John Cassian, the Spiritual Life and Covid
The pandemic and its resultant isolation have an effect on the psychological life of most of us. There are plenty of things out there about the effects on sleep, dreams, depression, and aspects of mental health. Spiritual well-being has also experienced an impact. I found help on the practice of the spiritual life in an unexpected source.
A year or so ago, a friend recommended a small book called Thoughts Matter – The Practice of the Spiritual Life, by Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B. This Benedictine prioress brings us back to John Cassian, a fourth-century monk. He invited his early Christian readers to seek God by knowing and stabilizing their thoughts.
Funk claims that “a mind at peace, stilled, available for conscious thinking at will is of major value for those of us who confront chaos, confusion, noise, and numbness.” Cassian and Funk help us see that all our random thoughts are clustered into several areas: food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia (or spiritual apathy), vainglory, and pride.
It was in reflecting on Funk’s chapter on acedia that all kinds of lights went on regarding the relationship between pandemic isolation and acedia.
Acedia is an area that we don’t talk about very much. Most of us don’t really understand what it is. Funk sees it as profound weariness of the soul. My heart is distressed. A turning point is my insight into the connection with our pandemic isolation was when she said that hermits and desert dwellers were especially prone to acedia.
In many respects, we have all been exposed to our hermit selves. What I mean by that is that the pandemic lockdowns and isolation have turned us inwards. Many of us turned to food or drink and other comforts. Perhaps the ones emerging intact from COVID will have become more monk-ish.
Funk says that most notions that are identified with acedia (spiritual sloth, laziness, etc.) don’t get to the heart of what it is, namely an illness of the soul. There have been many times this year when I have thought, I’m bored or I’m depressed or I am in a bad mood or I have no motivation or I’m listless.
Or I think, what’s the use, why am I doing all this? Sleep patterns are off. Dreams are stranger or more vivid than usual. Funk refers to Psalm 91’s image of the noonday devil. She speaks of the soul being weary.
John Cassian’s writings were primarily directed to monks, but Funk stresses that his teachings are instructive for all who take seriously the spiritual life. Cassian says that the best way out of acedia is to reverse all the tendencies that come from the thought. This requires knowing ourselves and our tendencies. Avoid laziness or idleness. Try to be more focused on work.
For me personally, it was recognizing that I was becoming too dependent on that drink of scotch in order to avoid the effects of acedia. The reliance was deadening me. Far better to feel the effects of the pandemic isolation than to cover them over!
Cassian and Funk have much more to offer us. I was struck by the reminder that acedia does have some advantages. For instance, the benefit of true leisure emerges. I think that I have become better this year at just relaxing and occupying myself with simple activities – a film on Netflix or sitting with a good book.