Living Rhythmically

Module 2, Class 3: Acedia and Monastic Rhythms

In approaching depression from the perspective of rhythm, the students turned to consider whether the rhythms of certain Christian spiritual and liturgical practices might have any effect on depression. This session was primarily speculative in that there was no explicit connection to depression, while the following session looks at empirical research on prayer and depression. The students chose selections from The Rule of St Benedict and Mother Teresa’s No Greater Love.

The Rule of St Benedict is of course very much a matter of instituting a particular pattern of life, and one of the things that’s interesting to consider is what exactly the pattern is intended to accomplish and what it is intended to prevent. One of the situations that Benedict mentions is idleness, and the students spent time reflecting on what exactly this is and its role in healthy patterns of life.

Idleness is actually associated with a host of other similar conditions bundled together under the term “acedia,” sometimes called the noonday demon. Its nature is various but its effect is always to prevent monks and nuns from keeping their mind on their tasks. In other words, it’s a disruptor of rhythm. It involves both torpor and distraction, a failure to live in the present, lack of caring, hopelessness. In other words, it is never explicitly associated with depression but it appears to be a designator of many of the same sorts of phenomena that we associate with depression today. Indeed, Andrew Solomon has explicitly made this connection with his book The Noonday Demon.

Unlike the too-tight cycle of the ruminative perspective on depression of the previous session, the acedic perspective depicts depression more as a lack of rhythm, a sort of shapeless flux. Either way, however, The Rule of Saint Benedict is interesting in its proposition for overcoming these sorts of states. In effect, life is highly regulated and, among other things, this regulation of time and bodies appears to be a form of emotional regulation as well. The rule is frequently phrased such that a certain activity is put forward to prevent a certain emotional state, or if a monk begins to exhibit such a state, a particular activity is put forward as its antidote. Emotional problems are therefore avoided through patterns of bodily activity (or at least this is the hope). This appears as a sort of structuring of the emotions. The body and one’s time are structured such that emotions are regulated into particular spaces appropriate to times, places, and activities.

It would be interesting to think through the degree to which this may be a form of emotional regulation comparable to those promoted by the contemporary literature.


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