I hate treadmills. I kicked the front off of the first one I ever tried in a box gym years ago, and I have since struggled to find my stride on them. Give me the danger and the dance of the trail anytime over the mundane plodding of the endless rubber mat.
This week is a treadmill week. The rubber mat of my week keeps coming like the tread on the mill continually renewed and refreshed, while I keep bouncing along trying not to kick anything over.
Acedia is one of those underused old words. It means spiritual sloth or apathy. The danger of treadmill weeks is that we keep putting in the work without the spiritual self investment that makes the work worthwhile.
Our work, even holy work, becomes toil, endlessly chasing that which will never satisfy. And the wiser my soul gets the faster she realizes that I won’t be satisfied, but neither can I get off the treadmill. I cannot walk away from the work on weeks like this, because the work is both mine and meaningful to the people I serve.
Whether your work is church work or parenting, banking or grave digging, you have had weeks like this. It is one of the afflictions of life. I want to write “modern life,” but the truth is that acedia has been a popular affliction for a long time. The spiritual masters write about it as often as sexual temptation.
Benedict’s prescription is two-fold: love and humility. These two are embodied in our service of others and in our tears in prayer. On weeks like this, I have to be diligent in my focus on serving others. The moment my internal eye turns inward, I am caught in bitterness rooted in pride and self-pity.
But when I can keep my attention on my wife and children, on my parishioners, the poor and needful, even just on the waiter who brings my food, the more easily my perspective slips back to divine alignment. My motivation returns to love of others.
Humility is mid-wife to happiness. This is not an idea I could have even articulated earlier in my life. I often turn to God in tears over my shortcomings and sins. I know my limits all to well and turn to God in prostration and tears. Benedict has several references to tears that shocked me at first encounter with the Rule.
Really, how often do I cry in prayer? But over the years as my realization of the reach of our lives and our potential as God’s children has become more real, so has the weight and pain of my failures. And as counterintuitive as it may seem, nothing cures acedia as quickly as humility and tears of compunction. I rise from the floor ready to go back to work, seeing others as holy and godly despite their faults and mine.
So what do I mean by chainsaws? Beyond the danger of acedia, some weeks throw chainsaws at you. This week it was a young woman’s death and another homeless person whom I simply can’t reach. It is a budget shortfall and a visit with the bishop. These moments require acute attention and focus that seem beyond my reach on a treadmill.
I want so badly to stop the flow of life and deal with each of these vital issues, but what I do instead is learn to focus on the run. I catch and let the momentum throw the chainsaw back into the air, so I can let it go and catch the next one. And let it go and catch the next one.
And learn that love sustains us for a while, a long while beyond the limits of what we think we can do. Slowly these chainsaws will get set down one at a time, and there will be a time of rest. Soon. Soon.
Bless the runner, Lord, with an end to the trail in green pastures and beside still waters.