In the last post, I pointed out that Benedictine monks addressed a condition known as “acedia,” which has characteristics much like our understanding of depression, through regulating time and the movement of the body and that it might be interesting to compare this with the ways in which this approach is still used in addressing depression today.

One counterpoint to this perspective, however, is the idea that acedia appears to be a temptation that particularly besets a group of people engaged in a certain way of life, namely people who sit alone and think a lot. In other words, despite the fact that monastic communities regulated life into fairly precise patterns, this was the context in which the noonday demon particularly appeared.

This association agrees with a particular empirical study (in 1991, so a little old) on the correlation between different sorts of prayer and various indicators of well-being. The study produced several findings. Among them, the only positive correlation between negative affect and prayer was for those who engaged solely in ritual prayer. In a way, this makes sense. If one is experiencing depression or strong negative emotions, a prayer that one invents will be much more difficult, so if one prays at all one is likely to recite a written or memorized prayer. Relatedly, however, correlation is of course not causation. It is not that ritual prayer necessarilyy produces negative affect. It may simply be the case that those who already have a negative sense of well being are likely to turn solely to ritual prayer. Likewise, it may not be that the regulated monastic way of life encourages acedia but there may be a third factor involved. Perhaps those who are prone to acedia are drawn towards such a way of life.

What struck these researchers, however, is that the ritual prayer nevertheless did not appear to help. This perhaps explains why it might be possible to be highly regulated, as the Benedictines are, and nevertheless be beset by acedia. In other words, a pattern on its own does not appear to be enough. My students designated this the difference between a “full” rhythm and an “empty” rhythm.

Another way to think about it might be the difference between rhythm and meter. A meter is a mechanical, non-responsive repetition of stimuli without complex pattern, like a metronome. It is a necessary but not a sufficient implicit condition for rhythm. As I mentioned, a pattern that becomes too tight is in fact not a particularly good rhythm. A deep, complex rhythm includes moments of disruption and is flexible enough to respond to those disruptions without dissolving. In the same way, a repetitive structure may be helpful in preventing acedia, but it may not be enough, particularly when viewed from the ruminative perspective.

Another interesting absence of correlation in this study is between frequency of prayer and any type of well-being. A much more reliable indicator is some sort of experience of God, rather than the frequency with which prayer happens. However, the study does not address regularity of prayer as an indicator of well-being, but this might be an important consideration since regularity and frequency are not exactly the same.

Indeed, one could perhaps argue that there might be a kind of regularity that is not temporal in that a prayer may become a regular, habitual response to a particular sort of situation that nevertheless does not occur at regular temporal intervals. Depending on one’s definition of rhythm, one could argue that this is still rhythmic because it is a reliable response to a certain situation repeated over time, albeit not at regular intervals.

In sum, I am here indicating the difference between rhythm and rote. Rote may be an ineffective antidote. Rhythm, however, includes a process of adaptation in which one can maintain something of a structure while also adapting that structure to the requirements of a diversity of situations. This leads to what I think of as an exciting question, a question that requires creativity: How can we adapt the rhythms of which we are a part to our particular situation at each given moment? In other words, this is a question of improvisation.


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