Of monks, writers, and moderns: Norris’ story of dealing with the noonday demon

Editor’s Note: I am unfortunately one of the many to find himself unemployed in the wake of the economic turmoil. After spending hours networking, emailing, googling, and calling anyone who might have a line on a job, I find myself exhausted and in need of some refreshment. After initially spending too much time killing brain cells with junk, I decided to take advantage of the situation and get in some good reading. You may have noticed the reading log I have been keeping as a way of keeping myself accountable to spending this unplanned and unwanted down-time in a more or less productive manner.

As I have struggled with the raging emotions caused by lack of work, multiple rejections, and a worse lack of identity (work is who we are is this place we call America), I have come to beb challenged by the wonderful work of Kathleen Norris titled Acedia and Me.  Her discussion of acedia, the so-called sin of sloth otherwise known as the noonday demon, has been challenging and rewarding, the way any great work of religious merit should be. So please allow me to reproduce part of her fantastic work here. As the old saying goes, if someone has said it better, why try to redo it. Here is Norris describing and defining this pernicious demon, who may just be the demon of our time:[1]

“Religious vocabulary is demanding and words such as sin and repentance carry so much baggage that even many Christians are reluctant to employ them. In a culture marked by theological illiteracy it is tempting to censor terms that are so often misconstrued and maligned. Many people who would not dream of relaying on the understanding of literature or the sciences that they acquired as children are content to leave their juvenile theological convictions largely unexamined. If they resented religion when they are young, as adults they are perplexed and dismayed by its stubborn persistence in the human race. But religions endure because they concern themselves with out deepest questions about good and evil, about the suffering that life brings to ach of us, and about what it means to be fully human in the face of death.

We are right to distrust the idea of sin as it is often presented, but are foolish to throw the baby out with the old church bathwater. The concept of sin does not exist so that people who may need therapy more than theology can be convinced that they are evil and beyond hope. It is meant to encourage people to believe that they are made in the image of God and to act accordingly. Hope is the heart of it, and the very present possibility of transformation. The doctrine would not have remained a living tradition for such a long time if it had not been as, the theologian Linda Mercadante describes it in her book Victims and Sinners, ‘a rich holistic way of conceptualizing the human dilemma- one that functioned to steady and inform thousands of generations.’ Were I to deny this, and so discount the wisdom of my ancestors, I would grow not wise but overconfident in my estimation of myself and in what passes for progress.

Were I to listen with an open ear, I might come away from a Lenten sermon on fasting better able to spurn the tempting feast of malicious gossip and the satisfying art of maligning others in order to feel good about myself. When the church speaks in this way we do well to pay attention. Or when a master preacher such as Fred Craddock defines the sin of sloth so clearly that it stings like a slap in the face. What we casually dismiss as mere laziness, he says is “the ability to look at a starving child … with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, it’s not my kid.’ … Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say ‘Well… that’s not my dad.’ It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say… I don’t care.”

The sin of sloth in this sense is all too recognizable in the United States, where the term ‘granny dumping’ is used to define the practice of anonymously depositing our elderly on the doorsteps of nursing homes and where urban hospitals have been known to abandon indigent patients on skid row, some still in their hospital gowns and with IVs in their arms. But even as such outrages are exposed, we are beset by a curious silence: the more that society’s ills surface in such evil ways, the less able we are, it seems, to detect any evils within ourselves, let alone work effectively together to fix what is wrong. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre finds that while our ‘present age is perhaps no more evil than a number of preceding periods…  it is evil in one special way at least, namely, the extent to which we have obliterated… [our] consciousness of evil. This… becomes strikingly apparent in the contemporary modes of instant indignation and denunciation. It is marvelous,’ he adds to observe ‘how often the self-proclaimed defenders of the right and the good do not seem to have noticed [in themselves] the vices of pomposity… exaggeration, and self-righteousness.’ Such behavior is not new to human history, MacIntyre concludes ‘it was left to our time for what had been an eccentric vice… to become a dominant social mode.’ Acedia, which is known to foster excessive self-justification toward others, readily lends itself to this process.

Though we may think ourselves far too liberated to be considered prigs, the writer Marilynne Robinsons insists that this is exactly what we have become. She points out that the polarized tenor of our social discourse epitomizes the dictionary definition of priggishness, as ‘marked by overvaluing oneself or one’s ideas, habits, notions, by precise… adherence to them, and by small disparagement of others.’ It may be easy to profess not to believe in sin, but it is hard not to believe in sinners, so we embrace the comfortable notion that at least they are other people. ‘I’m a good person, but God hates homosexuals.’ ‘I’m a good person, but God condemns homophobes.’ ‘I’m a good person, but the homeless are irresponsible bums.’ ‘I’m a good person, but those who denigrate the homeless are evil.’ ‘Good people like me support tour president.’ ‘Good people like me oppose the president.’  The loud litany of self-aggrandizement that reverberates though our culture convinces me that, for all of our presumed psychological sophistication, we remain at a primitive stage in our capacity to understand the reality of sin. It’s as if we believe that if we don’t talk about it, it will go away, and we’ll all be nicer to one another. As a Christian, I beg to differ. Our bad thoughts are real and lead to bad acts. Check any newspaper.

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer warned that ‘a great heart is needed against acedia, lest to swallow up the soul.’ But in a priggish culture such as ours, this magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect meaningful change. Robinson wonders, in fact, whether we have made such a fetish of social concern and criticism that we have eroded our belief that genuine reform is possible. Anger over injustice may inflame us, but that’s a double-edged word. If our indignation feels too good, it will attach to our arrogance and pride [or our insecurity and self-hatred] and leave us ranting in the void. And of we develop full-blown acedia, we won’t even care about that.

At bottom, to dismiss sin as negative is to demonstrate a failure of imagination. As the writer Garret Keizer asserts in Help: The Original Dilemma: ‘Everyone believes in sin, the people who charge their peers with political incorrectness and the people who regard political correctness as the bogey of a little mind.’ He adds, ‘What everyone does not believe in, as nearly as I can tell, is forgiveness.’ It requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain. Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, facilities that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity. This mentality may be of some use in business, but in a family, including the family of faith, it is a disaster. It permits us to treat our churches as if they were political parties instead of the body of Christ, making them vulnerable to crass manipulation by ideologues. It allows Christian seminarians to give the psalms short shrift, and to assume an attitude of superiority toward these ancient poems, as relics of a more primitive time, when people still had enemies, and still wished them ill. ‘I can’t pray that,’ I have heard pastors say of the cursing psalms, or the confessional ones, which admit to loving lies more than the truth, to resenting others or desiring revenge. We’re not like that. We’re good people, or good enough, having willed away the prejudice, tribalism, and violence in our hearts. We are at a loss to explain their presence in the world around us.

Yet if we pay attention to what is going on, we may come to the uneasy realization that the root meaning of acedia, as ‘lack of care,’ could define our present state. We grow inured to the horrendous violence engendered by suicide bombings and genocidal “little wars” around the world, and sigh when we hear of road-rage fatalities at home, or of the murder of a teenager for the trendy jacket or athletic shoes he is wearing. A refusal to care about the needs of others marks the unapologetic incompetence of a governmental worker or call center operator, and also the disregard of corporate executives for the pain caused by a move to a place where cheaper labor might be exploited and more dangerous conditions accepted. In the elderly, acedia expresses itself as a resigned withdrawal to the ravages of aging, while in the young, it is a studied boredom with all the world has to offer.

In April 1999, two teenage boys in a Denver suburb slaughtered thirteen people at their high school before killing themselves. The numerous homemade bombs they placed in the building convinced police that their intent was to destroy the school and kill everyone in it, well over a thousand people. Whatever disaffection these young men had felt among their peers, they were in the throes of a lack of caring so severe as to be pathological. A student who had considered himself a friend of the pair said in an interview that as awful as their action was, he couldn’t help feeling that ‘they finally did something.’ An astute observation, in a time of acedia, when murder on a large scale may be counted as something to break up the everyday routine, and grant notoriety to teenage outcasts. In a culture crazy for celebrity and careless of basic needs, it should come as no surprise that a pair of teenage ‘losers’: might come to value ‘doing something,’ even something unspeakably violent, over life itself. The actions of the Columbine duo confirm what the criminologist S. Giora Shoham says of acedia, that is more than a ‘breakdown in meaningful interaction among human beings,’ it is a thorough disengagement. ‘The accidic ,’  he writes, “is an ‘outsider’ who is completely detached from both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides of the value continuum.”

They ‘finally did something.’  In some ways the two teens at Columbine were only taking their culture’s excessive attachment to irony to its logical and deadly extreme. The essayist Benjamin Barber reminds us that, ]like sentiment, which has been called unearned emotion, the new irony is a form of unearned skepticism.’ The theologian Henri de Lubac put it another way: ‘Cynicism is the reverse side of hypocrisy. It does not give us the truth about [ourselves].’ But the jaded adolescent, confusing cynicism with maturity, may ask, ‘What is truth anyway? And why should I care, if no one cares about me?’

As a viable sense of sin has eroded in modern times, acedia has become more acceptable. Aldous Huxley explores why , although boredom, hopelessness, and despair have always existed, in our time ‘something has happened to make these emotions acceptable and avowable; they are no longer sinful, no longer regarded as symptoms of a disease.’ It may well be that after two world wars people could not presume that the technological advances of the industrial age would lead to cultural and moral advances [as was presumed throughout much of the late nineteenth century by scholars such as Scheiermacher as well Barth who would have a change of mind at this time]…. Leszek Koalkowski,once Poland’s top marxist philosopher, and now, according to Martin Marty, ‘a friend to the faith,’ notes that ‘ the absence of God become the ever more open wound of the European spirit,’ when it became clear that ‘the new shining order of anthropomorphism’- which, it was hoped, would take the place of ‘the fallen god’- never arrived.

The German Karl Rahner, writing in a devastated Munich shortly after the end of World War II reflected that… While many felt that, having ‘struggled passionately against the tutelage of the Church, state, society, convention, morals’ they could now claim true autonomy, they often found it an empty freedom… Far from finding release, Rahner concluded, modern people fell into ‘a very odd slavery… slavery from within.’

Slavery from within, in all its manifestations, was exactly what the early Christian monks were contending with, and Rahner mines a vein well-known to these ancients. His contemporaries, he writes, seem more helpless than ever in struggling with “the powers of desire, the powers of egotism, the hunger for power, the powers of sexuality and pleasure and simultaneously the impotence caused by worry which undermines… from within, by insecurity, by loss of life’s meaning by anxiety and futile disappointment.” Not exactly the eight bad thoughts [of Evagrius Ponticus], but close enough. Having lost the sense of a useful religious tradition, and with the insights of the early monks obscured over time, Rahner’s self-proclaimed “free” person was ill equipped to take note of what Aldous Huxley, who was decidedly not a Christian, warned was the noonday demon emerging as the primary sin of the age. … In the nineteenth century, Baudelaire could write , coolly, of a young, urban man as monarch of his own small kingdom: “Bored to nausea with his dogs and other creatures. / Nothing amuses him: not to chase, or falconry, / Nor people dying opposite his balcony.” More than a century later Andrei Voznesensky speaks of the heart itself as an Achilles, and comments, “In these days of unheard-of suffering / One is lucky indeed to have no heart.”

This work dovetailed nicely with a recent episode of APR’s This American Life in which one subject discussed the effects of losing his natural supply of testosterone. On the one hand it took away all feelings of rejection or sense of loss opportunities.  But in order to do so it also took away all sense of desire. The lessening of pain did not equal the heightening of life, only lessening the value of life further. I was stuck by both of these well-told stories that I, too, have often desired to lose my sense of desire in order to feel less pain. But in doing so one becomes as the tin man, all skin and no heart, and that is a truly unhealthy and subhuman existence.

If one wants to read a first-rate accounting of dealing with this pernicious beast we call acedia, go by the store and pick up a copy of Norris poetic and haunting account of suffering at the hand of Evagrius’ noonday demon. Or one can go to i-tunes and pick up a copy of This American Life’s audiobook entitled simply Testosterone.

God bless you , and keep you in sickness and in health….

[1] Kathleen Norris. Acedia and Me: A Monk, a Marriage, and a Writers Life. Penguin Books: London; 2008, 113- 120.


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