There’s a great deal of gold to be found in the writings of early Christian monastic communities. I like to think of the Desert Fathers, who retreated to the barren places of Egypt in the third century, as spiritual sleuths investigating a brand new phenomenon – the Christian life. And in the course of their investigation, not only did they discover great heights of joy and richness, they also observed and documented the obstacles consistently encountered in the pursuit of holiness.
My ‘favorite’ of these obstacles (the one I find most fruitful to think about in my own life and the lives of my students) is the colorfully named “noonday demon”. John Cassian describes this as “tedium or perturbation of heart” that comes upon a desert monastic around the middle of the day. It makes him feel aversion towards his room, boredom with his surroundings and contempt and scorn towards his companions. The monk experiencing the noonday demon is listless and inert. He believes that he is making no progress, that he is wasting his time, that if he were at another monastery he would be surrounded with helpful companions and would spend his time meaningfully. He feels tired, and longs for a distraction from his tedium. When he tries to do some spiritual activity, he is anxious and unable to focus. Finally, he convinces himself that he ought to go and do some religious duty (visiting a widow, or something to that effect) rather than continuing to sit and endure the quiet of his own cell.
What causes this uneasiness in a monk’s heart? What makes him unable or unwilling to sit in quietness and do his work and spiritual meditation steadily through the day? According to Cassian, there is no external circumstance that causes these feelings to come. Monks encounter them because the monastic lifestyle is intended to “make trial of the conflicts of the inner man,” and the very conflicted nature of the inner man makes prolonged quiet and study difficult.
Pascal locates this ‘central conflict of the inner man’ in our restlessness for God and for holiness. We were created to be perfectly holy and perfectly happy, in communion with God and each other, but at present we are full of error and sin and trying not to think about it. It’s Pascal’s contention that most of what we spend our lives doing is intended to distract us from this fundamental wrongness in our spirit, this knowledge that we are capable of being completely happy, but because of the sin rooted deep within us we are always subverting ourselves, preventing ourselves from experiencing the unencumbered joy we were made for. As in the wisdom of the desert fathers, “He who abides in the midst of men: because of the turbulence, he sees not his sins: but when he hath been quiet, above all in solitude, then does he recognize his own default.”