“I think,” I said suddenly to my husband several years ago, “that I’m supposed to go to theological seminary.” I did? If so, this was the first I’d heard of it. In Berkeley for a reading at a bookstore, we were stroll/rolling through the university campus on a mild November afternoon, and I suppose the proximity of the Graduate Theological Union had crossed my mind. Still, I’d been here any number of times without a stray thought for the GTU. Why on earth should this visit be any different?
“Supposed”? By whom? If I had been reared with the concept of vocation, I might interpret this unexpected revelation as a summons from God. In the upper-middle-class egalitarianism of the Congregational church to which my family belonged, however, the ministry was viewed as a profession much like any other. To be sure, the minister delivered a 20-minute sermon on Sunday and visited the sick during the rest of the week instead of extracting teeth or drawing up wills, but otherwise he (and he was always a he) seemed little different from the rest of the town’s good citizens. His spiritual life lay, like everyone else’s, strictly out of conversational bounds. An announcement that God wanted me to study Him (and He was always a He) would have been greeted with a certain embarrassed skepticism if not derision. Only hysterics heard the voice of God.
Now I am a Catholic, part of an institution (made up of hysterics, some in my acquaintance would say) that has survived for centuries on the concept of religious vocation. “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts,” admonishes the response to one of the psalms we recite during the Liturgy of the Word. Although I can now believe that others hear and heed God’s call, to claim myself among them seems spiritually arrogant. Wanting some task carried out, God can do better than look to me. My own undertakings seem to reflect the will of God far less than they reveal my own willfulness. Whatever I’ve thought I was “supposed” to do, I’ve probably been the one supposing.
For the past year and more, I have been swallowed up by the soul sickness known by the desert fathers as “accidie”: the failure to respond to and act on a sense of divine purpose. “Sloth,” we call it nowadays. In this context, “sloth” signifies neither a hairy, slow-moving nocturnal beast nor mere lack of ambition but spiritual torpor seeping out of a miasma of distress and despair.
“I am no longer ert,” as Prince Zorn laments in James Thurber’s magical tale The Thirteen Clocks_, “for I have lost my ertia.” I can hardly work. Having published eight books, if I have another in me, I don’t know what. I sit in front of my computer like a slug, playing solitaire, or fiddling with the software until I break it and then have to fix it, or merely staring at the screen. Over and over I chastise myself for my dolor and lumpishness.
“Come on, Nancy,” I scolded one day last week, “pull out of this paralysis and get to work.” Then I had to think again, because I am in fact paralyzed, irreversibly and against my will, by multiple sclerosis. For about the first 15 years after being diagnosed in 1972 with this chronic incurable degenerative disease of the central nervous system, I assumed that I would go on living the way my friends and colleagues were living, just with more effort. In this frame of mind, I reared my children, finished my Ph.D., taught university writing courses, wrote and published poems and essays.
Then I fell on my head. More than once. I gave up teaching. I sold my car. I sat down in a wheelchair for good. Even as I increased my efforts, my body was carrying me further and further away from the life I had intended to live. The truism—you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough—turned out to be pure and rather cruel codswallop, suggesting as it does that if you fall short of a goal, you have only yourself to blame. After years of losing one competence after another, I can now do virtually nothing for myself except brush my teeth, and long experience has taught me that I will lose that ability as well. From the beginning I figured that life with MS was going to be hard. I never knew it would be this hard. Perhaps after more than a quarter of a century, the disease has worn me past the point of productivity by making the physical act of writing overwhelmingly arduous. My intellectual inertia might well have grown out of my physical immobility, leaving me paralyzed in more ways than one. In the face of my limitations, my spirit slumps.
I speak, in conventional terms, of my “body” and my “spirit,” as though the two were separate entities, even though from a biochemical perspective they probably are not. They certainly feel not just different but, at least in my case, alien to each other. I suppose what makes us human is precisely this illusion of divergence between material and spiritual being. Certainly when my cat tromps on my keyboard with all his 26 toes, he does so mindlessly, perfectly free from self-awareness (though I’m not so sure about self-satisfaction) in a way I can never be. My “I” feels trapped in a structure that I once imagined fondly as a house but has metamorphosed under the baneful influence of MS into a prison. The inmate is intact, although because weakness renders speech and writing increasingly difficult, she has difficulty communicating the fact to the outside world. Immurement feels like a distinct and horrific possibility.
As I slouch here in my wheelchair, gasping with the terror of being buried alive, questions batter my brain. Who in the world benefits from my idleness, no matter how reluctant? Why am I still here? What on earth am I for_? Beyond giving others the opportunity to practice works of mercy at my expense, can I be said to serve any function at all? And if not, am I still fully human? In a society that conflates worth with productivity, can I learn to define humanness in other than utilitarian terms? “Do you think you’re going to change the world?” a newspaper reporter once asked about my activism. “Well,” I responded, “at least I’m not making it any worse.” Is that enough?
That day in Berkeley, theological study may simply have seemed to offer the structure and purpose I want back in my life. I may have implicated God in my urge only because the
ology my mind lit upon chanced to be the rather than anthrop- or psych-. I’ve continued to be drawn to it. But I won’t be going to theological seminary, even though I’m sure a year or two there would provide me both much-needed discipline and spiritual delight. Nor will I be doing much of anything else. My doing days are done.
And so I hunker, sullen and ashamed, in this slough. Something more than physical paralysis is at work here, something fiercer than MS daunts me: a loss of nerve beyond the neurological. Accidie appears to be as much a part of my reality as MS. No amount of resolve will rescue me. Nor can I “vanquish” either of them. This is not a war. This is a life—my life—and I have to work out how to live it meaningfully. If God does call me (and I must not discount such a possibility just because I seem a little hard of hearing), my response, whatever it might be, must take into account my paralysis of both body and will.
The doubt and dither I work myself into when I try to discern the way I ought to live and work arises from my childhood perception of God as Other. This God might speak to me but probably would not, and indeed never did, strain though I might to hear his voice telling me exactly what he wanted me to do, when, and how often, so that I could become the good girl I was commanded to be. Such a view of the Holy as a vigilant alien being, the Big Boss, alternately instructive and punitive but always perfectionist, drew me deeply into the guilt and despair that characterized much of my life. My chosen Catholicism, with its emphasis on incarnation, brought me a fresh perception of the good news (though not one the Catholic church would necessarily approve): that we bear God into the world, in all God’s complexity, and so God is always with(in) us.
When we choose an action, then, we must do so in good faith, attentive not to a set of regulations issued from on high but to our own best inclinations, which both arise from and attest to God’s presence here, now, alive in us as in all creation. On the surface, a theology without a Watcher, separate and severe, might seem to invite moral laxity, but my experience suggests otherwise. Quite young children—even my dogs—can learn to behave well as long as a figure of authority is nearby to remind them what they may or may not do. The difference between them lies in the child’s growing capacity to elect good behavior, not out of fear of retribution, hope of reward, or desire to please, but for goodness’ sake. What God wants us to do, as God’s children, is not so much to perform this or that specific duty as to give our actions moral weight and take responsibility for them.
Action itself is the commonly recommended remedy for accidie. “Get off your dead duff,” my mother would admonish if she caught me moping about. She certainly wouldn’t have recognized my condition as one of the Deadly Sins—she had a horror of all things Catholic—and depression (which partially reflects the characteristics of accidie) wasn’t readily diagnosed in the 1950s. She had the right instinct, nevertheless. The fifth-century monk John Cassian, following long-standing eremitical practice, prescribes work as the antidote to sloth’s slow poison even if, like the hermit Paul, living too far from a market to peddle your baskets, you simply set fire to them once a year and start weaving new ones. The devil might or might not make work for my idle hands, but Mother wasn’t taking any chances. I got busy, and I stayed busy.
It hadn’t occurred to me until I began exploring the subject that accidie might comprise busyness as well as shiftlessness, eroding the spirit even more insidiously because it masks its own vacuity. Thomas Aquinas notes that the “wandering of the mind after unlawful things” ascribed to sloth by Pope Saint Gregory I, “if it reside in the mind itself that is desirous of rushing after various things without rhyme or reason, is called ‘uneasiness of the mind,’ but if it pertains to the imaginative power, it is called ‘curiosity’; if it affect the speech it is called ‘loquacity’; and in so far as it affects a body that changes place, it is called ‘restlessness of the body,’ when, to wit, a man shows the unsteadiness of his mind, by the inordinate movements of members of his body; while if it causes the body to move from one place to another, it is called ‘instability’; or ‘instability’ may denote changeableness of purpose.”
I’ve entertained these “daughters” of sloth, as Gregory calls them, ever since Mother routed me from my easy chair and sent me hurtling through high school and college and graduate school, through marriage, motherhood, teaching, and on into writing. Only when I fetched up, breathless, here at my desk did I begin to think that my actions might lead to some other end than simply getting through my life with as much dignity and satisfaction as I could. They might distract me from the fruitful attentiveness through which a person achieves balance and peace.
“I spend so much time planning all the things I have to do that I hardly pay attention to what’s going on right now,” my sister Sally said to me a couple of years ago, voicing a complaint that echoes throughout the lives of most of the people I know. Instead of falling naturally into what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “mindfulness,” the mind behaves like a small furry animal scrabbling around the inside of the skull. The sillier the worries, the better it seems to like them. My own form of distraction tends toward planning what I am going to wear the following day (week, month, depending on how caught up I am in future events). If Sally meditated, her mind would certainly not wander off toward her wardrobe. I am the frivolous sister. But each of us in her own way loses focus.
I’m not saying that I have been too distracted to do good works along the way. At least from the time I became a Girl Scout leader at 15, I had a sense of social responsibility, although my activism didn’t begin until a decade later. I have diligently performed the works of mercy myself, both corporal and spiritual. Even today I use up my limited energy hurrying from board meeting to reading engagement to worship service to demonstration, all worthy pursuits. I am hardly a fritterer. Rather, I am confessing that I have too often rushed around heedlessly, exploiting my good works as a means of deflecting or at least deferring the arduous spiritual work of defining and then fulfilling the purpose of my crippled life.
I have been looking at my life wrong way round. I have always assumed the existence of a paradigmatic “good” life, and believed I had the responsibility of aligning my own with it as closely as possible. To the extent that my life deviated from the model, I had failed and would have to work harder. If self-flagellation were still in vogue, a cat-o’-nine-tails would by now have grown into the flesh of my palm, so assiduously (and ineffectually) have I whipped my life into shape. Some shape: baggy and flaccid as an old rubber boot.
No matter how enfeebled my body has become, no matter how many physical limitations I have had to accommodate, I have never lived spiritually as though I have MS. I have lived as though I were “supposed” to compensate for having MS in order to fulfill the same duties as everybody else. When I could not, I have been angry at myself and ashamed at my shortcomings. I have not allowed myself to acknowledge that because my disease differentiates me in essential ways from the people I most admire, my duties may differ as well. No Peace Corps for me. No teaching poor children in East L.A. Not even any sandwich-making at the local soup kitchen.
I feel useless because I am useless. As long as I take this utilitarian view of my role in the world, I can only feel superfluous and burdensome. But alternatives to such a limited view must exist. We speak of “purposeful activity,” after all. Why shouldn’t there be such a state as “purposeful passivity”? Not the alternating lethargy and frenzy of the “noonday demon,” as John Cassian calls accidie, but a deliberate quieting of the heart and opening of the spirit to the sacred in every moment, to the steady whisper—whose?—calling for attention: “Now! Now! Now!” Heard once, it will be easier to perceive the next time, and the next. Spiritual growth is not guaranteed by performing prescribed tasks or observing particular rules or rituals. Indeed, too rigorous an adherence to these can distract and dismay. The route to spiritual life lies in learning to listen.
Perhaps I will sometimes be able to communicate what I have learned. Perhaps I will again even write now and then. With time and discipline, I will resign myself to my reality: I will do nothing easily. I will do most things not at all. I will learn to say, with the poet Theodore Roethke, “Being, not doing, is my first joy.” I will hear God.
Nancy Mairs, a poet and essayist living in Tucson, has published eight books, among them Ordinary Time, Waist-High in the World and A Troubled Guest.