The Featherbedding Files, Entry 17

Notes on Ann Cvetkovich Depression: A Public Feeling

Describing the desert monk who “begins to forget the object of his profession, which is nothing but meditation and contemplation of the divine purity which excels in all things, and which can only be gained by silence and continually remaining in the cell, and by meditation,” the fourth-century
Christian John Cassian considers how the rigors and isolation of the ascetic life can lead to spiritual crisis.’

In De Institutis Coenobiorum, a set of guidelines for collective monastic life, Cassian outlines the “faults” or “bad thoughts” (which will eventually serve as the foundation for conceptions of the seven deadly sins) that can impede the ascetic.

One of these is acedia, or “carelessness,” an antecedent to later conceptions of sloth, which is also described as “weariness or distress of heart”…

Although it is a form of spiritual crisis, acedia has significant physical manifestations, which Cassian describes in vivid detail: “When this has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place [horrorem loci], disgust with the cell [fastidium cellae], and disdain [aspernationem] and contempt [contemptum] of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless [negligentium] or unspiritual
[minus spiritalium].

It also makes the man lazy and sluggish [desidem et inertem] about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory”…

Acedia gives rise to varied and even contradictory responses that complicate its popular representation as sluggish inertia. As might be expected, it produces the carelessness and desire to do nothing or to “sink into slumber” that is the literal version of the more spiritual “soul that sleeps” [dormitat anima]…

But acedia is characterized not just by lack of affect but by intense feelings–disgust (horrerum), dislike (fastidium), and disdain (aspernationem)–that lead to a powerful urge toward movement or flight, which can be so strong that the solitary “fancies he will never be well while he stays in that place unless he leaves his cell (in which he is sure to die if he stops in it any longer) and takes himself off from thence as quickly as possible” …

Manifesting the restlessness and desperation that suggest why acedia has been called the “noonday demon,” the monk suffering from this affliction “often goes out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone”…

The longing to escape is not just spatial but temporal; the monk’s desire for the sun to move more quickly in the sky, for the day to be over and for the relief of sleep to arrive, reveals an impatience with things as they are and a desire to be not only in a different place but a different time. Activity and inactivity–restlessness and sleep–are not opposed but are both forms of escape for body and mind, and the monk can be distracted from the solitary contemplation of God as much by doing good deeds for others as by “staying uselessly [infructuose] and with no profit [sine ullo profectu] in his cell”

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