The Noonday Devil: Acedia

In every person self-opinion prevents self-knowledge. Do you wish to know God? Learn first to know yourself.[1]š›

Don Quixote has not arrived at the age of taedium vitae, which is commonly manifested among not a few modern spirits in the form of topophobia: these people spend their lives running at top speed from one place to another, not from any love of the place to which they are going, but from odium of the place they are leaving behind, thus fleeing all places, which is one of the forms of despair.

You need not fear the terrors of night, the arrow that flies in the daytime, the plague that stalks in the darkness, the scourge that wreaks havoc at high noon.

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Pioneers of the HumanWe all live at different levels or depths of thoughtfulness or honesty or compassion or insight or sensitivity and so on. Indeed, we could look back over our own human journey and point to times when were quite different from the way we are now – having grown and matured we might say things like “How innocent/unknowing I was” or “I used to be more judgmental” or “I think I know myself a little better” or “Material things do not mean so much to me anymore” or “I am much more patient/tolerant than I used to be” and so on. If we take our humanity seriously, life is a process of going deeper, of entering more fully into those characteristics that define us in our humanity – honesty, mercy, wisdom, generosity, detachment, compassion, patience, forgiveness, good humour and so on. We use special metaphors often enough to describe this. We speak, for example, of “height” and “depth” and “breadth”, “big mindedness” versus “small mindedness” and “magnanimity” versus “pusillanimity”. The people we admire are people of “depth”, people who have “breadth” of vision, people who are magnanimous and big-minded. It is as if they have traversed the terrain of the human, beyond what the rest of us manage, they have reached some sort of depth. We would like – at least in our better moments – to be like that.

In her classic work on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill develops this line of thinking with particular reference to those she calls “mystics”. She speaks of the mystics as “pioneers of the spiritual world”. It is worth quoting Underhill at length. In this passage she is contrasting the efforts of the rationalists to know the Real with the efforts of the mystic:Under whatever symbols they have objectified their quest, none of these seekers (ie the rationalists) has ever been able to assure the world that they have found, seenface to face, the Reality behind the veil.
But if we may trust the reports of the mystics – and they are reports given with a strange accent of certainty and good faith – they have succeeded where all these others have failed, in establishing immediate communication between the spirit of man, entangled as they declare among material things, and ‘that only Reality,’ that immaterial and final Being, which some philosophers call the Absolute and most theologians call God. This, they say – and here many who are not mystics agree with them – is the hidden truth which is the object of man’s craving; the only satisfying goal of his quest. Hence they should claim from us the same attention we give to other explorers in countries in which we are not competent to adventure ourselves; for the mystics are the pioneers of the spiritual world, and we have no right to deny validity to their discoveries, merely because we lack the opportunity or the courage necessary for those who would prosecute such explorations for themselves.[5]

These “pioneers” – such as those who have written the texts we are exploring – speak of experiences that resonate within the hearts of those who are not “pioneers”. They are not necessarily “better” human beings than others; they, quite simply, have traversed the terrain of the human spirit where others have not been, they have been thoughtful and gifted enough to then describe that terrain. They speak of worlds of meaning that we dimly suspect within ourselves, insights that have a peculiar ability to bring us home to ourselves and they describe processes we have had intimations of but have not been able or not dared to follow.The whole process of lectio divina is intended to place us in the presence of these people so that their wisdom and insights can seep into out bones, so that we may see as they see and know as they know. In the end, the way described by these “pioneers” is not to be learned from books. Their words draw us towards choices and actions. And such choices and actions are always embedded in history and culture and arise out of individual needs, possibilities and limits. What these “pioneers” describe, therefore, can only be known by experience. Again, Evelyn Underhill is helpful:

Over and over the great mystics tell us, not how they speculated but how they acted. To them, the transition from the life of sense to the life of spirit is a formidable undertaking, which demands effort and constancy. The paradoxical ‘quiet’ of the contemplative is but the outward stillness essential to inward work. Their favourite symbols are those of action: battle, search and pilgrimage.’In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me,
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be’
said St John of the Cross, in his poem of the mystic quest. ‘It became evident to me,’ says Al Ghazzali of his search for mystic truth, ‘that the Sufis are men of intuition and not men of words. I recognised that I had learnt
all that can be learnt of Sufism by study, and that the rest could not be learnt by study or by speech.’ ‘Let no one suppose says the Theologia Germania, ‘that we may attain to this true light and perfect knowledge … by hearsay or by reading and study, nor yet by high skill and great learning.’ ‘It is not enough,’ says Gerlac Petersen, ‘to know by estimation merely: but we must know by experience.’ So Mechtild of Magdeburg says of her revelations, ‘The writing of this book was seen, heard, and experienced in every limb. … I see it with the eyes of my soul, and hear it with the ears of my eternal spirit.’ Those who suppose mystical experience to be a pleasing consciousness of the Divine in the world, a sense of the ‘otherness’ of things, a basking in the beams of the Uncreated Light, are only playing with Reality.[6]

In sum we could say that these “pioneers of the spiritual world” remind us, as individuals and as a society, of our best possibilities. In this they also remind us of the traces of transcendence that may be found in the most mundane experiences of the work-a-day world. These “pioneers” bear witness to the simple fact that every moment, every event is redolent with “the more than”; every moment is therefore sacramental and evocative – it demands a response and that response will always be a movement beyond, an opening to “the more than”. Our daily experiences of flight and evasion, of compensatory and defensive behaviours, of desire and longing, of boredom and depression, of yearning and restlessness, are doorways to the region of the spirit.

Contemporary Authors

It has become something of a commonplace to hear it said that we, in the West, are experiencing an epidemic of depression. Such assertions need careful interpretation. However, we might consider that a possible component of what is being described here is a certain disconnectedness – from God (however we name that One), from ourselves, from other people and even from events and things. One author comments:

We can get along without our souls for a little while in life, but not for long. The time often asked of us today, by so many forces in our culture, is much too long. That is one reason, perhaps the greatest, why so many are so sick. It will always be true therefore that the hope of the sick lies in destroying their idols and restoring their own souls. As for the well, the question is: how can they help? If they have good will and wisdom, too, let them at least stay off the mighty throne of God. Such is the need and such the demand of people for gods and absolutes, that it will often be wise to descend slowly but firmly from the throne. It is a pity that this must be. But the fact that there is one God and no more is for all of us, the well and the ill, the most difficult proposition in this world.[7]

Writers as diverse as T S Eliot, Joseph Conrad, R D Laing and Martin Heidegger have noted this disconnectedness.[8] Another writer who has been alert to the phenomenon is Saul Bellow. In novels such as Sammler’s Planet and Dangling Man, for example, the characters are haunted by their inability to connect with their own depths and, as a consequence, their inability to connect meaningfully with anything or anyone beyond themselves. In Dangling Man, for example, the main character muses:

Still, how could I reason with him? He was a distance beyond reckoning from the craters of the spirit, so that they were no more than small pits on his horizon. But in time they would draw closer. Yes, everyone came to face them when those horizons shrank, as they could not fail to shrink.[9]

A sub-theme of this wider topic is that of boredom. Bellow pursues this through the character of Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift. Charlie has been summoned for jury duty and this provides him with time to reflect:

I had a lively time in the vast juror’s hall going over my boredom notes. I saw that I had stayed away from problems of definition. Good for me. I didn’t want to get mixed up with theological questions about accidia (sic) and tedium vitae. I found it necessary to say only that from the beginning mankind experienced states of boredom but that no one had ever approached the matter front and center as a subject in its own right. In modern times the question had been dealt with under the name of anomie or Alienation, as an effect of capitalist conditions of labor, as a result of levelling in Mass Society, as a consequence of the dwindling of religious faith or the gradual using up of charismatic or prophetic elements, or the neglect of Unconscious powers, or the increase of Rationalization in a technological society, or the growth of bureaucracy.[10]

Citrine then goes on to wonder about the causes of boredom:

Suppose then that you began with the presupposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities. …. Nothing actual ever suits pure expectation and such purity of expectation is a great source of tedium. People rich in abilities, in sexual feeling, rich in mind and in invention – all the highly gifted see themselves shunted for decades onto dull sidings.[11]

We would misrepresent both Saul Bellow and his contemporaries and the ancient authors we are about to consider, if we suggested that they are all talking about exactly the same thing and understanding reality in exactly the same way. It may not be a misrepresentation, however, to suggest that they are looking roughly in the same direction – towards the domain of the spirit. The ancient authors to whom we will now look may be considered among the “pioneers” of the spiritual world. On the basis of their experiences they have returned to tell us of a phenomenon they named acedia.[12]

Ancient Authors

The concept of acedia receives most particular attention towards the end of the 4th century. That attention arises specifically from the experience of the desert. The two Fathers who paid closest attention to it were Evagrius of Ponticus (who died about 399) and a disciple of his, John Cassian, (who died about 435). A brief description of each man and his teaching will help us to understand our subject.

a. Evagrius of Ponticus

We actually know very little of the life of Evagrius and only some of his writings have come down to us. He was born in Ponticus – sometimes called Pontus – in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), in the vicinity of Nyssa. He knew St Basil – who ordained him a lector – and Basil’s friend St Gregory Nazianzen – who ordained him a deacon and became his life-long friend and mentor. Evagrius was also a friend of St Gregory of Nyssa. In that group – Evagrius included – you have some of the greatest Christian teachers of all time. In particular, they were thinkers whose lived experience grounds their reflections; from that teaching grounded in experience they gave a theological expression and basis to the monastic life, and through that to the whole of Christian spirituality.

Evagrius had an experience in Constantinople, soon after his friend Gregory of Nazianzen had retired as the bishop there. He fell in love with the wife of a high official in the local government of the town. During this time he had a dream in which he was accused of committing some crime. He took this as a sign and left for Jerusalem and eventually found his way to a hospice on the Mount of Olives. As we might expect, this impulsive move did not work out. Evagrius had something of a breakdown and, on the advice of Melanie, one of the people who helped to run the hospice, he sought out the company of monks in the desert of Egypt. He soon became renowned as a teacher. He died there in Egypt with the monks at Cells, aged 54, in 399.

Evagrius was strongly influenced by Origen. In turn, Evagrius’ ideas have strongly influenced spirituality in both the East and West – especially the East – to the present day.[13] Jean Leclercq writes of him:

The influence of Evagrius then, whether directly or through intermediaries, remains and continues to grow. Through him the whole of an ancient wisdom, both theoretical and practical, has been transmitted and inserted into life. His texts were at once a terminus and a starting point. They were the culmination of his own experiences, the meeting point of all the trends of his period. At the same time they were also the starting point of a new phase in an evolution which has never ceased to go forward. It is easy therefore to understand that such a varied and rich teaching, such a powerful personality as Evagrius, should today merit attention not only from those scholars who edit his texts but also from such deep and original thinkers as Rahner, Hausherr, Balthasar, and Daniélou. And it is just as understandable that simple men and women of God recognize in his writings a description of their own problems and difficulties and also discover solutions in them. I recall that when I prepared a critical edition of a Latin version of Evagrius’ Sentences for Monks, based on the Spanish manuscripts, I was asked if the text might be translated into Spanish and published in a small local magazine because the Christians of that region found spiritual nourishment in them. And today I know monks and nuns who draw as much profit from Evagrius as scholars find – according to their historical or psychological standpoint – difficulties or pleasure.[14]

Before we look at Evagrius’ writing on acedia, we need to make a comment about demons. In the Hellenistic culture of the time, demons were taken for granted.[15] Plato had spoken of them, though for Plato the demons were all good, acting as benign intermediaries between the gods and humanity. Later on, perhaps under the influence of the dualism imported from the Iranian culture, and possibly Chaldean traditions as well, the Neoplatonists included evil demons as well as the good ones. Specific functions in pagan cults were also associated with these good and evil demons, “so that pagan religion, in the early Christian centuries, was in fact pre-occupied with a whole series of sacrifices to both good and bad demons”.[16]

Thus, it is not surprising that we find the early Christian writers at home with the whole idea of demons. Evagrius is no exception. In the 100 Chapters of the Praktikos, demons are mentioned in 67 of them. One of those references is to acedia – the so-called “noonday demon/devil” of Psalm 91:6 (see the epigraph). In the Praktikos,[17] Evagrius lists “the eight kinds of evil thoughts.”[18] They are: gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride.

Evagrius notes that it is not in our power to determine whether these “thoughts” arise for us, but it is in our power to decide whether they will linger within us and stir us to some irrational passion. These “thoughts” – or logismoi in the Greek – “are essentially a train of thought which engages the mind, so that bit by bit one drifts away from what one is supposed to be doing into a world of fantasy”.[19]

We get a clearer understanding of what Evagrius is pointing to here when we remember that “the mind” and “thinking” are expressions of one’s being. A contemporary author notes the relevance of this connection when he speaks of prayer:

Evagrius, one of the great desert authorities, says: ‘prayer is a converse of the mind with God’. The converse referred to is not that which takes place in conversation, but rather that which occurs in the daily to and fro of relationship. But …. No one can have such a relationship with God, since the Fall, save in and through the grace of Christ, who re-opened this relationship for us, whether we are directly aware of it or not. Further, when either Evagrius or St John of Damascus use the Greek word here translated ‘mind’, they refer to the very depths of the human spirit, which we might probably rather better translate by the word ‘heart’, provided we gave its Hebrew connotations. It is in continuity with this biblical way of looking at human beings, …. that one school of spiritual writers in the Eastern Church tells us that we must learn to pray with the mind in the heart. This is one clearly legitimate way of interpreting what all the oldest traditions believe, namely that if prayer is to be true prayer it must be the expression of the ultimate depths of the human being in his or her totality.[20]

True prayer can thus keep us focused, keep our very beings or the logismoi tend to engender. Unchecked, the logismoi will lead us into the world of fantasy, where we are then likely to become unfocused in our beings,[21] unclear about the good or simply forgetful of it. We miss the very point of our lives. This process affects the whole inner person, particularly in thinking and willing. Thus our behaviour may be led in deformative directions. We move in directions contrary to who and what we are called to be, we place ourselves at odds with ourselves.[22]

Let us listen to Evagrius’ description of the particular “thought” he calls acedia:

The demon of acedia – also called the noonday demon (Psalm 91:6) – is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to he adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.[23]

What adult has not known this restlessness and agitation, this peculiar dissatisfaction with his/her lot? When we have been on the road for a time – in this or that commitment, job, relationship etc – we are easy prey to tedium, if for no other reason than the sheer ordinary repetition of it all. And this is not the problem as such as Evagrius sees it. In the midst of this experience there is a struggle deep within us and we may choose to go one of two ways – the way of reality or the way of fantasy: Firstly, we can – and should – go the way of true knowledge and deeper commitment. This brings “peace and inexpressible joy”. Thus we find the sacramental power of the ordinary; we learn the paradoxical truth that the extraordinary is not the spectacular or unusual but the extra-ordinary. We face the tedium and live it, confident that is the way to life. Boredom – God help us – is a sacrament! Secondly, we can – but should not – succumb to the agitation and become the victims of irrational passion. Thus we seek diversions and various means of escaping our lot. Instead of facing the tedium we flee it. Herein lies one of the radical crises of life – a parting of the ways – that should sooner or later present itself to every person.

We might say that the demon acedia awaits us on the way to deeper self-knowledge, on the journey home to our true selves. The presence of that demon forces a decision: wrestle or run! Evagrius goes on to indicate the appropriate response. Generally, “the eight kinds of evil thoughts” are countered, with the help of God’s grace, by reading, vigils and prayer – these are the things that lend stability to a wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire.[24]

With specific regard to acedia, Evagrius counsels firmness and patience: stand there firmly and be patient.[25] Stand there firmly and be patient! This is most practical and wise advice as we are so prone to evade the deeper encounters with ourselves. We are masterful at self-deception, without much trouble we can rationalise just about anything in order to avoid facing what must be faced. We need constant encouragement and urging to “stand there”.[26]

b. John Cassian

John Cassian was born about 365 and died about 435. This makes him a contemporary of St Augustine. Unlike Augustine, though, Cassian was very familiar with the East and was fluent in both Greek and Latin. Born in what is now Romania, Cassian traveled a lot. He spent some time as a young man in a monastic community at Bethlehem and then many years with the monks in the Egyptian desert before going to Gaul where he founded a monastery in Marseilles. He was a critical thinker, very capable in adapting the severe rules of life practiced by Evagrius and others in Nitria and Cells in the desert of Egypt, to the different situation in Marseilles.

One of John Cassian’s three works is called Institutes and is a book for beginners in the monastic life.[27] There we find an extended description of acedia – one that shows an indebtedness to Evagrius:

Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call ακηδία (akēdia) and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. It is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul. And so some of the Fathers declare it to be the demon of noontide which is spoken of in the 90th Psalm (ie 90:6 in the Septuagint or in the Hebrew 91:6). When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no one, enriched no one with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is no health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible. Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is forever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell….. The blessed Apostle, like a true physician of the spirit …. busied himself to prevent the malady born of the spirit of accidie…. “Study to be quiet … and to do your own business … and to work with your own hands, as is commended You.” …. And so the wise Fathers in Egypt would in no way suffer the monks, especially the younger, to be idle, measuring the state of their heart and their progress in patience and humility by their steadiness at work; and not only might they accept nothing from anyone towards their support, but out of their own toil they supplied such brethren as came by, or were from foreign parts, and did send huge stores of victuals and provisions throughout Libya, a barren and hungry land, and to those that pined in the squalor of the prisons in the towns …. there was a saying approved by the ancient Fathers in Egypt; that a busy monk is besieged by a single devil: but an idle one destroyed by spirits innumerable.[28]

Cassian clearly places great emphasis on work – though recognizing that this too can be a form of evasion (cf the third paragraph above) – as a counter measure to the demon acedia. The key is to look clear-eyed back at the demon, name it and stand firm in Christ. Work – especially physical work – can assist us to hold firm in this way. But we also get a very wise and practical comment in an earlier part of the Institutes – it applies generally to asceticism, especially to fasting, but also to that troubling human experience of acedia that leaves us with the taste of dust in our mouths:

It is impossible to despise pleasures of the mouth if the soul, attached to contemplation, does not find greater delights in the love of virtues and in the beauty of heavenly things.[29]

Louis Bouyer comments:

It might even be said that (Cassian) states it as a general principle that there can be no lasting renunciation unless there is a compensating reality which the renunciation itself simply permits us to adhere to.[30]


We have barely scratched the surface of an immensely important topic. Then, as Evelyn Underhill noted above, the real learning happens in the living, the doing. We discover the way by walking. To promote this learning from living we might usefully practise the following:

  1. Put your best energies into listening. “Listen with the ears of your heart” and be honest about what you hear. Be willing to face what must be faced and do what must be done and go where you must go and accept what must be accepted. None of this is found in pre-written texts or formulas; it is found moment by moment in the living. Ø Pay particular attention to any signs of flight or evasion. These signs might normally be hidden undergood works! Such signs might be found in the experiences described by Evagrius and Cassian above. They may also become obvious in compensatory behaviours (eg when I am anxious I might eat or shop or work, when I am angry or disappointed with myself I might judge and criticize others, when I am lonely I might drink alcohol etc), rationalizations and personal dishonesties, manipulations and willful attempts to force life to fit our pre-definitions. 
  2. Get into the habit, therefore, of repeatedly and persistently asking three foundational, open questions: “What is happening?” This is the most practical and most foundational question you can ask yourself at any time; do not answer the question; having asked it, pay attention to your feelings and thoughts; wait for some sense of what is happening to emerge. “Where ought I be?” This is about identity and presence. It is possible to be physically in one place but, as it were, somewhere else; the ultimate act of presence is prayer, where we are present to the Presence; in the Presence and only in the Presence we discover our true identity; this being present presents Being (to the world); be who you are so you can be where you are. “What ought I do?” This is about responsibility and the implications of what is; it is about duties of state and the demands of life; do follows be; in our being and doing we provide the place where the Incarnation keeps happening.

Listen my child and take my advice, do
not reject my counsel: put your feet into (wisdom’s) fetters, and your neck
into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her
bonds; court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep in her ways;
search for her, track her down: she will reveal herself; once you hold her, do
not let her go.[31]



[1] Evagrius of Ponticus, cited by David

Fleming, The Fire and the Cloud: An Anthology of Catholic Spirituality, Paulist

Press, 1978, 23.

[2] Migel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, Princeton University

Press, 1990, 354. St Benedict resisted

those who moved from monastery to monastery; he referred to them as

“gyrovagues”. According to his Rule the members of the community must

take a vow of stability. In the metaphor

f geographical place and the restless desire to keep moving from place to

place, we have an insight into the human spirit and the peculiar dis–ease of

spirit which has us evading ourselves through a variety of distractions, albeit

under the guise of doing “good works” or doing “what must be done” etc.


Psalm 91:6.


1Peter 2:1-5.

[5] Evelyn Underhill,

Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and

Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, New American Library, 1955, 4.

[6] Evelyn Underhill,

op cit, 83-84. Thus we might understand

the instruction of St Benedict, given at the beginning of his Rule: “Listen with the ears of your


[7] William Lynch, Images of Hope, University

of Notre Dame Press,

1974, 125. The late Walker Percy suggest

similar thing on a more general scale when he comments: “The consumer of mass culture is lonely, not

only lonely, but spiritually impoverished” (Walker Percy, “Culture, the Church

and Evangelization” in Patrick Samway, ed, Signposts

in a Strange Land, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991, 301).

[8] See, for example, the companion course to

this one, Developing Your Own Spirituality, Unit Two, Sessions Four and Five,

“The Person as Thinking”.

[9] Saul Bellow, Dangling Man, Penguin Books, 1944/1988, 66.

[10] Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift, Penguin Books, 1973/1986, 199.

[11] Ibid.

Later, Citrine suggests: “Boredom has more to do with modern political

revolution than justice has.” (Op cit, 200.)

See also Christopher Booker, The

Neophyliacs: The Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties,

Pimlico, 1969/1990. The author explores

the thesis that life in England

during the 1950’s and 1960’s underwent a revolution which was driven for the

most part by fantasy and superficiality.

Its chief characteristic was an obsession with “the new”. Booker’s last chapter – “The Riddle of the

Sphinx” (325-352) – is particularly valuable and relevant to our subject

here. As an epigraph to this particular

chapter, Booker quotes the famous observation of Carl Jung: “During the past

thirty years people from all the civilized countries of the earth have

consulted me …. Among all my patients in

the second half of life, – that is to say, over thirty five – there has not

been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious

outlook on life. It is safe to say that

every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions

of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really

healed who did not regain his religious outlook” (325-26). See also Michael Whelan, “Expectations” in Without God All Things Are Lawful, St

Pauls, 1995, 71-80.

[12] It may be difficult to find the word acedia

– or akedia, as it is sometimes spelt – in any standard English

dictionary. It comes from the Greek words α-κήδος (a-kēdos) meaning

not caring, indifferent. Accidie is the Middle English spelling and is pronounced ak-sid-ee with

the emphasis on the middle sound. This

is how you will find it in the Oxford Dictionary or as acedia. More

frequently in the spiritual writings it is found as acedia and

pronounced a-kee-deea, with the emphasis on the second syllable.

[13] Evagrius is still venerated as a saint in

the Armenian Church. Despite the fact

that the Council of Chalcedon in 553 condemned him along with Origen, thus

leading to many of his works being destroyed, his ideas and insights endured.

With regard to Evagrius’ influence in the West, Jean Leclercq notes: “In order

to understand Cassian it is necessary to know Evagrius. And because Cassian is a source of St

Benedict – his Rule depends on him and explicitly refers to him – one

must say that Evagrius forms part of the Benedictine and Cistercian

tradition”. Jean Leclercq, “Preface” to Evagrius

Ponticus: The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, translated by John

Eudes Bamberger, Cistercian Publications, 1981, xiv. Louis Bouyer observes: “No one today still doubts that Evagrius is

one of the most important names in the history of spirituality, one of those

that not only marked a decisive turning point, but called forth a real

spiritual mutation”. Louis Bouyer, A

History of Christian Spirituality, Volume I, op cit, 381.

[14] Jean Leclercq, op cit, xix.

[15] Our English word “demon” comes from the

Greek word daimon, meaning “deity”.

[16] John Eudes Bamberger, “Introduction” to Evagrius

Ponticus, op cit, 5.

[17] Cf 6-14.

[18] These eight “thoughts” subsequently became

the “seven deadly sins.” Pope Gregory

the Great (d 604) developed the list by adding envy, merging vainglory into

pride and acedia into sadness. In the 17th

century sadness was replaced with sloth, leaving the list of the so-called

“seven deadly sins” as we have them today: pride, anger, envy, sloth, greed,

gluttony and lust.

[19] Simon Tugwell, Ways of Imperfection: An

Exploration of Christian Spirituality, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984,

25. The so-called “seven deadly (or

capital) sins” arose from this categorization by Evagrius. Interestingly enough, the seven is arrived at

by dropping acedia out.

[20] Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers, SPCK,

1973, 146.

[21] This is precisely Christopher Booker’s

thesis (The Neophyliacs) concerning

the fifties and sixties in England. See Footnote 12 above.

[22] Both a Stoic and a Platonic influence is

evident in Evagrius. By guarding the

mind, one defends oneself against irrational (ie disordered or undisciplined)

passion and thus attains to a higher order of virtue. However, I think it is reasonable to suggest

that Evagrius’ teaching is more solidly grounded in experience – his own

personal experience in the desert as well as the experience of the other people

he encountered there. Evagrius is also

imbued with the centrality of Jesus Christ in his life and in all his lived


[23] Praktikos 12. We find echoes of this also in a beautiful

little passage from Evagrius’ The Mirror of Monks: “Always remember your

exodus, and do not forget the eternal judgment, and there will be no dissonant

note in your soul. If the spirit of

listlessness mounts you, do not leave your house and do not turn aside in that

hour from profitable wrestling. For like

someone making money shine, so will your heart be made to glow. The spirit of listlessness drives away tears

and the spirit of sadness shatters prayer.” Evagrius of Ponticus, The Mirror of Monks,

54-56 cited by Jeremy Driscoll, “Listlessness in The Mirror of Monks of

Evagrius of Ponticus,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 24:3 (1989)


[24] Praktikos, 15.

[25] Praktikos, 28. The modern reader might find it helpful to

note the need for discernment here: Is my situation one in which it is

appropriate for me to “stand firm and be patient”? Or should I make a decision to go? Evagrius would probably say something like:

If you are wrestling with the demon acedia then stand firm and be

patient; if, however, you are wrestling with another demon – eg pseudo-guilt or

fear or staleness that robs you of creativity – then you had better think

carefully about an alternative.

[26] This complements St Bernard’s advice about

learning the truth in myself in compassion as the way to learning the truth in

others and ultimately in God. See notes

to Unit Two, Session Six, “Compunction”.

[27] Cf Owen Chadwick, “Introduction” to John

Cassian: Conferences, translated by Colm Luibheid, Paulist Press, 1985,

xii. His major work was the Conferences,

a study of monastic life as lived in the Egyptian desert. Cassian also wrote a work on the Incarnation

to counter the doctrines attributed to Nestorius.

[28] John Cassian, Institutes, X, 1, 2,

7, 22, 24, cited by Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, University of

Michigan Press, 1957/1977, 157-160.

Cassian goes on to offer further advice on the need to work – advice

that must be understood within the context of the foregoing: “So when the abbot Paul, revered among the Fathers,

was living in that vast desert of Porphyrio secure of his daily bread from the

date palms and his small garden, and could have found no other way of keeping

himself (for his dwelling in the desert was seven days journey and more from

any town or human habitation, so that more would be spent in conveying the

merchandise than the work he had sweated on would fetch), nevertheless did he

gather palm leaves, and every day exacted from himself just such a measure of

work as though he lived by it. And when

his cave would be filled with the work of a whole year, he would set fire to it

and burn each year the work so carefully wrought: and thereby he proved that

without working with his hands a monk cannot endure to abide in his place, nor

can he climb any nearer the summit of holiness: and though necessity of making

a livelihood in no way demands it, let it be done for the sole purging of the

heart, the steadying of thought, perseverance in the cell, and the conquest and

final overthrow of accidie itself.” (Ibid.) This kind of advice, simplistically applied

in recent generations of Christianity, has probably led to some fairly

deformative work practices, especially among religious within the Catholic

tradition. It was based on a lack of

trust – “keep them busy and they will not get up to mischief.” Note, further, sayings like, “The devil will

find work for idle hands” and “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”.

[29] John Cassian, Institutes, V, 9

cited in Louis Bouyer, The History of Christian Spirituality, Volume I, op

cit, 505.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6:23-27.