Happiness – The Lost Thought

What experience have monks had that may help ordinary people to be happy? I've been intrigued to find out from Christopher Jamison as I've started to listen to an audio book that a friend gave me.

You may remember last year's television programme called The Monastery:  a handful of people were filmed as they experienced monastic living for the first time at Worth Abbey in England. This programme created a surge in interest in spirituality and the Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison (who featured significantly in the programme) has published a book called Finding Happiness.

I've only listened to some of the chapters so far, and I am already impressed by the talented way in which he clearly explains the benefits to society today of spiritual practices that monks have used for centuries. This is about finding happiness through knowing good and doing good, rather than through just trying to feel good.

What has fascinated me in Christopher's description is the relevance of the teachings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), who were the pioneers of monasticism in Egypt around the fourth century AD, and how some of these teachings were lost during adaptation. It seems to me that these losses give us a blind spot when it comes to looking at the condition of our society today.

We need to take on board some details now. The Desert Fathers were keen to develop spiritually by dealing with their inner life, and they were concerned to do battle with Eight Deadly Thoughts. As Christopher describes it (and the three groupings in italics may be his rather than original), they saw these as the demons that they had to fight. They were:

of the bodygluttony, lust, avarice (greed, or covetousness);
of the heart and mind: wrath (anger), sadness, acedia (or accedie); and
of the soul: vainglory, pride.

This list was developed or refined by Evagrius Ponticus (AD 345-399) and was intended to be diagnostic, that is to help readers identify temptation and the thoughts from which sin can spring. Several centuries later these Eight Deadly Thoughts became the more commonly known Seven Deadly Sins: gluttony, lust, avarice (greed), wrath (anger), sloth, pride, envy. According to the Wikipedia article about Evagrius, this transformation was the work of Pope Gregory the Great (in AD 590) who rolled sadness and acedia into sloth, combined vainglory with pride, and added envy.

So today we have lost sight of acedia and vainglory. Acedia is a word that does not have a translation in English (as is true also of baptism, for example). The original meaning is to do with carelessness, that is a lack of care. It is in particular a lack of care about God, and his involvement, and about spiritual awareness itself. Vainglory is related to vanity. While vanity is about a person having too big a belief in their abilities of appearance, vainglory is about wanting to be known for those (false) attributes. Within vainglory there is the sense of the Christian wanting glory for themselves rather than for God. That is, “It's all about ME!”

As we look at attitudes to morality today, for example through what is written in newspapers, there is some awareness of the behaviour listed in the Seven Deadly Sins, although it is not necessarily condemned. For example people may see that some of today's problems to do with the 'Credit Crunch' come from greed, but not necessarily be willing to go as far as to recognise the evil of greed itself and the possibility that we may all suffer from it. However there seems to me to be a blindness to the way in which problems may flow from a lack of interest in God (acedia) and from spin. I do not use spin to refer to rotating objects, but in today's sense of seeking to publicise something in a good light and where people (at worst) seek to publicise achievements which are not real. This is as close as I think I can get to vainglory in modern English.

Thinking of 'climate change' as another example, I find myself wondering whether the concept of acedia demands that we cannot consider such an issue without considering God's involvement. I also wonder whether our human belief that we have caused these changes to the climate entirely on our own is a kind of vainglory.

Reviewing Pope Gregory's revisions, I think he would have done better to leave the list as eight items, and I don't think he needed to add envy as surely without greed there is no envy. Furthermore Christopher describes sloth as a symptom of acedia, so to replace acedia by sloth is to miss the point. If it is helpful to have a checklist against which to measure our spiritual health today – whether nationally, corporately, or individually – it seems good to me to put the clock back and stick with the Eight Deadly Thoughts of the Desert Fathers.

There are a couple of other things that I like about this approach. Firstly, Church teaching can focus on sin (by which they mean actions) and the way in which it follows temptation (which may be thoughts). So the teaching is that we all get tempted; the task is to avoid acting from that temptation. The Desert Fathers' approach reminds us that it is thoughts that lead to sinful action, and that it is important to recognise that link and to deal with the thoughts rather than to let them fester. Secondly, the inclusion of sadness in the list is interesting. People may not see sadness as a problem for them in the same way that they may recognise anger. It reminds me that a state of mind of sadness is not what God intends for us (He does not want us to be unhappy) and that it is not just a symptom of something else but can be dealt with in its own right.

All this talk of sins and deadly thoughts may seem deadly. It would be good to finish with the more positive theme from the abbot's book: a happy life is not just about avoiding the bad but about nurturing the good, that is cultivating a life of virtue. There is a classic list of virtues, the Seven Holy Virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Helpfully, these are broadly the opposite of the Seven Deadly Sins, which is probably why they are also sometimes called the Seven Contrary Virtues. I find it curious that honesty is not on this list: perhaps that is assumed to be part of the context.

Making progress towards virtue or away from sin requires honesty, starting with being honest with oneself. Christopher writes of the way that the Desert Fathers used to share their disturbing thoughts with others: destroying the thought's secrecy did much to defuse them. This practice of just listening to thoughts without comment, but perhaps giving a Bible verse as a source of help, was certainly an antecedent of sacramental confession, and may be a precursor of modern psychological methodologies. I see that one of the gifts that the church offers to the people is loving support in such honest self-examination, for example through Spiritual Direction.

To avoid confusion (I hope) I note that there is another list of Seven (Heavenly) Virtues in the tradition of the church (derived from Plato, and described by St Augustine): faith, hope, charity, justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.

In Finding Happiness, Christopher uses a further list that appears to be more contemporary. At this stage I am not sure whether he invented it, but I like it as a description of the virtuous behaviour that we may travel towards, in opposition to the Eight Deadly Thoughts:

of the body: moderation, chaste love, generosity;
of the heart: gentleness, gladness, and spiritual awareness;
of the soul: magnanimity, humility.

While these correspond well with the Seven Contrary Virtues, we have the valuable addition of spiritual awareness to combat the lost thought of acedia.

In summary: don't lose out on happiness because of acedia, and do read the book!