Recognizing the Noonday Devil
If you had to guess the characteristic vice of our age, what would you pick? Some might say lust, and that’s certainly a big one, but it doesn’t seem to get to the root of the problem. The safe choice, perhaps, would be pride. It’s certainly true, but the same could be said of any age. Can you think of something a little more specific? No? All right, I’ll just tell you. I think it’s somewhat appropriate that the principal evil of our time is something almost nobody has even heard of: acedia. Tradition calls acedia the “noonday devil,” for like a demon that attacks in the light of day, it comes when we least expect it, and it is difficult for its victim to recognize it.
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The word acedia in English comes from the Latin, which itself comes from the Greek akèdia, meaning “lack of care”—it originally referred to failure to bury one’s dead. In the Christian context, it came to mean a kind of indifference to the spiritual life, “a lack of spiritual energy.” This last phrase comes from a new book by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times.
Nault, the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Wandrille in France, is one of the world’s experts on acedia. His thesis on the subject was given the first Henri de Lubac prize in theology by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and this new book (translated into English by Ignatius Press) is a compact version of his more extensive study.
The author traces the historical development of the concept of acedia from the Desert Fathers on, culminating in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Supplemented by quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), Pope Francis, and various French authors, Nault follows his historical study with a moral and spiritual analysis of acedia as something deeply relevant to Christian life, not just for consecrated religious but for priests, married and single people.
Nault has quite convinced me that ours is an age of acedia. In this article I will look at some features of his diagnosis. The author does not fail to provide a cure as well, but I will leave that as an incentive to buy the book!
The Noonday Devil
Acedia has often been viewed as a kind of sloth, yet it has many aspects and should not be viewed as mere laziness. In the writings of the Desert Fathers, particularly Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), who first explained it fully, acedia manifests itself as a temptation for the monk to depart his cell. This temptation is often worst around midday, hence the association of acedia with the “noonday devil” of Psalm 91.
Any number of reasons to abandon his post may present themselves to him: perhaps he believes it will improve his health, or he simply finds himself increasingly restless and repulsed by his surroundings. The temptation may even come as a desire to visit family members or a belief that he could do more good works for others if he left his cell. This last example makes it clear why acedia is not the same as laziness, for it often manifests itself in a spirit of activism.
So one aspect of acedia is spiritual instability, a restlessness of a sort recognizable not just in the monastic life, but in the modern secular concept of the “mid-life crisis.” The soul suffering from acedia is overcome by a horror of his commitments, a disgust with the spiritual life; he is confronted with a spiritual malaise which prevents him from advancing.
Aquinas on Acedia
St. Thomas Aquinas gives two separate definitions of acedia: “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with activity.” Here I will focus on the former conception, though Nault shows how the two definitions converge when fully understood.
By the first definition, acedia is a sin against the gaudium de caritate (the joy of love). This is because acedia is sadness about not just spiritual good in general, but about the ultimate spiritual good—the Beatific Vision itself! For St. Thomas, joy is an affective reaction to a good, whereas sadness is an affective reaction to an evil. The implication for our time begins to reveal itself here, for somehow the soul suffering from acedia comes to perceive the greatest possible good—union with God—as an evil.
How does this come about? As a general answer, St. Thomas says that man can become sad at the prospect of union with God because it requires him to give up limited or apparent (and seemingly more concrete) goods to which he is attached. Acedia is complex, however, and works on many levels and in different forms. We may flee union with God itself, or we may simply flee the things that will lead us to union with God. In the first case, when beatitude itself saddens us, we are dealing with the direst consequence of acedia: despair. Nault writes:
Saint Thomas minces things even more finely. He says that someone can flee beatitude in two ways, either because he has a certain disgust with the things of God (fastidium) or else, more subtly, because he thinks that beatitude is very good but that he is unworthy of it, that it is good for everyone except himself. This is despair in the strictest sense: it is the famous sin against the Holy Spirit.
Those who despair of being able to attain man’s highest vocation, St. Thomas warns, run the risk of becoming satisfied with a mere “animal beatitude.” This is the modern condition, where we are not even aware of our own despair; as Flannery O’Connor put it, our age has “domesticated despair.” We begin to believe that human life is fundamentally absurd. When animal beatitude ultimately fails us, we embrace nihilism, at best with a senile and ineffectual coating of humanism, at worst as an open “hatred of being,” a belief that it would be better not to exist.
Acedia in the Modern Situation
The immoralism of the age of acedia is only in part a matter of pleasure-seeking; indeed, as Joseph Ratzinger writes, “The forbidden joys lose their attraction the moment they are no longer forbidden.” With the loss of meaning, the spiritual instability brought on by acedia manifests itself as a desire to constantly redefine ourselves, to remake human nature as we see fit and to construct all kinds of false “identities.” Because God dwells within us, we can no longer stand to dwell within our true selves; acedia makes us flee our “cell.” Above all, we hate to be alone and quiet, and the innumerable ways we find to distract ourselves need not be mentioned here.
Ultimately acedia leads us to deny our own potential for greatness. This is the vice of faint-heartedness or pusillanimity, which St. Thomas opposes to the virtue of magnanimity, greatness of soul. Ratzinger connects this with false humility: “man does not want to believe that God is concerned about him, knows him, loves him, watches over him, is close to him.” Man alternates between “scientifically” reducing himself to just another animal and, contradictorily, believing himself the sole blight on an otherwise perfect natural world. The hatred of being mentioned earlier takes on a peculiar form in the environmentalist fantasy that the salvation of the earth will be man’s disappearance from it.
The false humility in which we say we are not worthy of God’s love (as an excuse to refuse it) is false precisely because “God has loved us” first (1 John 4:10), and this is what makes us worthy. If fashionable talk of man’s insignificance in the universe sounds strangely boastful, it is because it is actually the height of arrogance. Nault quotes another French writer:
Deep inside us there is a sly resistance. I think that the deepest and most irremediable pride–that of the angels, perhaps–consists of refusing to accept the infinite so as to “be content” with what is within our reach. Such pride decks itself out in the appearances of humility: “I do not ask for much, I do not aim so high! This infinite happiness is very beautiful, but it is too much for me.” And secretly we think: “That is beyond me because it does not come from me.” … Satan often inspires in us this attitude of modesty, which is the worst form of self-sufficiency and the refusal to go beyond one’s depth. We just hope that we will not be devoured either by Good or by Evil. Satan urges us to be a reasonable man, who is drawn by nothing–neither by the folly of darkness nor by the folly of Love. The virtuous man must be nobody’s fool, not even of joy … not even of God. This is the sin to which the curse in the Book of Revelation applies: “If you were hot or cold….” It is better to take the wrong infinity than to renounce the infinite!
But there is no other cure for acedia than to accept the help that does not come from us; to put our hope in God’s mercy, and, as those who read the book will discover, the Incarnation.
Legalism and Freedom From: Morality and Spirituality Divorced
I will mention one other highly valuable aspect of The Noonday Devil: Nault’s discussion of the tragic separation of the moral and spiritual life, which he argues is largely responsible for the disappearance of acedia from moral theology. Basically, for both ancient pagan philosophers and Christian thinkers up though Aquinas, man’s will is naturally attracted to the good, and he finds his freedom, in Nault’s phrase, in “his capacity to accomplish good acts easily, joyously, and lastingly.” Thus, morality itself is bound up with the search for happiness.
This was overturned by the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, who advocated a new concept of freedom in which man is totally indifferent to both good and evil and thus is able “freely” to choose between them. Because man is no longer innately attracted to the good, morality must now come from something outside himself—namely, the law of God, which is totally arbitrary and unrelated to what will make man happy.
This effected a separation between spirituality (union with God) and morality (now simply what must be done to avoid breaking the law); it is easy to see in retrospect the immense damage wrought in the succeeding centuries by this radical conception of freedom and the moral legalism which went along with it. And if man’s action is no longer oriented toward the good, then acedia has no relevance to moral theology and will be reduced to mere laziness or melancholy in spiritual writings, as has been its fate. Yet it continues to affect us whether we recognize it or not.
All in all, Nault has contributed a highly important work which seems to pinpoint the most destructive force at work in our time. While anyone could benefit from it, I deem The Noonday Devil essential reading in particular for spiritual directors, psychological counselors and evangelists.
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Posted by: -
Mar. 29, 2015 2:56 PM ET USA
I wonder whether Akedia is the complete explanation of the inconsistent combination of relentless activity and religious idleness, which is a significant aspect of modern culture. (Religious "reform" frequently takes the form of reducing the length and onerousness of religious practice.) Cardinal Newman said in his first volume of sermons as an Oratorian, that the sin of presumption- in effect that God's mercy is an entitlement, regardless of what we do- causes us to neglect the call of God.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Mar. 28, 2015 9:18 PM ET USA
A timely article. Our pastor gave three sermons on acedia last year. A real wake-up call.