February 8th 1997
Accidie or Sick to Death
Job 7: 1-4, 6-7;
1 Corinthians 9: 16 to 19, 22-23
Mark 1: 29-39
A young Sunday School pupil was being told the story which we heard in the Gospel today of how Jesus healed Simon Peter's mother-in-law of the fever that was afflicting her. Being used to somewhat old-fashioned language the teacher told her class, in vivid detail, that the woman was a "sick unto death" but that "when Jesus came to her house she began to feel much better".
Will this young pupil got hold of the wrong end of the stick. She often had her mother say that she was a "sick to death" of ironing or cooking or tidying the children's rooms.
So when the child got home and her mother asked her what she had learnt Sunday school that day the little girl said: "we learnt about Peter's mother-in-law. Peter and Andrew were always bringing their friends James and John back to her house for tea after school. And they always behaved so badly and quarreled with each other over the tea table that she became sick to death of the whole lot of them. So she said to Peter "I'm sick to death of giving tea to all your horrible little friends. Don't ask them back home anymore. But Peter said to her "oh Mum, I've asked another friend called Jesus to come to tea tomorrow. You really like him". So Peter's mother-in-law said "very well, just this once".
But when Jesus came she liked him so much that she told Peter she wasn't feeling sick to death any more and he could invite any of his friend's home to tea so long as Jesus came with them.
Well the child got hold of the wrong end of the stick as they say. Nevertheless, what the child described, Christians getting to feel fed up and sick to death of going to Church and associating with Jesus Christ's other friends is common enough to be worth looking at more closely.
All of us probably know someone to whom this has happened, and the chances are that it has been, or will be, true of us once or more often during our lifetime as Christians. So well-known is it that the Church has given this particular feeling and name of its own accidie and it is something which is liable to strike us down as suddenly and unexpectedly as influenza. In fact "spiritual 'flu" is not a bad way of describing it.
Like 'flu it is something which "overtakes us". It's not the same as being tempted to do something wrong and having given way to that temptation, though that indeed may make us more liable to catch it.
No. accidie or spiritual 'flu is more likely, as its name suggest, to be something which begins to make its influence felt and to come upon us when we're feeling run-down for reasons which have nothing whatever to do with our faith in Jesus Christ.
Maybe we're worried about money. Or perhaps we're faced with a a major surgical operation of which were afraid; perhaps our job is on the line; or our family is playing us up; or maybe we're simply not sleeping well at night.
Any or all of these things can bring on an attack of accidie or spiritual 'flu with the result that those duties which were once so easy, even pleasurable to fulfil, become, in the words of Job in the first reading "nothing more than pressed service, nothing more than drudgery".
Job remember, was a holy man. Generally the more holy people are the more distressing does an attack of accidie seem to them. Not only do they wonder why it should have happened to them when, like Job they've done nothing wrong that there are aware of, but they even begin to doubt whether their Christian experience has been based on fact or on the contrary has been something that they have just imagined to be true" but which wasn't really true at all.
Well, when you next suffer an attack of accidie or spiritual flu, and please note I say "when" and not "if" because experience suggests that it overtakes all serious practising Christians from time to time, there are one or two fairly simple rules of thumb which, if properly applied, help us to limit the damage. In fact they go further than mere damage limitation. Anyone who has, by the grace of God, come through a bout of spiritual flu, will find that their faith has been strengthened not weakened as a result. Like the body, the soul can, as a result of being exposed to infection, build up a series of antibodies to enable it to resist such an attack of accidie in the future.
So what are the rules for dealing with a bout of accidie ?
It's a good rule to tell one (and only one) fellow-disciple of Jesus Christ that you're suffering in this way. If you tell everyone, then the chances are that you will spread the infection far and wide and get yourself a reputation of being a self-pitying moaner into the bargain. That won't help your recovery one little bit.
However to try and fight the infection alone is equally misguided. We just don't have the inner resources to do so. But to tell one, and just one, other trusted person, priest or friend, what you are going through is entirely sensible. The beginning of Lent, next Wednesday, is as good an opportunity as any to bring your troubles to the representative of the Church in order (so as the Prayer Book says) that you may "open your grief and by the ministry of God's holy Word receive the benefit of absolution, together with spiritual counsel and advice".
Secondly, it's sensible to make more, not less, use of the physical helps, the Sacraments, God has given us. So far from coming to Mass less often it's a good idea to discipline ourselves to come to the altar at least once on a weekday during a bout of it accidie The Sacraments are part of the healing process, the first-aid kit if you like, that God has supplied to everyone of us. "He heals those that are broken in heart: and give medicine to heal their sickness " as the psalmist says.
To understand the third and most important treatment for accidie we must go back to the young Sunday school pupils misunderstanding of today's Gospel. "Peter's mother-in-more was sick to death of his friends; but when he brought Jesus to her to teach she began to feel much better".
As Jesus himself told us, when we minister to his friends we are in fact ministering to him. " Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me".
The difficulty lies in seeing this and remembering to make the connection in our mind between Jesus's friends and Jesus himself.
The people whom Jesus has given us to associate with on earth, our fellow-Christians, are a pretty odd bunch of people, oneself being perhaps amongst the oddest. Each one of us, being fallen creatures, has something about himself which is liable sooner or later to rub one of our fellow-Christians up the wrong way. Nor will it necessarily be obvious to us that the thing which others find so offensive or irritating about us isn't something that we see has been wrong with this at all .
Indeed as you probably know, when you've got a bout of flu, even people being kind and sympathetic and offering to help and generally making a fuss can be just as irritating as the person who tells us how ill they've been themselves. Both actions are kindly meant but intensely annoying.
To to see in our fellow-Christians the face of Jesus Christ is a perception which can transform our whole attitude. Like St Paul in the second reading we realise that to obey our Lord's command when it is irksome is at least as worthwhile as when it is a pleasure, and probably more so. To behave charitably towards someone of whom you're sick to death is both more difficult and more rewarding than doing a good turn to someone we like.
So if only we can see the face of Jesus in the people who try our patience most, an attack of accidie, so far from being a misfortune will be for us the time of unequalled spiritual growth.
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