Do not neglect the gift you have. Be diligent in these matters, be absorbed in them. I Timothy 4:14-15
One of my biggest fears as a priest is not natural death, but spiritual and emotional death, being here and being not here at the same time — “dead on my feet,” if you will. My biggest fear is gradually turning into a priest whose heart is no longer in it. Chaucer’s Parson described such a priest as a “man annoyed at his own life.” My mother called it “just going through the motions.”
The word used by fourth century monks for this state was acedia. Acedia is something much stronger than just feeling a little bored or discontented, although it can begin this way. It is less extreme, and more in our control, than a major clinical depression. It’s spiritual overtones make it related to, but arguably distinct from, depression.
Acedia is not a disease, it’s a temptation — to disconnect, to stop caring, to stop making an effort. It is a temptation that can grow and harden into a persistent attitude of apathy and cynicism which is deadly to any kind of personal or spiritual growth.
I find it fascinating that acedia, in its root, means negligence — a negligence that leads to a state of listlessness, a lack of attention to daily tasks and an overall dissatisfaction with life, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. In other words, unlike clinical depression, it can be resisted. The sooner it is confronted, the more success one has in that confrontation.
We all know priests and married couples who woke up one day and found themselves in precisely this spot — with feelings of being stuck with few options and little hope. Maybe we are even one of them! If we were to be honest with ourselves we would have to admit that we didn’t get there overnight. It happened because of extended neglect. We didn’t take the time to nourish ourselves from the inside out.
Some of my favorite challenges in this area come from Pope John Paul II in his pastoral exhortation to priests, I Will Give You Shepherds.
Much of what he says to priests can be applied to marriage partners, parents and professionals.
He tells priests who have just been ordained and feel they have “had enough” formation, that they must totally reject that idea as false and dangerous. Those who are newly married and feel they can quit working on their marriage right after the wedding, can benefit from his words as well. Whether we are priests, marriage partners, parents or professionals, we are all called to resist the temptation toward acedia, the neglect of our personal and spiritual growth.
Mother Theresa put it this way: “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” Bob Dylan put it this way: “If we are not busy being born, we are busy dying.”
Father J. Ronald Knott