Sadness & Acedia: Julian, Hildegard, Aquinas on the Opposites of Joy

One way to grasp a spiritual concept is to consider its opposite first. What constitutes the opposite of joy? Sadness is an opposite of joy and so too is the capital sin called acedia.

“Nightingale I” – Joseph seeks in vain for a sign from God while the nightingale sings above him. Judy Collins, “Whales and Nightingales.”

Acedia is dullness and boredom and apathy; it is often translated as sloth, but that is too narrow an understanding. Thomas Aquinas defined it as “a sadness about divine things” and “the lack of energy to begin new things.”

Is there a “sadness about divine things” at this time in history?  Have we forgotten about joy and the energy joy gives?  Might this derive from our being cut off from our relationship to the universe, to the whole?

The first chakra, where I place the capital sins of both acedia/sadness and arrogance (tribalism including racism, sexism, heterosexism, jingoism, etc.) is about vibration and therefore relating to the whole. 

Isolating. Photo by Mike T. on Flickr.

We know that every atom in the universe is vibrating, i.e. making music and  Hildegard, listening to this music, called her collection of songs, “A Symphony of Heavenly Revelations.”

It follows that depression and despair, passivity, boredom and  couchpotatoitis are also expressions of acedia and sadness.  So too is what Hildegard calls “indifference,” or not caring.  She decries how the soul can become “weakened by the coldness of indifference and neglect,–but also how the soul can be re-fired and made strong “to all manner of good by the fire of the Holy Spirit.”

For her, acedia includes dullness born of boredom, sloth, uselessness, and a “numbness” that “postpones doing good” and lacks the vigor to fight for justice.  Acedia prevents one from accomplishing the greatness of one’s vocation. One refuses to live and work fully.

Visual meditation on “Nightingale II” by Judy Collins on “Whales and Nightingales.” Video by José Alonso.

Joy, then, is a medicine for acedia, it brings vigor, energy and Spirit that awaken fire.  Hildegard addresses the Holy Spirit as “Fire, Love and Music.” 

 Joy being the fruit of love, a joyless person or culture is one starving for love and out of touch with the love of the universe and earth all around us.

In discoursing at length about joy, Julian and Hildegard call us away from acedia and toward joy.  They light the fire of joy in us. Julian invented the word enjoy in English which draws from “rejoicing” (enjoier in old French).  

Aquinas teaches that acedia “tears charity out by its roots” and that it derives from “sadness” and Julian’s medicine to sadness and acedia is joy.  

To be continued.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond, pp. 28f.

Also see Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp.185-236 

Also see Matthew Fox, Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: “Sad man crying.” Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you sense in self or society a certain “numbness” that “postpones good and lacks the vigor to fight for justice”?  Is the joy of reconnecting with the cosmos an antidote to such acedia?

Recommended Reading

Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic–and Beyond

Julian of Norwich lived through the dreadful bubonic plague that killed close to 50% of Europeans. Being an anchoress, she ‘sheltered in place’ and developed a deep wisdom that she shared in her book, Showings, which was the first book in English by a woman. A theologian way ahead of her time, Julian develops a feminist understanding of God as mother at the heart of nature’s goodness. Fox shares her teachings in this powerful and timely and inspiring book.
“What an utterly magnificent book. The work of Julian of Norwich, lovingly supported by the genius of Matthew Fox, is a roadmap into the heart of the eco-spiritual truth that all life breathes together.”  –Caroline Myss
Now also available as an audiobook HERE.

Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society

Visionary theologian and best-selling author Matthew Fox offers a new theology of evil that fundamentally changes the traditional perception of good and evil and points the way to a more enlightened treatment of ourselves, one another, and all of nature. In comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them. 
“A scholarly masterpiece embodying a better vision and depth of perception far beyond the grasp of any one single science.  A breath-taking analysis.” — Diarmuid O’Murchu, author of Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

Matthew Fox writes in Hildegard of Bingen about this amazing woman and what we can learn from her.
In an era when women were marginalized, Hildegard was an outspoken, controversial figure. Yet so visionary was her insight that she was sought out by kings, popes, abbots, and bishops for advice.
“This book gives strong, sterling, and unvarnished evidence that everything – everything – we ourselves become will affect what women after us may also become….This is a truly marvelous, useful, profound, and creative book.” ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.

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14 thoughts on “Sadness & Acedia: Julian, Hildegard, Aquinas on the Opposites of Joy”

  1. Avatar
    Cheryl M Burton

    How does a person break from postponing good if they are virtually held prisoner from fighting for true justice? If there is an army of opposition to ones very existence marching ahead of them warning everyone that the volunteer will just be a burden to them, and this thought immediately causes murmuring and division in the group, in the way that groups of Jews would go ahead of St Paul to every city and poison peoples minds against him and anyone with him before they got there………

    1. Avatar
      Barbara Forsdike

      Trust in the process. Here we are two thousand years later reading and discussing Paul’s words. He didn’t let the nay sayers stop him, so we look to him as our mentor. We speak our truth and let the Spirit sow the seeds.

    2. Avatar
      Carol Vaccariello

      HI Cheryl,
      You obviously know St. Paul.
      Have you read Acts 16:25-26. Interesting how after being brutally beaten due to someone’s reporting him to authorities, he and Silas pray and sing during the middle of the night and the other prisoners listened, and then….
      For the whole picture start reading the account from 16-40.
      Be Well.

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    There are many things happening in this world and our personal lives, that can cause one to disconnect from the light and beauty of life. Almost all of this disconnect and the many manifestations of acedia that result from this; are caused by humanity itself, and it’s own illusions and dullusions of being seperate from and superior to.

    And yet, the light and beauty of life itself, continously unfolds, evolves and emerges; summoning each one to converge with this reality, amidst all the afflictions imposed upon itself. Mother Earth Herself, experiences the cold hard-heartedness of humanity, yet She Herself, never stops caring. The cosmic root of Her being is to give life, to radiate the light of Her living Webb, that awakens all to the beauty of our interconnectedness, interrelationships, and our interdependencies upon all that She so freely gives of Herself.

    Through this awakening to Her nature, we experience the healing balm for the wounding we’ve suffered and caused. She reconnects us to the living reality of the beauty and light of life, that lives within every created thing that exists. This outpouring of the light and beauty of life speaks to our souls, of a deep truth… that awakens us from our forgetting and our acedia. Opening the eyes of our hearts, She resurrects our ability to attentively see, acknowledge, reconnect and respond imaginatively… to the light of Her living and gracious nature and the beauty of Her giveway that gives life!

    1. Avatar
      Carol Vaccariello

      Your comment reminded me of this quote from Hafiz:
      All this time
      The Sun never says to the

      “You owe me.”

      What happens
      With a love like that,
      It lights the whole sky.


  3. Avatar

    God’s Spirit of LOVE(Compassion,Peace,Justice)~LIGHT(Truth,Wisdom,Consciousness)~LIFE(Joy, Beauty, Creativity)… is always present within, through, among us in our Eternal Sacred Souls in Loving Diverse Oneness and in the Sacred Process and ongoing co-Creation~Incarnation~Evolution of the Eternal Present Moment….

  4. Avatar

    For those of us who suffer with clinical depression and it’s associated lengthy “dark nights of the soul,” sadness (acedia) is not a choice of attitude, but something imposed upon us. It takes all that Divine LOVE offers in physical and spiritual means to overcome and experience JOY once again.

    1. Avatar
      Ellen Kennedy

      Thank you Matthew for todays post and thank you Patrick for bringing clinical depression into our midst. As one who has lived with a major depressive disorder most of my life I encourage all who are reading this and feel they cannot or are unable to access joy to seek medical help. There are so many options today to treat depression. The first step is to reach out and ask for help. May we all be blessed with joy in our hearts!!

      1. Avatar

        Ellen and Patrick — thank you for highlighting depression as a physiological condition rather than a personal failing. Depression is serious and can be debilitating. It can be so intense that people feel beyond all hope and contemplate suicide. Deep depression is like the brain poisoning itself with toxic chemicals. It’s not something that can be “turned off” by shaming it (which just adds more anxiety to the toxic overload).

        For those who are struggling, please seek help NOW. Therapy and/or medication may help. Don’t feel guilty for needing these extra resources. The brain is complicated and genetics can predispose people to depression.
        Love yourself by taking care of your brain and getting help when you need it. Blessings to you and be well.

  5. Avatar

    I look forward every day to Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox but, yet again, depression is being lumped in with the “capital sin of acedia.” Stating that Julian’s and Hildegard’s medicine for acedia is joy is vastly naive! They obviously never suffered from depression. As one who has dealt with a diagnosis of Chronic Major Clinical Depression for many years, I can tell you unequivocally that joy is difficult, if not impossible, to attain without, not only prayer, but therapy and prescription medication. The dullness, boredom, and apathy (often translated as sloth), the despair, passivity and indifference are all symptoms of this insidious disease and cannot be cured simply with a desire for joy! I wish you would please stop spouting euphemisms about a condition of which you obviously have no direct knowledge. And cease your elaborations on a very serious medical condition for which Julian, Hildegard and Aquinas were not medically certified to treat. Eliciting guilt is destructive to this condition, not helpful in the least. Today’s meditation does not support positive action as is your credo.

    1. Avatar
      Carol Vaccariello

      Thank you, Kathy, for your comment, your deeply shared feelings.

      Sounds like you share from deep knowing experiences. Thank you.

  6. Avatar

    I too wish to differentiate acedia, which seems to be a willful attitude, from the effects of depression, which can include sadness, sloth, etc. As others have mentioned, severe clinical depression can be as life threatening as any serious physical disease such as heart failure, diabetes, or cancer, to name but a few. It can be fatal and should never be taken lightly or ignored. Treatment in all modalities, including medication, therapy and even ECT, as well as spiritual support, is required, and no one should be shamed away from it. There is an insidious strain in some of the spiritual areas that spiritual growth will take care of the dark night of the soul, which may be present along with and even mask clinical depression. This is like all faith healing, which may work for a few, but I find it alarming whenever the issue arises and there is not a disclaimer/warning. I do not believe that Matthew intentionally failed to discriminate between acedia and depression and is merely sharing the teaching on it regarding our society’s sins and “numbness” and the lack of concern for others or for any social justice, and is not speaking of any individual in particular?

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