AND THE LAST STATE OF THAT MAN WILL BE WORSE THAN BEFORE (Matthew 12: 45). These words of our Lord Jesus were spoken in response to a demand from the Scribes, or the intellectuals as we would call them today, and the Pharisees that he give them a sign. Evidently this insistence was seen by Jesus as a mark of arrogance and pride, for he responded with a fierceness of aggression that he rarely displayed, and never showed to the sincere and humble. "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign does it? Well, no sign will be given it save that of Jonah the prophet." He then goes on to predict his own death as symbolized by Jonah's spending three days and nights in the belly of the whale, and presumably his resurrection is implied for Jonah was delivered from the depths by this devouring creature and brought back to dry land. Following up on this image the Lord asserts the dignity of his own person which is evident enough that any discerning person of good will would acknowledge it, as the Queen of the South had paid tribute to Solomon. This exchange then concludes with a parable that is at once an indictment and a warning to his critics. They, being Jews, have received God's gift of the law and so have been freed from the evil spirit of idolatry. But, neglecting to accept the further gift of grace as proclaimed by Jesus, they are subjecting themselves to seven other evil spirits that this first demon brings in his train as he returns and finds them negligent. He then dismisses them disdainfully with the words I have cited above: AND THE LATER STATE OF THAT MAN WILL BE WORSE THAN IT WAS BEFORE.
This text came to mind when I happened upon a recent report in the New York Times (Sunday, February 20, 2000, Review of the Week, p.7) With an eye-catching title: Yawn: These Are Such Exciting Times. The topic treated is the increased incidence of boredom in this age when so much that is exciting has been taking place. Paradoxically this most stimulating of epochs is producing alienation and ennui in alarming numbers of people. The author, Tom Kuntz, considers that a more fitting hallmark of the incipient Internet Age than alienation, which is proposed by a study emanating from Stanford University maintains, is mass boredom. He supports his contention with, among other sources, a reference to a newly published annual marketing survey that examines consumer attitudes. 71% of the 2,500 people questioned expressed a yearning for a life marked by greater novelty. This survey concludes that "We are bored despite living in remarkable times." The problem is viewed as exhibiting the same phenomenon as is observed in drug addiction: "Just as a drug user develops a tolerance and needs larger doses to achieve the same effect, so too have we developed a tolerance to amazing events."
Since ongoing monastic renewal confronts us with the challenge of observing and interpreting the signs of our times and devising appropriate responses to the values and needs they manifest, it would seem indicated for us to reflect on some of the evidence for the existence of this phenomenon, its causes and the remedies that monastic wisdom and practice might fittingly offer the people of our society today. Kuntz provides us with some supportive citations from what he calls "an ennui update from the Internet and academe" that points to the existence of this phenomenon and suggests implicitly the appropriate remedy.
For one thing a number of books written by serious scholars have appeared lately treating of the topic of boredom. Orrin E. Klapp, a sociologist in a work entitled "Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society" makes the following observation.
A professor of English also treats of this topic and considers it significant enough for today's society to warrant a study of its history as a literary theme from the age of Dr. Johnson to the present. She comments in part to the following effect.
The history of boredom in its cultural constructions matters partly because boredom itself now appears to matter so much. If boredom can provide plausible justification for acts of violence or self-destruction, if the desire to forestall it sells fountain pens and trips around the world, if fiction writers assume it as the substratum of experience... it would seem that boredom has assumed broad explanatory power in a society widely felt to be baffling.... Its 20th century magnification absorbs ever more material into the maw of the meaningless...
To illustrate the accuracy of this last statement to the effect that the maw of meaninglessness engulfs increasing amounts of human activity as the disease spreads more widely, one can visit the Web site of The Boring Institute, our reporter duly informs us. [I must confess that at this point I began to doubt the reliability of our author's essay; is his report fact or fiction?, was my question; consequently, I decided to look up this site. After a quick viewing it became apparent that our informant understated his case! I have printed out the Web page so as to establish its existence as a fact beyond reasonable doubt]. This imaginative creation of modern society performs the highly useful function, among other noble services, of providing a link to the Dull Men's Club. This latter organization is an association of members of postmodern society which attempts to solve the problem of boredom. One of the remedies in its varied pharmacopeia is a list of dull facts, the use of which instrument of recondite knowledge is calculated to appease the heightened need for novelty at the next dinner party, thereby assuring the initiate makes a big hit. I leave it to your prudence to decide whether this sampling of their industry is likely to resolve the problem of boredom at such a gathering: Fact 1. Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously. Fact 2. In Cleveland, Ohio it's illegal to catch mice without a hunting license. (I might offer as a gloss on this statutory legislation that it would seem to put that city at the forefront of the back to nature movement.) Fact 3. The ostrich has an eye bigger than its brain. In addition to this helpful tool, a list of dull books is also made available for reference, presumably to provide some measure of happiness through communing with other bores.
The above is far from a complete record of the widespread unrest resulting from a chronic boredom that is becoming endemic in certain areas of society today. The world of sports and entertainment today would seem to be given so much prominence and public support precisely because they palliate the pain of boredom that otherwise would prove too burdensome to endure. As far as I am aware there has never been such serious attempts in the past to record the extent and depth of boredom in any given society. As a result it is hard to decide whether our age is more prone to the maladies that lead to boredom or whether we are better informed of the presence of the problem than earlier societies were.
In any case, there is no doubt that all through history the problem has existed. Emperors, Kings and able politicians have long shown themselves keen observers of this phenomenon, by whatever name it was called, and spent large sums of energy and cash in the attempt to meet its devouring demands. Bread and circuses was the formula employed in Roman times, and these were supplemented by such measures as theatrical performances and chariot races. As the addiction to excitement grew in intensity only cruel and bloody gladiator contests, resulting in death, could supply sufficient thrills to make an afternoon worth living. Perhaps before long some social historian will come up with a serious History of Boredom.
One of the conclusions that any thoughtful student of the subject must draw is that pleasure and distracting activities only increase the ennui of those who suffer from a spiritual unhappiness. Boredom results from a lack of meaning in life; it is a symptom of frustration and represents a lack of spiritual development. As early as the Book of Proverbs, spiritually mature and insightful persons have been aware of the syndrome identified today as boredom and have prescribed remedies for it. Whom we call the bored appear there as the pleasure seekers, the randomly violent, the foolish and the lazy. "Whoever loves banquets will suffer want; whoever loves wine and oil will not be rich....The desires of the lazy are fatal." Maturity, wisdom, prudence are all given as remedies in differing contexts. The Septuagint of Psalm 118.28 uses the term acedia, which was to have a prominent future in later monastic circles. Its remedy is found in the word of God: My soul slumbered from boredom, strengthen me by your word. There is, to be sure, no universal cure for so heterogenous a malady, multifarious in its causes. Certainly nothing merely applied from the outside can prove adequate. Every remedy must fail without the hard work and personal commitment to a serious program of life. Discipline, hard work and study are prescribed as antidotes to foolishness, lack of motivation and aggressivity.
Certainly, the founders of the primitive monastic tradition understood the importance of the problem of boredom and the meaninglessness that gives rise to it already in its earliest period. . In good part, it can be said, the monastic movement proved to be a fruitful remedy for the afflictions associated with boredom. The early monks had insights into its nature and causes and devised remedies that in fact proved a healthy and constructive response to the creeping curse of boredom in the society of its time. Their worthy successors have never forgotten their teaching concerning its cure.
This does not imply that the early monks went out to the margins of society and the desert primarily to deal with the various symptoms of boredom; they were primarily seeking union with God and the eternal salvation of their souls as they explicitly stated in a variety of ways. But in devising a way of life that they found to be effective in attaining their end they in fact resolved for themselves and for those who came to join them the various problems associated with the affliction of ennui. Their solution became a way of life that they handed down. It included a number of practices , moreover, proved useful for many others living in society who came to know of them and which had the side effect of banishing boredom from their lives. Solitude in the service of meditation and prayer was a major practice assured the subject of reducing excessive stimuli of all kinds. The need for selective input was stressed in the Egyptian desert and followed up by John Cassian as he adapted this tradition to the West. The Bible, of course, was the one book every monk was expected to know and its more significant portions were memorized and through repetition and meditation assimilated. The literature attests abundantly to this selective and personalized habit of reading. All extraneous writings and conversations were considered noise and a source of distraction. The training of a monk included the renunciation of mere curiosity as a kind of noisy intrusion upon that silence in which the word of God was to be assimilated and so to act as a motive force in life.
St. Aelred mirrors this tradition which is rooted in the New Testament as is the case with all the fundamental monastic practices. In asserting it, he cites St. Paul: "In this meantime let this sweet meditation fill my memory lest any oblivion totally darken it that I may judge myself to know nothing in the interim of this present life save Jesus and him crucified (1Cor 2.2 cf. Speculum Charitatis I.5 PL 195: 510A)." By the time he wrote his work On Friendship, Aelred, whose reading of Cicero's book on that subject had been the occasion of his first steps to a spiritual conversion, he found that only Scripture moved him inwardly. He writes in his Prologue:
But when it pleased my good Lord to correct what was crooked and raise up what had been cast down and by his salutary touch to cleanse the leprous, leaving all hope I had for a career in the world, entered the monastery. Immediately I gave myself over to reading sacred Scripture since earlier my sickly eyes, accustomed to carnal darkness had not sufficed to even to grasp their surface. And so when the Scriptures had become sweet the slight learning the world had given me grew vile. There came to mind what I had read in that book and I marveled that it no longer held any delight for me. Already then nothing that was not honeyed with the honey of the dearest Jesus , nothing that was not spiced with the salt of the holy Scriptures seized totally my affection (PL 195: 639- 640).
Prior to Aelred, St. Bernard had already stressed this doctrine with striking emphasis. He is persuaded that the radical cause of human woe is a sin that is the fruit of curiositas, which could be translated perhaps by the term a longing for excessive-input! For Bernard the first degree of pride is precisely this desire for a kind of knowledge better unknown. Its symptoms are restlessness, alertness for exterior happenings, ears itching to hear the latest. He sums it up this way: "While he (the victim) grows torpid in watching his own self his carelessness makes him curious about others (De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae, X.28 PL 182: 957C)." As he analyzes this disease of curiosity that leads to boredom when it comes to spiritual matters, Bernard makes the shrewd observation that it is a characteristic of curious people that they are unable to foresee the griefs that will come upon them as a result of their involvement in matters better left alone. They focus only on what appears to them to offer satisfaction. This is not surprising when even Joseph, the holy Patriarch inspired by the Spirit of prophecy foresaw his exaltation but not his imprisonment which was nearer in time. Whether this was due to vanity in his case remains an open question for Bernard, but he is convinced that pride and vanity explain why many do fail to foresee consequences of pursuing their own will. Rightly, then, is curiosity, the desire to know things not useful for salvation and not good for the soul, the first degree of pride, the Abbot of Clairvaux concludes."It is found in the beginning of every sin and unless it is quickly restrained it soon degenerates into levity of soul, which is the second degree of pride (op. cit., PL 184: 963A)." Then Bernard shows how thus excessive knowing operates in such a way that it leads to further evils. Yielding to it represents the first step on a slippery slope that drags on down further and further to ruin.
Closer to our own times, Soren Kirkegaard asks the question whether boredom is a perennial human condition. He decides that the problem goes at least as far back as to Adam. The decision to build the tower of Babel is just one of many indications of this chronic affliction of mankind. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.(Either/Or, 282-4)
Another term used in connection with boredom and more obviously descriptive of its ravages is acedia which I mentioned above as appearing in the Septuagint. Evagrios Pontikos was the first to include it among the capital sins, or, as he called them, the Eight Passionate Thoughts. This brings us back to the parable of Jesus cited at the beginning of this conference in which Jesus speaks of the evil spirit returning to his victim who had grown negligent and bringing seven other evil spirits with him. These spirits cause disordered passions in the soul and exert their wiles to make their host captive for good. Thus Evagrios speaks at times of passions and at other times of demons who work through the passions and the thoughts they give rise to. In general, the attacks of this demon of acedia result in a state of listless agitation. He is bored to distraction. The monk is unable to find interest in any of his spiritual exercises. The place grows hateful to him; the brothers seem without charity and he tries to convince himself that if he moves to some other site his problems will be solved. Things do not stop there: he is tempted to drop out alt