When the Spirit Is Willing (But the Flesh Is Weak): Overcoming Acedia in Prayer

"To not go forward is to turn back and not to be gaining is to be losing."

~ Saint John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel

Do you ever put something off, claiming you don't have the time for it, but really you're avoiding it because it's a lot of work? Decluttering my desk falls into this category. Sometimes it's something much bigger, like changing a job or moving.

About a year ago, I spent a weekend at a cabin on the Kitsap Peninsula. Determined to fit in some screen time, I managed to make sense of four remotes and two DVD players. While digging through mounds of DVDs, I pulled out the indie musical, Once.

Did you see this back when it was all the rage? I recall listening to the passionate yet somewhat depressing soundtrack on our car cassette player (this movie is THAT old), and even saw the musical on Broadway, where two kids squirmed behind us the entire time. 

For a new spin this time around, I decided to watch it with the director commentary. And I discovered the whole movie is about this notion of inertia and stagnation. As director John Carney puts it:

The title “Once” refers to a male condition not particular to Ireland but it's certainly prevalent in Ireland; a lot of guys that I know are very talented and have a lot to say about the world and are witty and urbane and funny...and are very creative people but they just don't have the kind of “get-up-and-go.”

You hear that line a lot with these people: “Once I get enough money,” “Once I get out of my parents' house,” or “Once I get this little business set up,” or “Once I get my great script written, then I'll be brilliant.”

But they're not actually doing it. 

It's the guy hiding behind the pint of Guinness who could be great but just keeps putting it off and keeps procrastinating.

We've all met this guy. He’ll tell you about an unrealized dream to own a nightclub and DJ on Ibiza, but currently, at 45 years old, he’s still sleeping in his childhood bedroom. It's how my BFF, who has a penchant for drinking three pints of beer in lieu of lunch (while telling you of his plans to explore the Amazon), describes himself: “I drink and I know things.”

As it turns out, this sort of sloth doesn’t only apply to life: it’s also a central challenge in prayer. 

Many people--including lifelong Christians--think a fertile spiritual life is reserved exclusively for those endowed with that “special charism” for mysticism (as though there were such a thing!). But prayer, really, is so basic: it's about speaking with and developing a relationship with the One who created you. So a strong spiritual life is well within anyone's reach.

One actual stumbling block to achieving spiritual maturity, however, is that it's hard. Particularly at the beginning stages, prayer feels like that line from Ezekiel: “The days drag on, and no vision ever comes to anything.”1

Fortunately, when we understand what to expect at various stages in prayer--and appreciate the benefits of moving into what St. Teresa of Avila calls the interior mansions--it's easier to resist a compulsion to throw in the towel. 

Let's look at what this expert on prayer says about starting out on this supernatural journey, and then some ways to overcome temptations to acedia.

Our souls need a lot of weeding, tilling and fertilizing as we enter into
the first mansion of prayer, writes St. Teresa.

Prayer 101

In Interior Castle, the masterpiece on prayer that she wrote at the age of 62, St. Teresa of Avila describes the soul as a great mansion. The entryway to this castle is prayer.2

In The Book of Her Life, a spiritual memoir she wrote over a decade earlier, she uses the analogy of water and gardening to describe prayer. When we start out, entering into the first mansion, the soil is rocky and hard and full of weeds. We need to find water of our own initiative. And sometimes the well is dry!

Beginners in prayer, we can say, are those who draw water from the well. This involves a lot of work on their own part, as I have said. They must tire themselves in trying to recollect their senses. Since they are accustomed to being distracted, this recollection requires much effort.3

(Generally speaking, I'd say she is talking about mental prayer; that is, sitting and meditating in silence on a scripture passage or something.)

This beginning phase can last a while; for St. Teresa it lasted for years. (But she stresses that God takes every soul on a different journey.) Anyone can press on to the interior mansions, however, where God provides the water Himself: “God does not deny Himself to anyone who perseveres. Little by little He will measure out the courage sufficient to attain this victory.”4

However, it's really, really easy for acedia to set in before achieving this breakthrough. As St. Teresa says: “There are many who begin, but they never reach the end....thinking they are doing nothing, they become afflicted.”5

What is acedia exactly? The Catechism defines it as: “A form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart. 'The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.'“6

When we hit a wall in prayer; have a long spell of dryness or our mind constantly races and we can't stay focused for more than thirty seconds; it's easy to tell ourselves we don't have the time, it's pointless and there are many more important things to be doing.

St. Teresa, rather, tells us not to be concerned. “It is very important that no one be distressed or afflicted over dryness or noisy and distracting thoughts [in prayer].”7 Pressing on demonstrates that we desire the God of all consolations, rather than the consolations of God.

The Benefits of Prayer

The difficulty of prayer naturally begs the questions: Why does God make it so hard? Doesn't He want a relationship with us? And why would anyone press on into the interior mansions? St. Teresa offers some explanations:

His majesty does not desire that we enjoy something as precious as this without paying a high price.8

The favors that come afterward are of such great worth that He desires first that before He gives them to us we see by experience our own worthlessness so that what happened to Lucifer will not happen to us.9

(What happened to Lucifer? I think he committed the sin of pride, which resulted in a total separation from God, and since he's an angel there's something about his intellect that makes the decision irreversible.)

Now, about some of these favors “of such great worth”....what are some benefits of pressing on?

  • A Solid Spiritual Foundation

By consistently spending time with God--during times of plenty and times of drought--St. Teresa says we establish a strong spiritual foundation. Even through we travel in darkness, and over what seems like a barren land, we really cover some ground over a period of time.

The soul that begins to walk along this path of mental prayer with determination and that can succeed in paying little attention to whether this delight and tenderness is lacking or whether the Lord gives it (and whether it has much consolation or no consolation) has travelled a great part of the way.10

  • God's Voice is Clear(er)

Just as with a person, when you spend a lot of time with God, you become more familiar with Him. The noises of the world fade away, and it becomes easier to recognize Him in your day-to-day.

This benefit is really a central reason to pursue a life of prayer, as there is So. Much. Noise. in the world, and SO MANY blind guides (including not a few leaders in the Church). Developing the ability to identify and listen to God on our own has become a necessity to any disciple of Jesus.

  • God Becomes Our Friend

Have you ever had the kind of boss who tells you exactly how much cream he wants in his coffee, and who puts you on edge every time he walks into the room?

When we're not familiar with Him, it's easy to feel this way about God. However, Jesus calls us his friends at the Last Supper; this is the sort of relationship God really desires to have with us. 

St. Teresa says that as we press on in prayer, this “servile fear passes away”11 and the dynamic of the relationship becomes more casual and friendly.

  • Inner Peace

“What hope can we have of finding rest outside of ourselves if we cannot be at rest within,” St. Teresa writes in Interior Castle.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that God knows and can provide for all our needs before we ask. A strong prayer life increases our trust in His providence, and we experience less anxiety and strife.

Clearly, there's incentive to press on past the ennui and the sluggishness you might feel in prayer. As St. Teresa says, “all (a soul's) good is within this castle.”12

5 Ways to Overcome Acedia

Acedia is similar to feeling stuck. At times, the temptation to give in feels irresistible.

According to Newton's law of motion, an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. Our prayer lives are no different. Taking the right action gets us moving and creates the momentum to progress onto the next mansion.

If you're struggling to continue with prayer and feel that nothing ever happens, here are some ways to fight the inertia.

1. Seek Out Support and Enrichment

In our secular society, finding spiritual companions is tricky business. Or maybe you know a lot of Christians, but you don't connect with them.

Like-minded people are out there for sure, however. Pray to the Holy Spirit and do some digging: maybe go on a retreat or seek out a spiritual director. One or two companions may emerge.

If no one materializes, accept that this is where God wants you (much of a spiritual life is done in solitude). Instead, seek out a book on prayer; the Carmelite mystics have written some good ones, including Story of a Soul, Interior Castle and the Ascent of Mount Carmel. You can ask these saints to guide you, too, as you read: they'll be right by your side encouraging you along!

2. Tell Yourself the Right Message

I'm gonna go all Tony Robbins for a moment here and point out that our brains are wired to realize and perceive whatever we tell them. Telling ourselves “This is impossible,” and “I am not good at this” are dead-end messages that easily lead to discouragement and defeat.

It's important to deliberately shape the messages we tell ourselves about our prayer lives. As St. Teresa points out, God wants our wills, and so simply making an attempt to pray is success in His eyes. When we remind ourselves of this, it's possible to perservere through dryness.

3. Create a Routine & Keep Showing Up

Growth happens in the day-to-day, so long as we create the space for it. Routinely showing up to pray allows things to happen.

When we find a place and set a time; say stopping by an empty church for 30 minutes after work, creating a designated space in our home, or even finding a quiet place in a nearby park where we're sure to find solitude; it creates the possibility of progress in prayer. Many parishes have Chapels of Perpetual Adoration: these also are excellent places for quiet prayer.

The water may only trickle at first, but if we pray habitually, eventually we'll see change and growth.

4. Find Your North Star

Before the invention of the magnetic compass, ships couldn't navigate on cloudy nights. Rather than getting miles off course, they'd put up anchor until conditions cleared up.

Similarly, in our prayer lives, it's hard to move through periods of dryness and distraction when we have an incoherent idea of where we're going.

Focusing on the benefits of spiritual maturity (outlined earlier) allows the fog of uncertainty to evaporate. Even amidst darkness, we're able to move forward with confidence.

5. Be Patient With Yourself

As we know all too well, falling and failing is a given in everyone's life. Prayer is no different. Anyone who sets out will backslide.

Perseverance, as discussed, is part and parcel to growth in prayer. “There is no other remedy for this evil of giving up prayer than to begin again,”13 writes St. Teresa.

However, it's counterproductive to berate ourselves for falling. Sometimes, allow yourself to press pause, knowing you'll get your head back in the game the following day.


One thing that struck me from watching Once (for the tenth time or so) is this idea that life is about living. We aren't meant to remain in a stagnant space of unfulfilled potential. The two central characters provided each other the impetus to achieve breakthrough in their musical careers and personal lives.

We all have those days where we sleep for ten or eleven hours, hit snooze a billion times, then spend the rest of the day sitting on the couch eating pizza. And our prayer life hits these kinds of lows, too.

The thing about prayer is that you don't need to be “good at it” or “doing it right.” You can be distracted. You can feel like you're doing nothing. The key is to keep doing it. And when we break through that wall, it allows God to water our lives with greater peace and knowledge of Him.

What's your experience with dryness in prayer? Is it a phase? Or something that recurs with you all the time?


1 Ezekiel 12:22. 

2 Volume 2: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD & Otilio Rodriguez, OCD. ICS Publications, 1976: Page 283, 286.

3 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD & Otilio Rodriguez, OCD. ICS Publications, 1976: Page 81.

4 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Pages 79-83.

5 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 84.

6 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday Publishers, April 1995: Paragraph 2733.

7 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 85.

8 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 79.

9 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 83.

10 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 83.

11 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 78.

12 Volume 2: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 300.

13 Volume 2: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Page 303.


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