Contemplatives may not have many gifts to boast of, but they need to be good at dealing with the demon of acedia. Demons are semi-autonomous forces in the psyche that block grace. Acedia is a strong one because it can be pushed away but then return at unexpected moments. Its symptoms are common: discouragement, restlessness, hopelessness, giving up the work of letting go. This is being put to the test, the recurrent temptation for every pilgrim. According to one gospel’s account of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, he was tempted by a powerful trio of illusions that he saw through. But the ‘devil left him to return at a later time’. Maybe it returned in the garden of Gethsemane.
When he was there in the early hours of the morning of his last day, he underwent the fear and trembling of death, the abyss of loneliness, even when his friends were sleeping deeply close beside him. ‘My heart is ready to break with grief’. St Luke, one of the most realistic of the gospel writers says that at this point of exhaustion, on the brink of despair, an ‘angel from heaven appeared bringing him strength’. Angels may not stay but, when you can face your grief, they come when you need them.
Our heart breaks when we feel apart. A loss, a tragic misunderstanding, a demon we cannot send away convinces us that we are helplessly apart and asunder: separated from everyone and everything. Whatever seems to connect us to others or to the world appears to be superficial and transparently a false consolation.
This inner brokenness can overwhelm, or it can lead to compunction of heart. The grace of compunction happens when we keep the broken heart open despite the temptation to deny and resist grace, to protect our wounded self with the separateness of the ego. Compunction punctures the illusion of being apart that it seems safer to cling to. Then, from the heart that stays open despite its pain, compassion streams.
From the fear and nightmare of being apart from everything we emerge seeing that, no kidding, we are a part of everything. For a while, maybe a few decades, we flip between these two versions of reality until the forty days are completed.