22 Oct From the Tradition: John Cassian on Restlessness
The driver of the white convertible rests one arm casually on the steering wheel. He has long hair and is wearing bracelets. Next to him stands another young man—the roof is down—with one knee and one hand on top of the windscreen for balance, and the other hand out-flung. His head is thrown back, and his eyes are closed; his denim shirt is open almost to his navel. Outside, a desert landscape blurs; the car is travelling at speed. Written across the image in large white letters are the words, “I will not sit at home collecting dust.”
I came across this advertisement for Levi’s jeans again recently while going through some of my old talks. It is at least ten years old now but retains a certain enduring power. I find myself almost half convinced, even now in my muddling middle years, that, yes, surely the fullness of life is to be found elsewhere; I’ve sat at home for too long.
We are perhaps tempted to think of this restlessness as a peculiarly modern phenomenon, one amplified by these COVID years, but consider this 4th century description of a monk struggling to sit alone in his cell:
It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place…
This account comes from John Cassian’s Institutes, a classic text of early Christian monasticism arising from the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers. Both the monk and the young men in jeans are gripped by the same restless spirit. Cassian goes on to describe the monk’s escalating struggle. He begins to look with scorn on his fellow monks and imagines the promise of greater spiritual growth if only he could move to another monastery. Every few minutes, he sticks his head out of his cell to see if anyone is coming to visit. He stands outside “gazing at the sun as though it was tarrying to its setting.” He contemplates all the good he could do if he were to leave—the hospitality he could offer, the comfort he could give to the sick. Yes, he thinks, “he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly and with no profit in his cell.”
Laying this passage alongside the Levi’s advertisement is instructive. Both are desert scenes. Both cast home as holding their protagonists back from what they desire (for the cell is the home of the monk). But there the similarity ends. For Levi’s, restlessness—the desire to escape home—is cast as a virtue: follow its call to find life. For Cassian, the monk’s restlessness is an expression of a vice. The description sits in a section in the Institutes on the eight deadly sins that derail the monk’s life with God. The restless monk is struggling with acedia.
Acedia is a complex term with a complex history. The Greek word a-kedia means “lack of care.” Cassian calls it “a weariness or distaste of the heart.” For Aquinas, the root of acedia is “sadness about one’s spiritual good” (ST I-II, q.84, a.4). In short, acedia is when we resist the effort and demand required by love or vocation. The monk was called to stay in his cell to pray and meditate on God, but such work was hard and wearying. The temptation of acedia was to retreat from the effort required. Therefore, in Cassian’s description, acedia can present not just as restlessness but idleness, listlessness, boredom, as well as distraction and overwork, all of which tempt the monk to forget or neglect the actions and habits required by his vocation.
When I first read Cassian’s description, I laughed because I recognised myself in it. To read it as a description of a vice, therefore, is bracing. I confess to some discomfort here. Acedia is a rich term, and any meaningful treatment needs to discern the difference between clinical depression and acedia, as well as acknowledging that there are sometimes good reasons for restlessness or tiredness or busy-work. There is also a certain expansiveness in Cassian’s description that leaves space for the overly scrupulous to label almost any action or feeling as sinful. But Cassian is not talking about momentary distraction or the occasional sense of the grass being greener elsewhere. Acedia is a habit of the heart, a willed, persistent resistance—in weariness or restlessness or distraction—to the obligations of love and vocation.
The Church is a living fellowship spread through time, and Cassian is lively company. That part of me that is stirred by the Levi’s advertisement does well to heed my brother’s warning. Home is for me a site of both love and vocation, as a father, husband, home-owner, pet-owner, and neighbour. It is a source, then, of much that is good and nourishing in my life. But it is also a site of obligation. Home comes with burdens of work and responsibility (physical, emotional, financial, relational, and spiritual) that can weigh heavily. It’s not that I am in danger of jumping into the convertible (there’s a concerning lack of seatbelts, for one thing). But I am, from time to time, tempted to resist the demands placed on me by home: I distract myself with my phone instead of engaging my kids; I retreat instead of having the difficult but needed conversation with my wife; I put off sanding and repainting the peeling window-sill; I lose myself in the fantasy of a childless holiday in Europe rather than attend to the reality of the screaming match unfolding between my kids in the lounge. Cassian challenges me to see all this for what it is: sin. Or, at least, a temptation to sin if I allow it to become my habitual way in the world. Cassian encourages me to recognise the demands of daily life not as a distraction from true life but occasions through which God is at work to grow me and draw me closer to him. The cure for acedia, therefore, is to stay put. It is not to flee; it is not to consume (the real Levi’s solution). It is not even to focus on changing my feelings. It is to persevere in the right and good despite my momentary feelings. “Acedia should not be evaded by running away from it,” Cassian observes, “but overcome by resisting it.” This does not mean sitting at home collecting dust. Sitting is not the only verb associated with home; there is also home-making, home repair, home care, housekeeping. There is plenty of good to get on with and life to be found in it. And if there is dust collecting, I am called to get up and grab the duster, even when I don’t feel like it.
John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 267.
(Image: “John Cassian,” Unknown Author, Public Domain)