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Acedia: Beating Back the ”Noonday Devil”

April 21, 2020


We naturally associate evil with night, blackness—the dark. But there is a terrible enemy that lurks when the sun is at its highest, which we Catholics call “the Noonday Devil.

The name goes back many years to the ancient desert monks. The Noonday Devil, for the them, referred not to physical fatigue but to a kind of deflation of the soul called acedia. Acedia might be described as a depression that acknowledges the work of a demonic force intent on breaking the monk’s spiritual resolve.

The term acedia is derived from the ancient Greek word akēdeia meaning “lack of care.” St. Thomas Aquinas writes about acedia in his Summa theologiae as “a sort of heavy sadness . . . that presses down on a man’s mind in such a way that no activity pleases him.” Evagrius of Pontus, a third-century Desert Father, writes that acedia is a kind of atonia or relaxation of the soul.

Like C.S. Lewis’ “Uncle Screwtape,” the Noonday Devil is an old, seasoned veteran of his dark art. In the Old Testament of the Bible, we are warned of the threat of acedia. Psalm 91, traditionally attributed to Moses as its composer, warns against “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Psalm 91:6).

But it was the desert monks of the early Church who really brought the spiritual threat of acedia into the limelight. Fourth-century Desert Father John Cassian, a contemporary of Evagrius, illustrates how acedia manifests in a monk’s cell:

He fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell. . . . Then the fifth or sixth hour brings him such bodily weariness and longing for food that he seems to himself worn out and wearied. . . . Then besides this he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone.

For such ascetics of the desert, midday was when the sun was most viciously beating down on them, their energy was waning, and their fasting stomachs were growling. It was well known among the monks that it was then that the merciless Noonday Devil would be most looking to strike. They understood that when they were at their weakest—when they were hungry, bored, tired, angry, frustrated, or whatever—they needed to be most ready to engage the enemy and defend themselves. When we are weak, we are easy targets. But when we are spiritually alive and empowered by divine grace, we are a force for any demon to reckon with.


St. Thomas tells us that the Noonday Devil wants to accomplish two things in us: first, sadness about spiritual good, and second, disgust with activity. All human action begins in the soul, which is where all our intentions and “will power” are derived. The enemy knows that if our souls can be broken, it will have far-reaching effects both spiritually and practically.

How then do we overtake the demon of acedia?

In his book The Noonday Devil: Acedia: The Unnamed Evil of Our Times, Benedictine Abbot Jean-Charles Nault offers several “astonishingly simple” tactics for combating the Noonday Devil. Drawing especially from the ancient monks of the desert, as well as St. Benedict, here are the remedies he suggests:

1) Tears. Nault writes that in the Eastern spiritual tradition, tears serve as a sincere acknowledgment of one’s need for a Savior. They represent the exact opposite of “lack of care” (which you’ll remember is the meaning of the ancient Greek term akēdeia). Genuine tears, then, are an outward manifestation of an inner desire for God’s help.

We might even say, offers Fr. Nault, that tears are a sign that the demon of acedia has already been conquered! “Sadness is burdensome and acedia is irresistible,” writes Evagrius in his Exhortation to a Virgin, “but tears shed before God are stronger than both.”

2) Ora et Labora. Prayer and work. St. Benedict famously emphasized the rotation of these two essential human activities in his Rule. He knew that balance in life was important and that prayer and work were important for every human being—even monks. As Fr. Dwight Longenecker tells us, “Ordinary hard work helps him learn obedience and prayer leads to a deep conversion of life. . . . Work grounds the monk in the hard realities of the physical world, but it also brings dignity because it is creative and productive.”

Evagrius is strikingly practical in this regard: “Perseverance is the cure for acedia, along with the execution of all tasks with great attention. Set a measure for yourself in every work and do not let up until you have completed it.”

Of course, for the acedia-stricken, prayer might seem an impossibility. But one who wants to beat the Noonday Demon must simply try—and try simply—no matter how feeble the attempt. For as St. Josemaria Escriva writes in The Way, even just attempting to pray is prayer. God takes care of the rest. “Put yourself in the presence of God,” says St. Josemaria, “and once you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ rest assured that you have begun to do so.”

3) “Talking Back” to the Devil. The technical name for this strategy is the antirrhetic method, which is derived from the Greek word for “contradiction.” The idea behind this method is to use Scripture verses or prayers that contradict the evil thoughts that enter our minds about ourselves, or others, or divine things. This method of “talking back” is exemplified by Jesus himself in the Judaean desert, when he responds to Satan’s Bible verse-slinging with some verse-slinging of his own (Matt. 4:1-11).

In fact, the well-known “Jesus Prayer” of the Eastern Church was born out of this contradiction method. The words of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” can seem deceivingly simple and inadequate. But the prayer sums up the whole truth about God and us. Jesus is Lord and Savior. We are sinners in need of divine mercy. Therefore, this prayer prayed heartily on repeat is the perfect remedy for any soul’s bout with “lack of care.”

4) Memento Mori. Evagrius taught that self-love is the root of all sin. By meditating on death, then, we remind ourselves that “we are but dust, and to dust we shall return.” We also remind ourselves of the real possibility of eternal life, and the choice we must make in this life about where we want to spend our eternity.

St. Benedict, echoing his predecessor once again, writes in his rule that one is “to keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The idea is not to wallow in morbid thoughts. It’s the opposite actually. For every Christian knows what St. Paul professed so eloquently to the Romans: “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

Thus, as Abbot Nault writes, “The thought of death, precisely, gives meaning to passing time, restores a linear orientation, gives it a sense, in both senses of the word: direction and signification.”

5) Perseverance. Abbot Nault calls this “the essential remedy.” And it’s really quite simple: get back on—and stay—on the path. Nault writes:

Perseverance sometimes consists of remaining without doing anything, or else, on the contrary, doing everything that one did not think one had come to do. But ultimately, little matters. What does matter is to endure.

The point is: stay focused and active. Even standing still requires work and intention. So, whether you must be on the move or at rest, if you are where you ought to be—stay there. It might not be easy. But willingly entering the fight here and now will bear fruit for the future. You’ll be better off in the long run. Remember again Paul’s words:

We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom. 3:3-5)

So, there are five ways to beat the Noonday Devil. Will you fail sometimes? Will the Noonday Devil ever get the best of you? Probably, yes. But when it happens, get up, suck it up, and “talk back” to the Noonday Devil using these words: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).