ACEDIA,
ZEAL,
and
PATIENT
ENDURANCE
 

 The Betrayal in the Garden
 
The Belles Heures of John, Duke of Berry.


§ 1. General Reflections on Acedia, Zeal, and Perseverance


ORIGINALLY one of Evagrius’ and Cassian’s eight principal logismoi, acedia came to be included among the  medieval seven deadly sins.  Although generally translated as “sloth”, the terms “apathy” or “spiritual weariness” are closer to the original meaning. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) cited John Damascene’s definition of acedia as “weariness in the face of work” (Sum.Theol. 2a2ae 35,1 resp.). Aquinas  adapted this to the spiritual life by redefining acedia as tristitia spiritalis boni, sadness or listlessness in response to the need to strive for some spiritual good (35, 2, 1) In this sense it represents the sapping or depletion of that spiritual “good zeal” recommended by St. Benedict (Rule ch. 72).

EVAGRIUS explains that this vice may appear in either a depressed or an agitated form.  While often experienced as slothful inactivity and apathy, acedia may also manifest as eagerness or compulsion to do anything, everything, except the spiritual good that is most needful.  It may even masquerade under the guise of hospitality or prudence.  These different manifestations all have in common a single goal: namely, to create within the victim an affective or intellectual state that causes him to ignore or abandon his spiritual project.

THE cure for acedia  therefore lies in cultivating the virtue of perseverance and in rekindling spiritual zeal.

 

EVAGRIUS and his disciple John CASSIAN recommend a variety of spiritual remedies intended to assist the Christian in persevering in his spiritual goals.  Chief among these are:

the practice of psalmody;

the deliberate choice not to leave the place where spiritual discipline is practiced;

meditation on the fact of one’s mortality and frailty;

and respect for one’s body, practically manifested through reasonable attention one’s physical well-being. (Evag. Prak. 27-29; Cassian Inst. 10, Conf 5).

 

AQUINAS particularly recommends:

taking a nap and or indulging in a warm bath (Summa Theol.1a2ae 38.5)

    noting that pain and sorrow can also be assuaged by:

pleasure (ibid, 38.1);

tears (38.2);

the sympathy of friends (38.3);

and the contemplation of truth (38.4).

 

 

PERHAPS the simplest spiritual remedy for acedia, and the one chosen as the introduction to the whole Greek collection of the Sayings of the desert Fathers  is found in the first saying of Abba Antony.  While struggling with the demon of acedia Antony cried out to God, “How can I be saved?”  In answer he was given a vision of himself sitting down at his work, intermittently standing for prayer with outstretched arms, then sitting back down to work for an interval.  “Do this”, he was told, “and you will be saved.”  Simple, short prayers offered at regular intervals during work throughout the day serve to consecrate, little by little, the whole of ordinary life.  No room is left for acedia, since all ordinary activity is thus gradually incorporated into the project of spiritual progress. 

 


SOURCES: 1Kittel, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Eerdmans, 2000, c1964).   2 ) H.G.Liddell, R. Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. rev. H.S.Jones & R.McKenzie, (Oxford, 1940). 3 ) L. Dysinger, O.S.B.. “Perseverance”, The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality ed. Philip Sheldrake, (SCM Press, 2005) 


§ 2.   ZEAL - ζῆλος / zēlos
and 
EAGERNESS - σπουδή  / spoudē


 

  ZEAL - ζῆλος / zēlos

IN classical Greek zēlos /ζῆλος signifies a passionate state of commitment to a person or cause.  It can be used in either a positive or a negative sense.  It can mean the “zeal of imitation”, or  “passionate rivalry”; and it can also refer to the reprehensible practice of spreading evil rumors, or it can signify “contention.”

IN the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) zēlos /ζῆλος can refer to human zeal for religious questions; but in at least half the instances where it is used it denotes a specific intensity in the divine action. [... It] may mean either good or ill, either salvation or perdition, for the men or nations concerned. When the reference is to Yahweh, it is almost always a question of His relations to His people Israel.

IN the New Testament zēlos /ζῆλος occurs only once in the Gospels: John 2:17, where the disciples attribute this to Jesus in regard to the cleansing of the Temple.  Paul uses it in the Old Testament sense of God's zeal for His people: but Paul who watches the Church with jealous concern becomes, as an apostle, a bearer of the divine zēlos /ζῆλος (2 Cor. 11:2).

 

EAGERNESS - σπουδή  / spoudē

IN classical Greek spoudē  /  σπουδή  means “haste”, “zeal”, or  “urgency”

IN the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) the verb form is often used in the sense “to hasten”.  In the later intertestamental writings spoudē  /σπουδή  means “force,” “zeal,” or “desire” (2 Macc. 14:45; 3 Macc. 5:24, 27; 1 Εsdr. 6:9; Wis. 14:17; Sir. Prol. 30; 27:3).

IN the New Testament the verb form of spoudē  /  σπουδή  can mean “to make haste;” but in St. Paul it can also describe “zealous effort” as an expression of the life of the community. In Gal. 2:10 Paul explains that he “sought strenuously” to honor the commitment made at the Apostolic Council.  In the later writings spoudē  /  σπουδή is used to characterize the total conduct of the Christian in the sense of a zeal, an eagerness, that is an actualizing of his saved position, a fulfilling of what grace has opened up for him (Eph. 4:1-3; 2Tim. 2:15; 2Pet. 1:10).

 


§ 3. PERSEVERANCE - ὑπομονή / hypomonē

IN classical Greek hypomonē/ὑπομονή signifies “remaining behind”, “courageous endurance” or in a negative sense, “obstinacy”.

IN the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) hypomoné is patient waiting, hopeful reliance on the God who alone can act to save his people. It thus contrasts sharply with the Greek understanding of hypomonē/ὑπομονή as a courageous virtue summoned from within the self, manifested in courageous resistance. In the Stoic philosophical tradition perseverance comes wholly from within; the emphasis is on the inner strength of the virtuous soul. In the Old Testament perseverance is directed wholly outside the self towards the strength of God. In the New Testament perseverance occasionally describes patient waiting on God (2 Thes 3:5; Rev. 1:9); but it is more commonly used in the sense of standing fast, patiently “holding out” in the face of opposition or persecution.  This power of resistance does not come from within; rather it is a gift from God (Col 1:11; Rom. 15:5).

IN Christian spiritual writings the term “perseverance” comes to include elements from both the classical and biblical traditions.  It particularly highlights the continuous, unrelenting nature of the struggle against sin in the face of opposition: “He who perseveres (hypomeinas) to the end shall be saved” (Mat. 10:22).  In the gospel Christ particularly encourages perseverance in spite of persecution (Mat 5:10-12), in prayer (Lk 18:1-8), and in the service of God (Lk 12:37-38).  Christ’s passion and death afford a model of what would later be called “final perseverance”, that  persistence in faith and grace until the moment of death that  Thomas Aquinas defines as “abiding in good until the end of life” (Sum. Theol. 1a2ae 109, 10). The last acts of Christ on the cross, forgiveness and prayer for enemies, provide an example of perseverance that was taken up by the early Christian martyrs; whose judicial death attested to their own profession of faith and who often, in imitation of Christ, prayed for their persecutors as they died.

PERSEVERANCE would thus appear to have much in common with the concept of “spiritual warfare”, which also emphasizes that the battle against temptation is ongoing throughout life.  However, unlike the aggressive military metaphor of combat, perseverance exemplifies the teaching and example of Christ himself, who (with the exception of the ambiguous incident of the cleansing of the Temple) never employed violence against his human enemies, and forbade his disciples to fight on his behalf.  Indeed, one of the most beautiful visual depictions of perseverance is found in late medieval illuminations of the arrest in the garden, where Christ stands serene amidst swirling violence; arrested, betrayed, he nevertheless extends his hand to heal the servant attacked by Peter.  This visual depiction of enduring compassion also expresses the insight that perseverance is not merely a passive virtue, the simple “maintenance” of faith or charity despite exhaustion or opposition.  Rather, Christian perseverance means persevering in “doing good”, in proclaiming and acting in accordance with the Gospel, even in the face of threat or fatigue.   And in this sense it can also be distinguished from “spiritual warfare”: the goal is not only to overcome temptation and confute the tempter; perseverance implies continuing to pray and to act in accordance with the Gospel in the very presence of the enemy.


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