27 April 2016

Acedia, the Noon-day Demon

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (18)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In 2011, "60 Minutes" had a segment on the monks at Mount Athos. (You can view the whole segment here.)

One of the monks interviewed (by the late Bob Simon) was a man from Winthrop, Massachusetts, Father Iakovos, who arrived there in 1986. During the interview, Iakovos told Simon he received news, a year prior to the interview, that his father was dying, but did not return home to visit his father before he died. When Simon asked why, Father Iakovos explained that when monks enter the monastery they renounce the world and are dead to it. This points to one of the greatest difficulties of monasticism: all that you leave behind, including the most intimate relationships.

As I watched that episode I thought back to when, soon after my conversion, I began contemplating becoming a monk. I wondered if I could be so sanguine about the death of one of my parents, or even one of my siblings. I concluded that, while I could, and would, abide by my abbot’s likely denial of my request, for a time life in the monastery would be extremely difficult, that the performance of my duties would be perfunctory and joyless, overshadowed by a feeling of pointlessness. Sadness, perhaps especially over the loss of a loved one, is a dangerous emotion, dangerous because it can transform into something else, something the desert fathers named acedia, and nick-named “The Noon-day Demon.”

Imagine this scenario. A young man applies for acceptance to a monastery. He undergoes the trials of a novitiate, during which time the abbot and brothers assess his fitness for the monastic life. (This, incidentally, is something at which they are quite adept. Abbot Tryphon of the All Merciful Saviour Monastery has said it becomes apparent within a matter of weeks whether or not a postulant is fit for monastic life.)

At last he is accepted for admission as a monk and begins his “spiritual struggles, towards temperance of the flesh, towards purification of the soul, towards mean poverty, towards the good grief, towards all the sorrowful and painful things of that life according to God which brings joy” (as the Vows of the Tonsure to the Great Schema put it). Eagerly, he sets to it, fighting the unseen battle against the demons, living a life of self-abnegation and cross-bearing.

Initially, it may be easy, all too easy. But as I said in a previous post, the desert doesn’t care about you.

The desert doesn't care about your hopes, your dreams, your plans--or your regrets. The desert doesn't know you; it won't miss you when you're gone. The desert will give you no recognition, no honors. The desert doesn't care who you are; it doesn't care who you think you are. The desert can't hear you; it is not even listening to you….

The desert will kick your ass and bring you down to size.

One day, the heat of the desert, or some other aspect of monastic life, bears down on the young man. Under that pressure, he begins to think about all that he left behind, a woman he knew that will never be his wife, the children he will never have. He thinks about the fact that he may never have news of his family; he may never know if his father and mother are still alive. He may never know if his siblings have married, whether or not he has become an uncle. All because he is here, in the desert.

And for what? To live a life in imitation of the angels, through continued life-transforming communion with the Father, by the Holy Spirit?

"No," he might try to remind himself, "to pursue holiness, to be made whole, to be healed. I am here to seek healing from the darkness and estrangement that I have inherited as a result of the fall. I am seeking out the God of righteousness, Who alone can heal me of my infirmity. As Christ increases in me, my fallen nature decreases. In monastic obedience, my Self is replaced by the will of God and my ego is trampled down. I am here to acquire the Holy Spirit from whom comes true repentance and a humble and contrite heart, and inner peace--so that a thousand around me may be saved."

"But," the Noonday Demon tells him, "you don't have to leave the world in order to do all that. Those who receive the sacrament of marriage also can pursue these things. Indeed, they must. Besides, the only thing you are really doing out here is breaking your back and being roasted alive."

He stops in his tracks, in the midst of his work and asks of himself: "Really, what am I doing here? I'm not fighting any unseen war. And even if I am, all Christians, monks and non-monks, are called to this battle."

In this way, the Noonday Demon, acedia, tempts the monk to forsake his vows.  And if he does not forsake his vows then, if the acedia is not checked, performance of his monastic obligations will become perfunctory. Quite simply, his body will be in the work, but not his heart. Hence the association of acedia with laziness; but distinguished from laziness in that it is not a reflection of a desire not to work, but a conviction of the pointlessness of the work. What is all his labor but rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, all day long, every day, forever? To the question, “What’s the point?” the Noonday Demon replies, “There is no point."

As with all the passions, monks are not the only ones who are susceptible to acedia. It is a danger we all face, the apparent pointlessness in all our efforts. When I was a child there was a popular country and western song my friends and I liked (Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job and Shove It”). It sounded fun and was rather catchy, but in fact it’s rather sad and captures the feelings of a man who has lost interest in his work, and life generally, when he loses all the reasons for which he expended those efforts:

Take this job and shove it I ain't workin' here no more
My woman done left and took all the reason I was working for
Ya, better not try and stand in my way
Cause I'm walkin', out the door
Take this job and shove it I ain't working here no more

There is more to the song than that, all dealing with the apparent pointlessness of the hard work he and his friends have put in over a period of years. But, in general, that sense of pointlessness, is acedia.

But, what to do about it?

John Cassian narrates a progression which, honestly, I didn't find very helpful, or understand, at first:

Wherefore in order to overcome accidie, you must first get the better of dejection: in order to get rid of dejection, anger must first be expelled: in order to quell anger, covetousness must be trampled underfoot: in order to root out covetousness, fornication must be checked: and in order to destroy fornication, you must chastise the sin of gluttony. (Conference 5, Chapter X)

Ultimately, the fundamental problem is the sin of gluttony, which is itself the result of a desire for variety - for its own sake. It is a desire for sensual stimulation, specifically, with regard to food, the stimulation of the palate. Note, from the example above, that the monk is bothered by the lack of variety in his daily experience; every day is the same as the day before. More than likely, if he were to leave the monastery, marry, and have children, he would have days, as a husband and father, on which he experienced the same listlessness. The cure for acedia, to the extent there is one, is to discipline one’s self from the need for excessive variety. And in the monastic experience, the need for variety in food is an expression of something which ends up working its way into every nook and cranny of our nature.

I can recommend that you begin your path to dealing with acedia by simplifying your menu. When I was at university and still single, I ate only two meals at home. I whittled my menu down to the same breakfast every day (eggs, toast, bacon, coffee and orange juice). My supper menu was a weekly, seven different meals, the same thing every Monday, et cetera. If you did this, or something like it, you may find yourself surprised at how much of your time and energy is spent doing nothing but pursuing variety for its own sake. Over time, you may find yourself surprised at how content you become with its virtual absence.

Variety may be the spice of life, but that’s just it. Many of us pursue variety not as a spice, but as a staple. And that is the root of acedia, the desire for variety as if it were the staff of life.

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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