Introductory Essay Concerning Accidie.
Yea, they thought scorn of that pleasant land, and gave no credence unto His word; but murmured in their tents, and hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord
Most men may know that strange effect of vividness and reality with which at times a discoloured of character and experience in some old book seems to traverse the intervening centuries, and to touch the reader with a sense of sudden nearness to the man who so was tried, so felt and thought, so failed or conquered, very long ago. We are prepared, of course, for likeness and even for monotony, in the broad aspect of that ceaseless conflict through which men come to be and to show what they are; for the main conditions of a man’s probation stand like birth and death, like childhood, and youth, and age awaiting every human soul, behind the immense diversity of outward circumstance. We expect that the inner history of man will go on repeating itself in these general traits; but when out of an age whose ways imagination hardly represents to us with any clearness, there comes the exact likeness of some feature or deformity which we had thought peculiar to ourselves or our contemporaries, we may be almost startled by the claim thus made to moral kinship and recognition. We knew that it never had been easy to refuse the evil and choose the good; we guessed that at all times, if a man’s will faltered, there were forces ready to help him quietly and quickly on the downward road; but that centuries ago men felt, in minute detail, the very same temptations, subtle, complex, and resourceful, which we today find hiding and busy in the darker passages of our hearts, is often somewhat unreasonably surprising to us. For we are apt, perhaps, to overrrate the intensive force of those changes which have extended over all the surface of civilized life. We forget how little difference they may have brought to that which is deepest in us all. it is, indeed, true that the vast increase of the means of self-expression and self-distraction increases for many men the temptation to impoverish life at its centre for the sake of its ever widening circumference; it may be harder to be simple and thoughtful, easier to be multifariously worldly now than once it was; but the inmost quality, the secret history, of a selfish choice or a sullen mood, and the ingredients of a bad temper, are, probably, nearly what they were in quieter days; and there seems sometimes a curious sameness in the tricks that men play with conscience, and in the main elements of a soul’s tragedy.
The Bible is the supreme, decisive witness to this profound identity in the experience, the discipline, the needs of man through all generations. It is, indeed, greatly to be wished that people would realize rather more adequately the prerogative distinction which the Bible has in this (besides all other traits by which it stands alone), that it does thus speak to every age; that, through the utmost change of circumstances, it is found to penetrate with unchanged precision the hidden folds and depths of human character; that it can be at once universal and intimate in its sympathy. It is a sign of true greatness in a man if he can more freely than most men transcend even the pettier external differences of this world; but to be unchecked by the revolutions of centuries, and the severing barriers of continents and races, unchecked in piercing to the deepest elements of each man’s being, unchecked in knowing him, with all his grandeur and meanness, his duplicity and folly, his restlessness and fear and faint-heartedness and aspiration,–it is hard to think to whom this freedom could belong, save to the King of the ages, the Creator and the Judge of all men. Surely anyone who realizes how the life of Jesus Christ, told in the four Gospels, has found and formed the saints of every generation, and what the Psalms have been to them, may feel fairly confident of this to start with–that in human life the recurrent rhythms of spiritual experience are profound and subtle, and that the Bible comes to s from One Who, with unerring and universal insight, knows what is in man (1).
This constancy and freshness of the Bible’s power for the discipline of character is the central and decisive witness to the substantial constancy of our needs and dangers, our difficulties and capacities; for in every age he who bends over the Bible and peers into its depths (2), may feel at times almost as though his own life must have been in some strange way lived before, when the words that speak to him so intimately were written down. But elsewhere also, as one would expect, one comes on hints and fragments in which the same deep constancy is betrayed, and that which seemed most closely characteristic of one’s self is found to have been no less vivid and intimate in the experience of men severed from those of the present day by the uttermost unlikeness in all the condition of their life. We may be somewhat surprised when we discover how precisely Pascal, or Shakespeare, or Montaigne can put his finger on our weak point, or tell us the truth about some moral lameness or disorder of which we, perhaps were beginning to accept a more lenient and comfortable diagnosis. ut when a poet, controversialist and preacher of the Eastern Church, under the dominion of the Saracens, or an anchoret of Egypt, an Abbot of Gaul, in the sixth century, tells us, in the midst of our letters, and railway journeys, and magazines, and movements, exactly what it is that on some days makes us so singularly unpleasant to ourselves and to others–tells us in effect that it is not simply the east wind, or dyspepsia, or overwork, or the contrariness of things in general, but that it is a certain subtle and complex trouble of our own hearts, which we perhaps have never had the patience or the frankness to see as it really is; that he knew it quite well, only too well for his own happiness and peace, and that he can put us in a good way of dealing with it–the very strangeness of the intrusion from such a quarter into our most private affairs may secure for him a certain degree of our interest and attention.
There may be those who will be drawn by some such interest to weigh what has been said at various times about the temptation and the sin with which the first sermon in this volume is concerned–the temptation and the sin of accidie. The present writer was some years ago brought to think a little about the subject by a striking and suggestive passage in the fifth chapter of Maria Francesca Rossetti’s ‘Shadow of Dante’, and by the vivid words quoted from Chaucer in Mr. Carlyles’ note on the hundred and twenty-third line of the seventh canto of the ‘Inferno’. The reference to St. Thomas Aquinas in the “Shadow of Dante” led on to Cassian; and the Benedictine Commentary on Cassian pointed to some others who had added more or less to the recognition of this “enemie to every estate of man,” this deep and complex peril of men’s strength and happiness. It may be shown that there are not wanting, in the life and literature of the present day, signs of the persistence and reality of that peril; and it will perhaps be worth while to gather together in this essay some of those passages in which, under widely diverse circumstances, and in generations many centuries apart, men have spoken what may always seem home-truths about the sin of accidie. No pretence can be made to a thorough treatment of the subject, nor to the learning which such a treatments would require; but a few representative witnesses may be gather out of four distinct groups of writers, and these may be enough to show how steadily the plague has hung and hangs about the lives of men, while they may perhaps help some of us to see it as it is, and to deal with it as we ought.
I. Cassian, whose long life covers the later half of the fourth century and the former half of the fifth, may be placed first in the first group of those who have written concerning ακηδια, acedia, or accidie (3). Trained during his early years in a monastery at Bethlehem, he had spent a long time among the hermits of the Thebaid, before he turned to his great work of planting in the far West the monasticism of the East, founding his two communities at Marseilles, and writing his twelve books, “De Coenobiorum Institutis” (4), and his “Collationes Patrum in Scythica Eremo Commorantium.” The tenth book of the former work is entitled “De Spiritu Acediae;” and in the first chapter of that book he gives a provisional and somewhat scanty indication of its subject. “Acedia” may be called a weariness or distress of heart; it is akin to sadness; the homeless and solitary hermits, those who live in the desert, are especially assailed by it, and monks find it most troublesome about twelve o’clock: so that some of the aged have held it to be “the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday,” the “deamonium meridianum” of the ninety-first psalm. But the most striking part of all that Cassian has to say about accidie is the description in the second chapter of a monk who is suffering from a bad attack of the malady. When the poor fellow is beset by it, he says, it makes him detest the place where he is, and loathe his cell; and he has a poor and scornful opinion of his brethren, near and far, and thinks that they are neglectful and unspiritual. It makes him sluggish and inert for every task; he cannot sit still, nor give his mind to reading; he thinks despondently how little progress he has made where he is, how little good he gains or does,–he, who might so well direct and help other and who, where he is, has nobody to teach and nobody to edify. he dwells much on the excellence of other and distant monasteries; he thinks how profitable and healthy life is there; how delightful the brethren are, and how spiritually they talk. On the contrary, where he is, all seems harsh and untoward; there is no refreshment for his soul to be got from his brethren, and one for his body from the thankless land. At last he thinks he really cannot be saved if he stops where he is; and then, about eleven or twelve o’clock, he feels as tired as if he had walked miles, and as hungry as if he had fasted for two or three days. He goes out and looks this way and that, and sighs to think that there is no one coming to visit him; he saunters to and fro, and wonders why the sun is setting so slowly; and so, with his mind full of stupid bewilderment and shameful gloom, he grows slack and void of all spiritual energy, and thinks that nothing will do him any good save to go and call on somebody, or else to betake himself to the solace of sleep. Whereupon his malady suggest to him that there are certain persons whom he clearly ought to visit, certain kind inquiries that he ought to make, a religious lady upon whom he ought to call, and to whom he may be able to render some service; and that it will be far better to do this than to sit profitless in his cell.
In two later chapters Cassian traces some of the results which follow from the lax and desultory dissipation of the inner life that is thus allowed. But the main part of the book is taken up with the praises of hard work, as the true safeguard against accidie; especial stress being laid on the counsel and example of St. Paul in this regard; and mention being made of a certain abbot who, to keep himself busy and steady his thoughts and drive off this temptation , toiled all through the year, and every year burnt all the produce of his labour; the excuse for this economic enormity lying in the fact that he lives so far from a town, that the carriage of the produce would have cost more than its market price.
Much, however, which other writers link with accidie is assigned by Cassian to sadness, of which he speaks in the preceiding book, “De Spiritu Tristitiae.” The severance of sadness from accidie is deliberately censured by St. Thomas Aquinas ; and certainly the sullen gloom which Cassian describes in this ninth book forms a congenial and integral part int he complex trouble which accidie generally denotes, while it is clearly present in that picture of the “accidious” monk which has just been cited from Cassian himself. Thus we may fairly perhaps complete, from the delineation of “Tristitia,” the conception of “Acedia.” For the sadness of which Cassian speaks is the gloom of those who ought not to be sad, who willfully allow a morbid somberness to settle down on them; it is a mood which severs a man from thoughts of God, “and suffers him not to be calm and kindly to his brethren.” “Sometimes , without any provoking cause (5), we are suddenly depressed by so great sorrowfulness, that we cannot great with wonted courtesy the coming even of those who are dear and near to us, and all they say in conversation, however appropriate it may be, we think annoying and unnecessary (6), and have no pleasant answer for it, because the gall of bitterness fills all the recesses of our soul.” Those who are sad after this fashion have, as St. Gregory says, anger already close to them; for from sadness such as this come forth (as he says in another place) malice, grudging, faint-heartedness, despair, torpor as to that which is commanded, and the straying of the mind after that which is forbidden (7).
The Κλιμαξ, or Scala Paradisi, from which St. John of the Ladder takes his distinctive title, rests on the experience of some sixty years spent in the ascetic life. It was composed after the writer had been called from his solitude as an anchoret, to become Abbot of the Monastery of Mount Sinai, at that of seventy-five. He speaks of ακηδια with striking force and vividness; it is one of the offshoots of talkativeness–a slackness of the soul and remissness of the mind, a contempt of holy exercise, a hatred of one’s profession; it extols the blessedness of a worldly life, and speaks against God as merciless and unloving; it makes singing languid, prayer feeble, service stubborn. So peculiarly does it tell upon the voice, that when there is no psalmody, it may remain unnoticed; but when the psalms are being sung, it causes its victim to interrupt the verse with an untimely yawn.–Then acedia is personified. She sees the cell of the anchoret and laughs to herself, and goes and settles down close by him. She suggests all sorts of good reasons why he well may leave his prayers and gad about. She recalls to him the words of Scripture as to the Christian duty of visiting the sick; and in the middle of his devotions she reminds him of urgent business to be done elsewhere. Lastly, in a fine and instructive passage, the voice of accidie is heard, acknowledging what forces are her allies and her enemies. “They who summon me are many; sometimes it is dulness and senselessness of soul that bids me come, sometimes it is forgetfulness of things above; ay, and there are times when it is excess of toil. My adversaries are the singing of psalms and the labour of the hands; the thought of death is my enemy, but that which kills me outright is prayer, with the sure hope of glory” (8).
It seems strange at first, but true to facts when one begins to think, that accidie shoudl be thus linked both with talkativeness and with that deadness and dulness of the voice which seems to be indicated by ατονια ψαλμωδιας. Similarly St. Isidore of Seville (9) puts gossiping and curiosity together with listlessness and somnolence among the troubles born of accidie; and St. John of Damascus defines αχος (which the commentators seem to identify with accidie) as a grief which engenders voicelessness (10). The comment appended to these words directly applies the definition to the sin of accidie, which is “a sorrowfulness so weighing down the mind that there is no good it likes to do. It has attached to it as its inseparable comrade a distress and weariness of soul, and a sluggishness in all good works, which plunges the whole man into lazy languor, and works in him a constant bitterness. And out of this vehement woe springs silence and flagging of the voice, because the soul is so absorbed and taken up with its own indolent dejection, that it has no energy for utterance, but is cramped and hampered and imprisoned in its own confused bewilderment, and has not a word to say.”
II. Concerning the witness of two mediaeval teachers, St Thomas Aquinas and Dante, something has been said in the course of the first sermon in this volume; and the writer has no hope of speaking at all worthily about those profound, majestic ways of thought in which they, with their great companions and disciples, move. He would only try to suggest for inquiry or consideration three points which seem especially needed to supplement what he was trying to convey in the sermon.
(a) The first is the affinity which St. Thomas marks between accidie and envy. Both alike are forms of sinful gloom, antagonists to that joy which stands second in the bright list of the effects of Caritas. But the joy that comes of Caritas is twofold: there is the joy that is found in God, the quiet exultation of the soul that knows His goodness and His love, the joy of loving Him; and there is also the joy which concerns one’s neighbour’s good, the gladness of the soul that feels a brother’s welfare or happiness exactly as its own, and freely, simply yields to the delight of seeing others rightly glad. Neither, it may be, can perfectly be realized in this life; but neither is unknown–that is begun in “the way,” which is to be made perfect in “the country.” And over against these two fair gifts of pure and self-forgetful joy there stands, in hard and awful contrast, the two unlovely sorts of sinful gloom: the gloom of accidie, which is “tristitia de bono divino”–a sorrowful despondency, or listlessness concerning the good things which God hath prepared for them that love Him; and the gloom of envy, which is “tristitia de bono proximi”–the gloom of him
“who so much fears the loss of power, / fame, favour, glory (should his fellow mount / Above him) and so sickens at the thought / He loves their opposite:”
the gloom of the soul that sullenly broods over the prosperity of others till their success seems, to its sick fancy, like a positive wrong against itself. Thus envy may stand side by side with accidie; and in both we see that sorrow of the world, that heavy, wilful, wasteful sadness, which is as alien from the divinely quickened sorrow of repentance as it is from the divinely quickened joy of love.
(b) In the second place, there seems to be reality and justice, as well as comfort, in the distinction which St. Thomas draws in answering the question whether accidie is a deadly sin:–the distinction between its complete and incomplete development. Fully formed, discerned and recognized by the reason, and deepened by its assent, it is a deadly sin, driving from the heart the characteristic joy of the spiritual life, and setting itself in irreconcilable antagonism to that love which is inseparably linked with the Divine indwelling. “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace;” and these cannot live in the heart that deliberately yields itself up to a despondent renunciation of all care and hope and effort concerning its true calling and its highest good. But there is also a venial sort of accidie: a reluctance that is not deliberate, nor confirmed and hardened by a willful choice; a sloth engendered by the persistent hanging back of a man’s lower nature, which only a continuous exertion will keep up to the level or ambition of the higher life.–It is with a curious answer that St. Thomas meets the contention that accidie can never be a deadly sin because it violates no precept of the Law of God. It violates, he replies, the commandment concerning the hallowing of the seventh day: for the moral import of that commandment is to bid us rest in the Lord; and gloominess concerning the good which is of God is contrary to that rest.
(c) The different aspect of the sin of accidie in the “Inferno,” where it has plunged on into the very depths of sullenness and gloom and wrath, and in the “Purgatorio,” where only thoughts of sloth and of lukewarmness are prominent, is remarkable; and the contrast seems to find its explanation in that view of the various stages towards the finishing of the sin which is presented by St. Thomas. Dante’s teaching as to its beginning is given towards the close of the seventeenth canto; and it is very clearly brought out by Mr. Veron in his “Readings in the Purgatorio.” “Virgil begins to discourse at considerable length on the origin and cause from which the seven principal sins are derived, and he says that love is the cause of all.” “He apparently means that pride, envy, and anger arise from the love of evil against one’s neighbour; accidia, or sloth, from a tardy desire of discerning and acquiring the true good. The three remaining sins, avarice, gluttony, and self-indulgence, spring from an excessive love or desire of what is not the true good.” Similarly Mr. Vernon quotes Benvenuto as saying that “accidia is a defective love of the highest good, which we out to seek for ardently. It is, therefore, a kind of negligence, a tepid lukewarm condition, and as it were a contempt for acquiring the desirable amount of goodness.” And so the last two instances of accidie, which are brought before us in the eighteenth canto, are instances in which a great vocation was dismally forfeited through faint-heartedness, through lack of faith and courage. For accidie was a part, at least, of their sin who “would not go up” to win “that pleasant land,” but “murmured in their tents;” to whom God sware “that they should not enter into His rest,” “because of unbelief;” and of their sin, too, who forewent the glory of “a share in the founding the great Roman Empire,” the degenerate, slothful band, who stayed behind in Sicily —
“Who dared not hazard life for future fame.”
The various phases of restlessness and discontent, of sullenness, and hardening, and resentment, and rebellion, through which the defective love of good passes into the horrid, dismal mood, which is shown in the seventh canto of the “Inferno,” are described by St. Thomas when he is answering the question whether accidie ought to be set down as a capital sin. But they are shown, somewhat less systematically, it may be, yet with the finest power and vividness, by Chaucer, whose account of accidie, in “The Persones Tale,” may fitly stand with those which have been cited in this second group. It seems as though nothing could be more forcible and arresting than the picture he has drawn of it; in which this especially is noteworthy, that from the first he fastens on the traits of irritation and ill temper as essentially characteristic of it. “Bitternesses is mother of accidie;” and “accidie is the anguish of a trouble herte,” and “maketh a man hevy, thoughtful and wrawe.” Then, in four stages, the great misery and harmfulness of the sin is shown. “It doth wrong to Jesu Crist, inasmoche as it benimeth the service that men shulde do to Crist with alle diliegence;” to the three estates, of innocence, of sinfulness, of grace alike, “is accidie enemie and contrary, for he loveth no besinesse at all;” it is “eke a ful gret enemie to the livelode of the body, for it he hath no purveaunce ayenst temporal necessitee;” and fourthly, it “is like hem that ben in the peine of helle, bcause of hir slouthe and of hir hevinesse.” That listless, joyless, fruitless, hopeless, restless indolence, more tiring and exacting than the hardest work, more sensitive in its dull fretfulness than any state of bodily suffering,–how apt and terrible a forecast it presents of their fierce sullenness who can come to hate love itself for being what it is! The rest of Chaucer’s stern portrayal of “this roten sinne consists of a long list of all the vices that follow in its train; and a dismal crew they are. “Slouthe, that wol not suffre no hardnesse ne no penance;” and “wanhope, that is, despeir of the mercy of God.” (And “sothly, he that despeireth him is like to the coward champion recreant, that flieth withouten nede. Alas! alas! nedeles is he recreant, and nedeles despeired. Certes, the mercy of God is ever redy to the penitent person, and is above all His werkes.”) “Than cometh sompnolence, that is, sluggy slumbring, which maketh a man hevy and dull in body and in soule;” “negligence or rechelesness that recketh of nothing,” “whether he do it well or badly;” “idelnesse, that is the yate of all harmes,” “the thurrok of all wicked thoughtes;” “tarditas, as whan a man is latered, or taryed, or he wol tourne to God (and certes, that is gret folie);” “lachesses, that is, he that whan he beginneth any good werk, anon he wol forlete it and stint;” “a manner coldnesse, that freseth all the herte of man;” “undevotion, thurgh which a man is so blont that he may neyther rede ne sing in holy Chirche, ne travaile with his hondes in no good werk;” “than wexeth he sluggish and slombry, and sone wol he be wroth, and sone is enclined to hate and to envie;” “than cometh the sinne of worldly sorwe swiche as is cleped tristitia, that sleth a man, as sayth Seint Poule.”
Such are the main points in Chaucer’s wonderful delineation of the subtle, complex sin of accidie. In strength of drawing, in grasp of purpose, in moral earnestness, in vivid and disquieting penetration, it seems to the present writer more remarkable and suggestive than any other treatment of the subject which he has found; or equalled only by the endless significance of that brief passage, where the everlasting misery of those who wilfully and to the end have yielded themselves to the master of this sin is told by Dante in the “Inferno.”
III. Two voluminous writers concerning accidie at a later date (one in the seventeenth, the other in the eighteenth century) bring into prominence certain points of interest; while, with a great elaboration of detail, they show some loss of power and reality and impressiveness in the general conception: the element of sloth being developed and emphasized somewhat to the overshadowing of all other traits and tendencies.
The curious work entitled “Tuba Sacerdotalis,” and published by Marchantius (a pupil of Cornelius a Lapide, and a priest of the Congregation of St. Charles) about the middle of the seventeenth century, sets a high example of consistency in the use of metaphors; for its closely printed folio pages, to the number of 109, are steadily ruled by the one idea of representing the seven deadly sins as the seven walls of Jericho, and showing how they are to be thrown down by the trumpet of the preacher’s voice. In the case of each wall, its metaphorical dimensions are carefully described, its height of structure and depth of foundations, its breadth (with the bricks of which it is composed) and its length, or circumference. Then appear the seven trumpets at whose blast it is to fall; seven utterences from the Law, the Sapiential Books, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, the conscience of man, the judgement of God; and then, with a bold extension of the unbroken metaphor, seven battering-rams are brought forward, in the form of seven effective considerations for the demotion of that particular wall. Lastly, there is in regard to each wall a spiritual application of the curse pronounced in the Book of Joshua upon him who should rebuild Jericho; and a description of the corresponding wall in the sevenfold circuit round Jerusalem. It seems a quaint, cramped plan for saying what one wants to say; though possibly some of our literary methods may have graver faults. But if one finds it hard to understand the mind to which this seemed the best scheme for an ethical treatise, the signs of power and penetration and insights, and the modern-looking passages on which one comes, are surely thereby made the more remarkable. And as, in the nine chapters of his seventh Tractate, Marchantius describes in every detail and dimension the great wall of accidie, so high that it shuts out the light of God, and hides from those whom it encloses all His love and mercy; so deeply founded that it reaches right down to despair; built broad and strong, with diverse kinds of stones and bricks, such as lukewarmness, love of comfort, sleepiness, leisureliness, delay inconstancy; and drawn out to an immense length by the multitude of hands that toil in building it:–as he expounds all this with a good deal of care, learning, and shrewdness, he says so many things worth thinking of that one may almost forget the pedantic form in which his work is cast. Perhaps the finest passage is that “De Septemplici Ariete Murum Acediae Evertente,” where he dwells on seven thoughts which ought to dislodge this sin from its place in a man’s heart: the thoughts of our Saviour’s ceaseless, generous toil for us; of the labours of all His servants, saints, and martyrs; of the unwearied activity of all creation, form the height where, about the throne, the living creatures rest not day and night, down to herbs and plants continually pressing on by an instinctive effort to their proper growth; the thought that came home so vividly to St. Francis Xavier, of the immense energy and enterprise of those who seek the wealth of this world, “in their generation wiser than the children of light;” the thought of the shortness of this life and the urgency of its tasks, because “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave;” the thought of one’s own past sins, with the need that they entail; and lastly, the thought of heaven and of hell.
There are some suggestive words in another and a less ambitious work by the same author, his “Resolutiones Quaestionum Pastoralium,” where, in dealing with the question, “of what sort is the sin of accidie?” he indicates a distinction analogous to that drawn by St. Thomas, between its incomplete and complete forms, and says, “His sin is deadly who is gloomy and downcast by the deliberate consent of his will, because he was created for grace, for good deserts, for glory.” The words may point, perhaps, to a reason why the conception of “accidie” seems to belong especially to Christian ethics; why one finds (so far as the present writer is aware) nothing like so full and serious a recognition of the temper it denotes in Theophrastus, for instance, or in Aristotle. The true perversity and wrong-heartedness of gloom and sullen brooding could not be realize until the true joy for which the love of God had made man was disclosed: and the wickedness of a listless, cowardly, despondent indolence might seem less before men fully knew to what they were called by God, and to what height He bade their ventures, efforts, aspirations, rise; before they knew by what means and at what a cost the full power of attainment had been brought within the reach of those who truly seek it. It was the revelation of these things in the faith of Jesus Christ that gave distinctness to the great duty of hopefulness and joy, and corresponding clearness and seriousness to the sin of accidie.
“Exterminium Acediae” is the title of a volume of addresses for a retreat of three days’ duration, published by Francis Neumayer, a Jesuit, in 1755. One finds here the appearance, at least, of another sort of artificiality; and it is not easy to be reconciled to the elaborate preparation of effects of sudden impulse, somewhat like those
“In the off-hand discourses / Which (all nature, no art) / The Dominican brother, these three weeks, / Was getting by heart.”
But, in spite of touches which may thus jar upon one here and there, the book is certainly impressive and remarkable; and there is teaching in the very fact that the author could choose this one sin to be the central subject of mediation and self-examination through the exercises of the three days. His one text, as it were, for all his addresses is that bidding of our Lord’s which most directly challenges the desultory, listless, nerveless languour of the “accidious:” “Strive (contendite) to enter in at the strait gate:” (29) and he shows how accidie is “the foe of those three adverbs” which should characterize our serving God–speedily, seriously, steadily; and how sorrow, love, and fear should help to drive it from our hearts; while he marks how vast a multitude of lives are ruined by the sin, and how few people ever speak of it, or seem conscious of its gravity. But the freshest and most interesting part of this book is that in which he deals with the excuses of those clergy who “enjoyed bad health,” and made some bodily weakness or indisposition the excuse for a great deal of accidie. This excuse is attacked with that sort of downright and inconsiderate good sense which directed the discipline of many English homes half a century ago, and which, while it may often have involved some harshness and suffering, yet surely fought off from very many lives the intractable misery of imagined ailments. Let us listen to the relentlessly healthy Neumayr. “I hear some one complaining, ‘I don’t mind work. But what am I to do? Again and again, when I should like to work, I can’t. I am indisposed’ (30). Now, this objection I must answer with care, because there is scarcely any corner into which accidie as it flees betakes itself with greater security against its pursuers. I ask, therefore, what is the meaning of this pretext, ‘I am indisposed’? Do you mean, ‘I am not able,’ or ‘I do not like’ to work? If you mean the former, then this abnormal inability must be due to a change that has taken place, either in the solid or in the liquid parts of the body.” These two sorts of changes are discussed according to the pathology with which Neumayr was acquainted; a damage to the solid parts must be seriously and thoroughly treated, “morboque vacandum esse sana Ratio imperat;” — a disorder of the liquid parts (specified as “humores, sanguis, phlegma, bilis”) may be due to any one of many diverse causes; and if it does not yeild to change or diet and a good night’s sleep, then, says Neumayr, try patience: let the love of the Cross come in; and when the lower nature says, “I’m indisposed,” let the generous soul make answer, “Then you must not be” (31). “Truly,” he continues in a later passage, “truly the desire of a long life hinders very many from a happy life: for only by toiling can we win a happy life, and they who live life dread toil, lest they may hurt their health. So do we love to be deceived. I, too, myself have hugged like maxims: ‘Spare thyself. Take care of thy health.’ ‘My strength is not the strength of stones, nor is my flesh like brass.’ ‘A living dog is better than a dead lion.’ Bah! who so beguiled me that I did not hear the hissing of the serpent in such words? Who talks like that save accidie itself?” “My Saviour, let my days be few, if only they may be well filled (32). But art not Thou the Lord of life? I pray Thee, then, grant me a long life; but for no other end than this, that I may redeem the time which I have lost by accidie.”
Yet one more passage must be quoted from this writer before the witness of the present day is heard–a passage which may be at least suggestive of some disquieting thoughts for many of us. He has been speaking of that call to strenuous cooperation with Divine grace which comes to us because we are human beings; and then of that especial challenge to a vigorous life, a brave self-mastery, which comes to men in the prerogative dignity of their sex. And yet, are men really more brave, more strenuous than women in self-discipline and self-sacrifice? “Certainly the greater part of our teachers favour the opinion that there are more women than men in the way of salvation; and that not so much because many of them show more love than men for a secluded life, nor because they have more time for prayer, and are kept apart from the perilous duties which men have to bear, but because they do violence to their own wishes more than men do; and that is seen in the manly chastity of virgins, in the patience of wives, in the constancy of widows” (33).
Without presuming to follow the speculation that there is in these words as to the hidden things of God, we surely may find something to think about in the reason that is suggested for the writers venturesome opinion; there is some truth in that thought concerning human life, and the division of its real burdens, which the Jesuit put before his brethren in their retreat a century and a half ago.
IV. Professor Henry Sidgwick, in his “Outlines of the History of Ethics,” after saying that the list of the deadly sins “especially represents the moral experience of the monastic life,” adds that “in particular the state of moral lassitude and collapse, of discontent with self and the world, which is denoted by ‘Acedia,’ is easily recognizable as a spiritual disease peculiarly incident to the cloister” (34). The brief description of the predominant elements in the sinful temper of accidie is excellent; but the apparent implication that the noxious growth is indigenous among monks, and rarely found elsewhere, seems disputable, and, for lack of due qualification, likely to be misleading (35). Doubtless it is true that a special and very virulent form of accidie was often to be found in monasteries, among “such as gave themselves to a one-sidedly contemplative life, without having the power or the calling for it, and who were filled with a disgust of all things, even of existence, while even the highest religious thoughts became empty and meaningless to them” (36). Cassian and St. John Climacus show full consciousness of this; and one may well believe that in the Spanish cloister, into which Mr. Browning go so vivid and terrible a glimpse, a long indulgence of this sin in its worst forms preceded that rancorous hate which fastened on poor Brother Lawrence, in his intolerable harmlessness and love of gardening. (37) But it would be incautious and, the present writer believes, profoundly and perilously untrue, if any one were to think that the temptation and the sin belong to a bygone age, or need not to be thought about and fought against in the present day, even under such circumstances as may seem to have least of the cloister or of ascetisicm in them. It may have changed its habit, covered its tonsure, and picked up a new language; but it is the same old sin which centuries ago was wrecking lives that had been dedicated to solitude and to austerity, to prayer and praise; the same that Cassian saw in Egypt, and St. Gregory in Rome–that St. Thomas analysed in one way, and Chauser in another; the same as that of which Dante marks the sequel in those who have and in those who have not entered on the way of penitence.
Clearly the grounds for such an assertion as this can be but very partially adduced: in large part they must be furnished to each man by his own experience of life and his own consciousness (38). But there are some fragments of more general and external witness which may be here alleged.
Poetry may not to the legal mind be evidence; and there may not always be a valid inference from the self-disclosure of poets to the character of their age; there may, perhaps, be some who would say that even monks are not more abnormal in their experience than poets (39). But, nevertheless, it surely is a significant fact that so very many of the chief and most characteristic poets of our age have seemed to speak of a temper very like accidie, as having been at times a besetting peril of their work and life. It is seen in Wordsworth, in the conflict and crisis of his soul, after the shock of the French Revolution, when, he says–
“I lost / All feeling of conviction, and, in fine, / Sick, wearied out with contrarieties, / Yielded up moral questions in despair. / This was the crisis of that strong disease, / This the soul’s last and lowest ebb; I drooped, / Deeming our blessed reason of least use / When wanted most” (40).
There are passages in the “Christian Year” (41) and in the “Lyra Innocentium” (42) which could hardly have been written save by one who himself had felt the power, at once penetrating and oppressive, of the mood which are described; but, in two letters to Sir John Coleridge, Keble takes away all doubt upon the subject, and tells very frankly and very touchingly the severity of his struggle against “a certain humour calling itself melancholy; but, I am afraid, more truly entitled proud and fantastic, which I find very often at hand, forbidding me to enjoy the good things, and pursue the generous studies which a kind Providence throws so richly in my way; … a certain perverse pleasure, in which, perhaps, you may not conceive how any man should indulge himself, of turning over in my thoughts a huge heap of blessings, to find one or two real or fancied evils (which, after all, are sure to turn out goods) buried among them” (43). — In all the strangely manifold wealth of Archbishop Trench’s work, certain of his poems seem to stand apart with a distinctive power for the help of many troubled souls; and some of us, it may be, have to thank him most of all for this–that he had the courage and the charity to let men see not only the songs he wrote when he had won his victory over the besetting gloom, but also those which came out of a time when he hardly knew which way the fight might go — at time
“Of long and weary days, / Full of rebellious askings, for what end, / And by what power, without our own consent, / Caught in this snare of life we know not how, / We were placed here, to suffer and to sin, / To be in misery, and know not why;”
a time in which he knew
“The dreary sickness of the soul, / The fear of all bright visions leaving us, / The sense of emptiness, without the sense / Of an abiding fulness anywhere; / When all the generations of mankind, / With all their purposes, their hopes and fears, / Seem nothing truer than those wandering shapes / Cast by a trick of light upon a wall, / And nothing different from these, except / In their capacity for suffering.” / “our own life seemed then / But as an arrow flying in the dark, / Without an aim, a most unwelcome gift, / Which we might not put by” (44).
Mr Matthew Arnold, in the “Scholar-Gipsy,” shows with rare, pathetic beauty how such miseries as these are fastened into the “strange disease of modern life” (45); and Lord Tennyson, in his fine and thoughtful poem, “The Two Voices,” tells the course of that great battle which so many hearts have known, and the strength of that victory which all might win, fighting against “crazy sorrow,” against sullen thoughts, until
“The dull and bitter voice was gone.”
But surely no poet of the present day, and none perhaps since Dante, has so truly told the inner character of accidie, or touched more skilfully the secret of its sinfulness than Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, in the graceful, noble lines which he has entitled “The Celestial Surgeon”–
“If I have faltered more or less / In my great task of happiness; / If I have moved among my race / And shown no glorious morning face; / If beams from happy human eyes / Have moved me not; if morning skis, / Books, and my food, and summer rain / Knocked on my sullen heart in vain;– / Lord, thy most pointed pleasure take / And stab my spirit broad awake; / Or, Lord, if too obdurate I, / Choose Thou, before that spirit die, / A piercing pain, a killing sin, / And to my dead heart run them in” (46).
“Sullen were we in the sweet air, that is gladdened by the sun, carrying lazy smoke within our hearts; now lie we sullen here in the black mire” (47). Surely the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries are not very far apart in their understanding of the nature and the misery of accidie. It may have found its way very easily to the cells of anchorets and monks; but it is not very far from many of us, in the stress and luxury and doubt of our day.
One, indeed, there is, and he the one whom many hold to be the greatest poet of our day, who seems to show in all his work no personal knowledge of such cloudy moods as gather round a man in accidie. In ready what Mr. Browning has left us, there is a sense of security somewhat like that with which those who had the happiness of knowing him always looked forward to meeting him, to being greeted by him, a confident expectation of being cheered by the generous and hopeful “geniality of strength” (48). It has been well said that “in this close of our troubled century, the robust health of Robert Browning’s mind and body has presented a singular and a most encouraging phenomenon” (49). Whatever may be denied to him or criticized in him, this surely may be claimed without misgiving by those who have learnt from him and loved him–that he never failed to make effort seem worth while. To many of our poets we may owe this debt, that they have rebuked despondency and helped us to dispel it: Mr. Browning’s beneficence lies in this–that he shows us how a thoughtful man may keep his work untouched by it. It is, indeed, a high standard of courage that he sets before us on the last page he gave us, in the epilogue to his verses, and to his life; but it is a standard by which we need not fear to try his work; for he teaches us in truth as
“One who never turned his back but marched breast forward, / Never doubted clouds would break; / Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph; / Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, / Sleep to wake” (50).
V. Now words could seem more apt than these to carry us forward to thoughts of that high grace which stands out foremost among the antagonists of accidie; and such thoughts may point towards a further ground for doubting whether some forms of accidie may not even be among the peculiar dangers of the present day.
“Ayenst this horrible sinne of accidie, and the braunches of the same, ther is a vertue that is called fortitudo or strength, that is, an affection thurgh which a sman despiseth noyous things. This vertue enhaunseth and enforceth the soule, right as accidie abateth and maketh it feble: for this fortitudo may endure with long sufferance the travailles that ben convenable.” “Certes this vertue” (in its first kind, which “is cleped magnanimitee, that is to say gret corage”) “maketh fold to undertake hard and grevous thinges by hir owen will, wisely and resonably” (51).
“A virtue that is called strength”–the wise and reasonable undertaking of hard things. One see directly how the excellence of which Chaucer so speaks is indeed the very contrary of that despondent and complaining listlessness, that self-indulgent, unaspiring resignation to one’s moral poverty, which is at the heart of accidie. In accidie a man exaggerates the interval and the difficulties which lie between himself and high attainment; he measure the weight of all tasks by his own disinclination for them; his way “is as an hedge of thorns,” and with increasing readiness he says, “There is a lion without; I shall be slain in the streets.” He teaches his circumstances to answer him according to his reluctance; the real hardness of that which is noble seems in his imagination nearer and nearer to impossibility; with increasing shamelessness he declines the venture which is an element in most things that are worth doing, and a condition of all spiritual progress; and so he settles down into a deepening despondency concerning that good to which God calls him, a refusal to aspire, or to venture, or to toil towards a higher life. And from such despondency the more positive traits of accidie are seldom very far removed; resentment, fretfulness, irritation, anger, easily find access to a heart that is refusing to believe in the reasonableness of lofty aims, and lazily contenting itself with a low estimate of its hopes, its power and its calling. Plainly that which men are losing, that of which they are falling out of sight, when they sink back into this dangerous and dismal plight, is the grace, the virtue, the sense of duty and of shame, which should lead them to the wise and reasonable undertaking of hard things. They ought to be steadily repelling the temptation to think any fresh thing impossible or indispensable to them. For it is a temptation which comes on apace when once a man has begun to yield it ground; it is a temptation which does more than man which may look uglier to make life fruitless and expensive and unhappy; and it is a temptation which finds useful allies among the characteristic troubles of the present day. Surely it is a time of risk that comes to many men, in the ways of modern life and modern medicine, when the pressure of their work or the unsteadiness of their nervous system has begun to make them watch their own sensations, and look out too attentively for signals of fatigue. It may even be as harmful to make to much as it is to make too little of such signals; they may, indeed, be well marked and heeded, as warning us that the undertaking of hard things should be wisely and reasonably limited; but there is apt to be a pitiful loss of liberty and worth and joy out of any life in which they come to command an ever-increasing deference, encroaching more and more upon the realm of will, discouraging a man from ventures he might safely make, and filching from him bit by bit that grace of fortitude which is the prophylactic as well as the antidote for accidie (52).
But there is another way, more serious and more direct, in which the sin of accidie gathers power and opportunity out of the conditions of the present day. The moral influence of any form of unbelief which is largely talked about, reaches far beyond the range of its intellectual appeal; it is felt more widely than it is understood; in many cases it gets at the springs of action without passing through the mind. And this is likely to come about with especial readiness when the prevalent type of unbelief makes little demand for precise knowledge or positive statement, and easily enters into alliance with the general inclination of human nature. The practical effect of agnosticism is favoured by these advantages, and it mixes readily with that pervading atmosphere of life which tells for so much more in the whole course of things than any definite assertion or any formal argument. Hooker noticed long ago that trait of human faultiness which is always ready to befriend suggestions such as those of agnosticism. “The search of knowledge is a thing painful, and the painfulness of knowledge is that which maketh the will so hardly inclinable thereunto. The root hereof, Divine malediction; whereby the instruments being weakened wherewithal the soul (especially in reasoning) doth work, it preferreth rest in ignorance before wearisome labour to know” (53). It is very easy to translate into the sphere of action that renunciation of sustained and venturesome and exacting effort which in the sphere of thought is sometimes called agnosticism; and so translated it finds many tendencies prepared to help its wide diffusion. If “the search of knowledge is a thing painful,” the attainment of holiness does not come quickly or naturally to men as they now are; and it is not strange that while many are denying that it is possible to know God, many more are renouncing the attempt to grow like Him. two brilliant and thoughtful writers (54), with equal though diverse opportunities of studying some of the most stirring life of our day, in Boston and in Birmingham, have marked, with impressive coincidence of judgement, how widely spread among us is the doubt whether high moral effort is worth while, or reasonable (55). “We are so occupied with watching the developments of fatalistic philosophy in its higher and more scientific phases, that I think we often fail to see to what an extent and in what unexpected forms it has found its way into the life of men, and is governing their thoughts about ordinary things. The notion of fixed helplessness, of the impossibility of any strong power of a man over his own life, and, along with this, the mitigation of the thought of responsibility which, beginning with the sublime notion of a man’s being answerable to God, comes down to think of him only as bound to do his duty to society, then descends to consider him as only liable for the harm which he does to himself, and so finally reaches the absolute abandonment of any idea of judgment or accountability whatever,–all this is very much more common than we dream” (56). There is something very terrible and humiliating in the swiftness with which a great deal of energy and aspiration is unstrung the moment even a light wreath of mist passes over the aspect of the truths that held it up. So much less time and reasoning and probability may suffice for the relaxation of a high demand than were required to enforce its recognition. And thus the thinnest rumour of negative teaching seems enough in some cases to take the heart out of a man’s struggle against sloth or worldliness. If a considerable number of articles in magazines imply that it is impossible to know God, it odes not seem worth while to get up half an hour earlier in the morning to seek Him before the long day’s work begins; if in various quarters and on various grounds, the claims of Christ are being set aside or disregarded, then, though the arguments against those claims may never have been carefully examined, the standard of the Sermon on the Mount begins to seem more than can be expected of a man; and if it is often hinted that sins which Christianity absolutely and unhesitatingly condemns may be condoned in an ethical system which takes man as it finds him, and recognizes all the facts of human nature, the resolute intention of the will is shaken, and the clear, cherished purpose of a pure and noble life recedes further and further, till it almost seems beyond the possibility of attainment, beyond the range of reasonable ambition. And so there settles down upon the soul a dire form of accidie; the dull refusal of the highest aspiration in the moral life; the acceptance of a view of one’s self and of one’s power which once would have appeared intolerably poor, unworthy, and faint-hearted; and acquiescence in discouragement, which reaches the utmost depth of sadness when it ceases to be regretful; a despondency concerning that goodness to which the love of God has called men, and for which His grace can make them strong.
Surely it is true that, amidst all the stir and changefulness which makes our life so vastly different from that of which Cassian, for instance, wrote, there are many whose alacrity, endurance, courage, hopefulness in pressing on towards goodness, in “laying hold on the eternal life,” is, insensibly perhaps, relaxed and dulled by causes such as these; whether by the encroachment of imaginary needs upon the rightful territory of a resolute will, or by the suspicion, hardly formulated or recognized, it may be, yet none the less enfeebling, that Christianity has set the aim of moral effort unreasonably high, that men have been struggling towards a goal which they were never meant to think of, and that it is not worth while to try for such a state of heart and mind as the Bible and the saints propose to us. And wherever any such renunciation is being made, there is the beginning of accidie; for that listlessness or despondency concerning the highest life has always been a distinctive note of it. It would be cruelly and obviously unjust to link the sin too closely with such tendencies as have here been indicated. There are very many who go on (not knowing, it may be, by Whose strength they persevere), bravely lifting up the aim and effort of their life high above the reach of doubts which yet they cannot dissipate; there are very many who, professing full belief of all that can give worth and hope and seriousness to a man’s life, yet yield their joyless hearts to sloth or sullenness, as though the love of God had brought no call to strive, no strength for victory, no hope of glory among the trials of this world. All that is here asserted is that there are characteristic troubles of our age which easily fall in with the assailing force of accidie; that the evidence of its persistence does not lie wholly in individual experience; and that it would be unwise to think that we may abate in any way our watchfulness against it.
And now, as ever, over against Accidie rises the great grace of Fortitude; the grace that makes men undertake hard things by their own will wisely and reasonably. There is something in the very name of Fortitude which speaks to the almost indelible love of heroism in men’s hearts; but perhaps the truest Fortitude may often be a less heroic, a more tame and business-like affair than we are apt to think. It may be exercised chiefly in doing very little things, whose whole value lies in this, that, if one did not hope in God, one would not do them; in secretly dispelling moods which one would like to show; in saying nothing about one’s lesser troubles and vexations; in seeing whether it may not be best to bear a burden before one tries to see whither one can shift it; in refusing for one’s self excuses which one would not refuse for others. These, anyhow, are ways in which a man may every day be strengthening himself in the discipline of Fortitude; and then, if greater things are asked of him, he is not very likely to draw back from them. And while he waits the asking of these greater things, he may be gaining from the love of God a hidden strength and glory such as he himself would least of all suspect; he may be growing in the patience and perseverance of the saints. For most of us the chief temptation to lose heart, the chief demand upon our strength, comes in the monotony of our failures, and in the tedious persistence of prosaic difficulties; it is the distance, not the pace, that tries us. To go on choosing what has but a look of being the more excellent way, pushing on towards a faintly glimmering light, and never doubting the supreme worth of goodness even in its least brilliant fragments,–this is the normal task of many lives; in this men show what they are like. And for this we need a quiet and sober Fortitude, somewhat like that which Botticelli painted and Mr. Ruskin has described. Let us hear, by way of ending for this essay, his description of her (57).
“What is chiefly notable in her is–that you would not, if you had to guess who she was, take her for Fortitude at all. Everybody else’s Fortitudes announce themselves clearly and proudly. They have tower-like shields and lion-like helmets, and stand firm astride on their legs, and are confidently ready for all comers.”
“But Botticelli’s Fortitude is no match, it may be, for any that are coming. Worn, somewhat; and not a little weary, instead of standing ready for all comers, she is sitting, apparently in reverie, her fingers playing restlessly and idly–nay, I think, even nervously–about the hild of her sword.
“For her battle is not to begin to-day; nor did it begin yesterday. Many a morn and eve have passed since it began–and now–is this to be the ending day of it? And if this–by what manner of end?
“That is what Sandro’s Fortitude is thinking, and the playing fingers about the sword-hilt would fain let it fall, if it might be; and yet, how swiftly and gladly will they close on it, when the far-off trumpet blows, which she will hear through all her reverie!”
Christ Church, Christmas, 1800.
After typing out this entire essay I discovered that a friend of mine had already done it. Oh well, it was a good exercise. However, I am not going to type out the footnotes. If you wish to refer to footnotes please go to his web page: