Archive for the ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ Category

I would love to know whether anyone who reads this has heard of this word before…especially if you have not read the book by Kathleen Norris which includes acedia in the title.  Having read all her previous prose works, I happened upon Acedia & Me:  A marriage, monks and a writer’s life on the new book shelf of our branch library and took it home on the strength of the author’s name.  I didn’t really ask myself what the title was (or how to pronounce it) until a week or two later when I picked it up to begin reading. acedia-and-me

Norris’ books are all at least partially memoir, and this one is no different, focusing on her marriage to poet David Dwyer, who died in 2003. The author has been for many years an oblate of the Benedictine order, although she claims Presbyterian as her official denomination. The seeming contradiction in that will require the curious to read The Cloister Walk, an earlier book, because it would be too cumbersome to explain here.

Her reading of the early Church fathers led, many years ago now, to a desert monk named Evagrius (4th C.), whose writings introduced her to the concept of acedia…a slippery word which she spends the entire book defining.   Here’s a first stab at it from page 3:

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person afflicted refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine:  you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

Norris is very careful to distinguish the spiritual problem of acedia from the physiological and/or psychological one of depression.  A paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas from page 24 says:

For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.

In case you’re still with me, and still curious, acedia is pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh, and it is variously defined by sloth, apathy and indifference, especially to spiritual things.  Before there were seven deadly sins, the early writers identified “eight bad thoughts”–the motivating cause behind the sinful effect, I suppose.  What does this have to do with us, you ask?  Well…

The torpor of acedia can be felt every time you sit down to read your Bible but remember something else that you “need” to do first…

Every time you question whether there’s any point in praying for so-and-so any longer…

Every time you wonder if God is really interested in having a relationship with you and instead of asking Him you turn on the TV or pick up a magazine (because perhaps the answer would be painful or require action).

And if you can’t relate to any of those scenarios, brother or sister in Christ, then you have much indeed for which to be thankful.

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Some of us just want to read the directions ourselves. It’s the way we’re wired.

We speak with clenched teeth to the well-meaning:
“Don’t read me the the package insert, and please don’t show me how to do it …just (grunt, sound of ripping) give me the paper and let me read it myself.”  Sigh of relief; panic subsides. I can do this. Leave me alone.

disciplines-coverBut once in a while, almost in spite of myself, a prayer/groan rises and the Spirit hears it.  So after months of floundering around trying to revamp my devotional time, I stumbled on a book that saved me: Disciplines for the Inner Life, a week by week compilation of thematic Scripture and excerpts from a vast range of Christian writers. Bob Benson, Sr. and his son, Michael W. Benson prepared this book for Thomas Nelson.  My edition, discovered in Hyde Brothers where I wasn’t looking for it, was published in 1989.  I’d never heard of it, and have no idea whether it’s still in print.

Another groan, occasional and desultory, goes something like this:  “Once upon a time, You gave me a verse for the year, a theme to focus on.  Of course I generally forgot about it before December, and I can’t say I’ve made a lot of progress in those areas…Maybe that’s why You stopped?  Or is it because I stopped asking?”

On the last morning of the old year, I picked up Disciplines and read the passage for the day.  It resonated.  I walked away.  And then, by God’s grace,  as I sat on New Year’s Day pondering the year ahead, that Word came back to me as if engraved in gold on marble.  It’s been some years since I was blinded by the obvious that way, assaulted by a passage which proclaims to me that this is my directive for this time.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about that passage at some point, as I live with it from day to day.  It won’t mean to you what it does to me, but that’s all right.  My thankful heart today sits satisfied because God still answers the prayers we hesitate, forget or are ashamed to pray.  Asking for direction is difficult for some of us.  But not paying attention when directions are given is hazardous in a life which is already hard enough.

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My body got a shock last week, and I acquired a new humility along with a few more aches and pains.  But the ultimate result will be strength, endurance and steady progress.  Thanks to new technology, I can’t fool myself any more into thinking that I’m working as hard as I can.

CurvesSmart is a new computerized tracking system at the facility where I work out.  It gives continous instant feedback while you’re on the machines, telling you whether your range of motion is correct, and how much energy you’re putting out.  Since I’d already been working out here three times a week for nine months, I really didn’t think I’d feel much difference when I signed up for the new program.  I was seriously mistaken.  My heart rate jumped, my anti-perspirant disappointed me, and I went home feeling chastened instead of smug.  Wow.  Now that was a workout.

After a week and a half, each day looking at the online piecharts and bar graphs which show me my last ten workouts, I’m seeing progress.  My muscles are working harder, more consistently.  I’m burning more calories.  I expect to see a difference in the inches and pounds I lose, too. (I do have measurable goals.) But building my strength and stamina is my primary goal.  If i didn’t have this electronic coach–or is it more like a conscience?–with me every time I work out, I’d still be lying to myself, convinced that I was excercising at my full capacity.

It didn’t take more than a few days before it occurred to me:  I wish there were something comparable for my spiritual life.  But maybe there is, and I just haven’t wanted to admit it.  I likened the success tracker at Curves to an electronic conscience…but I have a built-in conscience in the Holy Spirit, and all I have to do is listen to it.

How often lately have I heard or read an exhortation to immerse myself in the Word?  Not a new thought–a really old one.  But how often lately have I put it into practice?  I’ve been avoiding a reading chart, because I know that it’s too easy for me to fall into a complacent “check list” mentality when I’m just reading through the Book on a schedule.  And choosing a passage to read at random doesn’t appeal to me, so…I’ve been rationalizing my reasons for reading spiritual books rather than THE Book.

I don’t think the Holy Spirit is going to give me a pie chart print-out of my spiritual progress (“you’ve increased your meditation intensity by 14% this week, but prayer is down 3% from yesterday…”).  To quantify would be to miss the point, anyway.  Spiritual disciplines are only a means to the end of Christlikeness, and I’m not going to get those test results until I see Him face-to-face.  Meanwhile, I keep my eyes on Him as my goal, and let Him do the measuring.  If I pay attention to my “personal coach” I won’t keep fooling myself.  Humility is a very good thing.

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I’ve spent the past week reacquainting myself with some spiritual disciplines, namely journaling and Scripture memorization. I was convicted by a quote from Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines last Sunday, and decided to make more of an effort to read, write, pray and meditate on a verse of Scripture each day, one of the goals being to memorize that verse. These have been habits in my life, on and off, for many years. Why it is that these good habits go AWOL from time to time mystifies me.

Now in order to meditate on a verse, one reads it slowly, several times, with pauses in between, according to the ancient practice of lectio divina (sacred reading). In order to memorize, one does much the same thing, though sometimes there is less emphasis on really getting at the meat of the meaning, and more on just learning the words…truth familiar to anyone who has ever crammed for a test and then promptly forgotten every fact in the instant of handing the completed exam back to the teacher.

Obviously the repeated reading for meaning has value, especially when reading a “living” book, one whose depth of insight will always surpass our power to delve. This morning I went over the previous week’s verses, learned but still fresh and vital, and chose a longer passage to work on through the coming week, putting one or two verses at a time on index cards. As well as I think I know Hebrews 12: 1 – 11, there are great riches there, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it.

Isn’t it interesting how much context and personal choice impact how we tolerate an activity? If I’m choosing the verses, I can read them over and over. But begin a chorus and sing the words more times than I think is necessary, and I grow impatient. Is there truth to be found? Yes. Can I look for it, meditate on these words, even if my aesthetic sense says we’ve repeated the phrase once too often? Yes.

And so this morning, we sang a worship song, one which I actually like quite well. But we got to the simple statement of Job, “You give and take away, You give and take away…my heart will choose to say, ‘Lord, blessed be Your Name.'” And we sang it again, and again, and again…

I didn’t consciously think, “meditate on this, find the depth.” I know that. I did consciously think, “This is at least one too many times to be singing this phrase.” Yes, I thought that. But the Spirit was talking at the same time, saying, “What has the Lord given you? What has He taken away?” And I began to list things…the “take away” phrase tends to make me weepy with self-pitying (a “look-how-spiritual-I-am-to-praise-You -anyway” pity…)

I began to list things, and I realized something: what God takes away isn’t necessarily a deprivation. Sometimes the taking away is a gift. He may take away despair or doubt, He may remove loneliness, He may eliminate worry or fear. I realized this. The Fourth. Time. We. Sang. That. Phrase. (Which means we actually sang, “You give and take away” eight times.)

What is the value of repetition? It gives the heart time to catch up with the head. The ears and eyes have shorter paths to and from the brain. We see and hear, and we think we got it the first time, or the second. But to the seat of emotion and intuition and synthesis of life experiences…that journey takes more time, more telling, more pondering. More repeats. Ponder that today.

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Warning: you are joining a conversation already in progress. To read where it started, go here and read the post for today, 2/25/08.

Is my spiritual life more about being or doing? Is it resting in the Lord or forging ahead? Is it “letting go and letting God” or “working with all my might, serving the Lord”? I wrote about struggling, and quoted Richard Foster who says, “…with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are…God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. ”  I said that I needed to remember that the work is HIS, not MINE.  

Where, my cyber-brother Rob asked, does that leave our efforts? Is there no work for us to do? I wasn’t trying to say “no”. Not on purpose.  I think my struggle is a perennial one: in my desire to grow more Christ-like, I forget time after time that the best way to do so is to fix my eyes on Jesus, the Author and perfecter of my faith. (Hebrews 12:2).  Instead of gazing intently into the Word which gives Life, I find myself mirror-gazing, navel-gazing, spinning round and round in the hamster wheel of my mind.  Self-evaluation likely has a place in life, but not first place, prime place.  Since autobiography tends to be fascinating subject matter for its author, it absorbs more and more time…then when I begin to feel disenchanted (again) with my spiritual progress, discouraged with recurring sin and struggle, I forget that the blame is sitting on my doorstep.  I scramble around looking for smoldering fires to put out.

The spiritual disciplines’ first order of business are to keep our focus OFF ourselves and ON God.  By being Christ-centered rather than self-absorbed, I give Him room to work.  I cannot form Christ in myself. But I can consciously, moment by moment, meditate on His Word and converse with Him, practice self-denial and the rest of the disciplines.  That’s my work. Part of my prayer life should be asking for guidance on what other work should be done, at any moment:  “Here is my schedule for the day, Lord. But You can interrupt it if You have a better idea.”

As Rob rightly said, it’s a balancing act, a tightrope walk on a bridge of faith and trust.  It’s so easy to fall off one side or the other, onto passivity or self-reliance.  Having partners and friends on the bridge is one way we can learn to keep our balance.  Thanks, Rob.

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