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The Spirit of Discipline









 “The sorrow of the world worketh death.”

 2 COR.  vii.  10.

WHEN Dante descends to the Fifth Circle of the Inferno, he finds there a black and loathsome marsh, made by the swarthy waters of the Stygian stream pouring down into it, dreary and turbid, through the cleft which they have worn out for themselves.  And there, in the putrid fen, he sees the souls of those whom anger has ruined; and they are smiting and tearing and maiming one another in ceaseless, senseless rage. [Inferno,” vii. 100-116.]  But there are others there, his master tells him, whom he cannot see, whose sobs make those bubbles that he may mark ever rising to the surface of the pool—others, plunged further into the filthy swamp.  And how do they recall the sin that has thrust them down into that uttermost wretchedness?  “Fixed in the slime, they say, ‘Gloomy were we in the sweet air, that is gladdened by the sun, carrying sullen, lazy smoke within our hearts; now lie we gloomy here in the black mire,’ This hymn they gurg1e in their throats, for they cannot speak it in full words,” [“Inferno,” vii. 121-126; vide Mr. Carlyle’s translation, almost exactly followed here.]


Surely it is a tremendous and relentless picture of unbroken sullenness—of wilful gloom that has for ever shut out light and love; of that death which the sorrow of the world worketh.


“The sorrow of the world.”  No discipline or chastening of the soul; no grief that looks towards God, or gropes after His Presence in the mystery of pain; no anguish that even through the darkness—aye, even, it may be, through the passing storms of bitterness and impatience—He can use and sanctify, for the deepening of character, the softening of strength, the growth of light and peace, No, none of these; but a sorrow that is only of this world, that hangs in the low and misty air—a wilful sorrow that men make or cherish for themselves, being, as Shakespeare says, ‘‘as sad as night only for wantonness.”  [“King John,” IV.  i 15.]  This is, surely, the inner character of “the sorrow of the world.”  This makes its essential contrast with the sorrow that could be Divine; the sorrow that Christ shared and knows and blesses, the grief with which He was acquainted.  This is the sorrow that worketh death; the sorrow that the great poet of the things unseen sets close by anger.  Let us try to think about it for a little while.


The sin whose final issue, in those who wholly yield their souls to it, with utter hardness and impenitence, Dante depicts in the passage which I have quotedthe sin whose expiation, in those who can be cleansed from it, he describes in the eighteenth canto of the “Purgatorio” [“Purgatorio,” xviii 91-188.]—was known in his day, and had been known through many centuries of human experience, by a name in frequent use and well understood.  It was ranged, by writers on Christian ethics, on the same level with such sins as hatred, envy, discord; with pride, anger, and vainglory; it would be recalled in self-examination by anyone who was taking pains to amend his life and cleanse his heart; it was known as prominent and cruel among a man’s assailants in the spiritual combat.  Through all the changeful course of history, nothing, I suppose, has changed so little as the conditions and issues of that combat.  And yet now the mention of this sin may sound strange, if not unintelligible, to many of us; so that it seems at first as though it might belong essentially to those bygone days when men watched and fought and prayed so earnestly against it; and there is no one word, I think, which will perfectly express its name in modem English.  But we know that the devil has no shrewder trick than to sham dead; and so I venture to believe that it may be worth while to look somewhat more closely at a temptation which seems to be now so much less feared than once it was.


I.  The sin of “acedia,” or, according to the somewhat misleading form which the word assumed in English, “accidie,” had, before Dante’s time, received many definitions; and while they agree in the main, their differences in detail show that the evil was felt to be subtle and complex.  As one compares the various estimates of the sin, one can mark three main elements which help to make it what it is—elements which can be distinguished, though in experience, I think, they almost always tend to meet and mingle; they are gloom and sloth and irritation.  The first and third of the three seem foremost in Dante’s thoughts about the doom of accidie; the second comes to the front when he is thinking how the penitent may be cleansed from it in the intermediate state.  Gloom and sloth—a sullen, heavy, dreary mist about the heart, chilling and darkening it, till the least thing may make it fretful and angry; —such was the misery of the “accidiosus.”  So one Father is quoted as defining the sin to be “fastidium interni boni”—“a distaste for the soul’s good;” another calls it “a languid dejection of body and soul about the praiseworthy exercise of virtues;” and another, “a sluggishness of the mind that cares not to set about good works, nor to keep them up,” [Cf. Commentator on Cassian, “De Coenobiorum Institutis,” Lib. x]  And so, too, in later times, it was said to be “a certain sadness which weighs down the spirit of man in such wise that there is nothing that he likes to do;” or “a sadness of the mind which weighs upon the spirit, so that the person conceives no will towards well-doing, but rather feels it irksome.”  [Quoted by M.F. Rossetti. “A Shadow of Dante,” p. 51.]  So Chaucer also, “Accidie or slouth maketh a man hevy, thoughtful, and wrawe.  Envie and ire make bitterness in heart, which bitterness is mother of accidie, and benimeth [or taketh away]  the love of all goodness: than is accidie the anguish of a trouble heart...Of accidie cometh first that a man is annoyed and encumbered for to do any goodness...For accidie loveth no besinesse at all.” [Quoted by Mr. Carlyle on “Inferno,” vii, 121-126.]  Lastly, let me cite two writers who speak more fully of the character and signs and outcome of the sin.


The first is Cassian, who naturally has a great deal to say about it.  For all the conditions of a hermit’s life, the solitude, the sameness, the austerity, the brooding introspection, in which he lived, made it likely and common that this should be his besetting sin; and Cassian had marked it as such during the years he spent among the solitaries of the Egyptian deserts.  In that book of his “Institutes” which he devotes to it, [Lib. x., “De Spiritu Acediae.”] he defines it as a weariness or anxiety of heart, a fierce and frequent foe to those who dwell in solitude; and elsewhere he speaks of it as a sin that comes with no external occasion, and often and most bitterly harasses those who live apart from their fellow-men.  There is something of humour and something of pathos in the vivid picture which he draws of the hermit who is yielding to accidie: how utterly all charm and reality fade for him out of the life that he has chosen—the life of ceaseless prayer and contemplation of the Divine Beauty; how he hates his lonely cell, and all that he has to do there; how hard, disparaging thoughts of others, who live near him, crowd into his mind; how he idles and grumbles till the dull gloom settles down over heart and mind, and all spiritual energy dies away in him.  [The description is cited at greater length in the “Introductory Essay.”]


It is a curious and truthful-seeming sketch, presenting certain traits which, across all the vast diversity of circumstance, may perhaps claim kindred with temptations such as some of us even now may know.


But of far deeper interest, of surer and wider value, is the treatment of acedia by St. Thomas Aquinas.  The very place which it holds in the scheme of his great work reveals at once its true character, the secret of its harmfulness, its essential antagonism to the Christian life, and the means of resisting and conquering it.—“The fruit of the Spirit,” wrote St.  Paul to the Galatians, “is love, joy, peace.”  And so Aquinas has been speaking of love, joy, peace, and pity, as the first effects upon the inner life of that caritas which is the form, the root, the mother, of all virtues.  [S. Th 2da 2dae, xxvii-xxx.]  Caritas, that true friendship of man with God; that all-embracing gift which is the fulfilling of the Law; that “one inward principle of life,” as it has been called, “ adequate in its fulness to meet and embrace the range of duties which externally confront it;”—caritas, which is in fact nothing else but “the energy and the representative of the Spirit in our hearts,” [J.H. Newman, “Lectures on Justification,” p. 53.] expands and asserts itself, and makes its power to be known by its fruits of love, joy, peace, and pity in the character of man.  Mark, then, how joy springs out at once as the unfailing token of the Holy Spirit’s presence, the first sign that He is having His Own way with a man’s heart.  The joy of the Lord, the joy that is strength, the joy that no man taketh from us, the joy wherewith we joy before God, the abundant joy of faith and hope and love and praise,—this it is that gathers like a radiant, fostering, cheering air around the soul that yields itself to the grace of God, to do His holy, loving Will.—But, over against that joy, [S.  Th.  2da 2dae, xxxv.]  different as winter from summer, as night from day, aye, even as death from life, looms the dreary, joyless, thankless, fruitless gloom of sullenness, the sour sorrow of the world, the sin of accidie; the wanton, wilful self-distressing that numbs all love and zeal for good; that sickly, morbid weariness in which the soul abhors all manner of meat, and is even hard at death’s door; that woful lovelessness in which all upward longing fails out of the heart and will—the sin that is opposed to the joy of love.  So St. Thomas speaks of accidie, and so he brings it near, surely, to the conscience of many men in every age.


II.  Yes, let us put together in thought the traits which meet in the picture of accidie; let us think of it in its contrast with that brightness of spiritual joy which plays around some lives, and makes the nameless, winning beauty of some souls—ay, and even of some faces—and we may recognize it, perhaps, as a cloud that has sometimes lowered near our own lives; as a storm that we have seen sweeping across the sky and hiding the horizon, even though, it may be, by God’s grace only the edge of it reached to us—only a few drops fell where we were.  Heaviness, gloom, coldness, sullenness, distaste and desultory sloth in work and prayer, joylessness and thanklessness,—do we not know something of the threatenings, at least, of a mood in which these meet?  The mood of days on which it seems as though we cannot genuinely laugh, as though we cannot get rid of a dull or acrid tone in our voice; when it seems impossible frankly to “rejoice with them that do rejoice,” and equally impossible to go freely out in any true, unselfish sympathy with sorrow; days when, as one has said, “everything that everybody does seems inopportune and out of good taste;” [F.W. Faber, “Growth in Holiness,” p.  24.] days when the things that are true and honest, just and pure, lovely and of good report, seem to have lost all loveliness and glow and charm of hue, and look as dismal as a flat country in the drizzling mist of an east wind; days when we might be cynical if we had a little more energy in us; when all enthusiasm and confidence of hope, all sense of a.  Divine impulse, flags out of our work; when the schemes which we have begun look stale and poor and unattractive as the scenery of an empty stage by daylight; days when there is nothing that we like to do-when, without anything to complain of, nothing stirs so readily in us as complaint.  Oh, if we know anything at all of such a mood as this, let us be careful how we think of it, how we deal with it; for perhaps it may not be far from that "sorrow of the world” which, in those who willingly indulge and welcome and invite its presence, “worketh death.”


III.  It occurs to one at once that this misery of accidie lies on the border-line between the physical and the spiritual life; that if there is something to be said of it as a sin, there is also something to be said of it as an ailment.  It is a truth that was recognized long ago both by Cassian and by St.  Thomas Aquinas, who expressly discusses and dismisses this objection against regarding accidie as a sin at al1.  [ S.  Th.  2da 2dae, xxxv.  1, ad 2dum.]  Undoubtedly physical conditions of temperament and constitution, of weakness, illness, harassing, weariness, overwork, may give at times to such a mood of mind and heart a strange power against us; at times the forces for resistance may seem frail and few.  It is a truth which should make us endlessly charitable, endlessly forbearing and considerate and uncritical towards others; but surely it is a truth that we had better be shy of using for ourselves.  It will do us no harm to over-estimate the degree in which our own gloom and sullenness are voluntary; it will do us very great harm to get into the way of exaggerating whatever there may be in them that is physical and involuntary.  For the border-line over which accidie hovers is, practically, a shifting and uncertain line, and "possunt quia posse videntur" may be true of the powers upon either side of it.  We need not bring speculative questions out of their proper place to confuse the distinctness of the practical issue.  We have ample warrant, by manifold evidence, by clear experience, for being sure for ourselves that the worth and happiness of life depend just on this—that in the strength which God gives, and in the eagerness of His service, the will should ever be extending the range of its dominion, ever refusing to be shut out or overborne, ever restless in defeat, ever pushing on its frontier, Surely it has been the secret of some of the highest, noblest lives that have helped the world, that men have refused to make allowances for themselves; refused to limit their aspiration and effort by the disadvantages with which they started; refused to take the easy tasks which their hindrances might seem to justify, or to draw premature boundaries for the power of their will As there are some men to whom the things that should have been for their wealth are, indeed, an occasion of falling, so are there others to whom the things that might have been for their hindrance are an occasion of rising; “who going through the vale of misery use it for a well, and the pools are filled with water,”—And “they shall go from strength to strength”—in all things more than conquerors through Him Who loveth them; wresting out of the very difficulties of life a more acceptable and glorious sacrifice to lift to Him; welcoming and sanctifying the very hindrances that beset them as the conditions of that part which they, perhaps, alone can bear in the perfecting of His saints, in the edifying of the body of Christ.  And in that day when every man’s work shall be made manifest, it may be found, perhaps, that none have done Him better service than some of those who, all through this life, have been His ambassadors in bonds.


IV.  Lastly, then, brethren, let me speak very simply of three ways in which we may, God helping us, extend and reinforce the power of our will to shut out and drive away this wasteful gloom, if ever it begins to gather round us; three ways of doing battle against this sin of accidie.


(1) In the first place, it will surely be a help, a help we all may gain, to see more, to think more, to remember and to understand more, of the real, plain, stubborn sufferings that others have to bear; to acquaint ourselves afresh with the real hardships of life, the trials, and anxieties, and privations, and patience of the poor—the unfanciful facts of pain.  For “blessed is he that considereth the poor and needy; the Lord shall deliver him in the time of trouble.”  It is one part of the manifold privilege of a parish priest’s life that day by day he has to go among scenes which almost perforce may startle him out of any selfish, wilful sadness:—


When sorrow all our heart would ask,

We need not shun our daily task,

And hide ourselves for calm;

The herbs we seek to heal our woe

Familiar by our pathway grow,

Our common air is balm.”   [“Christian Year,” First Sunday after Easter.]


Of old it was thought to be the work of tragedy that the spectator should be lifted to a higher level, where action and passion are freer and larger, so that he might be ashamed to go home from the contemplation of such sorrows to pity or alarm himself about little troubles of his own.  [Cf.  Timocles in Meineke’s “Poetarum Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta,” p.  613; and Arist.  Poetica: vi, ad init.]  But if the disasters of the stage could teach men to be brave and quiet under trials that were less indeed, but still were real, how much more should that great ceaseless tragedy of actual anguish and distress that day and night goes on around us, rouse and shame us all out of the idle, causeless gloom that sometimes hangs about men’s hearts?


Those are very noble words of one who in our day has frankly and faithfully shared with the world his own profound experience both of despondency and of deliverance.  “Suffer me not, O Lord, suffer me not to forget how at the very moment when, it may be, I am thus playing with a fantastic grief, it is actually faring with multitudes of my fellows, many times better and truer and holier than myself.  Think, O my soul, of all those—the mourners who have survived everything, even hope itself, the incurables who pace the long halls of pain in the vast hospital of this world; its deposed, discrowned, and disinherited, for whom all the ornament of life has for ever departed, perhaps by their own fault, perhaps by that of others, but in either case gone, and so gone that it never can come back again; long pain the road by which, and death the goal to which, they must travel.”  [R.C. Trench, “Brief Thoughts and Meditations,” p.  113.]  Surely the sin of accidie seems most hateful and unmanly in the presence of such thoughts as these.


(2) There is another very safe and simple way of escape when the dull mood begins to gather round one, and that is to turn as promptly and as strenuously as one can to whatever work one can at the moment do.  If the energy, the clearness, the power of intention, is flagging in us, if we cannot do our best work, still let us do what we can—for we can always do something; if not high work, then low; if not vivid and spiritual work, then the plain, needful drudgery.  Virgil’s precept has its place in every way of life, and certainly in the inner life of all men—

“Frigidus agricolam si quando continet imber, Multa, forent quae mox coelo properanda sereno, Maturare datur,” [Virgo Georg.  I.  259-261.]

When it is dull and cold and weary weather with us, when the light is hidden, and the mists are thick, and the sleet begins to fall, still we may get on with the work which can be done as well in the dark days as in the bright; work which otherwise will have to be hurried through in the sunshine, taking up its happiest and most fruitful hours, When we seem poorest and least spiritual, when the glow of thankfulness seems to have died quite away, at least we can go on with the comparatively featureless bits of work, the business letters, the mechanism of life, the tasks which may be almost as well done then as ever.  And not only, as men have found and said in every age, is the activity itself a safeguard for the time but also very often, I think, the plainer work is the best way of getting back into the light and warmth that are needed for the higher.  Through humbly and simply doing what we can, we retrieve the power of doing what we would.  It was excellent advice of Mr.  Keble’s, ff When you find yourself overpowered as it were by melancholy, the best way is to go out, and do something kind to somebody or other.”  [“Letters of Spiritual Counsel,” p.  6.  Cf.  an expression quoted Mr.  F.  Parnell’s “Counsels of Happiness, Usefulness, Goodness,” p.  4: “When I dig a man out of trouble, the hole he leaves behind him is the grave in which I bury my own trouble.”]


(3) But there is yet one way, above all other ways, I think, in which we ought to be ever gaining fresh strength and freedom of soul to rise above such moods of gloom and discontent; one means by which we should be ever growing in the steadiness and quiet intensity of the joy of love.  It is the serious and resolute consideration of that astounding work of our redemption which the Love of God has wrought at so immense a cost.  It is strange indeed—it would be inconceivable if it were not so very common—that a man can look back to Calvary and still be sullen; that he can believe that all that agony was the agony of God the Son, willingly chosen for the Love of sinful men, and still be thankless and despondent.  Strange that he should be sullen still, when he believes that that eternal and unwearied Love is waiting, even during the hours of his gloom and hardness—waiting, watching at his dull, silent heart, longing for the change to come; longing just for that turn of the will which may let in again the glad tide of light and joy and health.  Strange that anyone should be able to think what a little while we have in which to do what little good we may on earth, before the work is all sealed up and put aside for judgment, and yet take God’s great trust of life, and wilfully bid the heaven be dark at noon, and wrap himself in an untimely night wherein no man can work.  Strange, most strange, that any one should believe that this world is indeed the place where he may begin to train his soul by grace for an everlasting life of love and praise and joy, prepared for him in sheer mercy by Almighty God, and still be sullen.  Ah! surely, it can only be that we forget these things; that they are not settled deep enough in our hearts; that in the haste of life we do not think of them, or let them tell upon us.  For otherwise we could hardly let our hearts sink down in any wilful, wanton gloom, or lower our eyes from that glory of the western sky which should ever brighten our faces as we press towards God; that glory which our Blessed Lord was crucified to win for us; that glory whither the high grace of God the Holy Ghost has been sent forth to lead us.