There is a digital clock on my desk. The clock tells me it is Thursday. May 6th. 4:28. pm. Central daylight time. The temperature at my desk is 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The clock read 3:12 when I first sat down. Now it is 4:29. On the upper left hand corner of the clock is a map of the United States and the Central Time Zone is highlighted. I know it is the Central Time Zone because of the letter C below the map. I know it is the afternoon because above the map are the letters “pm.” Now 4:32. The small letters “DST” tells me it is daylight savings time; curiously, “DST” blinks at me silently, the electronic equivalent of the ticking of a clock, I suppose. Blink. Blink. Blink. It is now 4:34. Other symbols on the clock face tell me the clock is receiving a signal from station WWVB, which broadcasts a signal from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado. A built-in thermometer tells me the room temperature. 4:41. Blink. Blink. Blink.
4:48. The demon stopped by again today. He (do demons have gender?) and I are old acquaintances. He is very old now but he seems well for his age. He used to be quite famous, you know. There have been many, many pages written about him throughout history, though I believe him to be widely unknown today. After all, we are too smart to believe in demons. Too bad for us. However, I think that’s a good thing for a demon. It is better for them to work in anonymity, they are much more effective. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. 4:56.
This demon has a name. No, not from me. He has been named for at least 3,000 years:
You shall not be frightened by fear at night, Nor from an arrow that flies by day, Nor by a thing moving in darkness, Nor by mishap and a demon of noonday.
–-Psalm 90:6 (King David. Septuagint, The Orthodox Study Bible)
He was so named “noonday demon” because of when he generally comes to visit. Eighteen hundred years ago, many Christian monks moved to the desert caves of the Middle East seeking a life focused on God alone. Boredom was a constant companion. For some, the noonday sun seemed to stop in the sky. This was when the demon would come visit them.
Now 5:17. Early desert-dwelling Christians (Church Fathers and Mother’s of the 4th century and beyond) recognized the noonday demon as “a dangerous and frequent foe” (St John Cassian). The monk’s day would drag on and on. And on. Many would eat and drink as a distraction. Others would sleep. Or pace. Or stand in the mouth of their cave, trying to will the sun to move. Still others would visit neighboring monks for idle conversation. Anything to find distraction from the attack of the demon, the pain of the boredom. 5:38. Blink. Blink.
The Greeks have a word for the effect this demon’s visit has on us: acedia. Apparently, it doesn’t translate well. The English word was sloth, but that word has taken on a different emphasis these days. Now it is more commonly called “desolation,” not to be confused with depression. Desolation, as used in the spiritual context, has been described as a sickness—weariness—of the soul. Father Alexander Schmemann says it is “the suicide of the soul because when a man is possessed by it, he is absolutely unable to see the light and desire it.” Strong words. 5:52. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.
It is the apparent futility of living and dying that, more than any other factor, invites the apathy of despondency.
–Nicole Roccas (Time and Despondency).
Fundamentally, despondency is a sense of futility resulting in hopelessness; one’s soul is sick. One suffering the demon’s attack seeks to escape by giving in to the apathy (no activity) or by busyness (much activity). Whether lazy or busy, one has the overwhelming desire to be “anywhere but here, anytime but now.” Looking back, I now know this demon I first met many years ago when I was a kid. Futility is part of my early and ongoing awareness and distraction; a lifelong way of living for me. (Why is it so rare to see a number change on a digital clock?) 6:44. 6:45. 6:46. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Even as I write I wonder whether it matters. Will it change anything? 6:48.
Sun set. Sun rise.
The clock tells me it is Friday. May 7th. 4:57. pm. Central daylight time. It is 76 degrees in my office. Since I was last here I’ve visited friends, walked the dog, slept, ate, bought groceries, and played golf. Feels like activity without importance. The letters on my clock continue to blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.
Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. … It belongs exclusively to God.
—Abraham Joshua Herschel. The Sabbath.
5:35. In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. He believed Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) was the better prophet than George Orwell (1984). To each of us the noonday demon whispers, “You will live and you will die. There is no hope.” If you don’t believe in life after death, then the demon whispers, “Ultimately, nothing matters. The universe will one day grow cold and die. All you hold dear will be gone.” If you believe in life after death, the demon whispers, “You will be as Stepford Wives: perfect people doing perfect things. There will be nothing new or challenging…for eternity. How boring.” 5:50. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.
Huxley and Postman saw a future of humanity with humans self-medicating to dull the pain of hopelessness. These modern two prophets say we will set aside the deep things of life, wonder and awe; rather, we will strive after “wow!” They say we will not notice that “wow” begets the need for more “wow.” We will live our lives seeking Huxley’s Soma and CS Lewis’ Turkish Delight: Bigger, faster, newer, more features, more excitement, more challenge, more pleasure. More. More. Still more. It is hopelessness masked by distraction.
It is more serious to lose hope than to sin.
–St John of Karpathos
6:00. At around 6pm we have happy hour at our house. I always look forward to a glass of wine. Usually only one glass for me, though. I fear if I have another there will be another still. I find red wine goes best with futility.
The clock tells me it is Saturday. May 8. 12:43. am. Central daylight time. It is 77 degrees in my office. I can’t sleep.
History, at least in the West, is on the side of Huxley and Postman. In 1949, with the carnage of World War II still fresh in the world’s collective memory, Elton Trueblood (Alternative to Futility) wrote this:
Actually most of us like war better than we like peace. We like it because it saves us from boredom, from mediocrity, from dullness. It is instructive to note that great numbers of people in Britain say openly that they look back to 1940-41 with nostalgia. Those were the days in which they really lived! There was the constant danger of invasion and all the resultant horror; there was the bombing; but there was more. People stood shoulder to shoulder, united by a common pride. They were sustained by great rhetoric and great deeds. Life had significance. Now all is different. Now there is no danger, but only a constant round of petty restrictions; life has become commonplace and humdrum.
12:55. am. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Apparently we prefer immediate danger and death over the pain of a slow death by the sense of futility of a commonplace and humdrum life. The demon whispers.
With the passage of the years, I have found that the cross Jesus tells me to bear daily is heavy; my soul has grown weary from the struggle. It is easier to just lay on the ground under my cross than to carry it.
And the three men I admire most,br. The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
—Don McLean, “American Pie”
Where is God? He said His burden is light and His yoke is easy
When the demon comes and I begin to lose hope, I struggle pray. Going to church becomes a wearisome chore. 1:38. am. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.
The clock tells me it is Sunday. May 9th. 2:24pm. It is 78 degrees in my office. Blink. Blink. Blink.
Some Christians tell me to shout back at the demon, “Get behind me Satan.”
The ancient Church warns me not to take on a demon, for I am not strong enough to take on a demon.
Stay in your cell and it will teach you everything.
–Abba Moses (4th c.)
Those who have been in their cave and faced the demon tell me, “Don’t fight the demon. Neither should you mask the weariness with distraction. Cry out to Jesus. Look to Him and at Him alone. It is the path to purification.”
They tell me that if I can say nothing else, to pray “Jesus help.” They tell me prayer is vital. Father Thomas Hopko says to pray as I can, not as I think I should (“55 Maxims for the Christian Life”). They tell me I am in need of the Church, the hospital for the soul, where I will find healing. I know they are right, but the weariness presses in. Where is the rest Jesus promises?
Evagrius Ponticus (4th c) was one of the earliest Christian cave-dwelling monks to write extensively about acedia. He believed the thoughts of desolation were the most debilitating of the eight evil thoughts that assail humankind. His advice is to pray this simple prayer from the Psalms:
Why are you so sad, O my soul? And why do you trouble me? Hope in God, for I will give thanks to Him; My God is the salvation of my countenance.
–Psalm 41:6 (Septuagint, The Orthodox Study Bible)
The clock tells me it is Sunday, May 9th, 3:17 pm. Central daylight time. The temperature at my desk is 79 degrees Fahrenheit. The letters, “DST,” blink as the ticking of an electronic clock. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.