Tuesday 6 November 2012


Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life by Abbot Christopher Jamison

On November 11th we embark with Father Christopher on the first of John Cassian’s Eight Thoughts, which Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century took upon himself to transform – for the benefit of lay people – into the more famous Seven Deadly Sins.

Interestingly, Pope Gregory left out Acedia, possibly on the grounds that it was too spiritual a concept for ordinary people like you and me, but Abbot Christopher Jamison places it first in his 8 chapters of Thoughts, for reasons which he explains.  The Seven Deadly Sins are only useful, says Jamison, when seen as describing “the principal human tendencies that lead people away from living well”, and their insights, he says, continue to challenge us to “greater personal honesty about our innermost thoughts.”

Acedia (sometimes known as accidie) means ‘carelessness’ in Latin.  The monks and nuns of the Middle Eastern deserts in Cassian’s day or in Gregory’s early monasteries would probably have defined it as ‘spiritual carelessness or apathy’, while we might recognise it as simply a loss of any enthusiasm for the spiritual life – not an uncommon trait in our modern Western culture.  

Indeed, Jamison bemoans Western society’s “catastrophic loss of understanding of the need for self-awareness” and sees our children in the 21st century growing up “in a culture that suffers from collective acedia.  He goes on to draw a parallel between care for our physical hygiene (born relatively recently of the discovery of germs in medicine) and spiritual hygiene, which ideally requires just as much daily attention as brushing your teeth or taking exercise.

How are those of us who are not monks or even church-going Christians going to respond to this, supposing we accept the picture Jamison paints of our condition?  Jamison’s answer – in the chapter on Acedia and in the previous one, provocatively entitled “Blessed are the pure in heart” – is repeatedly to emphasise the central role of “the interior life”.   Thus, we can “choose an interior life that is more integrated”, we must seek “self-awareness” (carefully defined to distinguish it from introspection), and “constant awareness of the interior life” is essential.

How does this relate to the Seven Deadly Sins?  After all, next month, Gluttony, Lust and Greed will be queuing up for their turn in the limelight!  The answer lies once again in Jamison’s brilliant re-definition of an ancient, and therefore largely discarded, notion: purity of heart, which we might today describe as freedom of spirit.  Echoing modern commentators from Karen Armstrong (whose book on Compassion we read only recently) to the Dalai Lama (whose tweets regularly return to this theme), Jamison suggests that “careful practice” is required in order to allow our “innate capacity for goodness … to flourish”.  And the way to “inner freedom” is to examine “the thoughts and demons that lie between us and the happiness of a pure heart.”

The next Wychwood Circle discussion – based on the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Jamison’s book – is on Sunday November 11th from 7pm to 9pm at Wychwood Library OX7 6LD.  Anyone is welcome to come, to listen, to contribute or just to ponder.

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