Answering those spiritual dry spells
Back around the Fourth of July, I couldn’t get interested in anything spiritual. I mean nothing. Prayer was a bore and Mass was drudgery. I thought that if I heard “I Want to Walk as the Child of the Light” one more time at Mass I’d puke. I had had dry spells in the spiritual life before, but this particular desert was the Sahara.
So I decided to double down. More Scripture. Turned to the Gospel of Luke, my favorite Gospel. Got as far as Mary going to visit Elizabeth before waving the white flag.
Flipped to the Old Testament, the Song of Songs. Read to 1:14, but grew impatient with “My lover is for me a cluster of henna from the vineyards of Engedi. Henna? Engedi? Really? I thought about reading one of Paul’s letters, but said to myself, “Who are you kidding? Paul who loves sentences a mile long with subordinate clause after subordinate clause? I don’t have time for that!” So I shelved the Bible.
Ok, how about a favorite author on the spiritual life? I pulled down volume six of Thomas Merton’s 7-volume journal. Flipped it open at random. Where did I land? May 1966 when the 51-year old monk was in love with, and surreptitiously seeing, a pretty student nurse half his age. Normally, I’d find that amusing. Now, no help at all.
How about audio-visuals? I slipped a DVD entitled “Into Great Silence” into the machine. It’s a documentary about a bunch of monks known as Carthusians and has won awards. It’s 162 minutes long. I managed to watch seven.
In desperation I turned on EWTN; fell asleep.
And on it went.
Angry with myself I called a halt to all effort. I didn’t even crack open the breviary for a week. I went to Mass out of obligation, but I knew what the problem was.
The ancients called it acedia (pronounced uh –SEE-dee-uh): spiritual listlessness; not caring or concerned.
Evagrius (4th century, born in modern-day Turkey) in his work, The Praktikos, called acedia “the most grievous” of temptations and advised one to be “patient” in the face of its attack.
Fine. What did I care?
One day during this attack of lethargy, as I was sitting out on the patio with the sun was going down, I watched dark clouds stack up in the northern sky. Soon, the wind kicked up and the rain blew. A normal individual would have sought shelter. I just sat there. I was being patient.
A few days later my son and his wife and two children came for a visit. About 2 p.m. on the day they arrived, I went for a walk with my son and nearly 3-year old granddaughter. We headed for Wooster Lake, about a half mile from the house, bringing along two slices of bread for my granddaughter to feed to the fish that swarm around the pier.
When we arrived at the lake and walked out onto the pier, my granddaughter began throwing into the lake the chunks of bread I handed her. She giggled when she watched the clusters of bluegills attack the fodder.
When we returned to the house my wife asked our granddaughter what she did on her walk. She replied that she gave bread to the fish, and then she swam with the fish. She never touched the water, but I liked her exaggeration.
Later that day when my son and his family returned home, I wandered upstairs and pulled from my bookcase, notthe Bible or some book by a spiritual master or some dry tome about Arius. Instead, I pulled down a book I must have read a million times when I was a kid: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
The old battered paperback volume felt soft and supple in my hands. I had bought it from the Scholastic Books sale we always had when I was in elementary school. I scanned through it to my favorite parts: “ransom,” the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, “mumps.”
And then I came across four lines that were underlined. I had underlined these words years ago when I was a kid, so we’re talking fifty years ago, a half-century. The lines are the last three sentences of chapter eighteen. Here they are:
“We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”
When I finished reading those words my mind flashed to the Ohio River and the Horseshoe Bend at Leavenworth, Ind. and the eagles that patrol that water from the cliffs on the Indiana side of the river.
And then…just like that…the acedia was gone.