Acedia – The Noonday Demon

The demon of acedia – also called the noonday demon – is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. It makes the sun appear to slow down or stop, so the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then it forces the monk to keep looking out the window and rush from his cell. It assails him with hatred of his place, his way of life and the work of his hands; that love has departed from the brethren, and there is no one to console him.

Evagrius Ponticus (345–399) describes a common affliction that he had noticed among solitary monks and which usually appeared around midday. Being visited by the noonday demon involved an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and an urgent desire in the monks to leave their cells to physically and mentally wander. Evagrius’s follower and contemporary John Cassian observed the same tendency:

Then besides this he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone.

Descriptions of these symptoms appear again and again during the following centuries. 8th century writer Joseph Hazzaya testifies that “Once, this demon of acedia took hold of my tongue and prevented me from performing the office because he had placed a heavy weight on my head, and a burdensome disease on all my limbs.” Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century describes acedia as “a sort of heavy sadness . . . that presses down on a man’s mind in such a way that no activity pleases him.” The Noonday Devil wants to accomplish two things in us, he explains: sadness about spiritual good and disgust with activity.

This was considered so serious that acedia came to take the place as the most treacherous of the “eight wicked thoughts”, listed by Evagrius. They were gluttony (gastrimargia), sexual infidelity (porneia), greed (phylargia), pride (hyperephania), despair (lype), anger (orge), boasting (kenodoxia), and finally acedia (akedia). These were later developed into the seven deadly sins by Pope Gregory I. Here, acedia was replaced by sloth, however, which is reasonably why the term is not as familiar as perhaps it ought to be, as well as taking on a connotation of self-induced laziness.

Since it mainly appears in early religious literature, explained as resulting from being tempted either by the devil or by this particular demon, “the most troublesome of all”, it might seem that acedia is mainly a monastic malady or at least an affliction particular of the religious, but its descriptions ought to be easily recognisable to most. Anyone, but perhaps in particular those who pursue some creative or intellectual discipline and whose life is bounded by routine, is at risk of being affected by this condition.

It was clear already to Evagrius and Cassian that semi-eremitic monastics were at the greatest risk of attracting acedia, most likely because they lived a rather solitary life defined by silent study and prayer, but at the same time with fellow monks around them, tempting them with the promise of companionship, the thought of which distracted them from their practices. However, the manifestations of acedia as described in the Orthodox tradition are not limited to 4th century monks, if anything they are universal: restlessness, dissatisfaction, vague feelings of unwellness, sadness for no apparent reason, loss of interest in spiritual things, an inability to be alone without distractions, and a desire to frequently relocate in search of happiness elsewhere.

The desire to find happiness elsewhere, not an uncommon contemporary affliction, was particularly noticed by Evagrius who points out that “The spirit of despondency drives the monk from his cell … it assails him with hatred of his place” and that the demon of acedia “employs, as they say, every possible means to move the monk to abandon his cell and give up the race”. Cassius adds that “[The monk] fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell”. Either to find a new cell elsewhere or to give up the monastery life altogether is the essence of this strong impulse.

The same tendency drives us to believe that a new job or a new house, maybe in a new city, maybe even quitting the job altogether and doing something completely different will cure us from these “vague feelings of unwellness” and “sadness for no apparent reason”. Or at least going on a holiday. Anywhere, just not here. Less dramatic perhaps, but still as resonant is the described habit of staring blankly out of the window, hoping for a fellow monk (or friend) to pass by (or give a call) so we might strike up a conversation to distract ourselves from our spiritual (or mundane) practices.

The sufferer of acedia realises a certain gratuitousness in his existence, bringing him into confrontation with nothingness. Nothing is necessary, whatever is might not have been, or could have been otherwise. There is therefore no need to do anything or care about anything since nothing really matters. Suddenly everything seems futile, all endeavours meaningless. All activities, even life itself, becomes pointless. The sufferer is haunted by a feeling of restlessness and discomfort of being alone, by a need to get out. To go for a walk, to find someone to talk to while at the same time believing that there is no one to talk to, that there is no consolation to be found. A profound sense of unease lingers since there is no apparent reason for these feelings. There is a loss of connection with the world and with the rest of humanity, a deep sense of loneliness, of drowning in the emptiness of the day. As a last resort the afflicted lies down and goes to sleep, just to kill time or hoping for the condition to pass.

Since acedia is not depression, even if the symptoms are similar, there are some simple tricks to beat this “sickness of the soul”. The demon might not flee easily, but when he does he leaves as quickly as he came. These remedies were defined already by the ancient desert monks and should work just as well today.

  • First of all there are tears, which we could call “acknowledgement”. In the Eastern tradition, tears were seen as an acknowledgement of one’s need of a saviour and would itself counteract the demon. The point would be to acknowledge the condition as a condition and the need of some assistance to get out of it.
  • Next, “Ora et labora”, prayer and work, is the understanding that to stop brooding and just get on with the work at hand, whether manual or intellectual, is the most practical way of getting out of this state. “Set a measure for yourself in every work and do not let up until you have completed it” Evagrius writes. “Give thought to working with your hands, if possible both night and day. . . . In this way you can also overcome the demon of acedia.” 
  • The next one is “Talking back”, referring to literally talking back to the devil, known as the ‘antirrhetic’ method from the Greek word for contradiction. “Acedia is irresistible” Evagrius writes, and the idea is not to give in to it, to instead counter it with prayers for those who are thus inclined or with reason for the rest of us, in order to contradict and counteract the worrying thoughts.
  • To use “memento mori” as a remedy is based on the idea that thinking about death gives meaning to passing time and restores a sense of linear direction, from birth to death, and of becoming grounded again, if only in one’s own mortality, instead of just floating around aimlessly. To consider one’s death is also to consider one’s life. “To study philosophy is to learn to die”, Cicero said, but learning to die is also learning to live.
  • Perseverance, finally, is simply to keep doing whatever we are doing at the moment, whether it is actual work or something else. It does not matter if it is smoking a cigarette, waiting for the train or just standing still doing nothing. The point is to just keep doing it and do nothing else but that.

Lastly, and somewhat irreverently, Luther’s advice for afflicted saints is to always surround oneself with other saints for mutual conversation and consolation. By this fellowship, the low are brought up and the discouraged given hope. The saints are even recommended to devote themselves to raucous singing, drinking and crude jokes to spite and rebuke the devil. Whatever works.

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