I’m working on making my working life happy and productive without having to punch a clock or meet institutional deadlines.
So my advisors at the moment are the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Christians who moved out to the fourth century Egyptian desert for an isolated life of prayer.
Sometimes they hit it straight out of the park, not just for the spiritual life of monks but for an ordinary Christian writer.
They knew how to organize their inner lives to achieve goals few others understood.
But the clues are sometimes hidden in the unfamiliar vocabulary. Take, for instance the saying I was writing about a couple weeks ago. Here’s how it starts:
When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie…
This one would be perfectly clear except for this one very unfamiliar word.
Accidie? What’s Accidie?
Actually it is too bad the word accidie has fallen out of use. It is the classic name for a problem that afflicts everyone who tries to do focused creative work.
Try writing a dissertation. You spend the morning working hard. Come the afternoon the project that once filled you with passion seems worthless. Your ability to complete it? Hopeless.
Writing a novel? Painting a landscape? Come mid-day the problems feel weighty. Anything would be better than this. I mean, hey, it’s just my life’s most important work.
I suspect that most afternoons in the Egyptian desert somebody said
Hey! Wouldn’t this be a great time to clean the bathroom?
Distractibility. Exhaustion. Depression. Doing what needs to be done just seems impossible.
I had accidie when I was a university student. There was this early afternoon Economics class. I simply could not keep my eyes open. The class was pretty interesting. But about 1:20, with a morning of work behind me and a tummy full of lunch, I was sunk.
On every page of notes, half-written words ended in rat tails. My eyes closed and the pen skidded across the page.
So I didn’t do that well in Econ.
Accidie Personified: Resistance
Prominent novelist and uberblogger Steven Pressfield calls it “Resistance” — which is basically accidie personified, working to keep you from completing the work that lies closest to your heart.
Pressfield is not the first to think of accidie as a personal and evil force. Sometimes it has been called “the noontime demon.” That’s when it most likes to pounce.
You look back on your work day and see the distractions were pure temptations: The work was what you were called to and passionate about.
One of the most famous of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus, talked about it this way, and he had a helpful prescription to deal with it. Here are two short sayings from another of Benedicta Ward’s translations:
4. Evagrius said, ‘If your attention falters, pray. As it is written, pray in fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12), earnestly and watchfully. We ought to pray like that, especially because our unseen and wicked enemies are trying to hinder us forcefully.’
5. He also said, ‘When a distracting thought comes into your head, do not cast around here and there about it in your prayer, but simply repent and so you will sharpen your sword against your assailant.’ (Unceasing Prayer, p. 131)
Evagrius, like Pressfield, personifies the problem. He places the blame on demonic forces.
Evagrius’ two-point plan for the Noontime Demon
Demonic or not, Evagrius has wise recommendations for anyone doing creative work.
First, pray. When you find yourself distracted from your heart’s work, turn your attention back to God. For the Desert Fathers, of course, prayer was their main work. But the approach is helpful to the rest of us. Don’t punish yourself. Don’t give in. Focus on God who brings refreshment and healing.
Second, repent. Gently put your mind back on the next task in your calling. “Repent” doesn’t mean “beat yourself up.” The word means to change your mind.
When the shopping list or the bill that needs paying or the argument with your friend creeps into your mind, kindly bring it back.
If you find your mind on the wrong thing, turn your mind to the right thing — a thousand times if need be.
Evagrius’ two approaches together make a great approach to accidie.
- Gently turn your attention toward God, who called you to write this essay, this novel, this sermon.
- Then hand in hand with God, turn back to the work itself — a thousand times if need be.
Turn back to your calling. Turn back to the path and take the next step.
A step in the work to which God calls you is a step toward life.
Keep walking, even on a stony path. The direction of your calling is toward God.
Ever face accidie? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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