Fighting the Noonday Devil

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

If you've ever had The Blahs – and who hasn't? – you've had a brush with the Noonday Devil (Psalm 91). Sneaking about at mid-day or mid-life to whisper words of discouragement to you, this devil will begin to make you feel that the day is interminably long, your activities indescribably boring, and your hope for the future folly. Should you entertain these negative thoughts, you may grow restless and dull, wishing for nothing so much as the day to be done. Should you allow the thoughts to flourish over time, you may end up in the grips of acedia.

Defined variously as spiritual sloth, lethargy and indifference, acedia may best be characterized by its symptoms: boredom, torpor, listlessness, restlessness.

Ultimately it becomes, as Thomas Merton writes, a weariness of life itself. "Acedia is aroused from within, not from without," Sr. Susan Hutchens says. "You might recognize a growing boredom and apathy that leads to a powerful desire for distraction, say a two-hour break at Starbucks or 15 games of Solitaire. Sometimes those activities are used to clear your head, but sometimes they really are the noonday devil."

Monastics should know. The desert fathers and mothers warned of the condition – particularly as it besets monks - hundreds of years ago. The fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus said that of all the great vices, acedia "causes the most serious trouble of all." The fifth-century monk John Cassian described acedia as one of the eight principal faults which attack us; as "an anxiety or weariness of heart." Other spiritual masters, from St. Benedict to St. Thomas Aquinas, write of the problem of sloth (often used as synonym for acedia).

"The Noonday Devil can distract you from your original intent to serve God and others through your monastic vocation," Sr. Susan says. "It tells you, This is piddly. There has to be something better out there. Boredom and anxiety set in, leading to disgust and discouragement. Some people might sleep more, others might find any excuse to go out."

By the time you are firmly within its clutches, the Noonday Devil will not only have coerced you to devalue your commitment – whether to a vocation, a job or a responsibility – it will have ensured your lack of caring about it.

Winding the Clock

The spiritual masters agree, the cure for acedia is work. "John Cassian advised his monks about what to do when plagued with thought of acedia," writes Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, in Thoughts Matter. "If we listen carefully there is wisdom in his words for us. He told them to rededicate themselves to work in every sense. Work with your hands and be present to the work, he said, rather than dissolving into memories or thinking about desires and dreams."

For a monastic, work also means going to community prayers in a routine that is repeated day in and day out. That routine, seen as mind-numbing by one afflicted with acedia, is actually redemptive.

"Could we regard repetition as a saving grace...?" writes Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me. "Browning ground turkey while your children are arguing in the kitchen, you may not feel connected to this great mystery, but you are. ... Our greatest spiritual blessings are likely to reveal themselves not in exotic settings but in everyday tasks and trials."

Thus, to combat acedia, we must work at our jobs faithfully, and let go of negative thoughts. "Someone once said, You have to wind the clock every day or it will wind down," Sr. Susan says. "Our work – our prayers – is how we wind the clock. We aren't here for just ourselves. Our life is not just me and God on my pathway to heaven. Our life is about who and what we have committed ourselves to. We have to recommit to this life every day, not to the life we don't have.

Our prayers help us wind the clock, help us recommit." And as we recommit, we can celebrate as Ronald Rolheiser's child of the kingdom who "turns up her music, picks up her wineglass and her friends, her tools and her duties, her hopes and her prayers, and continues, in joy, despite all that's wrong, the dance of the resurrection."