I don’t know about you, but I get the greatest ideas at the most inconvenient times. For me, they usually come either right as I am trying to fall asleep or while I am trying to listen to a homily during mass.
For the past few years, I have been baffled by these consistently ill-timed, fleeting glimmers of inspiration. Whether it’s something that really needs to get done at work, an item I need to add to my grocery list, or a random idea for a new blog post, it is always so frustrating that none of these “brilliant ideas” come to me while I am sitting at my desk with pen and paper in hand, explicitly trying to remember what I need to do.
One solution initially seemed relatively easy and obvious to me – to simply keep a notepad on my nightstand when I go to bed and in my pocket when I go to mass. That way, I would be ready whenever the ideas decided to show up.
But then the strangest thing would keep happening. Even after I took the jump and finally bought a pocket-sized notepad, no matter how hard I tried, I could never bring myself to actually bring it to mass or keep it next to my bed. I now have at least 3 notepads in the drawers of the desk next to my bed, but I still lay awake at night with a mind teeming with random, perpetually uncompleted to-do’s.
For the longest time, I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had a seemingly benign, but annoying problem and an overwhelmingly simple solution staring me in the face, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put the two together.
Then I went the SEEK conference in Indianapolis this past January and after our scheduled Theology on Tap speaker had some travel complications, Fr. Mike Schmitz graciously jumped in at the last minute to gave an impromptu, hour-long speech (NBD). It was, in part, about desert monks and was the most unexpectedly relatable story I had ever heard Fr. Mike tell (which, for those of you that don’t know Fr. Mike, is saying something).
As you might expect, desert monks (in this case the desert fathers and mothers from the first few centuries AD) live in the desert and pray a lot, but what you might not expect is that even most learned monks struggle with very relatable temptations.
Lust, greed, pride… you name, they face it. One day, one of the head monks (unofficial title) was reflecting on the struggles of his group and in his reflections, he noted that even though each one of the monks wrestled with different sins, there wasn’t a single sin that was a challenge for all of the monks.
Except one – the deadly sin of Acedia.
Acedia was the single sin that was a consistent stumbling block for each and every one of the monks, from the youngest to the oldest.
You might be more familiar with modern English transition, “Sloth,” but since sloth’s official pronunciation apparently isn’t the same as the lovable Australian mammal, Fr. Mike prefers to just stick with Acedia. Fair enough.
So what exactly is sloth and why is it so prevalent?
I had always thought of sloth as laziness and that it was bad because God calls us to go out to do great things in the world. According to my thinking, sitting around and doing nothing must be bad, because we could and should be out doing better things: feeding the poor, helping the sick, spreading the gospel, etc. Well that’s true, but what I learned in Fr. Mike’s speech is that sloth is specifically not laziness.
The sin of sloth is actually the act of saying no to God’s presence in the present moment. In Fr. Mike’s words, “it’s wanting to doing anything other than what we are called to be doing in that moment.”
Ok…sounds basically like procrastination. So why is it on the list of the 7 deadly sins? How could it possibly be that bad? Well, it’s deadly because it cuts us off from the only way we have of receiving God’s grace, by loving Him and surrendering our will to His in the here and now.
Unlike God, who operates outside of and beyond time, we humans operate in a physical universe and must navigate the eternal passage of future to past. No matter how hard we try, we can’t go backward in time and we can’t jump ahead (notable exceptions: Marty McFly and Tony Stark).
We live, love, suffer and die in the eternal present, that ever-evaporating fraction of a second within which we can affect the world.
And it’s in each one of those infinitesimal seconds that God is reaching out to us, inviting us to love him. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but now. Each and every now, from this moment to our last.
Acedia then, is the act of allowing our minds to wander from the inviting embrace of Christ, to a selfish fixation on either inward thinking (i.e., saying we would rather focus on ourselves than on God) or the non-present (i.e., saying we would rather think about the past or future instead of being with God in the present). In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas it is, “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.”
In the morning, most of the desert monks had the support of their routine to maintain focus on God’s grace in their lives. Their work was productive and they lived with inspiration that they have the whole day ahead of them. In the evening, their meals and their prayers in preparation of sleep brought consolation and a time for conscious reflection. But during the middle of the day, from ~10am-2pm, they were alone in their huts, with the sun high and motionless in the sky, equally far from the optimistic dreams of the morning and the safe harbor of the evening. It was then that they faced the “noonday devil,” the challenge of maintaining focus on being with the Lord in prayer and not giving into the temptation of a wandering mind.
Hearing that story, I finally realized that my ongoing struggle with unfortunately timed inspiration was actually a targeted and persistent assault by the devil on my soul.
Overdramatic? Maybe a little, but not by much.
Much like the monks, I have a morning routine of prayer and reading that keeps me relatively focused, but once I start my day, it’s usually a never-ending onslaught of emails, calls, social media, news, and texts. For me, “multitasking” is basically just a euphemism for trying to juggle a bunch of balls without letting the mounting anxiety become totally crippling.
So by the time I go to mass, either on Sunday or at midday during the week, I am hungry for and in need of some grace to help lighten the load. I start to get in the zone during the opening song, the readings being to reorient my soul back to God’s will and by the time the homily starts, I’m ready to extend a “yes” to Christ…then BOOM.
“Wouldn’t it be great if I just spent a few hours tonight cleaning out those random 100 emails I have hanging around in my inbox from the last few months? Yea, that would be great. I remember that time I had a clean inbox. It felt awesome; almost as good as the end of senior year in college when I didn’t have any real responsibilities. Man, I miss those days. … wow, wait, what’s happening? Time for the creed already? What did the priest say?”
All it took was a little distraction, a little nudge in the direction of falling back into the pit of anxiety that comes with a never-ending to-do list, and I missed the message of meaning that the priest had offered the congregation.
The same thing happens at night. As I get geared up to pray right before I got to bed, I have the opportunity to benefit from a good Examen or to spend some time praying for friends and family, but instead, that small seed of temptation to focus instead on the unaccomplished part of my to-do list grows into full-blown feelings of despair about lifelong failures.
I’ve come to realize that it’s in these moments where I have the opportunity for the largest graces, that the devil focuses his attention on trying to shift my gaze away from Christ. A simple shift to look instead to the past, the future, or inwardly toward myself, and I miss out on the true joy and peace of communion with God.
Which brings us (finally) to the point of this increasingly long blog post: how we can conquer our tendency toward sloth by striving to pray without ceasing.
While it may sound daunting to literally pray ALL of the time, thankfully the Church has given us a very simple blueprint in scripture, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
Give thanks. That’s what it all comes down to.
At all times for all things, we can give thanks to God and surrender ourselves to the idea that in every moment we are where He wants us to be. It won’t always be easy and it won’t always work out the way we want it to, but He will absolutely be with us.
By rejoicing and giving thanks for each second we are offered here on earth, we create what Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade calls the “miracle of the present moment.” In so doing, we disarm the devil’s ability to distract us with thoughts of things we wish we could have done differently or of things we haven’t yet been able to do.
Whether it’s giving thanks for a freshly grilled steak and cold beer as a moment of beauty made miraculous by its offering up to Christ (as Fr. Mike loves to talk about) or experiencing the pain of losing a loved one as moment surrender to His grace, embracing God’s presence in every minute of our lives is the key to everlasting joy.
“Tomorrow is uncertain. Yesterday no longer belongs to you, only the present is yours”
– St. Maximilian Kolbe