb to it.  We’ve lost our ability to fight.  Persistence in prayer is highly uncommon in our churches.  Many of us don’t know what manual labor is really like.  We avoid thinking about things as serious as death.  So little has changed in the past couple millenia–we still struggle with the same problems.  However, our ability to cope has changed.  At least in America.  We’ve lost our ability to cope.  We are an America of accidie.

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One Response to “Accidie in America”

  1. Lars Nowen on December 7th, 2004 10:30 am

    I liked the post. Just a couple of comments… You touched on it briefly. Unproductive hyper-activity is also a sign of accidie. So activities commonly associated with escape from accidie (like movies or video games or procrastinating by doing a bit of one thing and then moving on to another thing before you’ve finished the first thing) these are all possible symptoms of accidie too, along with slugishness or despair.

    I agree with you, accidie is one of THE things that afflicts not just America, but the western world. It’s also understood as “the sorrow of the world” or “worldly grief” as found in 2 Corinthians 7:10.

    Interestingly enough, Dante has the accidie types in the same place as the wrathful types in his inferno. Both exhibit violence, one directed outward, the other is directed inward.

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