A demanding joy

One deadly sin is the most insidious and a destroyer of the joy of our life in Christ and with others

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“Let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice; turn to the Lord and His strength; constantly seek His face.” — Psalm 105:3-4

The heart’s yearning. On that Easter morning as the women approached the place where Jesus’s body had been laid, they asked themselves, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (Mark 16:3).

In this question, we hear the universal longing of every human heart that feels entombed in a dark solitude by a stone they cannot move by themselves. For what God said of Adam—“It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18)—is true of every human heart, and most especially that of the Most Sacred Heart of the New Adam. For Christ Our Bridegroom longs for each one of us to be in a relationship with Him as His bride in the Church, in an ever-transforming communion of love. And when our relationship with Him is not as it should be, our heart lets us know.

Entombing ourself in darkness. In our spiritual life in Christ, why do we sometimes feel as though entombed in a dark and heavy sadness by a stone we cannot move—and, ironically, unconsciously don’t want moved?

Why would we want to remain as though sealed in a tomb of sadness? St. Teresa of Kolkata recognized the likely reason whenever she noticed one of her sisters suffering this spiritual malady, saying, “When I see someone sad, I always think, she is refusing something to Jesus” (Come Be My Light, p. 33).

Though there are several names for this, few can explain what it is and why it is considered one of the most destructive of the spiritual diseases that Satan seeks to infect us with—to turn our heart away from a deeper and more joyful relationship with Christ. And it also affects all our relationships, beginning in marriage and family.

A most oppressive demon. It’s been called the “nameless woe.” The desert Fathers of the early Church called it the “noonday devil,” a reference to Psalm 91:6, and the “demon at noon” or “the scourge that lays waste at noon.” And what Satan wants to destroy is the work of love and its fruit, which is joy.

But today we know it by a name that more than likely makes us think of a cute, tree-dwelling mammal whose life is lived in slow motion—“sloth.” It also deceives us into thinking of sloth as just physical laziness, of a “couch potato.” Even its more official name, “acedia,” from the Greek meaning, “lack of care,” hardly hints at its deadly nature.

A wicked sadness. Whichever name we prefer, be it sloth, acedia, or the noonday devil, left unchecked it can quickly make our heart feel like a tomb. Dr. Peter Kreeft, in his book, Back to Virtue, says, “Sloth is the most depressing thing in the world. It is hell on earth. It finds our very highest joy—God Himself—joyless. If Joy Himself is joyless, where can we find joy?”

This is why sloth is Satan’s favorite vice; it creates a sadness in us for God, who is our highest spiritual good. And Satan does this by whispering in our ear the words of his own rejection of God, Non serviam—“I will not serve.” And as Dr. Kreeft observes, “When I am sorrowful about my divine good, when my soul says ‘No’ to God’s offer of supreme joy, when I return His invitation ticket to His banquet, I am spiritually dead.” And thus, the dark sadness.

The spiritual crisis of our day. In his excellent book, The Noonday Devil, Benedictine Abbot Jean-Charles Nault describes this deadly vice as “the sin against the joy that springs from charity.” So devastating is this vice that he states it is “perhaps the root cause of the greatest crisis in the Church today.”

Jesus Himself warned us of the day when “the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). And this is exactly what acedia does. For as Dr. Kreeft explains, it is the sin that “stops us from seeking God,” and when we do, our heart grows cold like a tomb. This is the reason sloth merits the distinction of being one of the seven “deadly sins”—a “capital vice.”

Virtue and vice. We live in a time, as Dr. Kreeft further points out, where we are encouraged and even mandated to accept society’s creed of “me,” where “I feel” has replaced “I believe.” Things have become so confusing that few would answer “virtue” if asked what it is that helps us to become the very best we can be.

And fewer still might answer “vice” (understood as the habit of repeated sin) if asked what keeps us from becoming the very best we can be. But that which we are tempted to reject—“virtue”—is what we need most. And that which we are told we must embrace and even celebrate—“vice”—is in fact what most harms us. Virtues are what help us become who and what God created us to be, to be more like Him “who is all good and deserving of all my love.”

Sin against the Great Commandment. Kathleen Norris details in her book Acedia & me her struggles with this vice, observing, “Acedia is not merely a personal vice. Left unchecked, it can unravel the great commandment: as I cease to practice my love of God, I am also less likely to observe a proper love of my neighbor or myself” (p. 113). For as Jesus said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit because without me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5).

Counting the cost. We have likely heard the expression “Getting cold feet” regarding someone who backs away from fully committing their self in a relationship. As Calvin College professor of philosophy Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points out in her excellent article on this vice, “Resistance to the Demands of Love,” “From the perspective of individual ‘freedom,’ to be in [a] relationship,” we know it “will change me and cost me; it will require me to restructure my priorities… [and] alter the pattern of my thoughts and desires….” She refers to these as the “accommodations of identity.”

Are we perhaps afraid of truly committing ourself to Christ and being transformed by His love? Here we have gotten to the heart of acedia, and why the devil works so hard to keep us from committing ourselves more to Christ.

Is what Christ says to us what we are afraid of? “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Spiritual sterility. Acedia’s poster child is the “rich young man” who Christ called to follow Him. To do so, we must travel “light,” without any attachments, be whatever they may, that would weigh us down in our journey with Him and to have “treasure in heaven.” But the rich young man “went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:22).

Like the servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) who buries his talent in the ground, the sterility acedia causes becomes our darkness. Unlike the servants who provide a return on what had been given them and were subsequently welcomed into “their Master’s joy,” the servant who did not make fruitful his gift is accused of being a “lazy” and “useless servant,” and is harshly condemned and thrown into the “darkness.”

Questions to ask yourself. If you find yourself in a dark sadness in following Christ, prayerfully ask yourself these questions:

  • “What am I refusing Jesus?”
  • “Why am I afraid of more fully committing myself to Him?”
  • “What am I stubbornly holding on to?”
  • “What intimidates me about the cross of discipleship?”
  • “Where is my treasure—in the heaven of Christ’s Sacred Heart where my heart finds joy, or in a tomb I make of my heart where my sadness keeps vigil?”

Develop a rule of daily prayer and persist in keeping it. Seek spiritual direction and have frequent recourse to confession.

Our Lady’s sword. In addition to making a daily examination of conscience, you should also ask Our Blessed Mother to reveal to you what is in your heart—to know what your “predominant fault” is, what the root of your sadness is, and your wounds and the healing you must seek.

For it is Our Lady whose heart was pierced by a sword “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Luke 2:35) who can best help us. And it is she who will crush the head of the serpent, particularly the noonday demon that wants to rob us of our joy in Christ (cf. Genesis 3:15).

Come out of the tomb! Jesus tells us that “The hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come out” (John 5:28,29). Acedia is an insidious demon that makes us feel as though dead while we are alive. But just as Christ commanded Lazarus to come forth from his tomb, so Jesus calls to us, “Come out!”

And what Lazarus experienced through the intercession of his sisters with Jesus, we will experience with the help of Our Lady, St. Joseph, and the saints whose intercession we should invoke—“The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So, Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go’” (John 11:43, 44).

A great love story. When I think of the rolled-back stone of Easter morning, I am reminded of a beautiful love story involving another stone.

When the Old Testament patriarch Jacob had journeyed long and far to find the woman God had chosen to be his wife, he stopped by a well where shepherds gathered to water their flocks.

A great stone covered the well and it took all the shepherds together to roll it away so the waters would flow. But on seeing Rachel approaching with her father’s sheep, and recognizing her as the one God had chosen to be his bride, his heart was filled with such love for her that “he went up, rolled the stone away” and watered her father’s flock. “Then Jacob kissed Rachel and burst into tears” (Genesis 29:1-14).

You have simply to ask Christ to roll back the stone that has sealed you in sadness, and He will kiss you and cry the tears of joy for you.

Note. Certainly, the symptoms of acedia and clinical depression can be similar and “can occasion one another.”

To help distinguish them, I recommend an excellent reflection titled, Depression and Acedia, by the Baylor University Institute for Faith and Learning.

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