One of my regular guests, JD, has his own blog and he has just written Advent Acedia. This damnable winter, and it doesn’t seem so long since I last sailed my boat at an extraordinarily mild beginning of November! We all seem to be going through the Blues, and it is simply due to a lack of sunlight and being outdoors.
Acedia, on which I have written is all the more frightening if you are on your own (or married to a person who is not interested in these finer points of spiritual life). Orthodox spirituality is loathe to speak of the dark nights of the soul we have in the west. They often attribute it simply to sin, but we in the west see this period of purgation as essential for arriving anywhere near illumination by grace. St John of the Cross, a Carmelite hermit, was most known for his spiritual writing on the dark night of the soul. Pope John Paul II, a saintly man if he was not a very “successful” Pope, based his spirituality of St John of the Cross. With it, he lived through the horrors of Nazi occupation and Communism in his native Poland, and emerged from it all believing in the essential goodness and dignity of humanity when illuminated by God’s grace.
I would describe entering into solitary life as being like setting out to sail the Atlantic in a dinghy! Try being alone in December in a house you are fighting to heat and fighting off depression! That being said, some of us have no choice about it, not being in the “right” Church or canonically apt for formal monastic life – quite apart from the liturgical issues. Most people trundle along in life with no religion or a token observance of parish life in “ordinary” parishes or the various traditionalist Roman Catholic and Anglican solutions available but thin on the ground.
For most of us, it will be a matter of trying to be faithful to a decent and godly life, saying the Office, and Mass if we are an ordained priest, working a little business we have built up so as not to have to be employed by a boss in a corporate situation and keeping the house and garden reasonably clean and tidy. There are moments when I go into the chapel to have some moments of silence before the Blessed Sacrament – and the wife bursts in with her worries, invariably matters than can wait!
I do think we need realistic goals. If we are on our own, there is more we can do like in a monastery. Most of us will be glad just to be able to say Lauds, Vespers and Compline each day with the Matins readings as lectio divina. I don’t know the Byzantine Office, but I find the Benedictine Office the most balanced. Matins is heavy going, but is designed to be said in the very early morning before the phone starts ringing. The day hours are much lighter and are designed to allow a day’s solid work, which we have to do to earn our living, leaving time for study and writing. The Anglican Office gives us the whole Psalter each month and the entire Bible over the year, but does not give us patristic readings. It’s great for parish priests, but I favour the monastic office which is available in Prayer Book English. My books are old, given to me many years ago, but they are reprinted by St Andrew’s Press and can be ordered – both the day hours and Matins.
We loners need a challenge, some real theology to read and make us really think about what we believe and practice. If we really want some winter stuff, how about some Soloviev and Berdyaev. Where they came from, it is really cold, quite unlike western Europe or most of the southern states of the USA. We need to understand something of the Russian soul, and also something of German Romanticism in men like Schelling and Schliermacher, even something of Engels. Through the melancholy comes the desire that is so characteristic of Romanticism, what C.S. Lewis recognised as the desire for God beyond the limitations of this transitory life.
But when it comes to our observances and prayer, we need to be concerned about a sense of duty, doing things because we are called to them in a stable way as a result of our fundamental option in life. That is unless we have been victim to illusion in our fundamental option and it is killing us from within like a microwave oven cooking a piece of meat.
We have to live with the sadness and Angst, confident that light will shine as a Sol invictus in these gloomy days. As I mentioned elsewhere, the anxiety will keep us awake and spur us on to positive action and a disciplined life. It is hard work and there are no short cuts. The alternative is depression and death.
St John of the Cross didn’t find it easy, quite the opposite. Men like Karol Wojtyla or the many priests and bishops under Nazism and Communism lived through times when evil triumphed, and they clung to hope. Death knocked at their doors each day, and they held out. Perhaps our worst martyrdom is suffering from Christians making nonsense out of our faith by making it an ideology.
We have to protect ourselves from burnout and cynicism about theology, the Church, the liturgy and all the things people argue about. One solution is to have hobbies. We can go sailing if that’s what interests us, make things in a workshop out of wood and metal, take up painting or writing novels, composing music and / or playing an instrument. Social life is important, even when we have failed miserably in relationships. Friendship comes in degrees and the highest form of human love is found in friendship, not marriage. It is good to have a couple of beers and tell jokes with a few relaxing fishermen at a port bar like at Tinduff in the Rade de Brest. In moderation, it is good to lighten our heaviness.
Much of the time, we have to rely on ourselves because churches and spiritual fathers are all so remote, far away and inaccessible. We should have some kind of spiritual friendship with someone we esteem and look up to, and such a thing is precious if we find it. We all live in different circumstances, and urban life subjects us to so much noise and stress that God’s voice is effectively silenced. We should live in the country and be self-employed if we can. Most people can find a business idea and a market if they think hard enough. I had the idea of translating. It doesn’t always pay very well, but some months are good, and you need to leave money in the bank each month for cashflow – takes the worries out of all. It beats working for a boss hands down!
Another thing. Install some kind of chapel or oratory where you live. A sacred place or corner that is always there, and which represents the universal Church and the communion of saints. It may only be very simple, perhaps in a wardrobe so that you can keep it discreet from people who don’t understand things like this very well.
Some of us are introverts and ill-equipped for doing anything other than going our own way – whether into sin or according to God’s will. It is one of the purposes of this blog to tell all my readers that wherever you are, in whatever situation of life, we are together in spirit and communion through our prayer and desire to witness to the Light.
Be strong, faithful and stubborn, and you will be rewarded…