Curiosity, a desire to learn and discover new things, is a good and necessary part of what it means to be a healthy and active human being. However, if a person is spiritually sick (because of their own actions or the actions of others) this good impulse can become warped and symptomatic of a troubled soul. Ancient and medieval philosophers, mystics, pastors, and theologians gave a lot of thought to diagnosing spiritual ailments and prescribing appropriate treatment for those ailments in the form of spiritual discipline. One philosopher named Josef Pieper is almost unmatched in his ability to distill this ancient and medieval wisdom and present it fresh to the modern world.
Josef Pieper died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 93. New Media would doubtless have been known to him, though it had not yet begun to dominate late-modern life as it now has. However, what he writes seems to anticipate some of the issues that New Media has exasperated in human souls. It seems that New Media, may act as a kind of stimulant for spiritual struggles which have always afflicted Adam’s helpless race in varying degrees.
Pieper outlines a particular kind of spiritual illness which is called accidie, or acedia (Faith, Hope, Love, pp 120-121). Accidie is normally (and unfortunately) translated ‘sloth’. It is regarded as one of the Seven Capital Sins (often referred to as the Seven Deadly Sins – also a misnomer). It is more accurate to understand accidie as a ‘sorrow of the world’ (2 Corinthians 7:10), existential listlessness, a kind of wrath turned inward on the self (shown vividly in Dante’s Inferno, canto 7). Accidie will come up again and again in New Media Holiness, but for now I want to focus upon a couple of the by-products, or symptoms, of accidie.
One of the symptoms of accidie is an ‘uneasy restlessness of mind’ (evagatio mentis) which is characterized by an inordinate and unrestrained curiosity (curiositas). Have you ever been in a situation where you feel almost unable to break away from a computer screen, and are instead inducing a kind of stupor by simply following links and click-bait wherever they may lead you? Have you ever been presented with links that you know are probably a waste of your time, or worse, but you feel like you want to know what will happen if you click them? Are you bored or listless in such a way that you just wander the New Media wilderness just looking for anything which may possibly amuse you? If you have answered yes to any of these questions there is a good chance that you have experienced accidie. Accidie has infected your good curiosity and made it sick. If the temptation to accidie is not resisted, it is likely that you will end up spending time that you regret, and be filled with self-nausea. There are some things that are impossible to unsee, and so now more than at any other point in human history, we need to be on guard against accidie andcuriositas. New Media is a potent way for accidie to both afflict and infect the human soul.
In previous ages there were prescriptions against accidie (monks, priests, writers, and poets have always been well acquainted with accidie). “Against accidie rises the great grace of fortitude” (F. Paget, The Spirit of Discipline, p 48). We will explore all of this in greater depth, I hope, but in the meantime what advice has been given for the soul who is afflicted by accidie? I’ve heard it said that a wise abbott would tell a monk afflicted with accidie to go and spend the afternoon chopping wood. Old advice rings true in the modern world. One of the most effective counterattacks against New Media curiositas is wholesome leisure which involves physical activity. Get up out of your chair, turn off your computer and go for a prayer walk or run. Pick up a good physical book, leave your mobile phone at home, and go to a coffee shop to read for a while. Go and visit your grandmother. Whatever you do, just get up and move. While you move, by the grace of God labour to orient your will and your mind towards him and away from the sorrow of the world.