Have You Heard of the Deadly Noonday Devil?
Acedia or the “noonday devil” is a commonly misunderstood vice, but it is very helpful to acknowledge the power of this ancient temptation, identified thousands of years ago in the Psalms of David.
Diagnosing the Disease
The deadly sin of sloth is usually translated as laziness. Any number of images come to mind, though usually none that describe ourselves. Yet the sin has more than one manifestation, and the spiritually weary side of sloth carries an ancient name: acedia, or the “noonday devil.” The latter name comes from Ps 91:6, where the psalmist prays for protection from the “destruction that wastes at noonday” from God. At noon, the sun is at its zenith and it hangs heavy; “the present instant threatens to become unbearable” (Abbot Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil, p. 125).
The Patristic monk Evagrius of Pontus described its effects at the monastery: the noonday devil “makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all” and “that the day seems to be fifty hours long . . . instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labor” (Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, #12). Anyone who works in the present day can relate to what Evagrius said. Even with a lunch break, the midday hours can drag and wear on us.
Enter acedia. St. Thomas Aquinas turned to St. John Damascene’s definition, describing it as “an oppressive sorry, which, to wit, so weighs upon a man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing” and which entails “a certain weariness of work.” It’s more than just a bad habit; it crosses over into sinful status because “a man condemns the good things he has received from God” (Summa Theologiae II, IIae, Q. 35, A. 1). St. Thomas continues: “it destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity . . . by its very nature [it] is contrary to charity” (II, II,ae Q. 35, A. 3). Like all the deadly sins, sloth can suffocate God’s grace and life in a soul “by robbing us of our appetite for God . . . Sloth stops us from seeking God, and that means we do not find Him. When Jesus said that all who seek, find, he implied that those who do not seek, do not find” (Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, p. 153). The portrait of acedia isn’t the stereotypical teenager who consumes only video games, fast food, and energy drinks. It has a far more human face: the person who desires to work at the neglect of their family, the person who has their face buried in their smart phone, TV, or tablet at every waking moment, filling their life with only entertainment and earthly pleasures. With those pictures, acedia is likely more widespread than we realize.
Sloth/acedia does not stand still, either. It opens the door to other sins, as St. Gregory the Great noted. Sloth (or melancholy, as he calls it) opens the door to “malice, rancor, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects” (Moralia in Job, Vol. III, Bk. XXXI, #45).
Its danger lies in two layers, first in its subtlety. Sinful bursts of rage are easy to spot; adultery is rather obvious; although it’s easy to slip into the sin of gossip, I think most of us are conscious of it. Acedia doesn’t lend itself to easy identification. If I feel down and spiritually vacant, is that a difficult time in my life or a sin? And who doesn’t get weary at work from time to time? In that discernment, honestly search your soul and be very fair. Then, take your findings to a trusted spiritual director who can help sort things out.
The second danger is the two-pronged approach of the noonday devil. Acedia “affects the body and the soul simultaneously. It takes advantage of a weakness of the body so as to affect the soul” (Nault, The Noonday Devil, p. 26). What we’re up against is a very formidable adversary. It takes tremendous discipline on our part to cooperate with the grace necessary to defeat acedia. So how do we fight back?
Prescribing the Cure
Jesus cast out demons of all kinds in the gospels with a mere word (e.g. Matthew 8:16, Mark 1:39, Luke 4:35 and many more). His power over them is unquestioned. St. Thomas pointed to the Incarnation as the remedy for acedia, for “the distance between human nature and divine nature is overcome by the Son of God Himself. Fully God and fully man, Christ restores to us the hope of being able to participate fully in the divine life; he reopens for us the path to beatitude” (Nault, p. 86). Jesus gives us grace through the sacraments, offers grace through prayer, and sent the Holy Spirit to the Church. Thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church has a lavish store of spiritual wisdom. We can read the writings of 4th century ascetics like Evagrius, sit at the feet of St. Thomas Aquinas, and have the writings of the last few pontiffs available free on our mobile devices.
There are many strategies for fighting acedia; good advice from a trusted spiritual director can help find the best fit for you. Three basic principles for the fight are are perseverance, humility, and thirst for God.
Evagrius wrote specifically to monks, but his counsel can be analogously applied to those of us not in a monastery in the middle of the Egyptian desert. The principal virtue against acedia is perseverance (Evagrius of Pontus, p. 102). Monks should stay in their cells, Evagrius says—and for those of us not in a religious vocation, we should not abandon our state in life. That recommendation sounds too simplistic, but there are actually two tactics within perseverance.
First, taking a stand and fighting the demon has tremendous merit. How many virtues come easy? By refusing to resist acedia, we only teach ourselves a bad habit: inaction. And is anything of great value achieved without difficulty? Second, there is nothing to be gained by running away from the fight and giving into acedia. It feels temporarily good to not do something necessary, and brings with it some relief. Beware, however, that refusing to engage any demon only strengthens its hold—and it will follow us wherever we run.
I can speak to this from experience, being bogged down by the sin and experiencing the accompanying aftershock sins that St. Gregory the Great described. I was in the seminary for a time; we were required to attend morning prayer at 7:30 a.m., with daily Mass immediately following. During a very difficult year, the snooze button became my favorite thing in the morning. Through trial and error, I had it timed to the minute: I could get out of bed at 7:20, rush through getting ready, sprint to the chapel, and arrive two minutes late. It didn’t begin like that, of course—I’d just hit the snooze button once. But it didn’t stop with being two minutes late, either. I began to resent the attendance requirement; certain psalms at morning prayer started to drive me crazy; some mornings I stewed, begging to be anywhere else but in that chapel. My vocation wasn’t to the priesthood, but acedia merely changed forms in my current state of life. It’s something I still struggle with to this day.
Untying those knots that I made for myself was far harder after negotiating with the noonday devil. In St. Faustina’s Diary, Jesus gives her the opposite advice for spiritual warfare: “do not bargain with any temptation; lock yourself immediately in My Heart . . . when boredom and discouragement beat against your heart, run away from yourself and hide in My Heart. Do not fear struggle; courage itself often intimidates temptations” (#1760). This takes training, especially in the case of long-standing bad habits or addictions to sin—not to mention our natural inclination to avoid struggle and suffering! Behind the advice of Jesus, He knows the weakness of our fallen nature. If our battle against temptation doesn’t start with humility and running to Jesus, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. Pray for the virtue of humility to run to Christ right away! There is no fight against a demon that we can win without Him.
Thirst for God
A final principle to defeat acedia is found in the Sermon on the Mount: “blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). In this hunger and thirst, God is both the journey, the means for undertaking the journey, and the destination. Still, that feels somewhat abstract. How do we concretely hunger and thirst for God? Start by getting to know Him in three ways: praying, reading Scripture, and reading spiritual books.
Prayer is vital even if it feels lifeless. For getting around the noonday devil, physically moving somewhere to pray is a good start. Next, put your trust in Scripture, “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). Pick up a good Catholic commentary to open new levels of understanding the Word of God. Thousands of years haven’t blunted the sword of the Spirit; Christians have reflected on the Scriptures and prayed with them. Finally, reading a good spiritual book is like taking a holiness class. The Catholic Church has a rich patrimony of spiritual writings, from the earliest days of the Church to the present day. Out of two millennia of teachers, there has to be one for you. However the particulars of the journey look for you, be assured: “if righteousness is what you really want, you will infallibly find it, sooner or later, in God’s time and in God’s way… the reason for this is simple: God is Love, and love is generous, wanting to give, needing only cooperation on the part of the recipient” (Kreeft, p. 162).
Our Lord and Savior has won the war; our task is to engage in the battle to grow in holiness. It may take the better part of our life to deal with demons like the noonday devil, but keep a stubborn faith in Jesus Christ, the victor!