The following talk was delivered at the Men’s Prayer Breakfast at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church:
One of my favorite authors, GK Chesterton, once said: “There are no uninteresting things. Just uninterested people.” I think he’s right. The world around us is objectively interesting. The people, the places, the animals the colors, smells, sights… existence itself is miraculous and fascinating. Happy people see the world and are caught up in wonder — Rightly-ordered people see God’s work and find themselves captivated… they are astonished that they exist at all. Remember the words of Genesis Chapter 1: “And God saw that it was good.” Where then does boredom fit into this picture?
Most people assume that boredom just means you don’t have anything to do. But I don’t buy that. And it doesn’t seem like the Tradition of the Church does either. No, at the heart of boredom, something else deeper is going on. Remember, reality… is interesting. So tonight, I’d like to unpack what boredom is, and how we can be cured of an especially dangerous brand of boredom.… namely Spiritual Boredom, also known as “acedia” — the so-called 8th Deadly Sin.
But first, let’s define plain old boredom. Did you know that the word “boredom” didn’t even really become a part of our everyday language until the 19th Century? Pretty interesting. At any rate, boredom can be described as a feeling of weariness, apathy, disinterest… or even disgust.
Given this definition, boredom is clearly more than just Not having something to do. Take our own lives for example. We have plenty of stuff to do. In fact, I suspect that we’re almost always ‘doing.’ We have work, school, friendships, family, church, and so much more… all of this keeps us VERY busy… not to mention in our free time, we have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Snapchat, and the newest Scotts Addition micro-brewery to occupy us…. We have plenty to do.
And yet, despite all this, many of us still find ourselves feeling bored time and time again. I lose interest time and time again.
How did we get here?
Granted in many cases, a superficial boredom… a temporary, dry dissatisfaction… can actually be a blessing in disguise. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that sometimes boredom can actually remind us that this world is not our final home. Each one of us was created to rest only in the Lord, our Creator. We were designed to fully enjoy God in heaven and nothing less! All of Creation points to that end. And it cannot replace it. When we find in ourselves a strange, bored, dissatisfaction with the passing things of this world, we can joyfully remember that those things were never intended to totally satisfy us. In a way, we’re supposed to feel bored with this dying world…because in the end only God is sufficient for us. So yes, there is such a thing as a “healthy boredom.” Or at least a boredom that has the capacity of pointing us back to God and His will for us.
But what if….. we get bored with God himself? What happens then? What if we grow weary, apathetic, disinterested… even disgusted!… by the very God who is our only option for complete satisfaction?
The Church Fathers call this terrible predicament acedia. Acedia is sort of a bored laziness, but it’s different… it’s more subtle and therefore more dangerous. It can be defined as… an interior sadness or apathy towards God, who ought to be the source of our greatest motivation and joy. In other words, acedia is a spiritual boredom, a boredom towards the Infinite Love of God.
Think about it: Someone who suffers from acedia, from a spiritual boredom, is bored with the very God in whom our deepest longings find their object. Where, then, can they turn to find their truest rest?
Sacred Scripture gives us a very clear example of spiritual boredom when it describes the Israelites wandering in the desert. I’d like to share a passage with you all that might help us get to the heart of what’s really going on with acedia:
This is a reading from the book of Numbers:
The people became impatient on the way….[and they] spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Number 21:5
Right away, we notice something quite revealing… “The people became impatient on the way.” The people have been wandering in the desert for years on end. And they are rightfully REALLY tired. But let us not forget that God has been visibly with them the entire time. During the day, a pillar of cloud went before them. At night, a pillar of fire. God was close to them. And yet, they grow impatient. So we can say, one symptom of spiritual boredom is an impatient heart that gets tired of the journey, even when God is close.
And this lines up with the Church’s view of acedia — It always has a temporal aspect to it. In other words, time is factor. We want God to hurry up. And we get impatient. But in so doing, we forget that God’s been with us the entire time. Still, we can’t quite see the end of our journey… and we can’t imagine how it’ll end. So we get anxious and tired at the mere thought of taking one more step.
Second of all, we read that the people “spoke against God and against Moses.” Their impatience has led them not to trust God and his servant, but to get angry with them. They even begin to question God’s motives! — “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” It’s hard to believe, but the people would seem to prefer slavery with a full belly than God’s freedom and temporary discomfort! They long for Egypt’s food and drink… they look back.
Again, this is a classic symptom of acedia… the Desert Fathers tell us that the person suffering from acedia experiences an intense desire to run away from the Christian life… back to their old ways. “It’ll be better somewhere else!” they say… Sometimes it seems like before God got involved in our lives, things were so much easier. “Why did God bring us here to die?” we might ask! But as Augustine once said, that freedom we enjoyed so much was the freedom of a runaway. It was never real freedom.
Third, we hear the people’s complaint: “There’s no food and no water.” This is a flat out lie. Up to this point in the story, God had repeatedly provided food and water for the people. They had enough. But they wanted more. They were forgetful of God’s provision.
Last of all, we hear the people admit that God actually has given them food, but it’s not good enough: “We detest this miserable food,” they say. What God gave them wasn’t good enough. It’s not a cheeseburger, whatever! They had lost their taste for it. They had gotten bored with it.
This is the real dagger of spiritual boredom… We become ungrateful. We get sick of God’s medicine that heal us, that makes us whole.
So to recap, the Israelites get impatient, they want to run away, and they are sick of what God has chosen to give them.
My question for you all tonight is this: Have you ever felt spiritually bored? Does any of this apply to you and your relationship with God? I think a lot of people experience this and don’t know what it is… they feel spiritually bored, and they wonder: “What am I doing wrong?” Or worse… they decide that God just doesn’t do it for them. And they give up on faith entirely.
I can speak for myself, that acedia has been one of the BIGGEST and most unexpected struggles for me since entering seminary life. For seminarians, the Mass, the Sacraments, Theology, and everything that goes along with all that… becomes very VERY familiar. Maybe a little too familiar. We’re always in church. In fact, we kind of live in one. We have our seminary-buzzwords, we all wear the same roman collars, we blandly assume that everyone’s on the same page theologically in our safe little Catholic bubble…… and we can forget that Christianity is radiant, beautiful, and revolutionary. In fact, if we aren’t careful, we can start to get bored with God and the Church. It becomes mundane. And we can grow cold and hard.
So what can we do to fight off spiritual boredom?
I’d like to propose just TWO practical things to keep in mind that will help us escape spiritual boredom if we already have it, and how to avoid it if we haven’t!
Persevere. Like I said before, usually when we feel bored, we assume it’s because we have nothing better to do. So our natural inclination is to start looking for something to fill the void. We grasp for something… anything… that will eliminate the boredom and FAST. But the Fathers of the Church unanimously say this is the opposite of what we should be doing! Over and over, their advice to us is the same: “Don’t run away. Stay right where you are.” Acedia will drive us to selfishly seek out an endless series of distractions and compensations — some of them good in themselves, but ultimately unhelpful and draining to us — when what we really need is perseverance — to stubbornly decide that we’ll stay put, and trust that God will act on HIS time, and not ours. The Psalmist sings so beautifully: “BE STILL… and know that I am God.” The answer is not more and more activity that distracts us, but an interior stability that opens us up to respond to God’s presence HERE and NOW.
That means that when mass is boring and inconvenient, we go anyways. Or when being kind and thoughtful is repulsive, we do it anyways. Or when prayer is unappetizing, we pray anyways. St Ambrose once said it really well: “Neglect of prayer results in indifference to prayer.” What is boredom but a sad indifference? So we need to hold to our healthy, life-giving routines even when we’d rather be doing something else.
Remember. Memory plays such a huge role in our relationship with God, but we tend to be really forgetful. So it’s important to continually remind ourselves of what God has already done for us. Never forget how he called you to your vocation. Or how He helped you through a really rough patch. Or how he provided for you when you thought nothing was working out. What were Jesus’ words on the night of the Last Supper? DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME. Something that works for me is keeping a regular prayer journal. I’ve been doing that since 2011, and I have like 7 or 8 little notebooks full of thoughts, quotes, and prayers. It helps me to remember what God has done. How he has worked in my life. When I’m bored, dry, or can’t even remember why I’m in seminary at all, I can go read those prayers that first led me to the decision to enter. And then it all comes back to me, because Our Lord stands outside time. Those moments are just as present to Him now as they were to me 3 or 4 years ago.
And this brings me to my final point:
As bored as we can get with God, the INCREDIBLE news I want to share with you all tonight is that GOD is NEVER bored with us. In fact, He is fascinated with us. He is completely and totally in love with us, and he is interested in everything we go through. Nothing is boring to him. Unwearied is His love for us.
Even when we are caught in acedia and spiritual boredom, it is ALWAYS the Lord who takes the first step. He always initiates a transformational relationship with us.
And how has the Lord initiated a relationship with us? To put it bluntly: Christmas. That’s how. It’s precisely in His Son, Jesus Christ — the Word Made Flesh that he initiates a relationship with us. The Incarnation is how God makes Himself known to us: “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says. John of the Cross once said that “God has spoken so completely through his own Word (Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh) that He chooses to add nothing. He has given us everything, his own Son.” If we grow closer and closer to Jesus, we cannot possibly grow bored with God. He says it himself in the book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.”
And yet, Jesus doesn’t offer us a cheap novelty fades over time. No, this newness is the refreshing and continual unveiling of the mystery of our faith: That Christ Jesus has come in the flesh. He truly became one of us, so that we could be right with God. He truly took on a body, which He then offered totally to the Father — A Body which He continues to give us every single day in the Eucharist — Our daily bread. This is a mystery that we can fall deeper and deeper into for all eternity without ever reaching the bottom!
How can we be bored with that? How can we ever grow weary of such a profound gift? None of us should be able to look at a Crucifix, understand the Love it stands for, and remain apathetic. Feel free to reject it. Ignore it. But whatever it is, it’s not boring. Remember what your God has done for you, even when our culture shouts at us — “Be bored! Be apathetic! Religion is lame!” Listen to Our God instead, who silently reminds us in the breaking of the bread — “BE ASTONISHED at all that I’ve done for you. Everything I have is yours. I have loved you till the end.”
I’d like to end with a quote by CS Lewis, an author who played a huge role in my own conversion. This quote comes at the very end of his Chronicles of Narnia, and it is a gorgeous picture of entering into Heaven, which is anything but boring, anything but apathetic: “Now at last” Lewis writes, “they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”