The Devil at Noon: Care and Carelessness


At the end of the entry from my philosophical journal contained in my immediately preceding post, I cited journalist-columnist Michael Greenberg’s account of how the medications his daughter Sally was eventually given to stabilize her diagnosed condition of bipolar II disorder actually worked to “release her not from her cares, but from caring itself.”  My own closing remark after that was that what Greenberg was saying bore comparison to “acedia , the noonday devil.”  Today’s post picks up that reference, in the form of reflections in my journal about poet and best-selling spiritual writer Kathleen Norris’s most recent book, Acedia and Me:  A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008). 

In the writings of the Christian monastics and anchorites of the first centuries of Christianity, acedia was commonly listed as one of what eventually came to be most frequently known as “the Seven Deadly Sins”:  pride, anger, greed, envy, gluttony, lust, and “acedia,” which came to be translated most often as “sloth.”  If Norris and a variety of other  contemporary writers are right, as my own experience of the particular “sin” at issue certainly confirms they are, then that is not a felicitous translation, suggesting, as it does, laziness and an inclination toward inactivity, as opposed to busy industriousness.  However, one of the most powerful ways in which the temptation the early Christian writers called acedia often strikes is precisely as a temptation to “industriousness”–to getting up off one’s lazy duff and getting busy doing something!  The oft-cited monastic antidote to the temptation of acedia was precisely not to “do” anything, throwing oneself into business and activity, but was, instead, to “remain in your cell,” which cell, according to  the ancient anchorites, “would teach you everything.” 

Accordingly, as Norris discusses, various suggestions for translations of acedia by terms other than “sloth” have been suggested, among which are “boredom,” “sadness,” and even “depression” (from which, however, acedia, understood as any sort of sin or moral failing, should be kept clearly distinct, at least in any modern, medically inclined understanding of depression).   At any rate, as Norris’s analysis makes clear, what is at issue in acedia is just the sort of thing that Greenberg captures excellently in his remark about losing not so much one’s “cares,” that is, one’s sufferings and sorrows and onerous burdens, but one’s very “caring” itself.  Greenberg’s daughter suffers such a loss through no fault of her own, of course, but as the result of the medications she has been prescribed.  In contrast, acedia is an invitation to distraction to which one may yield or against which one may steel oneself.  What in the one case is a misfortune from which one suffers is in the other case an exercize in voluntary self-indulgence.  

Because in the monastic tradition the temptation to give up on the ascetic journey–to abandon the “discipline” (which is the original meaning of ascesis) of the ongoing, recurrent routines that make up the actual practice of the spiritual life–most often comes to monastics in the middle of their daily round of prayer, meditation, and simple manual labor, acedia was identified with the image of “the noonday devil,” or “the devil that strikes at noon,” mentioned in the Hebrew Psalms at one point.  But the temptation or devil of acedia can, in fact, strike one at any time of the day or night.  It strikes whenever one is tempted, often and especially with the very best of motives (or so, at least, are we tempted to try to convince ourselves,under the sway of acedia), to escape the day and the all too daily chores that continuing to care requires of us, seeking diversion from the necessities of care by throwing ourselves into activity.

Below I am posting two different days’ entries pertaining to Norris’s book from my philosophical journal, with the dates I originally wrote them, as usual.  As I note in one of the citations below, in her book Norris opposes acedia, traditionally (mis-)translated by “sloth,” not to industriousness or efficacious activity, but to love.  By fortuitous accident, the entry in my journal for the day just before I turned my attention to Norris’s book happened to be given over to some reflections of my own on that same topic, of love–especially in terms of love’s connections to forgiveness.  Accordingly, I begin with my entry for that day, followed by the entries for the two succeeding days, both of which focus on Norris.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

As we can love only because we first are loved (John [in his first letter in Christian Scripture]:  “We love, because he–God–first loved us”; but the point can also be made in terms of developmental psychology and the importance of parental love for the healthy development of a child), so can we forgive–or ask genuinely for forgiveness from others–only because we are forgiven.  In that sense, the line from the [definitively Christian prayer] “Our Father” that prays to be forgiven as “we” forgive others, is a prayer that is already answered even before it is asked.  the very asking for forgiveness becomes possible only in, and from out of, being already forgiven, and functions as a sign confirming that very being forgiven.  Augustine says that our search for God itself demonstrates that God is already with us and has graced us.  Just so, even being able to ask for forgiveness demonstrates that what is thereby being asked for has indeed already been given.  “Before you ask, I will answer, Here I am.”

But if we are not to forget that we are already forgiven, we must enact, as sacraments [in the broad sense] (that is, signs that are themselves, in their actual signing or marking or making, “effective” of what they signify), the asking for forgiveness from and of those to whom we have come to be in debt.  We must, for our being forgiven itself to become “effective”–in the double sense of “go into effect,” as a warranty on an appliance may “go into effect”only once the original purchase is properly recorded, and [in the sense ]of itself “having effect” (“going to work”)–we must, to make our being forgiven “effective,” enact it, then, always by asking forgiveness from”God” and the dead, and also, whenever we have harmed others, directly of those we have harmed, thereby incurring debts with them.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Norris, Acedia, p. 230, cites a line from Graham Green’s “tragicomic novel of acedia, A Burnt-Out Case” in which Green speaks of “the grace of aridity.”  The character whose story is the novel burns out as both architect and womanizer, and ends up going to Africa and helping out in a leper colony run by a religious order.  He denies any spiritual motivation, yet the monks and Africans regard him as (p. 231) “divinely inspired,” and “admire his humility.”  In one scene “a priest says to him, ‘Don’t you see that perhaps you’ve been given the gift of aridity?  Perhaps even now you are walking in the footsteps of St. John of the Cross.’ ”  Then, a couple of pages later (p. 233) she cites “the Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald” [as Norris calls her on p. 232]:  “Finally I am forced to admit that the new venture will come to fruition only if, as Fitzgerald says, I can ‘make the passage from loving [and] serving . . . because of the pleasure and joy it gives . . . to loving and serving regardless of the cost.”  Then, a few lines later in the same paragraph, Norris writes:  “Commitment always costs, and there is a particular burden in loving another person, if for no other reason than the fact that this beloved will one day die.”  She is thinking, perhaps, about all adult beloveds, like her own husband, who died at 57 in 2003.  But what she says also applies to the love whereby parents choose to have a child.  As she herself observes (same p.–233), “this is the true strength of a woman willing to  give birth, despite the odds.”


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Norris, p. 265, commenting on the death of a spouse, but surely also applicable to the deaths of other loved ones such as children:  “Above all, I need to recall, even if the culture has forgotten it, the spiritual wisdom that correctly opposes acedia not to [business or activity] but to love.”

Yesterday morning, in our first regional oblate meeting after our summer break [like Norris, I am a Benedictine “oblate,” and in my case we have a regional oblate group that meets monthly], we were on Ch. 7 of [St. Benedict’s] Rule, on humility.  It came to me as I was sharing some troubledness about how the conversation was going, when one of us brought up the issue of how one is “humble” as an Auschwitz survivor, and we were verging, in my judgment, on some  [unintentional] derogation of those who did not survive–this [thought] came to me:  The whole issue of what is called for in the face of Auschwitz and–i.e., really–what truth it brings to us, therefore, can well be formulated this way:  What is it to be “obedient” (as I understand that:  listening, attentive to . . . ) in the face of Auschwitz?  (In Badiou’s terms,that would become:  How can one be faithful–show “fidelity” to–the truth that goes by the name of Auschwitz?)

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