Thursday, January 8, 2009

Acedia for Atheists




















Today the sun shineth.

Acedia is a sort of monastic ennui – not exactly depression, not exactly sloth.  If you've ever watched the beautiful and moving documentary Into Great Silence, you might have noticed some acedia in one of the young monks of the Grande Chartreuse.  Or perhaps he was just walking the fine line between euphoria and sleep.  "Maintaining," as it were, against almost impossible odds.  Acedia used to be the eighth deadly sin, before it was bought out by sloth, much the same way wrath has orchestrated a hostile takeover of pride, in recent years.  

For those of you who aren't up on your sins, the magnificent seven are, in order of naughtiness:  Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.  See, pride was almost an afterthought.  We can just move it over to the pluses column.  In fact, it may be that envy and sloth are the only two deadly sins that our culture currently frowns upon.  Though greed has been getting a look-in, of late.  (Contrary to popular belief, murder is not one of the seven deadly sins.  And where would we be without torture and imprisonment without trial?)

Before Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) bashed out his/the seven deadly sins, in 590 AD, and Dante ran with it in The Divine Comedy,  there were the eight evil thoughts as penned by Evagrius Ponticus, a fifth century monk.  They were:  Gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, anger, discouragement, vainglory and pride.  It's interesting to compare the two lists.  Whereas the modest monk put gluttony first, the Pope saw fit to drop it to number two.  Gregory also changed fornication to lust, presumably to give us the loophole that it's OK to have sex, if there's no lust involved.  Pope Gregory had the common touch. 

Not that I'm any kind of monk, but I can relate to some of brother Evagrius' "thoughts."  The one that intrigues me the most is discouragement, as it seems like such a soft "evil" (which is probably why Gregory dropped it entirely from his list), though, no doubt, a big deal to a monk spending most of his time in prayer.  "Hello-o, anybody out there...?"  I'm sure the Pope gave discouragement some thought, too, as he must have done sorrow, before letting them both go.  And dropping vainglory in favor of pride, alone, that was an interesting decision.  Vainglory implies a certain vanity and hollowness to one's pride.  I vote we bring vainglory back to the list and give pride the boot.

For balance, I'd just like to jump in here and list the seven holy virtues (also known as contrary virtues):  Chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.  

Now, I'm thinking there's some grey area between the two extremes of seven deadly sins and seven holy virtues.  (If you've tried life outside of the monastery or the Vatican, you'll know what I mean.)  A realm of existence worthy of a third category and list, perhaps, where orphans of the other two lists – discouragement, sorrow and acedia – and others, might find a home.  

Sorrow may be covered by acedia, and acedia is indeed a rich concept, but I'll drop it in favor of the more commonly understood sorrow.  Perhaps love could live in the new category, too, as it's entirely absent from both other lists and certainly a mixed bag.  Hope also exists beyond the dualism of sin and virtue, right?  Or just softens the edges a bit.  Happiness feels too sure of itself, but contentment could work.  That's five.  Two more?  Well, this is starting to look like a ragtag band of miserable artists and zen outlaws, so I might as well add mindfulness and, finally, creativity.

I'll call this new list "the seven wandering others."  In no particular order:  Discouragement, sorrow, love, hope, contentment, mindfulness and creativity.  Now we need never sin or fall short of virtue again.  Just live in the grey area.

Get thee to a monastery!

1 comment:

  1. Wanking. Perhaps not deadly, but certainly tiring. Could be flipped as a virtue--self reliant, not exactly fornication, good exercise...

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