Evargrius Ponticus, a third-century hermit who lived isolated in the Egyptian desert, knew all about boredom, discouragement, and wanting to give up. He personified this chorus of negativity with a telling nickname, “The Noonday Demon.” Unlike other tempters who lurk under cover of darkness, when Evargrius was weary and discouraged, this demon appeared in broad daylight with no guise. He whispered in Evargrius’s ear, “no need to pray today.” Or, “your work matters not, relax and take all the afternoon off.” And the cruelest utterance of all, “Your spiritual labors are futile.” Subtle and easy to dismiss at first, over time, these repeated murmurings taunted Evargrius, who eventually—if he had listened—would have lost heart. This is why Evargrius insisted that out of all temptations, the threats of the noonday demon “causes the most serious trouble of all!”
This negative spiritual condition also has a theological designation. “Acedia” comes from the Greek, signifying “without care.” It is a state of indifference, characterized by a numb spiritual emptiness. Acedia strikes when we are fed up with work, no longer enjoying or even distracted by play, and really sick of co-workers, friends, and family. For a broader picture, consider in centuries past, there was another deadly sin beyond the present list of seven. “Acedia” counted as the eighth. Over time acedia was rolled in together with sloth. This makes sense because generally we think of a sloth as being flat-out lazy. Yet the sin of sloth is less about sweeping the floor, avoiding work, or wasting time, and more about a psychological and spiritual state of indifference. The sin of sloth—or acedia— is the sin of not caring and so the failure to act. It is the breakdown of one’s capacity to love. To be clear, it is not that we harbor hate against others, acedia is even a worse and more dangerous condition: we don’t even care about them—or ourselves. We lose heart in passive despair. This is the triumph of the noonday demon.
To overcome this condition, Evargrius counsels a prompt return to work and prayer, with increased vigor. Yet, with all respect to saintly Evargrius, this counsel has always struck me as rather heartless. You’re sick and tired of everything and everyone—and the spiritual solution is to engage all of these more intensely? As an ancient desert stoic, Evargrius pursued holiness with the ferocity that Olympic athletes train for gold medals.
For me two other easy and effective measures counter the whisperings of the noonday demon. I start by jotting down a quick list of persons, events and graces the Lord showers upon me. This perks me right up; I do this every day—sometimes several times a day. And then, I find some small ways to serve others: opening a door for someone or calling a lonely friend just to say “hello.” Any morsel of charity will do. The point is not solely to help others but also to stop thinking about oneself. Self-preoccupation is always the benchmark of sin. These two positive and classic spiritual practices, though seemingly trivial, when performed with regularity—daily—eventually cut through the interior negative disposition and nurture the heart.
Yet apart from these practices, there is another all-important truth. When Jesus’s disciples asked, “Who can be saved?” He responded, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God” (Lk 18:26). Although we must dedicate ourselves entirely to the efforts of our Christian spiritual life, we also never forget that only God can save us. St. Paul unfolds the movement of these extraordinary graces in his renowned Letter to the Romans, “The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26). While acedia beckons despair, the Spirit bids us to get up and live! The Spirit comes to our aid and saves us!
So the Spirit teaches us to channel the negative “giving-up” inclinations into a positive surrender to graced movements. Begin by offering thanks for not being alone. The Spirit is with us. This stops the noonday demon dead in his tracks—because the Spirit casts off this isolation, pessimism, and self-centeredness. The Spirit reinvigorates our midday sullenness. The Spirit inclines us to gratitude for life and a generosity towards others. The Spirit helps us to encounter newfound meaning and purpose in our lives, such as appreciating ourselves and loving others.
Right now, during this 2020 spring celebration of Pentecost, the Spirit infuses all these gifts in us, and just in time. During this pandemic season the telltale whispers of the noonday demon resound louder, more frequently, and with greater intensity—so that we just might come to believe them. Instead recall that long ago and for many solitary years, Evargrius battled and flourished against this demon, into an abounding and vibrant sanctity.
Rev. Rafael Luévano
Religious Studies Department