As a gay man, I have a sort of love/hate relationship with the word pride. Sometimes pride refers to the self-respect and strength that is needed to sustain a person or a group in the face of hardship. For obvious reasons, pride is an important word for the gay community.
But, as a parent, I have an issue with another meaning of the word pride, which is an inordinate self-esteem. As parents, it has always been important for me and David to warn our boys against this kine of pride because it can be really self-destructive. It’s also vigorously attacked in scripture, and especially in today’s readings.
The passage from the book of Sirach – which is also known as Ecclesiasticus – declares, “The one who clings to pride pours forth abominations.”
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus counsels us to take the lowest place at social events and calls on us to show hospitality to those who are unable to repay the gesture. Which is to say, Jesus calls us to be humble.
And in the Letter to the Hebrews, Paul takes this point even farther. Don’t just show hospitality to strangers, Paul says. Demonstrate concern for those whom others might show no concern for at all, like prisoners. Shun greed, even in a culture that glorifies the accumulation of wealth. Do not give in to fear which, Paul implies, like false pride, is the easy way out, but instead, live by faith. In this passage, Paul calls us to counteract the temptations of pride by choosing to let concern for others be our guiding principle.
So, destructive pride clearly stands in stark contrast to pride based in self-respect. But it also stands in contrast to something else. That something else is the sin of accidie.
So, what is accidie? Well, accidie can be better understood as apathy. And spiritual accidie, which is the state that is relevant to what we’re talking about this morning, is when you’re sort of apathetic about the life that God has gifted to you. It’s like looking at this amazing gift of life that you’ve been given and just responding to it with a mild shrug of, well, that’s nice. To be frank, sometimes the sin of spiritual accidie damages lives even more than destructive pride.
In his book Disordered Loves: Healing the Seven Deadly Sins, William Stafford explores the psychological aspects of envy, lust, avarice, gluttony, anger, despair, and pride, and offers sacramental remedies that are rooted in the Christian tradition. In the course of his discussion on pride, Stafford presents the story of a woman with a mild case of accidie. Her name was Diedre.
“Deidre had an emotionless and cold childhood. She was never quite able to please her parents, never got very much love. She worked hard to earn her law degree and landed a fine job in federal litigation. But the lifestyle that Diedre’s salary afforded her and the success she achieved in her job started to lose their excitement for her, and she started feeling a bit bored with her life as well as a little bit lonely. The meat market of singles bars turned her off; and because she was in her late thirties, she doubted she would be able to compete anyway. Deeper friendships were difficult for Diedre because she was always busy. She had been married for eight years to a man who would never fully commit himself to her; never unreservedly love her; and she was just not ready to take that risk again. As for God, well, she never thought much about the god of her childhood religion anymore. A major job in the Department of Justice opened, but it would force Deidre beyond her present limits as a lawyer. So, she decided that perhaps it was just safer to not hope for too much or try too hard. She figured she would do some paperwork tonight, then maybe drink some wine, and watch a video.”
Destructive pride damages us when it causes us to place the self at the center of everything. But in contrast, spiritual accidie moves us to shrink from our very existence and settle into a pool of hopeless non-being.
What these two conditions (destructive pride and spiritual accidie) have in common is that they both refute our status as Children of God. They reject the gift of our createdness. And they reject the notion that that createdness is contingent on a God who loves us. That God actually wants us to be here and that we matter.
Both pride and accidie are based on a truth that has been allowed to exist apart from its proper context.
The truth behind pride is that we are something, we are creatures sustained and loved by God. The flaw of pride is that it refuses to recognize that we’re not God.
The truth behind accidie is that on some level we are nothing, we are utterly dependent on God for our very existence – our createdness. The lie of accidie is that it refuses to recognize that we are loved by God and more than that are worthy of God’s love.
In some places the preacher’s priority might be to help people overcome their pride. But in many places in our culture today, I believe the priority of the preacher lies in helping people overcome their accidie.
But to overcome it, it’s helpful to recognize its different forms.
Stafford mentions three: sloth, self-abdication, and despair.
Sloth involves laziness, inertia, procrastination, and shirking responsibility. Having raised a teenager, I’m well accustomed with this form of accidie. But it’s more subtle than that. It’s not just a teenager’s unwillingness to take out the trash.
Sloth appears when, for no good reason, we turn down opportunities for service and growth. When we avoid interaction with our children or grandchildren. When we sleep in for too long too often and then start sleeping in on Sunday mornings. When we say that we value spiritual practices like Bible study, but just never get around to doing them. When we sidestep anything that may make us think. Any of these can be symptoms of sloth.
Then there’s self-abdication. The definition of self-abdication is “to empty out one’s self in idol worship, seeking significance in some other human being or cause in place of God.” We can live for another person and call it love, when in fact it’s idolatry. We can become workaholics, or fanatics for a cause, even a religious one, that prevents us from having a full life – a life that is God’s gift to us and which God wants us to enjoy.
And where accidie can finally lead us is to despair. Which, I want to point out, is quite different from depression. In the despair of accidie we are intentionally rejecting the notion that God can and is always doing a new thing. In the despair of accidie, we shut the door of our heart on even the possibility of God’s grace. We refuse to recognize that transformation can happen at any time and in any circumstance. We close ourselves off to the possibility that God can heal a hurtful situation. And ultimately, we lose hope.
Stafford summarizes his whole explanation of the sin of accidie when he defines it as “spiritual withdrawal.” He says that accidie often starts with what he calls dishonest prayer. Refusing to raise some issue with God, rejecting a call from God, getting tired of God’s silence and just walking away.
It’s natural to feel hurt or rejected by God when disasters leave us wounded, or if our spiritual aspirations are left hanging for years. At the same time, however, those instances might well be an invitations to die to one’s own self in a new way and to live with a renewed dependence on God. Accidie rejects that invitation. It chooses to live and die on the margins of its own nothingness rather than launch out into the possibilities of God’s promises.
Accidie is a disease of the soul that is no less dangerous than pride. For many of us, accidie is not something that happens rarely; it is instead a chronic condition.
And so, what is its cure?
The cure is when we either allow or move ourselves to see our emptiness not as some painfully absurd cosmic joke, but as a necessary precursor to an honest life. One which is not rooted in the swelling of our ego, but one that we receive as an unexpected gift from God each and every day.
We need to open ourselves to the possibility that the way to fullness is through emptiness . . . which is, in fact, a common them found throughout the Bible. For example, Abraham when he is ready to sacrifice his only son, but then finds himself filled with joy as he hears the promise that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars of heaven. Or when Mary cries out that God has regarded the lowliness (or emptiness) of his handmaid so all generations will call her blessed. Or when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor – the radically empty – for they shall be glorified. The merciful, the hungry and the mourners, for they will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The way out of accidie is to conform our lives to the pattern of Jesus, to the mystery that we proclaim in the Eucharistic prayer when we say “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.”
The way out of accidie is to live the Eucharist, to be the Eucharist. As we also say at the fraction . . . “May we become what we receive.”
When pride takes over, we’re full of ourselves. When accidie takes over, we slip into nothingness. But when Christ takes over, his experience becomes our experience. An emptying occurs in order that we might be filled. A dying takes place so that we may rise anew. When Jesus becomes our guiding light, we recognize ourselves at last in the light of humility. As it says in the second letter to the Corinthians, “as dying, and see – we are alive.” And the key is that in that understanding, the glory is not ours. The glory belongs to God.
In Jesus’ name.