Wednesday Post 3: "A light when all other lights go out"
A personal meditation on Tolkien and the demon Acedia
Now you’re stuck, but that’s not the worst of it…
It’s late Thursday night. There’s a reason I didn’t write this on Wednesday; I was snared. I was caught in a web of dullness, tiredness, numbness, mental darkness and immobility. I had a bad case of Acedia on Wednesday. So bad I felt as though I could hardly move or keep my eyes open. I tried to read, tried to write or at least take notes, tried to order my thoughts but I felt caught and half-drugged or as if I was under some kind of strange mental spell. It really did feel like being ill, like a kind of mental nausea for which I was desperate to get some clean air. I left the house, like a person escaping prison, and rode my bike in the cool evening air to the village and back. It helped.
Today I had an appointment to keep; a realtor was coming to see the house and take some photos (I have to move eventually, though I don’t know when) so I had to spend most of the day getting the place very clean and tidy, all clutter put out of sight. And this physical activity, connected to something outside my own mind, that forced me away from the distraction-machine, snapped me out of the spell.
I wanted to write about it tonight, though it’s late and I should stop soon and sleep, before I lose my nerve. I’m conscious that I’m admitting something shameful, and this makes clear to me that I am not talking only about an illness of the mind, something psychological, but a disease of the will: I could not make myself write. This is crucial to understand, and I think I haven’t fully understood it until now.
I was unable to act. Something, some core aspect of my being was disabled; my will, the main faculty of my soul, was as unresponsive as an unconscious person’s mind. If the illness did not come along with a deadening of the mind I would find it terrifying that this is something out of my control.
But now that my head is clearer, I do find it terrifying, and I am in a state of dread at the possible consequence of it. How can a conscious person not be in control? How can a person still in his right mind be nevertheless unable to act? And what if - and this has my gut clenched in real fear - what if I can’t break this spell? How long can it go on? What will happen to me if I don’t break it?
Clearly there is something more to this than a psychological illness, a category of ailment that psychologists are unable to address. This is why I’m grateful that I have other influences in my life, other people to turn to, who know more about it, even if they’ve been dead for centuries.
An “evil disposition of the will”
The Desert Fathers and great spiritual writers of the 1st centuries of Christianity knew a thing or two about the human person, body, soul and mind. One of the things that can convince us of the truth of the notion of a universally shared “human nature” is the fact that a group of wise and observant men were writing 1700 years ago about things that are instantly recognisable to us today.
These were monks, profoundly practical men, who knew how to survive not only the unforgiving physical rigours of life in the Egyptian desert but how to treat the spiritual life in the same practical way. There was nothing airy-fairy about St. Anthony of the Desert, St. John Cassian and St. Evagrius of Pontus.
And whenever it begins in any degree to overcome any one, it either makes him stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work, and it makes him continually go round, the cells of the brethren and the monasteries, with an eye to nothing but this; where or with what excuse he can presently procure some refreshment. For the mind of an idler …loses itself in their affairs and business, and is thus little by little ensnared by dangerous occupations, so that, just as if it were bound up in the coils of a serpent, it can never disentangle itself again and return to the perfection of its former profession.
That was the description of the effects of Acedia on a monk of the 4th century by the great spiritual writer, St. John Cassian. Cassian described this affliction in The Institutes, his book on the spiritual life of monks: an “evil disposition of the will,” “weariness,” “distress of heart,” and “dejection.” St. Evagrius of Pontus (whom we will talk about tomorrow) called it “listlessness.” Others have called it “despondency,” “sadness at divine things”.
Cassian tells us very specifically how to recognise it:
“It is especially trying to solitaries, and a dangerous and frequent foe to dwellers in the desert; and especially disturbing to a monk about the sixth hour1, like some fever which seizes him at stated times, bringing the burning heat of its attacks on the sick man at usual and regular hours. Lastly, there are some of the elders who declare that this is the ‘noonday demon’ spoken of in the ninetieth Psalm.”
Today, finally, I have turned mentally and faced the thing stalking me, and seen what it is through the eyes of this old man of the desert. I keep coming back to that expression: the mind and soul are “…little by little ensnared … just as if it were bound up in the coils of a serpent, it can never disentangle itself again…”
And this is the thing that has me in dread, now that I’ve given it some real thought: “never disentangle itself again.” Never. These ancient monks do not use words lightly or carelessly as we do. I read this today and finally understood how far it really is possible for it to go. This thing will ruin me, utterly and forever. And I’m more than half stuck already.
“A light, when all other lights go out.”
Tolkien’s description of Frodo and Sam’s experience in the lair of the monster Shelob - a gigantic spider-like creature, sentient, ancient, evil and above all hungry - is something worth revisiting, particularly if we think about it as a metaphor for what’s ailing us.
Shelob, like Ungoliant before her, had a power of darkening the mind, dulling the senses, her evil body and ravenous mind churning out an impenetrable blackness that snuffed out all hope of light. Upon entering her lair, Frodo and Sam found themselves having to grope their way forward, utterly blind:
“Here the air was still, stagnant, heavy and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thoughts. Night had always been, and always would be, and night was all.”
At first the tunnel is “high and wide” and surprisingly smooth under foot. After a time walking in it, “their senses became duller, both touch and hearing seemed to grow numb.” Soon the evil oppression of Shelob’s “unlight” thickens both the air and their minds. “The breathlessness of the air was growing as they climbed; and now they seemed often in the blind dark to sense some resistance thicker than the foul air.” For some time the Hobbits have felt soft unclean things brushing against their hands and faces, “long tentacles or hanging growths, perhaps.”
Finally the Hobbits reach the opening to the heart of the lair where the monstrous spider lurks unseen. From it comes “a reek so foul and a sense of lurking malice so intense that Frodo reeled.” He finds Sam’s hand in the dark and “said in a hoarse breath without voice, ‘It all comes from here, the stench and the peril.’”
“Calling up his remaining strength and resolution, he dragged Sam to his feet and forced his own limbs to move.” A few steps further on, maybe past that opening or maybe not, “suddenly it was easier to move as if some hostile will for the moment had released them.” But a little further along, they come to the dreadful realisation that they have walked into a trap and whatever-it-was had been playing with them. “They had not gone more than a few yards when from behind them came a sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long, venomous hiss…”
It is to Sam, the helper and protector, that the saving vision comes: “Then as he stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw a light: a light in his mind, almost unbearably bright at first, as a sun-ray to the eyes of one long hidden in a windowless pit. Then the light became colour: green, gold, silver, white. Far off, as in a little picture drawn by elven-fingers, he saw the Lady Galadriel standing on the grass in Lorien, and gifts were in her hands. ‘And you, Ring-bearer,’ he heard her say, remote but clear, ‘for you I have prepared this.’”
Sam cries out to Frodo to remember, “The Lady’s gift! The star-glass!” And Frodo, whose mind had almost shut down entirely at the horrors, woke enough to remember, “A light when all other lights go out. And now indeed light alone can help us.”
When Frodo remembers the Phial of Galadriel, a crystal bottle containing an ancient hallowed light, he cries out words he doesn’t understand but that come to him as an angelic gift to his tormented mind. In the heart of her lair, where her power of will-sucking darkness is strongest, Shelob is not bothered by Frodo’s sudden Providential burst of Elvish glossolalia. “Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima!2”
But the words themselves, as well as the burst of the ancient holy light from the glass, hearten the hobbits and give them strength for the fight. This was a powerful insight from the deeply contemplative Catholic, Tolkien; it is no strength of this little Hobbit of the Shire, already exhausted by his long labour of carrying the Ring, but the words themselves, the power of the Word, that lend strength to the Hobbits’ minds and bodies.
And this is how we fight; not with our own strength, but with the strength lent to us from on high. Evagrius of Pontus has a little book - that I just bought for my Kindle - that gives a series of specific Scriptural passages which a person in desperation can use to battle demons - real-life spiritual combat in the 4th century manner. The 2009 edition has been titled “Talking back - a monastic handbook for combating demons,” and he doesn’t mean it metaphorically. The demon whispers evil suggestions to the mind of the patient; it is an ancient monastic practice, taken from the example of the Temptation of Christ, of “talking back” in Scriptural passages at each evil notion. The devil comes to tempt the fasting Christ, who has gone alone into the desert, saying, “Turn these stones into bread…” and Christ teaches us how to respond: “It is written…”
So we must “talk back” but we do not look to our own strength, nor our own words to respond. And this practice of making Scripture into our own thoughts was a big part of the arsenal of weapons of the monastic “combat of the desert.”
Evagrius a great scholar, gives us a list of the subtle, sticky, plausible-sounding suggestions of the Demon of Listlessness. “Against the thought of Listlessness that shuns the reading of and meditation on spiritual words and which advises us to ask the Lord that we might learn the Scriptures [miraculously] through His Spirit: ‘And the book of this law shall not depart from your mouth, and you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may know how to do all the things that are written, and you will prosper… Look, I have commanded you.” (Joshua 1:8-9)
And he gives us direct prayers, pleadings for rescue: “To the Lord concerning the thoughts of Listlessness that persist in me: ‘Look upon my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.’” (Ps. 24:18)
“When all other lights go out…”
I think Shelob, the “last child of Ungoliant” - is a good metaphor for the demon Acedia. She lures you in to a trackless labyrinth of tunnels, each darker than the last, leading nowhere but all trending toward the heart of her lair, all lined with sticky webs. Finally you are trapped in a hopeless tangle of webs - distraction after distraction - a snare from which, once you are wholly caught, you cannot even cut your way free. Then once you’re well in, weak, tired, unable to fight, she stabs you with a poison that entirely defeats your will and renders you “limp as a fish,” paralysed, immobile, helpless. Then she winds you up in the webs and hangs you up in a cave of her lair for slow, leisurely consumption.
From this terrible, slow fate, rescue me, O Lord!
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
and my bones waste away.
Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbours,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
Make your face shine on your servant;
save me in your steadfast love!
It’s 1:30. Time to follow the Rule and go to sleep.
We’ll talk more tomorrow.
Quenya, the ancient Elvish language of the blessed realm of the Valar: “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars,” an invocation of the half-elvish mariner who brought the fabled Silmaril back to Valinor to beg the help of the Valar in the long war against Morgoth. The only mortal being ever to walk those hallowed shores, Earendil’s request was granted, but he was changed and never allowed to set foot on mortal soil again. Instead he forever sails the night sky, carrying the Silmaril jewel on his brow.