The evagatio mentis, St. Thomas calls it. A footloose restlessness of mind, a refusal to sit with oneself in the presence of God, choosing instead to dissipate the powers of the soul on baubles.
I’m coming out of just this state right now. It’s a periodic thing for me, coming on almost always in the late hours of the evening when I should be sleeping but can’t bring myself to let go of the day. My sense of the passage of time subsides and I linger in an agitated, restless lethargy. A desire to consume dominates all other inclinations, and I reach out for anything—books, music, movies, blogging, emailing, but especially casual reading on the internet, which requires no sustained effort and allows me to flit around from flower to flower. I remain no longer than is absolutely necessary to draw the nourishment required to fuel my move to the next thing that catches my attention. I’ll do anything to get the feeling that my time is being well spent, but the sugary sweetness I gulp only winds me tighter and pushes me on through thinner and thinner layers of superficiality.
Soon, it becomes impossible to dwell on anything for any period of time and I lapse into inactivity, my mind racing with the potential pastimes but unable to rouse myself to commit to one of them (least of all, sleep). I feel like I am going to explode from the inside of my chest. My whole self is consumed with a sort of anguish that is (bizarrely) delightful, overcome with “an irreverent urge to pour oneself out from the peak of the mind onto many things,” as Aquinas so aptly puts it. Prayer is never further from my mind than at this time, and if it does occur to me, almost always my response is to turn away.
The desert fathers spoke of this acedia as the “noonday devil.” Cassian notes that the monk is troubled with sloth chiefly about the sixth hour: it is like an intermittent fever, and inflicts the soul of the one it lays low with burning fires at regular and fixed intervals. For me, it’s quite different, coming on at that peculiar time of night when the passage of time seems to stop. Without the sun to move the shadows along the floor and charge across the sky, existence sinks into stillness. It has always seemed to me that restlessness at this time of night was a longing for some kind of absolute, for an existence unfettered by the stream of time in an unconditioned present. Perhaps there is some truth to this. CS Lewis remarked that our frustration with time’s sequence (“Look how the time flies!” “It seemed like hours while I waited for my food”) is like a fish constantly exclaiming how wet the water is. It’s just odd why we find time so restrictive if it’s all we know; my late nights spent in restlessness seem to be that reaching out for eternity of which he speaks.
Yet perhaps that is just what is wrong about them, for that is not the condition in which I, as a human being, live. To dwell on a form of existence in which “there is always time” while being a sort of creature that has very little time turns out to be less a pious longing than a grasping for what must not—cannot—be. Inevitably, this grasping leads to a desire to hide from God, just as reaching out for the fruit led Adam to hide himself. At times like these, God asks “where are you?” not to receive an answer but to tell me he knows what I’m up to, and it leads nowhere good.
Pieper says all this is a “kind of anxious vertigo that befalls the human individual when he becomes aware of the height to which God has raised him. One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be great as he really is. He would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness.” Wouldn’t it be nice to pretend I don’t have to get up tomorrow and just dawdle with my books and plants? Can't I just take a break from all this?
The morning after, it’s easy to shake off the cobwebs and step back into the stream. It’s always easier to pray after a night like this, like after sitting in on an exorcism. I have a sense that I just lost a fight and need to get back into training if I’m not going to get beat up so bad the next time. For what’s so alarming about this (as I read through Thomas, Pieper, and the pope on this subject) is that this refusal to own up to the true calling of a disciple (and a fortiori a seminarian or a priest) is the root of all despair, and abundant traces can be found throughout our culture.
It makes you want to get down on your knees and pray … which is what I am about to do. Enough of all this! Time to sleep.