The church was dark. Small candles sat in bunches around cracked, faded statues. They lit up red in the holders like small constellations of fading stars in a dark universe. I didn’t know why they were lit. Or who had lit them. I just knew they were there for a long time.
I took my eyes off of the flickering lights and looked towards the ceiling. The painted frescoes were dull with time. But still, they depicted scenes of angels and cherubs, dancing in a blue sky. Men and women in flowing gowns were presenting gifts to a central figure with soft features and light emanating from behind his face.
The smell began to hit me then. The sweet smell of burning incense and stale wood. The whole place creaked as if it was breathing with me. Inhale, the wind would scatter along the cold marble walls, exhale the wooden pews groaned under the weight of time.
There sat a few scattered visitors. Elderly folk, full of their own weariness, weight, and worries time never let go of. Though, here, while the rest of the world struggled on, it was peaceful. They sat gazing at the man on the cross, his eyes closed and chin tucked into his chest. A look of serene fatigue on his face.
“Can I help you son?” the Father said to me.
I turned to my left and saw his face. Like this place, he too was taken by time and gravity. Thin strips of grey hair lay neatly placed on the top of his shiny head, drooping skin came to an abrupt halt underneath his eyes, and a long, crooked nose sat in the center of his face, like an aquatic bird’s pining for the day's last meal.
“Yes father, I came here to confess.”
He led me past the statue of Mary, full of wilted flowers and candles burning bright in the dark. She too looked sad, sullen, in a revenant way. As if her soul had left when her son’s had. And now she had returned to help those who have also lost.
The confessional booth sat to the side of the statue. Two doors were enveloped in dark wooden carvings of spiral decoration. A cross sat at the peak of the point as if to remind those who had forgotten where they were.
“Come, enter on this side.”
I opened the door and sat down. The wooden bench felt cold like it hadn’t been used in quite some time. The smell engulfed me. Old wood and past bodies.
Father sat down beside me in the opposite room. The wicker divider hid our features but each of us knew the other sat there. Still.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it has been 24 years since my last confession.”
“Why such a long time between confessions my son?”
“I’ve lost faith Father. In the church, in religion, in everything, I was taught to believe in.”
“And why is that?”
I had to think for a moment. There were many reasons…
When I was young, in grade school, I was taken by the stories of the Bible. The epic adventures of Moses, the overcoming of obstacles by Jonah, the bewilderment of Job’s predicament, and of course the miracles of Jesus. They all held me. But as I grew, and I learned, I came to realize these stories had been manipulated by those with ill intentions. Taken from their original allegorical methods of conveying wisdom and distorted for control, torn apart and rewritten, and ultimately, I came to believe that I was living in lies.
Jesus, though a wonderful protagonist, may have never existed. The stories I became so familiar with may have been taken from a different figure - Mithras. An ancient Roman god. It was possible that during the First Council of Nicaea, Constantine I and other high priests at the time integrated the story of Mithras into the New Testament to convince people to worship their Roman god without the population knowing it. It was conversion to paganism under the guise of Catholicism.
But how could I explain all of this to the Father?
“I lost faith Father.”
That was simple.
“Understandable. We all lose faith at times in our lives. As much as we would like it to be constant, faith is always tested, always in flux, always there for us one moment and questioned the next. This is perfectly natural. Is this why you are here today?”
“Not quite. Though, I’m sure it has something to do with it.”
“Then what is it my son?”
I peered down to the floor. The wooden beams had become loose and there were cracks forming around the iron nails.
“I feel lost, Father. Distracted. Anxious. I don’t know, like life is running in front of me. I can peer into the distance, I can try to catch up, but all I seem to catch up to are the years that have already passed. I feel like I’m always looking behind and remembering when things were great, but never knowing when they were great in the present.”
As soon as I said that, I remembered the last time I had given confession. I was in grade school at the time. I was nervous as I always was when it came to talking to unfamiliar people. I didn’t like opening up when I was young. I don’t really enjoy it now either. But I was forced to participate in confession during school. I didn’t know what to confess to, so I told the priest I had cheated on a test, even though I didn’t.
“That is interesting. Let me ask you a question if that is alright with you.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Have you heard of the sin of acedia?”
“No, I haven’t. Is that one of the seven deadly sins? I don’t remember it.”
“It is,” he replied
“Can you explain it to me?”
“It is the greatest sin of our age. The one that has run rampant across our world. It has poisoned our minds, taken our hearts, and replaced them both with this looming feeling of anxiety. Our society’s answer of course is to medicate the sin of acedia away.”
“But what is it?” I asked.
“It is difficult to explain plainly. It is something like a combination of lack of focus, lack of action, constant distraction, and depression wrapped into one unpleasant reality. If that doesn’t describe our modern age, I’m not sure what does.”
“How come I haven’t heard of it before?”
“Not many people teach it any longer. The reasons why, I’m not so sure.”
“Okay, so it’s basically living in a constant state of distraction and inaction. Almost like sloth?”
“It is somewhat like sloth, but not how we understand it in modern terms. Sloth is a constant state of inactivity. The sin of acedia is a constant state of activity or inactivity with no goal. Just complete distraction...
I see many people during the week. When I was a young man, starting in the parish, people would come to me with confessions of lust, hatred, greed, and many different ailments. Over the last ten years however, the majority of people who enter the church, come to me with the same ailments you describe. Feelings of anxiety, confusion, distraction, all of the above. It is a plague set forth on the world’s people. A constant state of action that leads to inaction. I'm not sure what to make of it.”
“Is there no way to live outside without it?”
“Yes, of course there is. But to live without acedia is to leave most of modern society behind. Everything created today is meant to distract you. To put you into states of fear. Of hatred. And sadness. In order to break free of these you must either leave it all behind, or cultivate deep discipline. The ability to control attention, to work towards a goal without immediate results, will be a superpower in the quickly coming future.”
“And you think, by cultivating this discipline in my attention, I will be able to slowly rid myself of these feelings?”
“Certainly. The sin of acedia will no longer have its grip on you. You will be a man apart from the world. Outside of the confines of rapid attention. That prison of distraction. All you must do is try. Very easy to say, but very difficult to do.”
“Thank you Father.”
“Is that all you would like to discuss my son?”
“Yes, I believe it is.”
“Then leave here with the burden of this knowledge. Your life is in your control if you can control your attention. Say 5 Our Father’s as you leave. And try to concentrate solely on the words in the prayer. Nothing else. You must start slow.”
I pushed the door open and met the Father face to face. We said nothing. I shook his hand and headed to the nearest pew.
The sounds of the church whispered in my ears. The low talking of prayers, the shuffling of feet, the groaning wood of the pews. The place felt wholly alive.
I kneeled down in the closest rows of benches and started with my prayers. Halfway through my second, I felt in the back pocket of my pants, ever so slightly, a soft vibration.