Reviewed by John Mack, Seminarian
This is one of the most important books I have read since I began seminary. It is a slim book, but in it Dom Nault makes a weighty claim: the most insidious moral evil which afflicts us in the technologically overdeveloped world is the “noonday devil”, acedia. Acedia is a word we have either never seen before, or else associate, somewhat erroneously, with boredom or sloth. Dom Nault notes that our ignorance or misunderstanding of the term point us to the deceptiveness of acedia. It hides in plain sight. It can manifest itself mere boredom or discontent. It can make use of our desires for food or sex. It can make us doubt God. Yet acedia never wants to merely make us bored, gluttonous, or doubtful. The Noonday Devil wants us to not love God. To that end it makes use not only of temptations to vice, but to apparent virtues, so long as, in chasing those virtues, we cease to love God.
Dom Nault divides this book in two sections. The first is an excellent overview of Christian teaching on Acedia; the second deals with how Christians in various states of life – monastic, clergy, married, and single – can overcome the temptations of Acedia.
Acedia is not mentioned as such in the Bible and is hardly on the radar of contemporary spiritual teaching. So we might be justified in wondering just how Dom Nault gets off with calling it the “unnamed evil of our times.” Could we not just as well say that the “capital” or “deadly” sins, considered separately, do a good enough job of leading us away from God, and forego this probing of the depth in search of some shape-shifting and primordial wickedness? There is no shortage of orcs, so let’s not theorize about Balrogs. Dom Nault’s claim, however, is rooted in the spiritual wisdom of the earliest Christian hermits (ch. 1), and the development of this wisdom by St. Thomas Aquinas (ch. 2).
The Desert Tradition
The Desert Fathers and Mothers entered the desert not to escape the world but rather to join the battle begun by our Lord in the Wilderness (Mk 1:12-13). Away from the hustle and bustle of ancient city life, these women and men were able to truly enter the interior desert, the dry and haunted space of the soul where they did spiritual battle to put on the new man of Christ. Consequently, even as Christian dogma was developed in the urban centers of the ancient Mediterranean world, Christian spirituality developed in the wilderness of Egypt, Arabia, and Asia Minor. One of the early attempts to systematically describe Christian spiritual struggle was made by Evagrius of Pontus in a work called the Praktikos. In this, he lists the “Eight Deadly Thoughts” or logismoi. Of these, akedia is the most complex and difficult to define. It darkens our intellect by making what is evil appear good, and vice versa. Whereas some vices or temptations are temporary, and based very much on our circumstances (e.g. I am most tempted by Gluttony when I am in a house full of ice cream, but I forget my desire for ice cream when I leave that house), akedia accompanies and afflicts the soul. Evagrius once defines acedia as “relaxation of the soul,” and identifies it with the “destruction that wastes at noonday” of Psalm 91 (90 in the Douay-Rheims cited by Nault). Acedia attacks from two dimensions: space and time. The spatial dimension arises from acedia’s tendency to make us restless and fidgety. In the desert, a monk feels an overwhelming desire to leave his cell and go back to the city. The temporal dimension, time, has to do with when the demon most afflicts the monk. At noonday, as the shadows stand still, the air is hot, and a sudden restlessness settles on the monk. He is discontent, he is bored, he wants to leave. Within these two dimensions, acedia takes five principal forms: “a certain interior instability,” “an exaggerated concern for one’s health,” “aversion to manual work,” “neglect in observing the rule” (regular prayer), and finally “general discouragement.” Each of these turns the monk away from God and stunt his response to God’s love by focusing his thoughts and energy on himself. Against these, Evagrius proposed five remedies: Tears, Prayer and Work, Contradiction (responding to evil thoughts with a verse of Scripture, a practice which the Monks of Athos develop into the Jesus Prayer), Meditation on Death, and Perseverance. These remedies root us in God’s love (tears over sin, contradiction of evil thoughts with true thoughts), and fill time with meaningful responses to that love (prayer, work, recollection of death, perseverance).
In Thomas Aquinas
Thomas teaches that acedia is a sin against charity, specifically, a sin against the joy that springs from loving and being loved by God. In Jesus, the Christian has received limitless spiritual good (Eph. 1:3). For Thomas, as Nault painstakingly explains, joy is the result of being with the object of our love. Furthermore, love is itself a movement outside of myself into communion with another person or thing. This movement can be described in three stages, the “affective union” or the kindling of desire, the moment in which I encounter something lovely. This is followed by “desire” itself, which is resolved in “real union.” One thing essential to this love is that it is a movement outward. My love for my wife takes me outside of myself, otherwise as far as Thomas is concerned, it is not love. And if the action is not love, the result of the action is not joy. Nault identifies this movement with the “love” of 1 John 4:10, “we love because he first loved us.” We should see here that when Thomas speaks of love, and therefore of joy, he is discussing the heart of the Gospel. Acedia, however, is a sadness which poisons our joy and therefore our love. God offers us “every spiritual blessing.” Our right response to this is love-joy. Acedia deforms this into sadness. We do not love because he first loved us.
A result of this sadness with God is a “disgust with activity,” activity here referring not to busyness or sloth per se, but to growth in godliness and virtue. Here Nault turns from describing Thomas’ teaching on love, to his teaching on freedom. Freedom is not the ability to choose between right and wrong. Humans are not (as some later Medieval and Protestant theologians presume) morally neutral beings situated between equal and opposite moral ends, forced to choose heaven or hell! – rather, freedom is the capacity to be virtuous. Nault compares this freedom to the expert precision with which a violinist plays a difficult concerto – we would not call her free or virtuosic if she chose to play the wrong notes, we would call her a bad violinist! For the Christian, however, moral action (and all action is moral action) brings us near or distances us from God. We grow in godliness or we retreat from it. “Disgust with activity”, acedia, makes us retreat from godliness. We shun the habitude (not, Nault points out, the habits) of virtue, and instead drift further away from God, the source and object of love and blessing.
The remainder of Nault’s book is dedicated to practical considerations – and these are excellent. The symptoms of acedia are very familiar to me! Indeed, my life since my baptism makes a lot more sense now that I have read this book. Dom Nault afflicts the comfortable, yet once he has convicted us, he points us back to the source of our Joy and Promise of our new life. Acedia is a terrible enemy, yet through life in the Spirit, through faith and faithfulness, we can defeat it. As Lent closes in on us, I recommend this book as a way of showing us not only the spiritual enemies we can expect to meet in the wilderness, but also of teaching us and encouraging us that though we are pressed in every side, we are not overcome.
Abbot Jean-Charles Nault. The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times. San Francisco, Ignatius Press. 2015.