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JP Grace: Acedia is a subtle sin that can trip us up

Jul. 30, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Several years ago I wrote a piece in this space about "iracondia," or "wrath," one of the seven capital (deadly) sins. Today I'm moved to share with you another, and one you may not have heard much about from the pulpit: "acedia."

"Ah-what!?!" you may be saying. Speak English.

Well, Latin first. A pronouncer: ah-CHAY-di-a, accent on the second syllable, long "a" sound.

One translation I've heard is "torpor." OK. That's not a word we use every day. A more common translation is "sloth." "All right, I get it," some readers may be breathing a sigh of relief. "Why didn't you just come out and say it, 'laziness.'"

Because that doesn't exactly do it. And even "sloth" won't work if all you mean by "sloth" is "laziness."

"Torpor" is really better, since this word means "spiritual lassitude," just not putting energy into building the spiritual life of the soul or the quest for union with the transcendent God.

In other words, your life may be busy as heck, you may be winging from one thing to the next, knocking off items on your "To-Do" lists, creating a great materially satisfying life for yourself and your family, even going to church, and yet be mired in acedia.

Mulling this over the last few days, I came up with another definition of acedia that I'd like to believe might win a stamp of approval from the early church Fathers: "Slacking off in efforts to stay in touch with God."

Dante's classic "The Divine Comedy" opens with Dante the pilgrim wandering aimlessly in a dark wood, where "the straight way has been lost." The absolute epitome of acedia.

He then glimpses light on the mountaintop and starts heading that way, but soon finds his path blocked by three ferocious beasts: a lion (often thought to represent pride), a leopard (imagined by commentators as lust) and a wolf (certainly representing avarice or greed).

In commentaries on this passage I've read, the focus swings immediately to the three beasts. What gets lost in the shuffle is the reality of acedia, or torpor, that got Dante into trouble in the first place.

This, I believe, is quite similar to how it is with us when we are trying to discern our own sins and faults. "I lust after women on the street." "I'm too stingy with my money." "I'm always protecting my wounded ego." Etc.

The source of these sins, however, may lie rooted in acedia. This condition may manifest as an indifference to prayer, or lukewarm haphazard praying, a perpetual distractedness in worship services or a tendency to skip Sunday worship for petty reasons.

For those for whom God is not a present reality, or a vital concern, I would say this, blunt or cruel though it may sound: Acedia has simply taken over your life.

Pure and simple, if God is our Creator and Redeemer, the purpose of life is to connect with God and open our hearts to the guidance of His grace. Failing to do that -- no matter how "successful" we may appear to be in our own and others' eyes -- we are missing the very reason for our existence.

We are stuck in a dark wood, just like Dante the pilgrim. That way lies waywardness and self indulgence.

Eventually we will start hurting others via other sinful inclinations (pride, lust, greed, etc.).

Unless we repent and throw ourselves upon God's mercy before we draw our last breath, scripture says we will face a terrible reckoning.

John Patrick Grace holds a doctorate In Italian/medieval studies. He wrote his dissertation on Dante's assault on another deadly sin -- avarice or greed. Currently, Grace is a book editor and publisher based in Huntington and teaches the Life Writing Class.

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