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Despondency

March 12, 2012 Length: 14:36

Today, Dr. Rossi distinguishes between despondency and depression and helps us recognize and deal with it so we can be a healing presence to others.

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Today, we will reflect on becoming a healing presence in this little podcast entitled, “Fighting Despondency,” also called acedia. Despondency: a heaviness, which blocks virtually any possibility we have to have much left over to give to others.

To become an increasingly more healing presence, we start with ourselves, allowing the Lord Jesus Christ to lighten our burdens. And today’s topic will be about feeling the heaviness of our interior, our sense of burdens. We all seem to have more than enough projects to do, to-do lists to accomplish, and general life demands. So, none of us, certainly not me and, I don’t doubt, not you, needs more weight in our metaphorical backpack. Uh-uh!

Beginning with a quote from Abba Poemen about despondency, acedia: “The old man said to him”—Abba Poemen—”’Accidie is there every time one begins something, and there is no worse passion, but if a man recognizes it for what it is, he will gain peace.’” That’s the end of the quote.

And I must admit, I have pondered this quote for many, many years, because yes, the Desert Fathers do speak in a way that’s very strong, and yes, in this case, Abba Poemen says that despondency is the worst of passions: “there is no worse passion.” Yet, if we see it for what it is, then we gain peace.

So the word acedia contains within itself many concepts: weariness [groans], despair, ennui, boredom, restlessness, impasse—big brick wall in front of me, it is an impasse; I can’t get past it—and futility. There seems to be no access, no door to a way out. To give in, shrug one’s shoulders and just give in, is to despair.

To enter into the acedia, that is to say, to not give in, to become aware of it, can be a creative growth moment. It actually can be a transformation as we begin to go through it. Rather like being in the proverbial tunnel, really dark, at midnight, with a bend in the tunnel so you can’t see anything on the other side. But we keep on going through it. And what’s clear is there are no shortcuts. The only way out is in and a passage through.

Now, I’d also say very clearly that what I’m talking about today, despondency, is not depression, clinical depression. And you know that I’m a clinical psychologist, so I have to deal with this dysfunction, this problem. Depression is an illness. It really is a biochemical problem, usually just a depletion of serotonin. More complicated than that. But it’s a—it needs to be treated with counseling, perhaps medication. That’s depression.

On the other hand, acedia is a spiritual malady. It’s a sin, treated with repentance, which means change of mind. I change the way I’m looking at things. I change my interior landscape.

So the soul weariness, that “noonday demon,” too hot, oh, I’m in the desert and I just can’t seem to move, that spiritual malady, the list—sense of listlessness, where the day seems like it’s fifty hours long, apathy, absence of care, temptation, is to be resisted. We are to resist it. And we resist it in many different ways.

But one way is the slogan, “Do the next right thing.” That’s very hard. I really don’t want to do—I know what the next right thing is; I just don’t want to do it. I don’t seem to be able to do it.

With that, there’s a wonderful song I’m now going to play that takes us much more into the mood of acedia.

Reader: The Great Prokeimenon in the Eighth Tone.
Turn not away thy face from thy child, for I am afflicted;
Hear me speedily. Draw near unto my soul and deliver me.

Choir: Turn not away thy face from thy child, for I am afflicted;
Hear me speedily. Draw near unto my soul and deliver me.

Reader: Thy salvation, O God, has upheld me.

Choir: Turn not away thy face from thy child, for I am afflicted;
Hear me speedily. Draw near unto my soul and deliver me.

Reader: Let the poor see and be glad.

Choir: Turn not away thy face from thy child, for I am afflicted;
Hear me speedily. Draw near unto my soul and deliver me.

Reader: Seek God, and your soul shall live.

Choir: Turn not away thy face from thy child, for I am afflicted;
Hear me speedily. Draw near unto my soul and deliver me.

Reader: Turn not away thy face from thy child, for I am afflicted;

Choir: Hear me speedily. Draw near unto my soul and deliver me.

“Turn not thy face away from thy child, for I am afflicted.” And what Abba Poemen is saying, and what I’m trying to elaborate, is that a great affliction, he says the greatest of passions, is this sense of despondency, this acedia.

Now, every vice, and acedia is a vice, has a flipside that is a virtue. So the vice of anger, wanting to hurt someone, has as its flipside a vigorous, energetic fighting for righteous causes. Fighting for other people in need. Lust, which is a vice, has as its flipside, its virtue, a self-giving love that can endure all things.

We can ask the question, “Is there a flipside to acedia?” Yes, there is. The flipside is small—very small, tiny, nano, micro—thoughtful and timely acts that enhance our relationship with others. Really small, like a text message or a little card or a phone call. Meaning, that I really don’t feel like doing it, but at least I can do this much, and I do, do this much.

I recall one time I was in a different room and overheard my daughter talking to her husband. She said just a lovely sentence, as she typically does. She said, “I really don’t care where we go on vacation this summer, as long as I’m with you.” That is to say, what’s important is not the where, where we’re going, the destination; what’s important is our togetherness.

So we could say, “I don’t care where I go or when as long as I’m with Jesus. As long as I’m with the Lord within me. As long as I’m trying to do his will.”

Once I’ve started out to try to do the next right thing and overcome despondency, it’s crucial that I not rush to the end. Jump from here to the moon. One big leap.

Fr. Schmemann, when he was alive at St. Vladimir’s, used to say to the incoming seminarians, “Don’t try to do the entire seminary experience right away, because if you take that kind of a leap, you might break your leg.”

Well, isn’t that the point? We don’t rush to the end quickly, but we remain where we are for a time and trust that change is working within me, even though I seem to be stagnating. That’s the—sort of the paradox of it all.

And I’m reminded of one of the underpinnings of monasticism, which is repetition. I was a Roman Catholic monk for eleven years and loved it. And that’s a whole story in itself. But everything—I mean, the monastic life has—so, one wears the same clothes every day. I don’t have to choose whether I’m going to wear a blue or a white shirt. It’s decided. I don’t have to decide what I’m going to do at five o’clock at night. It’s decided. There are chapel services and so on. The day is structured, and a great deal of the activity is structured, in order to increase freedom.

Repetition is a hallmark, if it’s seen properly, of providing time, both physical time and mental time, to do more substantive things. So repetition can be life-giving, even though if one isn’t careful it brings with it the same—this sense of boredom. It’s like same old, same old, same old. So that’s what we’re fighting.

And what’s implied and what I will articulate clearly, that in a sense, we expect it. It’s going to happen. Every time we begin something, it’s going to happen. So, it’s almost like a friend. Since we expect it, we can embrace it and go into it and know that we can be, in a sense, giving something to God or cooperating with God because we are doing what we’re on the planet to do, apart from the way we feel.

I’ll end this podcast with the same quote I began, from Abba Poemen, who said, “Accidie”—despondency—“is there every time one begins something, and there is no worse passion,”—but, but, but—“but if a man recognizes it for what it is, he will gain peace.”


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