Advent should be a time of profound spiritual renewal as we anticipate the coming of Christ the King. We set aside four weeks each year to prepare our hearts so that we can expunge bad habits and tendencies, in order to bring ourselves closer to the Savior’s heart and invite him into our own. But, even in the midst of this beautiful season calling us to ponder in silence the mysteries of God, we may be tempted to fall into or find ourselves in the sin of acedia, or spiritual sloth. This subtle but serious temptation can come upon us even without our knowledge or recognition of it, and Advent is the perfect time to uproot it before it becomes too entrenched in our souls.
In his spiritual work entitled The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus lists the steps or obstacles that monks (and indeed, everyone) must overcome in the spiritual life in order to reach God. Step 13 is despondency, which is also known as acedia. St. John Climacus defines acedia as “a slackness of soul, a weakening of the mind, neglect of asceticism” (13.2). Furthermore, “despondency visits ascetics about noonday” (13.5). Our human experience proves to us that the early afternoon can be the hardest time to focus, especially with regard to the spiritual, intellectual, or transcendent. Thus, acedia comes to us when we are feeling lazy, making us more willing to ignore our prayers or spiritual life. A sign of spiritual sloth is that “she reminds those standing at prayer of necessary duties” (13.7). We are more inclined to finish our practical tasks rather than devote time to prayer or intellectual pursuits. How does despondency of the spirit take hold? “It accuses God of being merciless and without love for men” (13.2). Because we have fallen away from God, we are more likely to take a negative approach to him: our soul distrusts him, such that we are more irritable and tend to trust ourselves more. How easy it is for us to fall into acedia: when we become slack in our prayers and no longer recite them regularly, when we do not turn to God, when we put the mundane tasks above the spiritual—all these are signs of despondency of spirit.
We find an example of acedia in the Old Testament, with the great King David. Although David was chosen specifically by God to be king over Israel, his great sins of adultery and murder began with the sin of acedia. The following gives us a hint into the beginning of David’s sin: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel…But David remained at Jerusalem” (2 Samuel 11:1, RSV). David, instead of going forth into battle as was his duty, stayed home in Jerusalem. Already, he is avoiding what he is supposed to do as king; he is becoming slothful with regard to his duties. What is David doing when he is at home and avoiding his duties? “It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing” (2 Samuel 11:2). We see here that acedia is visiting David at her accustomed hour: the afternoon, when we are most tired and perhaps not as attentive to our spiritual state. It is in the midst of this spiritual sloth that David sees a beautiful woman bathing: this woman is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s soldiers (2 Samuel 11:3). David’s acedia leads into curiosity, which leads into adultery—and then a child (2 Samuel 11:4-5).
David knows that he has done wrong, and he attempts to cover it up by calling Uriah out of battle (2 Samuel 11:6). David hopes that Uriah will sleep with his wife, so that it will seem as if the child belongs to Uriah, not David. Nevertheless, Uriah is not under the plague of spiritual sloth; he is actively fighting in the battle and fulfilling his duties. He tells David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife?” (2 Samuel 11:11). In other words, Uriah is faithful to his duties, and he will not allow himself to fall into personal pleasures while the ark of the Lord and his fellow men are fighting in the field. He acts as a foil to David: David is not fulfilling his duties, and he did succumb to his desires, which were ultimately sinful; Uriah, on the other hand, is faithful to his duties and will not fall into the same difficulty as David. Because Uriah acts uprightly, David then falls into his third sin, for he has Uriah killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:17). Through his sin of acedia, he fell into deeper sin: first adultery, and then murder. Since David did not fulfill his duties properly, he allowed the devil to enter deeply into his soul, allowing a “general death” to take over, according to St. John Climacus (13.9). Thus, “a courageous soul resurrects his dying mind, but despondency and sloth squander all his riches” (13.10). How true this is for David: while he could have admitted to and repented of his sin of adultery, he chose to cover it up with the sin of murder. David chose to squander the riches of his kingship given to him by God through ignoring his duties and falling into deep sin.
Nevertheless, after Nathan the prophet rebukes David for his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-23), David repents for the wrong that he has done. David wrote Psalm 51, the great Miserere, in repentance for his sin; indeed, St. John Climacus writes that psalmody is a great opponent to acedia (13.16). In Psalm 51, we see David’s profound recognition of his sin: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). David realizes that he alone has chosen to sin and that God is justified in condemning him for the sin. He asks of God, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). David asks that God transform his heart, for he realizes that he has allowed sin to enter into his spirit. He allowed himself to fall into a spiritual sloth, which only led to deeper sin. Thus, in asking for a new spirit, he is asking that he be given a courageous heart that will follow God, rather than his own desires. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit” (Psalm 51:17)—David realizes that he has turned away from God, and he recognizes how far he has fallen from him. David’s spirit is broken and contrite, and he offers this spirit to God in atonement for his sins. Acedia has lived quietly within his soul (13.16), but now he knows that he must uproot it.
How often do we find ourselves falling into spiritual sloth? Are we slacking in our adoration of God, which we owe to him? If we work within the Church, do we find ourselves slacking in the divine work that has been given to us? Before acedia takes root in our souls, living within us quietly, let us do everything to return to devoted worship of God. St. John Climacus suggests community life and psalmody as remedies for acedia (13.4 and 16): let us derive support from friends and family who are fighting in the spiritual battle alongside us, and let us sing hymns of praise to God, reflecting on the Psalms in everything we do. Especially in this Advent season, we have the opportunity to break the bonds of sloth and return to God. As we await the coming of the King, let us not be distracted by the many practical duties that we think are so important, such as parties, gifts, and baking. We ought to dwell silently with God frequently, both in personal prayer and in the liturgical prayers of the Church. If we do not fall into acedia, we will be less likely to fall into deeper sin, as David did. Along with David, let us offer up prayers of repentance for any sins that we have committed, go to receive the sacrament of Confession, and then wait silently and patiently for the coming of Christ. Let us awaken our hearts to receive him in love and expectancy, rather than falling into spiritual slumber.