Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lenten Thoughts - Accidie

Jason Fisher has a fascinating blog called Lingwë: Musings of a Fish. While Lingwë is not a religious blog, Fisher does write about the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Of particular interest for my purposes today is his entry on accidie. In reflecting on Lent, I appreciated Fisher's reference to St. Thomas Aquinas, who said that accidie was a torpor mentis (a "torpor of the mind"). Lent is a time to rouse us from our mental and spiritual complacency and reinvigorate our relationship with the Lord.

A while back I talked about St. Anthony of the Desert and the Desert Fathers. Accidie figures prominently in their recorded sayings. Here is the first saying from St. Anthony, found in Sr. Benedicta Ward's The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (pp. 1-2).

When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.

Lent is a time to be reassured that God wants us to draw closer to him, and that the ways to do that, while challenging to be sure, are not extraordinarily complex. And God is there to help us.

In St. Anthony's vision, making God the focus of our lives is the way to him. To modern minds, St. Anthony's vision looks like a division of the day into what is oriented toward God (prayer) and what is not (work). However, that is not the case. St. Anthony is being shown that prayer and work are two sides of the same coin. If we do it right, work has a spiritual dimension. Pope John Paull II, in his encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), wrote that through work man contributes "above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family." The last section of the encyclical concerns "Elements for a Spirituality of Work" (24-27). The motto of the Benedictines is ora et labora - pray and work. In The Practice of the Presence of God, it is said of Brother Lawrence: "That with him the set times of prayer were not different from other times; that he retired to pray, according to the directions of his superior, but that he did not want such retirement, nor ask for it, because his greatest business did not divert him from God" (Second Conversation).

The plaiting of the rope that St. Anthony does is a metaphor for the intertwined nature of prayer and work when they are united for the greater glory of God. Proper work and prayer take us out of ourselves, out of our torpor of mind, and direct us toward God. May our Lent follow such a path.

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