If you’ve had the opportunity to walk through a garden or a wild place at some point since, say, the beginning of October you’ve probably noticed something, or maybe many somethings: bottles, candy wrappers, paper coffee cups, ticket stubs and random bits of plastic. You’ve seen junk like this caught in the hedges, in branches and along stream banks. It isn’t new rubbish, but it’s newly exposed. Autumn does that. As the growth of summer dies back it exposes the junk before the winter’s snow covers it.
The change in seasons does something similar in our lives. Maybe it’s the darkness or maybe it’s the frenetic pace of school and work and all the extra activities or maybe it’s the press of the approaching Christmas season. Whatever it is, it seems that at this time of year we become more aware of the things in our lives that don’t belong: there are old emotional bottles, wrappers of untruth, crumpled cups of loathing, stubs of anxiety, and random bits of jealousy. This season exposes it. We notice the junk this time of year because we’re used to things being lusher and covering over all that stuff.
In the natural world it’s fairly easy to know what belongs and what doesn’t, at least when it comes to litter. Spiritually it’s more difficult. It’s especially true when our culture normalizes things like envy and hopelessness. This is one of the reasons that we turn our attention to Scripture every week or every day. We need to renew our vision for what’s true, beautiful and loving.
One of the passages we read today was from the prophet Isaiah (12:2-6). He gives us a sense of what a healthy and vibrant spiritual life looks like—even in trying times. Isaiah’s hope and trust are directed toward God. This keeps his fear in check. He compares God’s salvation to a well, one that he draws water from with joy. In a hot climate what could be better than cool water pulled up from a deep well? In the arid desserts and wadies of Isaiah’s part of the world nothing would be as gratifying as cool water.
Isaiah refers to God as his ‘salvation’. That word has connotations of battle or imperiled safety—as in, God saved Israel from the wrath of the Pharaoh, as in, it was through David that God saved Israel from the Philistines. The sense is that of a persecuted group hounded and chased into a box canon or of someone trapped in an alley with a thief intent on stealing. It’s in that type of desperate moment that God intervenes with saving love. Some of the stock characters to which we are drawn—the just warrior, the honest sheriff, the superhero looking out for the innocent—these are cultural echoes of the God Isaiah knows. Isaiah is moved to offer public praise (vv. 5-6a): “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy . . . .” Isaiah’s spirit rests in the loving care of God.
In Advent we re-enact this anticipation: we will be, we are, saved! God loves the world with such depth and intensity that he sent the divine Son. Like an attentive mother the one who loves us and calms our fears does not fail. She will always love us. This saving God is not content to reach out and help from afar, to write a check or offer a prayer. No, God’s deep and abiding love takes form beside us. And for that reason we are joyful, even before the event itself.
Prophets like Isaiah pointed toward this coming salvation. So too did John the Baptist (Luke 3:10-18). What can we say of John? How would we introduce him to the family? John was a crazy-haired, nomadic prophet with no fixed address. He lived in his pickup truck like a ski bum. John ate insects and wild honey. He wore the hair of camels and a leather belt. That’s what Mark says—more or less. But John didn’t spout out garbled non-sense or scare off the curious. He attracted crowds.
The coming of the Messiah is like an axe lying next to the root of a tree, he says. If a tree doesn’t bear fruit it will be cut down. There was good and bad in that. The crowd that gathered in that desert amphitheater knew full well that there were many who bore no fruit: people like Herod, they might have thought, or the tax collectors, people who profited from the Roman occupation. They might have thought too of those who were embarrassed by their identity as God’s model people. Those people tried to shrug off their uniqueness and join Roman society. There were those who bore no fruit.
“What then should we do?” the crowd asked. The baptizer’s general reply was like this: If you have more than you need give some of your things away. To the tax collectors he prescribed honesty and fairness. To the soldiers he recommended not using their power for personal gain. He told them to be satisfied with their pay.
John’s words had such power and his prescriptions seemed so righteous that the hearts of those gathered around were filled with hope. They wondered, they wished that maybe John was the Messiah, the one anointed by God to save their people. They hoped that just maybe John would be the channel of God’s justice. But John wore woodsmen’s wool not the tailored suit of professional power; he wouldn’t put on the messianic mantel. Instead, like Isaiah, he pointed ahead. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming;” he said. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”
John was not the one, but the baptizer said the one to come would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In John’s day baptism or ritual washing was not uncommon. Many cultures had a similar rite of cleansing with water. The idea was to take an everyday thing and charge it with significance. John used water to baptize; the one to come would use fire. It would be—the baptizer reaches for an image familiar to the first-century farmers—it would be like the separation of the grain and the chaff. The grain would be safely stored, the chaff burnt.
John’s listeners were “filled with expectation.” That’s not much different from Isaiah’s joy in drawing water from the wells of salvation. In both we encounter a vision for hope and joy in response to a loving God.
But our inner lives aren’t always like that. When the lush growth of summer shrivels and the darkness of night creeps longer we often find something within us other than joy and hopeful expectation. We see bits of something else caught in the hedges of our souls. Where we could find joy we may well find what the medievals called ‘acedia’.
‘Acedia’, a Greek word, is hard to render into English. It refers to something like the weariness of the soul, or a debilitating apathy. The Pink Floyd lyric “I have become comfortably numb” gets at it. In her book Acedia and Me Kathleen Norris suggests that there’s a subtle difference between acedia and depression. She writes, “at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer” (c. 1). We can’t probe that relationship now, but what I want to suggest is simply that the enemy of joy is not lament or pain, it is acedia. When the pain of our lives causes us to cry out to God or to our community we still care—we care quite deeply in fact. The difference between lament and joy is only a few degrees. But joy and acedia, joy and not caring at all, those are the antonyms. When pain moves us to action we are still capable of love. When it simply plays into our boredom the risk is profound. The withering of autumn exposes this.
The fifth-century monk and pastor John Cassian writes about acedia (Institutes, X). Cassian was born just west of the Black Sea. He served as a pastor or priest in Antioch and later founded a monastery near Marseilles. Cassian was an expert observer of the spiritual life. He tells us that we are most tempted by acedia at midday. He is drawing somewhat cryptically on Ps. 91:6. At midday we have neither the energy of the morning nor the satisfaction of work completed. I think Cassian’s midday can refer to the noontime of an actual day, the noontime of a life or maybe even the noontime of a career or a relationship.
Jesus says that it is “out of the abundance of the heart” that the mouth speaks. If summer is a good time for building and growing, autumn is the time for exposing our inner life to light of day. It is a time for reflecting on what we see flowing from our hearts. It is a good time to sit in the firelight with Cassian and the Baptizer and Isaiah—Mary will join us soon too. It is a good time to sit and to speak slowly about our spiritual lives.
John Cassian wrote about a variety of things that tempt our hearts. He divided them into eight categories: gluttony, fornication, anger and so on. Of the categories on his list acedia has probably received the least attention, but I’m afraid it is relevant today. Modern culture encourages just this sort of apathy and restlessness. It does it in big ways, by enabling us to move around the country and around the world with relative ease. Our market system encourages a constant, unquenchable desire for the new. It encourages acedia in small ways too, by placing phones in our hands that give us access to unlimited entertainment and information. We quickly grow bored and restless, our minds wander. We become apathetic.
Cassian writes that when tempted by acedia we become restless, we dislike where we live and the people we live with. We lose motivation, we pace about aimlessly, we sigh and complain. We feel worn out and weary even though we have done little work. He says the person under the influence of acedia “gazes up a the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him or her idle and useless for every spiritual work . . .” (Institutes, X.2). Where we might find joy we find a comfortable numbness.
If autumn exposes such a thing in our hearts what are we to do? How might we rekindle the joy of Isaiah and the expectation of those who entered the river with John? What does Cassian recommend to those suffering from this temptation?
He suggests something like this: First, we should persist in the regular practice of prayer, whether our hearts are in it or not. Prayer isn’t just an expression of our inner life, it is also an exercise that shapes it. Second, Cassian recommends the cultivation of spiritual awareness through study. Deliberately giving attention to our spiritual life and making careful observations about what it is we desire encourages honesty. Only when we are truthful with ourselves can we move toward maturity. Only when we learn the language of mature faith can we name the things that challenge us most. Third, the fifth-century monk tells us to engage in physical work. Our bodies need it. Our souls too profit from seeing physical tasks completed. It reminds us of our creatureliness. It gives our lives scale. Fourth, and finally, Cassian suggests that we make an effort to show kindness to others. Showing kindness develops our empathy and draws us into the work of God. What could be more meaningful than that?
In all these suggestions Cassian is leaning on the letters of Paul. The Apostle Paul is famous for recommending regular work. He made tents. In another of today’s lectionary texts, Philippians 4:4-7 the apostle wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. . . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Intentional rejoicing, prayer, gentleness toward others—the path to finding joy in God’s saving work.