The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The fast love of good zeal

Mary went with haste into the hill country.
Luke 1:39

When Fr. Conrad Ackermann of the Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland arrived in the Ohio River town of Troy in 1870, he was said (according to the Saint Meinrad Archabbey necrology) to have been so enthusiastic about his new home that he walked the 14 miles to Saint Meinrad. Is this, perhaps, the good zeal that “leads to God and everlasting life” of which St. Benedict speaks in his Rule for monks?

To be sure, trekking 14 miles by foot though the Indiana wilderness is no small feat. However, true zeal is probably most authentically expressed not merely when an exciting new venture has awakened our inner desire, but rather when that endeavor has become a daily commitment that can seem, at times, to be monotonous drudgery. That awakened inner desire now must remain vigilant through thick and thin. The honeymoon is over; the daily, unexciting reality of religious life, marriage, or the new job has taken hold. We may ask: “Now what?”

Do we stay and grow and rediscover the depth of our commitment “in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” or do we move on to something new, something better, something that promises us even more? Perhaps we are fearful of either option so choose neither, and slowly become satisfied with slogging through life without love and daydreaming about what could have been, seeking momentary, cheap thrills wherever we can find them.

Who cares? … What’s the use? … What’s in it for me? … If it feels good, do it.

This is a spiritual affliction with eternal consequences that threatens us all, and which is particularly acute in contemporary culture. As Trappist monk Michael Casey says in The Road to Eternal Life, his new commentary on the Prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule:

Our excitement-prone generation is looking for entertainment, something to distract from the tedium of daily living. Everything has to be presented in an entertaining way: the news, the liturgy, even school textbooks. … In a context of spectacular images, loud music, and chemical stimulation there is little scope to be touched either by our neighbor’s need or by the promptings of conscience. By creating a miasma of sensory fireworks we effectively block out anything beyond what is sensate: any spiritual perceptiveness, any attention to interiority. Our conscience is deadened by sensory overload and we are little aware of the possibilities that are open to us to create a better world.

Though they may have lacked the “sensory fireworks” common to our age, this malady was no less troublesome for the early desert monks of the third and fourth centuries, and they had a word for it: acedia. Here is an excerpt of the classical description of acedia according to the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus:

The demon of acedia, which is also called the noonday demon, is the most burdensome of all the demons. … First it makes the sun seem to slow down or stop moving, so that the day appears to be fifty hours long. Then it makes the monk keep looking out of his window and forces him to go bounding out of his cell to examine the sun to see how much longer it is to 3 o’clock [dinner time], and to look round in all directions in case any of the brethren is there. Then it makes him hate the place and his way of life and his manual work. It makes him think that there is no charity left among the brethren; no one is going to come and visit him. If anyone has upset the monk recently, the demon throws this in too to increase his hatred. It makes him desire other places where he can easily find all that he needs and practice an easier, more convenient craft. … It joins to this the remembrance of the monk’s family and his previous way of life, and suggests to him that he still has a long time to live, raising up before his eyes a vision of how burdensome the ascetic life is. So, it employs, as they say, every [possible] means to move the monk to abandon his cell and give up the race.

Acedia, known today as the capital sin of sloth, is a difficult term to define with any precision. Theologians and scholars for centuries have offered various nuanced definitions that go far beyond our purpose here. Suffice it to say that acedia is not mere laziness, though that may be involved. The affliction of acedia is really an inner restlessness, a general lack of interest and aversion for spiritual things.

The Desert Father John Cassian says the monk beset by acedia is troubled by an anxious heart which renders him disgusted with his lot in life, so he is always looking for a way out, either internally or externally. He is, Cassian says, “asleep with regard to any contemplation of virtue and any insight provided by the spiritual senses” (Institutes 10: IV). Acedia, says Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B., is “weariness of soul” that tempts one to reject his or her spiritual connection with God, fostering the feeling: “What’s the use? My work, my prayers, and my relationships go on as usual, but I receive no satisfaction” (Thoughts Matter, 93-94).

What we are talking about here is a lack of zeal for doing good, or the failure to love the good as it should be loved with all our heart, soul, and might (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5)—the zeal Fr. Conrad exhibited on that 14-mile journey up to Saint Meinrad (and by all accounts, for the rest of his monastic life). This lack of zeal doesn’t necessarily imply hating the good, or even refusing to do it, but rather a willful dearth of motivation or desire to do or love the good with the right intensity—a sluggish mind-set that can lead to further and even more serious sin. And this is not unique to the ancient monks in Egypt. If anything, this state of mind is even more rampant and insidious today, and is a threat to all. As Roberta C. Bondi says:

We experience it as a restlessness that sometimes makes us hate our jobs. Some experience it as boredom with a marriage that they seek to cure with affairs. Others change residences at periodic intervals or take up dangerous hobbies or go out and spend money. Whatever the attempted solution tried, however, the feeling is the same: an empty, restless boredom with life itself. (To Love as God Loves, 75)

In the final analysis, acedia tempts us to settle for less than the joy God offers us along the path of life. Acedia wants us to drag ourselves along rather than respond with enthusiasm to the love that should impel us to pursue everlasting life (cf. Rule 5:10). The aim of acedia, it seems, is to lure us into spiritual drowsiness so that we become more vulnerable to other sins that threaten to mire us in the depths of hell.

Perhaps the best characterization of this vice is found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Inferno, while the two are crossing the Styx, the poet Virgil tells Dante of the damned souls submerged in the swamp:

Under the water are people who are sighing, making the water bubble at the surface … Fixed in the mire, they say: “We were gloomy in the sweet air that the sun makes glad, bearing within us the fumes of sullenness: now we languish in the black slime.” (Inferno 7:118-126)

In the Inferno, the damned—in one way or another—are “fixed in the mire,” “languishing in the slime.” They do not move. Their sin keeps them in place, and in many cases, acedia helped fix them there. By contrast, in the Paradisio, Dante—with the aid of his heavenly companions Beatrice and St. Bernard—soars through a cosmos illuminated and penetrated by divine glory. God’s love literally lifts them. Nothing can quell their desire or halt their ascent.

In between, however, on the fourth terrace of the Purgatorio, those souls afflicted by lento amore (“slack love” or “slow love”—acedia; 17:130) during their earthly lives are quite literally (and rather comically), impelled to pursue everlasting life. Here, the penitents run non-stop. They do not dilly-dally. They are urgently making up for lost time, day and night, driven interiorally by the right love for the good that they neglected during their time on earth.

Virgil explains to Dante what is happening: “The love of the good, falling short of what is right, is here restored; here they ply and ply again the air they did ill to slow” (Purgatorio 17:85-87). So often in life, we sin by either not caring enough to do the good that we know we should—or we do the good, but for all the wrong reasons and without being impelled by love of God and neighbor. Those in Dante’s Purgatorio are there for such sluggish sins of omission or “slack love,” but they eagerly (even joyfully) atone for them, quickly circling the mountain, driven by an inner desire to do what is right that was lacking during their earthly sojourn. Around the mountain, Dante writes, “gallop those whose good will and righteous love ride them. Suddenly they were upon us, for all that great crowd was running, and two in front cried, weeping: ‘Mary ran with haste to the mountain!’ ‘Quickly, quickly, that time not be lost through lack of love,’ cried the others following, ‘let eagerness to do well make grace grow green’ ” (Purgatorio, 18:94-100, 103-105).

And this childlike eagerness will not allow them to pause for even a moment. When Virgil addresses the group, one of the penitents responds: “We are so full of desire to move that we cannot stop” (Purgatorio 18:115-116).

The penitents also run at night—when, by contrast, Dante and Virgil cannot climb—because the acedia-stricken did not “run” spiritually in the daylight during their lifetimes. This recalls Jesus’ admonition in John 12:35 to “walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you” (also, cf. John 9:4). The darkness represents spiritual drowsiness, and it is interesting to note that when Dante is not overcome with alertness by the streaking ruckus of the frenzied runners, he succumbs to drowsiness (Purgatorio 18:87-88, 144-145).

Later, in Canto 19 of the Purgatorio, a mysterious siren appears to a dreaming Dante, gradually seducing his drowsy soul until Virgil—with the help of an unidentified “holy lady” awakens him. Then, under the light of the risen sun, he and Virgil ascend to the next terrace. Here, one cannot help but recall Matthew’s Gospel passage recounting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane with Peter, James, and John, who fall asleep while their master is praying. “Stay awake,” Jesus tells them, “and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

A couple penitents at the back of the group “scourge” acedia by calling out biblical and classical examples of the vice (Purgatorio 18:133-138). They begin with a reference to Numbers 14:20-33, a passage relating God’s disappointment with the recalcitrant Israelites journeying through the desert with Moses and Aaron.  Because of their lack of zeal, their entry into the Promised Land is delayed for 40 years. They, like so many of us, had fallen prey to “slack love” or acedia. They willfully refused to love the greatest good (God) with all their heart, soul, and might, therefore failed to run the way of his commands—which ironically would have renewed their strength and borne them aloft (cf. Psalm 119:32; Isaiah 40:30-31).

Conversely, as noted above, two penitents in front of the racing mob cry out examples of the opposing virtue of zeal, beginning with the biblical story of the Visitation: “Mary ran with haste to the mountain!” (Purgatorio, 18:100). Mary, upon receiving the angel Gabriel’s greeting and assenting to his assertion that she would bear the Son of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, “went with haste” to her relative Elizabeth, whom Gabriel had promised would bear a son in her old age (Luke 1:39-55). The infant in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy upon Mary’s arrival in her home (Luke 1:41, 44).

Love impels Mary, impregnated by the Holy Spirit, to take the Word Made Flesh to Elizabeth in urgent fashion. With this charitable act of self-negation by the Mother of God bearing Christ, the child in Elizabeth’s womb likewise responds with great zeal (and will later, as John the Baptist, point to Jesus as the Messiah and embody zeal to the point of giving his own life). Good zeal is contagious. It draws others into its orbit.

No one can argue that either Mary or John the Baptist lived without sorrow or struggle, without doubt or daily drudgery. Yet they were impelled by love, by the good zeal displayed by Fr. Conrad and so many other faithful souls through the centuries, to plug away in bearing Christ to the world. Remaining vigilant, they loved and pursued the greatest good with all their heart, soul, and might, running the way of God’s commands by the light of Christ. There was no slack in their love. Looking to Jesus, they ran with perseverance. They fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith (cf. Hebrews 12:1; 2Timothy 4:7).

So it must be with us. And the remedy against acedia—fuel for the race of good zeal—is a simple one. The Desert Fathers and practically all spiritual authorities ever since are in remarkable agreement: Perseverance in prayer, work proper to our state in life, and remaining faithful to our commitments. It is a simple formula—though not always easy to apply—which today calls for a daily rhythm of receiving God’s grace, mercy, and love through Word, Sacrament, and the Living Tradition of the Church. Then we must, with good zeal, share that grace, mercy, and love by bearing Christ in every aspect of our lives.

As Casey says, “We need to bestir ourselves, to get moving, to allow God’s grace to propel us further and faster toward the prospects divine providence has prepared for us.” He notes further that apart from professional runners, those who run to maintain their health, and those who are persistently tardy, it is primarily children who run—and they do so out of pure enthusiasm. This, in spiritual terms, is the good zeal we strive for along the path of life. “There is in running an overflowing happiness that cannot be contained in a slower pace,” Casey says. “This is the image St. Benedict proposes when he recommends that his disciples run: childlike simplicity, as in the gospels; happiness; vitality” (The Road to Eternal Life, 49).

As St. Benedict himself says in his Rule for monks:

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep. Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts. … Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you. (Prologue: 8-10, 13)

Quickly, quickly, that time not be lost through lack of love!

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