In earlier writing I have noted my experience with what we might call acedia. I am not yet certain that the term accurately describes what I experienced; it may be that I was closer to a simpler depression than I thought; but I think that the spiritual element found in acedia (also known as “sloth” in the seven deadly sins) fits my own case better than simply the process of trying to deal with aging.
The key aspect I see in acedia is a focus on self that makes life difficult. Christian doctrine teaches us that our centre is to be found in God. As the Westminster Catechism puts it: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” If our purpose in life is to glorify and enjoy God, then self-centredness is one form of the first and primal sin, in which we dethrone God and enthrone self.
All of this is the most elementary material in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “He who would be my disciple must take up his cross and follow me.” I have heard this text and many like it from my earliest days; but I’m a slow learner (or late in coming to any real spiritual and emotional maturity). So elementary or not, I restate some basic lessons for my own benefit. These lessons are variants on a theme: Let go of yourself; take hold of God.
The first notes the benefit of regular prayer. An old verse says it: “You must seek him in the morning if you want him through the day” (Ralph Spaulding Cushman, “The Secret”). I have said more than once that the regimen of early morning devotions I have often heard prescribed fits certain people better than others. I still say that; but I recognize that the appeal to personality type (you can’t expect an ENFP to be so regimented!) had become an excuse for not centring on God. The basic step over the past year of beginning the day with the Lord’s Prayer has been a small step. I have been surprised how big a step it has also proved to be.
From that small step grows a second and more helpful discipline, including prayer for myself, my family, my friends, and my own community. I am working at bringing regular reading of Scripture into the process. At the least I no longer can say that such a regular practise of discipline is antithetical to who I am. In fact, the very spontaneity of my daily life requires such discipline to construct a framework within which I can be most truly myself. Focussing on God at the beginning of the day makes me able to be God’s child more fully, which in turn gives me a real more substantial identity than the self-centredness of the past (a self-centredness that creeps all to close outside the door of my heart).
Third in the small steps towards God that I am taking is greater physical discipline. I have been exercising more regularly and carefully in the past months. It might seem that a focus on physical well-being would turn one’s heart and mind towards oneself and away from God. That can happen easily enough. So the way that I exercise becomes more important. I am experimenting with a rhythm of combining exercise with Taizé music – not everyone’s cup of tea (or glass of wine), but it may be mine.
A final step for now is to plan specific ways that I interact with other people. Inviting friends and acquaintances into our home for a meal; accepting greater involvement in our congregation’s life; playing chess on a Tuesday evening with friends; having a young person in the grip of despair over for coffee; genuinely listening to people in the dining hall (how often have I wanted them simply to listen to me?) – there are myriad ways in which one takes the focus of oneself.
I am a neophyte at this discipline. I recognize that I still take my mental and emotional temperature all the time. Perhaps we all do to some extent; but I want to find the kind of fulfillment that the Westminster Catechism describes, and I know that such fulfillment requires an intentional awareness of God and of others to a greater extent than before in my life. I feel a faint resentment that full healing of my own sense of being crushed requires that I stop looking at myself, but I know that resentment and being ridiculous are closely allied. And I want to keep moving away from acedia towards Paradise.