Teachings of the Desert Mothers: Accidie

We’re all probably familiar with the benefits of mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, meditation, and contemplative prayer, which is an ancient Christian mindfulness tradition. But when I talk to people about contemplative prayer or meditation, I typically hear two things. The first thing I hear is a dejected sigh followed by, “I know I should…” The second is “but it’s just so boring” or the related, “I’m just no good at it.”

It seems we know contemplative prayer is good for us, but, like broccoli, it is sometimes difficult for us to stomach. I know I have sat in prayer, felt too distracted, and given up, feeling worse about myself at the end of the process than I did before I got started. I’ve also experienced the excitement of getting a new prayer book (I’m really into Thomas Merton’s Book of Hours right now), which turns into shame and disappointment as the prayer book begins to collect dust just a few weeks later.

Living in the desert of Egypt in the fourth century, Amma Theodora taught her followers the concept of accidie. Accidie is the idea that when one begins a practice of prayer, specifically contemplative prayer, a feeling of boredem and dejection will settle in. 

It is good to live in peace, for the wise person practice perpetual prayer. It is truly a great thing for the ascetic to live in peace, especially for the younger ones. However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie, faint heartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray.

I’m struck by how Amma Theodora doesn’t have any caveats here. She doesn’t say “sometimes” or tell us “some people.” For her, accidie appears to be a fairly universal experience of preparing our souls for peace.

Whenever we think “I can’t pray; I’m no good at this,” we’re feeling accidie. Before settling in to write this post, I spent some time in prayer, and my legs fell asleep, my back hurt, and my knees started to ache. All of this, too, is accidie. The little voice that comes and says, “I can’t keep my focus today, I might as well get up and just check Twitter”—accidie. Accidie disguises itself as ephemeral busyness when I’m procrastinating on prayer time.

Amma Theodora’s experience wasn’t isolated: Evagrius of Pontus considered accidie one of the eight evil thoughts, and John Cassian called it “the noonday demon.” A thousand years later, St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the sorrow of accidie in his Summa Theologica.

But accidie doesn’t have to be a permanent condition of one’s prayer life. Amma Theodora also teaches us how to deal with this difficulty: perseverance and discipline.

There was in fact an ascetic who was seized by cold and fever every time prayers began, suffering from headaches, too. In this condition, the ascetic thought, ‘I am ill, and near to death; so now I will get up before I die and pray.’ By reasoning in this way, the ascetic exercised self-discipline. When finished praying, the fever abated. So, by reasoning in this way, the ascetic resisted, prayed, and was able to conquer unhelpful thoughts.

When we intentionally create a habit of sitting in the presence of the Divine, we guard ourselves against accidie. And when we return to the prayer mat, chair, or kneeler, time after time, that feeling gradually disappears. Accidie may ebb and flow as well, suddenly returning right at those moments when we think we’re finally getting to a place of enjoying our prayer life.

Cultivating a habit of prayer, forcing ourselves to persevere when we don’t want to even get started much less sit for the full time, and forgiving ourselves for the times we fall short are all a part of combating accidie.

I find great comfort in the fact that more than fifteen hundred years ago, a deeply spiritual and wise teacher taught that sometimes prayer just sucks. So when our prayer time sucks, we are a part of an ancient tradition of people struggling to sit in silence and pursue peace. But we can all get through it together. Amma Theodora has shown us the way.

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