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.”
So far this all seems pretty heady, but getting a Christian account of restlessness and distraction is crucial to understanding what’s going on with myself and most of the people I know, most of the time. A photographer friend of mine did a project this summer capturing people in the midst of their everyday work. Her mantra was the classic “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” The challenge of the noonday demon isn’t as simple as doing or not doing. The noonday demon is perfectly happy to get you doing something, so long as it isn’t the thing that is yours to do right now. Lots of people justify leaving the dishes because they’re busy planning a revolution, but it’s so much easier to plan revolutions than to live a single day, filled with the same activities that filled hundreds of days before, with virtue and diligence.
The noonday demon tempts a student when she sits down to write a paper or to read a challenging book. It asks her whether she shouldn’t be spending her time evangelizing, or investing in her community. It tells her that choosing to focus on her classwork is selfish, and that its products ultimately amount to nothing. It teaches her to exchange difficult goods for easy and pleasant ones, and to believe that she has honored God in the exchange.
When we settle down to work it’s easy to be unsettled. Consistent work is not distracting. Consistent work, our own work, is quiet, and it requires a quietness of spirit to accomplish. The desert fathers moved into the wilderness and lived simplified lives not in order to remove themselves from temptation, but to confront the twists and turns in their spirits that only became apparent when they refused to be distracted.
There’s no easy way to be rid of the noonday demon. He is on the road with us, and with every decision to turn off the blaring distractions of our modern age and settle down to think and to work, to have an attentive conversation or to clean the bathroom, he will be there, asking, “Shouldn’t you check Facebook, or your email or read this article? Isn’t doing your workout as important as doing the laundry?” It takes the work of the Spirit, and it also takes practice, to get into the habit of ignoring him, and get on with the business of doing the simple, monotonous, often unobserved, difficult, profoundly good work of living.