From the earliest beginnings of Christianity, there was no greater religious calling than to become a member of one of the contemplative orders Though many monks and nuns joined conventional abbeys and nunneries where they lived as part of a religious community, the Catholic Church also recognized clerics who chose to live a consecrated life in total solitude. Known as the eremitic life, these "holy hermits" often lived their entire lives completely separated from other human beings and devoting themselves to prayer everyday. Whether they lived in secluded cells or atop pillars in the desert, these eremites were obliged to get the approval of their local bishop before swearing sacred vows of chastity and solitude. Even widows and widowers were allowed to take vows and spend the rest of their lives in contemplation if that was what they chose.
And that was supposedly it. Once the holy vows were sworn, hermits were considered dead to society without ever being allowed to return to their old life. Except that wasn't always the case. According to John Cassian, a fifth-century theologian who was also known as "John the Roman", some monks and nuns (particularly hermits) displayed a strange malady that often made them unable to function in any way. This malady, which he termed "acedia" (from the Greek word for "negligence") was usually characterized by apathy or indifference about their physical appearance or religious duties.
In extreme cases, monks suffering from acedia developed a sense of total repugnance about doing anything relating to their calling. Also known as the "noonday devil", Cassian noted that it was most likely to strike at noon when the day was hottest and when monks were especially uncomfortable. As he wrote:
And when this "acedia" has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces horror of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit as long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place.
In writing about acedia, Cassian suggested that it represented a complex syndrome of emotions including horror and disgust of the circumstances under which the monk lived as well as contempt for fellow monks and clerics. Though we would likely classify it as a form of depression today, acedia is usually defined by Church sources as "a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray". Though he sometimes wrote about acedia as being a disease, Cassian was emphatic in pointing out that it was a disease of the soul rather than the body.
He also stressed that acedia led to monks wanting to abandon their sacred responsibilities and rejoin the world. Monks and nuns dealing with acedia would often invent any excuse to leave their cells and bemoan their regular activities as being useless. Whatever we may think of this reasoning today, it was hardly regarded favourably by the desert fathers themselves, especially since it undermined the very basis of their way of life.
Not only were monks suffering from acedia a danger to themselves, but they often disrupted the contemplation of other monks as well. Cassian wrote that:
"And whenever it begins in any degree to overcome any one, it either makes him stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work, and it makes him continually go round the cells of the brethren and the monasteries, with an eye to nothing but this; viz., where or with what excuse he can presently procure some refreshment. For the mind of an idler cannot think of anything but food and the belly, until the society of some man or woman, equally cold and indifferent, is secured, and it loses itself in their affairs and business, and is thus little by little ensnared by dangerous occupations, so that, just as if it were bound up in the coils of a serpent, it can never disentangle itself again and return to the perfection of its former profession."
Cassian was actually not the first cleric to write about the condition he called acedia. One of the earlier desert fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, described eight different temptations that could affect monks. Based on the writings of Ponticus and Cassian , these temptations were later referred to as vainglory, anger, dejection, acedia, pride, covetousness, gluttony, and fornication and eventually codified by Pope Gregory I as the Seven Deadly Sins.
For monks coping with acedia, the consequences could be dire. Catholic theologians regarded acedia as a mortal sin since it was viewed as a form of "spiritual lethargy" and a sign of diminished faith in God. Though there were other deadly sins, acedia was deemed to be especially serious and overcoming it through prayer, fasting, and self-abuse was seen as a religious victory in many monks.
While Cassian is regarded as the foremost authority on acedia, other Christian theologians weighed in on it as well. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas described acedia as a form of sadness or emotional pain over spiritual matters. He also referred to it as being "sorrowful about the Divine good, which charity rejoices in." Throughout the Middle Ages, theologians would weigh in on acedia's exact nature and whether it was a form of melancholia (the standard name for depression at the time) or simple laziness.
But acedia didn't just affect monks alone. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Francesco Petrarco (a.k.a. Petrarch) wrote about his own battle with what he described as acedia (but more likely depression). Still, the most commonly cited cases involved monks or nuns living in desert monasteries who had to cope with the bleak environment and a lifestyle that Cassian himself described as "nothing but meditation and contemplation of that divine purity which . . . can only be gained by silence and continually remaining in the cell."
For the most part, acedia largely faded after the end of the Middle Ages, at least as far as being considered a sin was concerned. Though writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned it as one of the mortal sins to which people were vulnerable (usually regarded as being the same as "sloth"), other authors, including Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy, began to treat it as a psychological disorder that needed to be treated. By the eighteenth century, when acedia was mentioed at all, it was typically viewed as another name for acute boredom and as a form of depression.
Even today though, there can still be contemporary accounts of acedia by monks or nuns trying to deal with the religious life. Poet Kathleen Norris wrote a book in 2008 describing her own experiences with acedia and her life as a Benedictine oblate. In her book, Norris carefully distinguished acedia from depression by stating that it as a "failure of the will and can be dispelled by embracing faith and life." Dom Jean Nault's 2015 book, "The Noonday Devil: Acedia , the Unnamed Evil of Our Times" restates the theological case against acedia and how clerics are still vulnerable today.
Perhaps the most famous recent essay on acedia came from Aldous Huxley in his 1958 essay "Accidie" (his spelling for acedia). Describing it as an extreme form of boredom or ennui, Huxley suggests that the evolution of urban life has led to a new source of acedia for many city-dwellers. "Habituated to the feverish existence of these few centres of activity," Huxley wrote. "Men found that life outside them was intolerable insipid. And at the same time they became so much exhausted by the restlessness of city life that they pined for the monotonous boredom of the provinces, for exotic islands, even for other worlds—any haven of rest." According to Huxley, what began as a peculiar disorder found in desert monks and nuns may well have become a major complaint of the modern age.
So, the next time you are feeling especially bored, spare a thought for those ancient monks living isolated lives in the desert. You may have more in common with them than you might think.