January 5, 2012

Their Noonday Demons, and Ours

John Plotz
December 23, 2011
The New York Times

By some miracle, you set aside a day to tackle that project you can’t seem to finish in the office. You close the door, boot up your laptop, open the right file and . . . five minutes later catch yourself thinking about dinner. By 10 a.m., you’re staring at the wall, even squinting at it between your fingertips. Is this day 50 hours long? Soon, you fall into a light, unsatisfying sleep and awake dizzy or with a pounding headache; all your limbs feel weighed down. At which point, most likely around noon, you commit a fatal error: leaving the room. I’ll just garden for a bit, you tell yourself, or do a little charity work. Hmmm, I wonder if my friend Gregory is around?

This probably strikes you as an extremely, even a uniquely, modern problem. Pick up an early medieval monastic text, however, and you will find extensive discussion of all the symptoms listed above, as well as a diagnosis. Acedia, also known as the “noonday demon,” appears again and again in the writings of the Desert Fathers from the fourth and fifth centuries. Wherever monks and nuns retreated into cells to labor and to meditate on matters spiritual, the illness struck.

These days, when we try to get a fix on our wasted time, we use labels that run from the psychological (distraction, “mind-wandering” or “top-down processing deficit”) to the medical (A.D.H.D., hypoglycemia) to the ethical (laziness, poor work habits). But perhaps “acedia” is the label we need. After all, it afflicted those whose pursuits prefigured the routines of many workers in the postindustrial economy. Acedia’s sufferers were engaged in solitary, sedentary, cerebral effort toward a clear final goal — but a goal that could be reached only by crossing an open, empty field with few signposts. The empty field is the monk’s day of spiritual contemplation in a cell besieged by the demon acedia — or your afternoon in a coffee shop with tiptop Wi-Fi.

In the later Middle Ages, monks performed fewer solitary tasks, and as the historian Andrew Crislip has shown, their vulnerability to the torments of acedia diminished. But for early medieval writers, acedia’s symptoms were so prolific as to be often contradictory. For St. Benedict, the affliction took the shape of “a little black boy pulling the monk away by the hem of his garment,” while to the great fourth-century ascetic Evagrius it sometimes appeared as “demons that touch our bodies at night and like scorpions strike our limbs.” Gluttony and laziness can betoken acedia, one Desert Father, St. John Cassian, warns. However, “excesses meet” and “reluctance to eat and . . . lack of sleep put me in much greater danger.” The only real constant, during acedia’s heyday, was that it prevented monks and nuns from keeping their minds on their tasks, and their bodies in the right place. “Have you deserted your cell?” Basil the Great asks. “Then you have left continency behind you.”

If the diagnoses in medieval texts were so psychologically acute, it’s very likely because the most ferocious accusers and denouncers were themselves acedia sufferers. Today, too, it takes an acediac to know acedia. When I read Cassian on “disgust with the cell,” I look around my own office and sigh deeply; and I greet like an old friend the monk whose gaze “rests obsessively on the window” while “with his fantasy he imagines the image of someone who comes to visit him.” Cassian’s description of acedia as mental drift, meanwhile, perfectly encapsulates the pointless and random detours that stop me from bearing down on a particular page: “The mind is constantly whirling from psalm to psalm, . . . tossed about fickle and aimless through the whole body of Scripture.”

Of course, the desert monks were emphatically not us. Stripping their lives down to the bare bones, they sought the divine and fought the demonic alone. What could be more different from us, tap-tapping away with social media always at hand? They gazed upward toward God; we shoot sideways glances at one another while trying to resist the allure of e-mail (nowadays, you can “desert your cell” without shifting from your chair). Still, “excesses meet,” and now that solitary unstructured brainwork has returned with a vengeance, we may be suffering an epidemic of early medieval acedia. Is there anything we can learn from the monks and nuns who came before us?

As the motto orare, laborare et legere (pray, work and read) suggests, monasteries and convents from the sixth century onward found ways to situate divine contemplation within an essentially convivial context. For community-oriented orders like the Benedictines, collective singing, tilling the soil and shared meals were as crucial as divine reading. There are some parallels to this kind of enforced sociability among contemporary lab scientists, who stave off both distraction and torpor by sharing with their colleagues a contentious and collaborative life of the mind.

Those of us for whom long stretches in an acedia-hazard zone are unavoidable may have to look farther afield for comfort. It’s worth noting that an acquaintance with ancient philosophical traditions concerned with self-control and mastery of the passions (especially Stoicism and Platonism) did much to shape the mental prescriptions offered up by the Desert Fathers. The mental exercises Evagrius urges on those whom acedia has laid low — for example, dividing oneself into two, “one the consoler and the other the object of consolation” — unmistakably anticipate the self-disciplining (and self-forgiving) exercises of modern cognitive-behavioral therapists.

There is also comfort to be found in the realization that monks who knew the dangers of acedia nonetheless kept going to the desert — not because they thought they would be safe from acedia’s temptations, but because they courted those temptations in the hope of strengthening themselves for further work. One of Cassian’s most moving stories involves a rebuke to an aged monk who scorns a young monk’s acedia because he himself has never experienced it. The old man, Cassian writes, was no sort of spiritual guide for a young monk looking to overcome these inevitable temptations.

One lesson to be drawn from those monastic stories is that persistent, alluring stimulation may be just as unavoidable in our new digital life as it was in the Egyptian deserts, though it now takes the form of Fruit Ninja rather than hem-tugging demons. Flight by itself is no solution. Disconnecting the Internet or confiscating a teenager’s cellphone probably helps less than looking for ways to live with persistent temptation and to move beyond the mixed pleasure that every post, tweet or “level up” affords.

The Benedictine monastery I recently visited in central Massachusetts did have a Facebook page: 15 people “liked” a post on how a monk buying pipe insulation was mistaken for a medieval battle re-enactor. Being there, though, was something else. The sung Latin prayers and the communal lunch — consumed in companionable silence while one monk read aloud — subtly but unmistakably guided my thoughts toward some of the same questions that monks and nuns have grappled with for centuries. When I curled up to read one of Cassian’s quarrels with St. Augustine, it was as if the two divines were only a shout away. My smartphone pinged seductively from the bedside table, and I let five minutes go by before I checked it. Well, almost five minutes.

John Plotz teaches English at Brandeis University. His current book project is entitled “Semi-Detached: Absorption and Distraction Reconsidered.”