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Acedia – noonday demon

The latest Taonga magazine is out. There’s an article of mine in it on acedia. Especially for those who cannot get hold of the Taonga magazine, this is what I wrote:

The sun beats down unremittingly from a cloudless sky bleached ashen. The monk, alone in the desert, finds every minute of the day excruciating. Pointless. The zeal and passion of his early years in the wilderness have faded in the relentless desert sun. The devotional practices he once relished he now finds oppressive, wearisome, and dull. His spirit has desiccated. He just doesn’t care. Vanity of vanities! Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?

The early desert monastics were among the first to identify this visit of the noonday demon. They called the demon, acedia – derived from the Greek, to not care.

How often have you heard a sermon on acedia? We’ve all heard of the seven deadly sins, and can probably list off most if not all of them. But the list used to be eight. Evagrius Ponticus, in 375 AD, developed a list of eight patterns of deadly “thoughts”. Two centuries after Evagrius, Pope Gregory I did us a disservice in my opinion. He combined acedia with tristitia (sorrow) as part of developing the idea of the seven deadly sins that are more commonly known about today. The combination became sloth.

Evagrius describes the monk at the middle of the day finding the day dragging endlessly. The monk keeps wondering how long until the next meal. He hopes to spot someone to talk to and spend time with. He hates this place, this way of life, his work. The people here are no good. If anyone has upset the monk recently, the demon reminds him of this, just to increase his revulsion. He starts to fantasise about other places where things will go better, where God can be more worthily worshipped. He thinks of better times past, and is anxious about the endless years still lying before him.

Acedia is hard to translate. I suggest restlessness, purposelessness, meaninglessness, aimlessness, a lack of caring. Having acedia (post-Gregory) as a subcategory of sloth is confusing, as acedia can manifest itself not only in idleness, but also, in fact, in meaningless, frenetic activity, in pointless busyness.

Sooner or later we can all encounter acedia in our repetitive activities: our paper-pushing desk job, laundry, dishes, and other housework,…

Many in contemporary society look at monasticism and the desert tradition of spirituality and ask, “What is the point of a life like that?” In fact this is the very question that they do not have the nerve to ask of all that absorbs us. In our culture there is feverish activity which generates its own momentum of creating further exertion. We can be readily swamped with a false sense of urgency. So many of us fill so much of our lives with instant inconsequential communication. This generates its own momentum of sometimes-ill-considered, inane, immediate responses. Some fill much of their time producing or demanding pointless reports that everyone secretly realises are little read and even less ever acted upon. Then when we are “relaxing” from our exhausting labours we fill our time with pointless distractions. We are a culture, a society suffering from acedia.

And the church, rather than being counter-cultural, often unreflectingly fits in and embodies, and gives in to, the same demon of acedia.

Individuals move from community to community, from worship style to worship style, from prayer approach to prayer approach, from relationship to relationship, marriage to marriage, restlessly seeking the perfect community, the latest worship song, the latest teaching or trendy preacher, the perfect denomination, the perfect partner.

I often get emails to my liturgy website in the form of, “Our community used ashes last Ash Wednesday, can you please give us ideas for a different way to celebrate Ash Wednesday this year?” Different is better. We avoid monotony and boredom as the new sins. For centuries clergy and laity prayed Daily Prayer, the disciplined praying of the psalms and meditating on the scriptures that goes back through the desert monastics and on into our Jewish roots. But in the 1980’s General Synod and all diocesan synods put energy into passing legislation removing this requirement from clergy. Too boring, I guess. We are a culture, a church suffering from acedia.

And so we lose our very vocation as church. We lose our sense of perspective. We forget that we are signed with the cross. We overlook that we are called, not to gain anything but to lose everything; not to be first, but last; not to live, but to die.

The monastic solutions include perseverance, fidelity to our liturgical discipline, and community. Few know of the Western monastic vow of stability. “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything” the desert monastics taught. Stay in your marriage, your parish community, pray the Daily Office daily, celebrate liturgical life and discipline day by day, week by week, year by year until these wear away our false self, and the true self in Christ is manifest.

Know that when you hit acedia, as most of us do, that thousands, millions have been in this place before you.

Evagrius has a promise if we overcome acedia. It is a promise born from the concrete experience of the numerous people he was drawing his insights from. Conquer acedia and you will have “deep peace and inexpressible joy”. If nothing else keeps us going, maybe that promise can be something we hold on to.

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10 thoughts on “Acedia – noonday demon”

    1. Industria, Steve, means diligent activity directed to some purpose – acedia, as I have indicated, is a loss of the sense of purpose. Acedia, as I have also indicated, is generally about inactivity, but not limited to it as sloth generally is understood.

  1. A marvellous article, Bosco. Thanks so much for sharing it with us in this forum.

    I’ve often suffered from the monk’s illusory thought that if only I could go somewhere else (where they didn’t mess up the liturgy) I’d be able to worship God more worthily. But at least, as you point out, it cuts both ways: restlessness for liturgical variety (which is usually what messes it up) is equally unhealthy! The same thoughts afflict us as spouses and parents (“If only I didn’t have this annoying family, I’d be able to pray much better…”). And I imagine parish priests must feel the same way at times about their congregations!

    I first encountered the notion of the “noonday demon” (from the LXX/Vulgate Psalter, 90[91]:6, “non timebis a … daemonio meridiano”) in Nancy Klein Maquire’s spellbinding book about Carthusian monasticism on the eve of Vatican II, An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order (New York: PublicAffairs, 2006), which devotes a whole chapter to it (ch. 12) and in which the subject recurs several times. A sample, from p. 163:

    [S]uddenly, unexpectedly, the dark force took a more subtle form than it had before. Every day was still the same, but every day began to feel as dry as the dry bread on Friday. Everything was arid. Dom Philip felt that he was wasting his time. Sitting at his prie-dieu, he squirmed, nothing was going on. He struggled with a demon that a fourth-century Eastern monk, Evagrius Ponticus, called the “noonday demon.”


    The noonday demon tormented Dom Philip with the unchanging routine to which he was committed — today, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow; to bed at 7:00 PM, up at 11:00 PM to pray, then to church for Night Office, back to pray, to bed again around 2:30 AM, up again at 6:00 AM for Prime, then to church for the conventual and private Masses, then back to the cell for Sext and reading, dinner at 11:00 AM, manual labor and reading, back to church at 2:45 PM for Vespers, back to the cell for Compline, and then to bed at 7:00 PM. The noonday demon made Dom Philip feel very acutely that the life offered little in return. The noonday demon came and went, but when he was present, Dom Philip felt as if he would never leave. Dom Philip kept conversing with God, but was anyone listening? He wasn’t sure; he felt parched. But he took comfort, as did the other monks, in the belief that the harder the life got, the more you were progressing to God.

    That last sentence is the key, I think. Jesus’ road only got harder and harder, and the same pattern played out in the lives of his saints (think Peter, Paul, Stephen, right down to present-day examples like — dare I suggest it? — John Paul II). I recently remarked to my wife, after yet another sleepless night with a feverish baby, which entailed a major loss of precious time for my “real” work, “I’m getting a lot of experience in self-sacrificial love, and it’s been a bit of a shock to discover that it actually feels like s**t. There’s no choir of angels telling me and the world that this is really important, holy, and valuable.” How could I have expected anything else when the very Master whose disciple I supposedly am was driven to cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

  2. Permit me one more comment, Bosco, on the subject of the Daily Office. I am sad to hear that it is no longer of obligation in New Zealand (I’m pretty sure it remains at least theoretically obligatory for Canadian Anglican clergys). I recently finished reading Donald Gray’s Percy Dearmer: A Parson’s Pilgrimage (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2000), and it includes some fantastic verbatim extracts from Dearmer’s testimony to the 1904 Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline. When he was asked if the recitation of the daily Office by clergy in their churches, even without a congregation, was not an unreasonable physical strain and, indeed, a waste of time that would be better spent “in social work of all kinds which keeps accumulating on upon them”, Dearmer replied:

    I should say that far from being a physical strain, the daily service is a physical rest, and a spiritual rest; and also I should have thought, it is the experience of most of the bishops, that it is just those clergy who are most active in social things who are also most regular in the use of daily services> (p. 160).

    I read once of a Roman Catholic bishop who, whenever having to get to the bottom of gross misconduct on the part of one of his priests, would first ask, “When did you stop praying the Liturgy of the Hours?” That would identify the precise moment when the priest’s priorities had changed for the worse.

    Then again (and I’ve often been guilty of this), sometimes a dogged persistence in praying the Office can serve as escapism from the more immediate demands of our vocations. What a tightrope we walk!

    1. Thanks, Jesse. An Infinity of Little Hours is a wonderful book (I review it on this site), I also write several reflections on this site drawn from Carthusian insights. Thanks for your helpful pointers.

  3. Beautiful and insightful Bosco. Thank you. I think acedia lies at much of our difficulty as a church, culture, and individual. It is sneaky though. What offers itself as a seeming response is really a symptom of the acedia itself.

    May the Holy Angels guard and protect you from the Noonday Demon.


    1. Thanks, Mike. Yes – discernment of the attack, and appropriate responses are very important. The lack of acknowledgement of it is of concern – and part of the issue.

  4. As a lay person and very inexperienced at incorporating contemplation into my every day life i’ve found this a very helpful post. It might help me to understand why I start at Monday, freshly inspired by the Sunday worship, and with every intention of praying each day, yet somehow by Friday the busy-ness of life and tiredness leaves prayer by the wayside. I have a long way to go yet in this journey.

  5. Yesterday, and for several days before that, I decided not to pray at work (I’ve set myself to visit sacredspace.ie every workday over lunch) because “I was busy doing something important and prayer would just be boring and not get me anywhere and is anyone really listening anyway.” (The lack of a question mark there is intentional.)

    Maybe today I’ll have the courage to go do it.

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