Acedia and the Church
I was at the pool with the kids recently and couldn't help but overhear a very loud and opinionated conversation happening near me. Apparently two families were just meeting as their kids splashed together in the water and they were doing the whole share about their lives thing. One woman shared about how they make money from poker tournaments, and, therefore, they can spend most of their time out on their boat. It was just a few minutes later that she started going off on all the idiots in America who don't understand the value of money, and so want to force people to give it away to undeserving poor people. She ranted for quite some time about how those liberals are ruining our country and teaching our children that you don't have to work to get money. At one point she even threw in that she goes to church and knows that only the people who deserve healing should be given help.
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I listened incredulous to this conversation (which was loud enough that everyone at the pool couldn't help but hear) and finally just left because the hate speech was escalating to the point that I would rather not expose my kids to such things. Listening to her rants, though, made me think of a talk I had just heard about the dangers of acedia. The term is most often associated these days with the sin of sloth (one of the seven deadly sins), but it goes much deeper than mere laziness, to describe the state of not caring or being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It's a spiritual apathy that turns one inward instead of outward in a life oriented around loving others. In the talk, acedia was compared to compassion fatigue -- not having the spiritual resources to care anymore. The advice that was given to combat acedia was to focus on my own relationship with God -- which was defined as incorporating rituals of prayer and reflection into my days and disconnecting from the electronic world.
That's advice I'm hearing a lot in the American church these days. Feeling overwhelmed and far from God? Then do more for yourself -- reconnect (or disconnect as needed), get healthy, and then you will have something to give back.
Another talk I heard recently advised people to never do anything because they think they should. It's okay not to care about poverty or kids dying in Africa if those aren't the passions God has given you. God gave us gifts and passions so we should spend our time on only the things that fill us with joy. In other words -- my relationship with God is all about me. I as an individual must be happy, healthy, and whole -- that is why I was created, and that is how I am to live. I must not feel guilty about not serving God or others if such things don't make me happy, I should only do the things that feel comfortable to me.
I hear this kind of stuff over and over with reminders that the Christian life cannot be just about action and service but must contain contemplation to be balanced. I agree with that, but every time I hear that line, I have to ask if there really is such a dire and pressing issue of injustice that the church in America is acting on that we are neglecting contemplation? In truth, I see exactly the opposite at work. We are instead so concerned with our own individual spirituality that we rarely, if ever, engage in serving others. We like hearing talks that tell us to think more about ourselves and not feel guilty about not serving others. At my church recently there even was an audible collective sigh of relief when the pastor explained that while "blessed are the poor" can refer to the physically poor, it also refers to the poor in spirit which includes our own spiritual needs and struggles. It's far easier to care for ourselves than others.
Maybe most of the church isn't so caught up in themselves that, like the woman I heard at the pool, they argue for not helping others at all (although that is a becoming a common response these days), but it seems like the greatest commandments these days are "love myself, then love God," instead of "love God, love others." But in reality, our acedia, our spiritual fatigue, isn't to blame on us not pampering ourselves with enough quiet times or devotional moments, but on our rampant self-absorption. Constantly hearing that we need to focus more time on ourselves simply adds to the problem.
It's not that I don't see tremendous value in contemplation or think that we all need to practice self-care, but that perhaps we need to alter the most basic ways we view ourselves in the world. We are not rugged individuals dependant on getting our own relationship with God right; we are members of the body of Christ, existing in relationship with God and others at all times. Our gifts are meant to be shared eucharistically in community. It is a way of living that the philosophy of Ubuntu that Desmond Tutu writes about refers to. It is living, not for oneself, but as a member of a community where one is "open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed."
The last thing the American church needs are more messages telling us to focus on ourselves. Guilt trips and shoulds don't help much either, for our "it's all about me" mentality knows how to resist anything that makes demands on our self. It will take a drastic change in mindset to move us past our "I think, therefore I don't give a crap about anyone but myself" operating system. I think for the church to not only get over this plague of acedia, but to survive it, we must start thinking communally. As Ubuntu thought states, "I am because we are." We belong to God which means we belong to each other. Embracing that relational identity may perhaps be our only hope.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.