The Profession in Life Vows of Robert Emil L’Esperance, SSJE – Br. Curtis Almquist
John Cassian was a monk living in the late fourth, early fifth centuries.i He was born in France to wealthy parents, received a good education, and while still a youth visited holy places in Palestine, where he decided to become a monk. Becoming a monk was no more the norm in his day than it is in ours. Cassian was formed in the monastic life in Bethlehem, and later in the Egyptian desert. He was seized by the love of Christ, and his soul’s craving was to learn holiness in life. In about year 415, Cassian, then in his mid fifties, founded two monasteries near Marseilles, France.
Cassian’s own formation was countercultural – countercultural in his own day and countercultural to us, 1,600 years later. Cassian learned the truth about abiding, what we hear Jesus commend in John’s Gospel: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”ii For Cassian, the practice of abiding meant chiefly two things: for one, learning from the other men who also had been called by Christ to be monks in the monastery. Cassian was clear that he did not call men to be monks. He was a steward who simply received them; Christ called them, which was an amazing experience… except when it was so terribly disappointing. Whether his fellow monks seemed the greatest or the least, it was always quite humbling to see who Christ called. And secondly, Cassian understood what it was to learn from his cell. The cell is a monk’s dwelling place, the word “cell” coming from the Latin, cella, meaning “small room or hut,” from the Greek, kalia, which means “nest.” The cell, where a monk nestles down. From his monastic formation in the Egyptian desert, Cassian carried with him the wisdom of the ancient saying, “The cell will teach you all things.”iii
I say this was as countercultural then as it is now because Cassian is not appealing here to higher education. Cassian was a very learned man for his own day. He was literate and he taught his monks the learning of the world, but here he is appealing not to higher education but to lower education, what is more foundational, and more rooted and grounded. He is talking about the humble learning that you will find in not running from your self and not running from your cell. Abide. Learn to listen to your life. Your cell will teach you all things.
And yet Cassian encountered a temptation in his own soul, and he witnessed the same in the monks whose lives he was helping to form. This is a temptation familiar to us here as monks of the 21st century, and it may well be familiar to you who live outside of a monastic community. Cassian describes this temptation as the spirit of “accidie” a word with Latin and Greek roots.iv Accidie. Cassian says that when a poor soul is beset by accidie, it makes him detest the place where he is, and to loath his cell, his nest where he lives and prays. He has a poor and scornful opinion of his brethren, and is prone to think that they are neglectful and unspiritual and unworthy of his respect. Accidie makes him sluggish or inattentive in virtually every task. He cannot sit still or give his mind to reading. He thinks despondently how little progress he has made where he is, and how little good he gains or does. Where he is, he has nobody worthy to teach and nobody interesting to edify. He dwells on the excellence of other and distant monasteries – how profitable and healthy their life is, how delightful the brethren are, and how spiritually they talk. In contrast, where he is, all seems harsh and unseemly. There is no refreshment for his soul from his own brothers, and none for his body from the surrounding countryside.
Come mid-day this monk afflicted by accidie goes out and looks this way and that, and then sighs to think that there is no one coming to visit him. He saunters to and fro and wonders why the sun is setting so slowly. And so, with his mind full of confusion and shameful gloom, he grows slack and empty of all spiritual energy. He concludes that nothing will do him any good… save for him to take a nap or perhaps to go and call on somebody. At this point, the accidie suggests to him that there are certain persons whom he clearly ought to visit, certain courteous inquiries that he ought to make. There is a religious lady upon whom he ought to call and to whom he may be able to render some service. This, he thinks, will be far better than to sit profitless in his own cell…. On and on Cassian goes, and it gets worse!. v
In Christian asceticism, accidie has traditionally been defined as “sloth.” Maybe so some days, but I find that definition of accidie rather unhelpful. I suspect that many of us – whether or not we be monks – can identify with the malaise and torpor of Cassian’s monk where nothing seems right within us or around us; however, we would hardly consider ourselves slothful. To the contrary, it is more likely in this day and age and in this culture that we are overstretched, multi-tasked, tyrannized by seemingly-urgent demands and conflicted priorities, not really present to anything but “spread out all over the map.” In that state we may be acquainted with the symptoms of accidie. The Greek root for accidie is “negligence,” and that puts a whole new light on the matter.
On more than one occasion I have found myself telling my own spiritual director (and I have heard many others telling me) that the well has run dry, the vision has become unfocused, the fellow travelers along the way are disappointing, and the vocational calling has become an intolerable burden. The spiritual energy seems absolutely depleted. And the desired cure for this might either be flight – to get out of here and to saunter or surf to some new place or some new person – or otherwise, almost its opposite, to tighten the spiritual belt of discipline, especially by carving out more time for spiritual rigor and prayer. Maybe so; maybe not. Now, of course, we brothers live here in a community where we gather throughout the day for the traditional monastic round prayer and worship, and where we spend an hour each day in our own cells in private prayer. We brothers could not live together without this. Whether or not you are a monk, all of us need to find some way that fits our life and vocation to be intentional about our spiritual life and prayer each day, even if that is only a nod in God’s direction at the beginning of the day and a nod or sigh of relief in God’s direction at the end of the day. Prayer springs from our life, and our life is a gift from God. And I would say, if we are acquainted with this dissatisfied, off-centered, discontented malaise of accidie – where nothing is right with our self or the world – I would suspect it’s because we have been negligent not just about our prayer but about our life in general. Gifts require cultivation.
If we are not reverencing our own body, getting regular physical exercise, eating a good diet, watching our weight, getting sufficient sleep and sabbath rest, our life is out of balance. If we are not regularly taking time to re-create – time for hobbies, for holidays, for friendships, for enjoyment in life – our life is out of balance. If there is not time for study and leisure reading and for the nurturing of our own soul, our life is out of balance. If we are married or in a committed relationship, there needs to be time to live out that commitment of love and the graces of that life-bond. We become open prey to the invasion of accidie by being negligent to the limitations of our life, which is also a gift from God. All of us have finite limitations and all of us have real needs, which are going to be satisfied. We either address our needs for balance in a healthy way, or our needs will be redressed in unhealthy ways. Nature abhors a vacuum.
In our culture at this time, I suspect that most of us – whether or not we be monks – need to do less rather than more. The blur of our life begins to clear as we slow down and abide in with contentment in the day and the place and the life we’ve been given, which is a gift. And God intends for it to be good. I’m mindful of the words of wisdom from the great 18th century poet, Goethe, who says:
A person should hear a little music,
Read a little poetry,
And see a fine picture every day,
In order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful
Which God has implanted in the human soul.vi
In our own Mission statement, we brothers in this community claim a “Vision for Wholeness.” Wholeness informs the ministry we practice here at home, across North America and the British Isles, in Israel and Palestine, and in eastern Africa. We belong together – all of us around the world being God’s children. In every language, race, nation, and culture, we belong to one another; we need one another. The brothers’ global Vision for Wholeness ultimately springs from the local and personal level: of living a whole and complete life, in balance and reverence for our own souls and at peace with one another. Our own Vision for Wholeness is descriptive of the life we live together as brothers of this community. Wholeness is descriptive of our life… except on days or in ways when it is not, and then it is prescriptive. We regularly miss the mark. We fall and fall again.vii Some days our Vision for Wholeness is simply where we want to be and how we want to live together. Some days it is more prescriptive than descriptive. A monastery such as ours is a school of reconciliation, lifelong conversion, and healing.
I’ll return to where I began, what John Cassian learned about abiding. Monasteries do not call men to be monks. Monasteries receive men who have been called by Christ to be monks. And this is certainly true for you, our brother Robert. You have been entrusted to us, and we to you. Life together is a very exposing experience, where we learn the best of one another and, some days, the worst. This is as true for you, Robert, as it is for all of us. And like with Cassian’s monks who are tempted by this accidie, you, Robert, know what it is to disengage, to flirt with taking flight, to be discontented, to be out of balance, to be irascible… which is also true for all of us brothers, and which makes you one with us. We need you, Robert, and you need us.
Some days this call to abide together is as clear as the sunrise, and a joy to behold. Other days, abiding together is the greatest of challenges, and a temptation for accidie, and this is where our vows are an enormous grace. The ring which you, Robert, place on your finger today becomes such a powerful sign. It doesn’t matter how you may be feeling in the moment, this is where Christ has called you to abide in your lifetime, given all the wonders, graces, and inevitable disappointments in our life together. It has taken you a lifetime, Robert, to get to this point in your life, and your life vows – this outward sign represented by your ring – will be a continual reminder to eye and to heart on days of greatest joy and days of greatest challenge.
In the Gospel lesson appointed for this liturgy, we hear Jesus say, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” There is more ahead in our life together, things which Jesus has for all of us, including you, Robert: things which would be too much to bear just now. What Jesus is holding for us may be the source of the greatest joy, delight, and love, or the source of the greatest challenge, difficulty, and pain. Probably some of both. Whatever Jesus is holding of your story, Robert, you will be readied for it, and you will be ready for it. You are called to be a monk, Robert, and much of what Jesus has for you will be revealed to you in the solitude of your own cell. I said earlier that the monk’s cell comes from the Latin, cella, a small room or nest. The word is related to the Latin, celare, which is “to hide or conceal.” Your monk’s cell, Robert, will often be a place where what has been hidden will be revealed by Christ. Don’t run from your cell; don’t run from your self.
One last word. Our dear brother Robert, you will live more-and-more into the grace of your name – l’esperance, hope. Hope is great expectation for the future, but which operates from the blind. We do not hope for what we can see, to paraphrase Saint Paul.viii We must wait for it with patience. We simply abide, some days in expectant darkness, not unlike branch which will not bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, which is rooted in darkness but which teems with hope for the fruit that will be borne. ix You know about this, Robert. You are a master of gardening. Here in our midst you’ve been planted for the cultivation of your own soul, the blessing of this community, and the glory of God. This is the way for you, and it is so promising.
Our dear Brother Robert, the one embodies hope for us: Welcome home.
i John Cassian (c. 360-435) is most remembered through his two extant works, his “Institutes” and “Conferences.”
ii John 15: 4.
iii A saying attributed to the Egyptian desert fathers in the fifth century.
iv Accidie comes from the Latin accidia, which comes from the Greek akedia, literally meaning “negligence,” or “an absence of caring,” traditionally translated as “sloth,” one of the seven deadly sins.
v Cassian’s insights are drawn from the writings of Bishop Francis Paget in The Spirit of Discipline (London: 1894), pp. 7-10.
vi Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a German poet, novelist, playwright, and natural philosopher.
vii This is another saying from early desert monasticism.
viii Romans 8: 18-27.
ix John 15: 4.
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God meant for me to read your message today! I am sure of it! I have recently moved to assisted living in a place which is wonderful. I have had a few periods of accidie which you described perfectly. It is possible even in the midst of loving people to have negative thoughts.You have helped me know how to battle them. I am forever greatful!
I miss you all. Wish I could get to Cambridge for a retreat.
It was this morning that I asked “what was the other side of Jesus….the side of the trying to perceive Love when one reflects on the experiences of day to day life The nuts and bolts of life’s darkest days, challenging
relationships,connections and balanced understanding of whom each of us are on this Earth. My own groundedness and ability to abide. It it here that both Brother Curtis and Brother Robert open and shine the Love of yourselves that allow myself to find mine. The written words from SSJE cradle the soul into being. Thank you.
I am very surprised that God has brought this message to me, today, in your words on accidie. It is the most significant challenge for me; much easier to run, if I knew where to run. Better to stay put in the arms of God. Thank you.
… quite simply – thank you Brother Curtis. As I read the words I could feel the love and wisdom seep into my soul.
Thank you! A beautiful sermon that washes over me.
Br. Curtis, you have introduced me to a new word,
“accidie”, and I thank you for it, and all your words to Robert. I loved this homily, and it spoke to me.
I wondered why I did not comment back in 2007, but just realized that was when I was preparing to move here, a challenging year it was. Here my house is much smaller than any place I have ever lived, of course, not like the monk’s cell, but, in a way, truly is my cell. I have a favorite place for prayer and reading. My piano is a comforting spot for me, which I use often to soothe my spirits and lift me to new heights. But, some days, accidie creeps in and causes me to lack those wonderful graces and hope. In fact, today was one such day. This sermon was custom-made for me tonight. Thank you, and thanks to Robert for obeying the Lord Christ.
Paragraphs 4-8 gave me that aha! this morning. I realize this is exactly where I am, stuck once again, itching to do more or less, plead with God, stop pleading, maybe go out and find another church, new friends, exasperated with my husband, exasperated by my lack of compassion, my malaise. Good thing its’ deja-vu at 62. Been here, seen and felt that. God is here gently guiding me through yet another dark cloud. Clarity will happen as I stop long enough to give God a truthful moment, praying and seeing His presence in scripture as well as at the grocers. For now, I will give thanks for breakfast with my hubby and realize the abundant life God offers is here, right now, this very moment. Thank you.
Dear Br. Curtis,
You are a master of shepherding.
Thank you, I think.
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As I do not feel called to be a monk, I associate the concept of “cell” more with “to open up, become all-knowing and transparent, to communicate incessantly” (as in smart phone) than to “hide or conceal”.
I realize I need to do less and am overwhelmed with the false boundaries my modern-day cell has created. It’s easy for me to admire the seemingly clear-cut boundaries you are given as brothers. However, I also recognize that it’s not at all simple for you, and the clear-cut is found in practicing gratitude and the mindful observation of Goethe’s “sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul”. That is good and enough for all of us, against both sloth or negligence.
Thank you today for sharing a lesson I can live as an example with my young sons in my crazy zoo cell, the nest God has given me for them, a beautiful soulful place.
Quite beautiful. I would like to think that those of us who have found the monastery as a place of worship have been called also. For me it is a place of Joy. Peace. Refuge. Healing. And Prayer.
I also am in love with the word Hope. And have never thought of it in terms of “things we can not see”. This makes it even more beautiful.
And I appreciate and need so much to be reminded and to believe that I am both being readied and will be ready for whatever is next in my life. It so helps to move through each day with purpose and confidence.
As always, this is my “nod” to start my day. Thank you sp very musc for these daily emails and such a beautiful, accessible place to develop our faith and knowledge.
Enjoy August. We will wait expectantly for the monastery to reopen in Se September. To a blessed and beautiful and balanced day. Thank u.
You have a most wonderful gift for reminding us that we are on a journey. “Accidie”: sloth or negligence? A sure way to assure that I do not make any progress on that journey and that I do not leave that place, wherever that place is at any given moment. Hmmmm. Thank you.
thanks curtis for those words. i do believe you are called by God to a religious life. It is not an easy life as some people think. you have several personalities living together and need time for yourself. also you learn to get along with many personalities and help each one when it is needed. you learn to respect one another. it is good you have your meetings each morning so all of you can say what is on your mind. your words curtic certainly make us stop and think how we can try and live our lifes by not just thinking of ourselfs, but what we can do to help those in need. jane
I don’t have words to express the impact of your message on me today (from “The Profession of Life Vows of Robert Emil L’Esperance, SSJE” June 3, 2007). Your words have spoken directly to my soul, bringing hope to my present journey.