Reflections on the Demon of Noonday

Akedia, according to orthodoxwiki, is literally fatigue or exhaustion, but in technical usage refers to the spiritual and physical lethargy. It can take the form of listlessness, dispersion of thoughts, or being inattentively immersed in useless activity.

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When I look around, and sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see listlessness, dispersion of thoughts and people inattentively immersed in useless activity. Of course, the noonday demon is not a problem we can blame on the economy, Twitter or Obama because it has been around a while. The reference in Psalm 90 (91 MT) to the “demon of noonday” is traditionally identified as akedia. St. Anthony the Great, born in Egypt in 251 and commonly referred to by all as the father of monks, lived in solitude in the desert and we are told, “was beset by akedia and attacked by many sinful thoughts.”

Akedia (in Latin, accidie) defined by Josef Pieper in his excellent little book, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” as the “despair of weakness” of which Kierkegaard said that it consists in someone “despairingly not wanting to be oneself.” Pieper goes on to say, “The metaphysical-theological concept of idleness means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness (vicious sadness and not virtuous sadness) has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him – and this sadness is that “sadness of the world spoken of in the Bible.”

The opposite of Akedia is not ambition. The prescription to cure listlessness and depression is not to work harder. But that is what most people tend to do. The opposite of akedia is, again from Pieper, the “cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God – of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone with being a workaholic.”

Thomas Aquinas understood akedia as a sin again the Third Commandment. So far from seeing idleness as the opposite of work ethic he understands it as a sin against the Sabbath, against the soul’s resting in God. Maybe this is why vacations can be so difficult. We go from work, which is hiding an inner restlessness, to stripping away our protection and finding ourselves face to face with restlessness and idleness and not the leisure we so desperately need. Vacations are not guaranteed to bring the rest our souls need because leisure is a condition of the soul. Our souls are tired and we hide it with activity.

Leisure is a condition of the soul that imitates God who rested from all the works that He made. We need to join ourselves to this same rest and look upon God’s creation with pleasure and a spirit of restfulness. Aristotle said that, “man cannot live this way insofar as he is man, but only insofar as something divine dwells in him.” (Nicomachean Ethics X, 7 as quote in Pieper page 36.)

I intend to write more on this topic over the next few days. Tomorrow we will go more in depth to what the vice of akedia is and what it does to us. I promise also to tell how St. Anthony got victory over this affliction.

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3 Comments

Filed under Orthodox Christianity

3 responses to “Reflections on the Demon of Noonday

  1. I love Pieper’s book “Leisure”! And “On Hope” also covers similar ground. Did you read Kathleen Norris “The Noonday Demon” for a contemporary reflection on the same spiritual ill?

    • Fr. James Coles

      Thank you Sr Anne for the comment and the book rec. I have not read Norris’ book but will be scanning my local used book store beginning today.

  2. Dear Fr. James!
    I was looking at this website…http://vatopaidi.wordpress.com/ which if you haven’t seen, you will be interested in and connected to that was this which I think you will find of interest. http://vatopaidi.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/abandon-despair/
    In Christ’s love, Claire Monica

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