[Saint Syncletice] said: “There is a useful sorrow, and a destructive sorrow. Sorrow is useful when we weep for sin, and for our neighbour’s ignorance, and so that we may not relax our purpose to attain to true goodness: these are the true kinds of sorrow. Our enemy adds something to this. For he sends sorrow without reason, which is something called accidie. We ought always to drive out a spirit like this with prayer and psalmody.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.71
There is a lot that could be gleaned from this saying. It do not think it is controversial to say that “sorrow without reason” is a fairly common phenomenon today. What is interesting about this saying from Saint Sycletice is her perspective on sorrow in general: some sorrow is good, and “sorrow without reason” has a source (“[o]ur enemy”) and a solution: “prayer and psalmody.”
For the sake of brevity, I will save “useful sorrow” for another post. The other sorrow, the spiritual listlessness (“accidie”) that Saint Syncletice refers to here, is a complex idea with no easy English equivalent. It has been variously translated as “sloth,” “spiritual boredom,” “indifference,” and so on. There is a sense in which it is almost the absence of emotion. And as I said, I think it is common for many people to struggle with such mild, unexplained depression, seemingly without cause. This “destructive sorrow” tends to push us to try to take our minds off of it in some way. Most often people look to some form of pleasure to do the trick. I am not convinced that this, however, is a wise solution. Saint Syncletice, at least, has a different one: “prayer and psalmody.” I have written in previous posts about the “Our Father” and the Jesus prayer, and while there is much more that can be said about both—and more about prayer in general—I would like to focus on psalmody here and how it can help drive away spiritual listlessness.
St. Athansius recounts the following from an anonymous old man:
[The person] who takes up this book—the Psalter—goes through the prophecies about the Savior, as is customary in the other Scriptures, with admiration and adoration, but the other psalms he recognizes as being his own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he himself were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs.
He goes on to say that “the things spoken are such that he lifts them up to God as himself acting and speaking them from himself.” Thus, for the purposes of a person’s regular discipline, the psalms give us words to pray. The psalms tend to be some of the most emotionally expressive Scriptures, full of war and peace, grief and hope, fear and joy, life and death and resurrection. According to St. Athanasius, the Psalter “possesses … this marvel of its own—namely, that it contains even the emotions of each soul, and it has the changes and rectifications of these delineated and regulated in itself.”
Indeed, there is a unique logic to the psalms. They twist and turn, sometimes in seemingly counter-intuitive ways. They are simple, yet full of deeper meaning, and they have a way of setting our thoughts right, despite the fact that they were written over two millennia ago by people from a drastically different culture, context, and language. For an example that speaks directly to the subject of this saying, let me briefly look at Psalm 125 (126):
An ode of ascents.
When the Lord returned the captives of Zion,
We became like those who are comforted.
Then our mouth was filled with joy,
And our tongue with exceeding joy.
Then they shall say among the nations,
“The Lord did great things with them.”
The Lord has done great things with us;
We were glad.
Return, O Lord, our captivity
Like streams in the south.
Those who sow with tears
Shall reap with exceeding joy.
They went forth and wept,
Carrying their seeds with them;
But they shall return with exceeding joy,
Carrying their sheaves.
Even for someone unfamiliar with the history behind this psalm—the conquest of Judah by Babylon in the 6th century B.C. and the 70 year exile of the Jews—or its spiritual symbolism, I think that the assessment of St. Athanasius is pretty apparent: “that it contains even the emotions of each soul….” Those who weep scatter their tears across the ground like a sower scatters seed, and the crop they yield, for those who hope in the Lord, is “exceeding joy.” For someone struggling with the “destructive sorrow” of spiritual listlessness, it is easy to see how such psalms not only offer a wake up call to one’s feelings, but simultaneously transfigure them through hope in God. The pursuit of fleeting pleasures to fill the vacuum in our souls caused by “destructive sorrow” is replaced by finding and resting in true joy. Hopefully this is not advice I myself will neglect to take when the “noonday demon” of accedie comes, remembering through the psalms that grief without reason ought never to be allowed a home in my soul, and that I have both the ability and the duty to actually make positive steps in the right direction, even if that means sowing tears along the way, only with the hope to reap a great and future joy.