Spiritual Despondency, Vanity of Vanities, Foolishness to the World, and Paradoxical Truths

It is rare for me to take notes during Mass. But today I did. The priest began his homily by referencing a book that he then encouraged us to read. The book is by Kathleen Norris and is called Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. The book is described on Amazon as “a personal and moving memoir that resurrects the ancient term acedia, or soul-weariness, and brilliantly explores its relevancy to the modern individual and culture.” Here is an excerpt from an excerpt on the meaning of the term and its significance in illuminating the nature of a struggle with spiritual despondency:

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.

The first reading at Mass today was from Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express;  the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance  of people yet to come by those who come after them.

Right after explaining acedia and reminding us of the first reading, the priest said:
“I am a celibate priest. Have you ever heard of anything more stupid than that?”

It was a striking thing to say. He continued, “Genesis tells us that we are made for community… Ecclesiastes tells us that ‘all is vanity’… I could have made a lot more money. But when you become conscious of emptiness and brokenness and then come to see this emptiness and brokenness in the light of the gospel, we begin to pray earnestly the prayer of the psalmist who prays: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Briefly this priest discussed Alcoholics Anonymous and how the process of moving from brokenness to freedom in fellowship with others that is so emphasized in the Twelve-Step Program is really quite like every soul’s journey of return to God.

The Christian message is foolishness to the world explains St. Paul:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. […] For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

G.K. Chesterton, in his chapter “The Paradoxes of Christianity” wrote, “It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.

This is important to bear in mind when reading the lives of the Saints. For example, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “The Lord told me once that it wasn’t obedience if I wasn’t resolved to suffer, that I should fix my eyes on what He suffered, and that all would be easy.” This profound desire for communion with God lead her to resolve, “I need no rest; what I need is crosses.”

Searching for purpose in this life, we often aim for success of the worldly variety. Every day I am asked dozens of time what I will do next in this life. “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established,” says a proverb.

I am a flower quickly fading
Here today and gone tomorrow
A wave tossed in the ocean
Vapor in the wind
Still You hear me when I’m calling
Lord, You catch me when I’m falling
And You’ve told me who I am
I am Yours, I am Yours
– Casting Crowns lyrics “Who Am I?”

It is easy to doubt God’s purposes. They are so foolish in a dark world that has not been illumined by the light of Christ. But Christ has come, is come, and will come again. And, as the priest today concluded, “[A life in Christ] surpasses any other ways in which we could move toward a fullness of life.”

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One thought on “Spiritual Despondency, Vanity of Vanities, Foolishness to the World, and Paradoxical Truths

  1. Thanks for mentioning that book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. I’ve always looked for books similar to Ecclesiastes, but haven’t really found anything like it.

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