How strange it was not to be distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday. The best we could do was to follow the instruction from the liturgists and invite people to creatively provide their own ashes, using dried out soil from the garden; ashes from the grate; charcoal from the barbecue, cremated remains from last year’s Palm Sunday palms – if you managed to get any, seeing as how we were already in lockdown by then - or whatever else would suffice, and then bless them virtually during the Ash Wednesday streamed Mass from the Oratory, and ask those tuned in to sign themselves with their ashes, using whatever formula they felt drawn to, whether to remember being dust and returning to dust; or promising to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. I’ve no doubt that people, steeped in faith, will have responded to that, sincerely and faithfully, in their own way, and entered into Lent as fervently as ever.
Last Sunday, at 6 o’clock in the morning, I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4, called Something Understood. I’ve often listened to it, and sometimes it’s better than at other times. The premiss is that different presenters take a topic and explore that topic through poetry, prose, music, scripture, interviews with experts, and so on. Last Sunday the presenter was the writer and broadcaster, John McCarthy, whom you may remember was one of the hostages held for more than 5 years, during the Lebanon hostage crisis in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The topic he explored was boredom. He didn’t really go into whether, in his captivity, during which he shared a cell with the Irish hostage, Brian Keenan, he ever got bored, but he did, at one stage, relate boredom back to the old monastic concept, most associated with the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, of acedia. The Desert Fathers and Mothers used this term to define a spiritual state of listlessness, and sometimes referred to it as the noonday demon. Evagrius of Pontus, for example, characterizes it as the most troublesome temptation of all and warns of the great danger of giving in to it. His contemporary, John Cassian, gives a very vivid description of the monk who does this: He looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness. In the later, medieval tradition, of the seven deadly sins, acedia has generally been folded into the sin of sloth, and in modern psychology we might in some ways link it to depression.
I began to wonder if acedia might be a real danger for people in these times of lockdown. How do we prevent getting bored, listless, slothful, or even depressed? There is so much that we miss; so much that we can’t do, so many loved ones that we can’t see. One day can seem much the same as another. As Burl Ives used to sing, “Life sure gets tedious, don’t it?” I consider myself very fortunate. I take time to pray. I have my caring duties for my brother. I love to read, mostly spiritual books during the day, and a good novel at night. I can pick up my old guitar and play a few tunes. I still have various essential tasks to attend to at the church, and streamed services to prepare from our Passionist Oratory in Bishopbriggs. I can enjoy meals and conversation with the community. All in all, I feel reasonably shielded from acedia, but I know that’s not the way it is for everybody. I was thinking not just of people confined to their homes, but also of people arriving from other countries and having to quarantine in a hotel room for 10 days, unable to go out at all, how boring must that get? Although, an early monk, Simeon Stylites, lived for 37 years on top of a pillar and never got bored. For those early monks, the primary remedy for acedia was to be faithful to the ordinary demands of daily life that God's love calls us to face. Even when confined to home, there are simple daily tasks that must be done. When these are performed with the humility of prayer, in the spirit of St. Therese’s Little Way of Love, or Mother Theresa’s Doing something Beautiful for God, even mundane tasks can enkindle the fire of God's love in us and strengthen us against acedia.
So, protect yourselves, protect your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.