Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Restless Boredom

"The Noonday Sun"
-in the triple digits-

Summer arrives early in the desert. By the time mid-May rolls around, the afternoon temperatures soar up into the triple digits as the desert bakes in the heat of the noonday sun. 

I've been thinking about my spiritual ancestors, those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers - ancient  monastic communities who lived in the middle of the desert and devoted themselves to prayer, study and to faithfully following the teachings of Jesus. These ancient desert monks had quite a bit to say about the baking heat of the noonday sun,  for it was during these hot afternoon hours that they felt especially afflicted by what they referred to as the "noonday demon," whom they named "acedia." 

The word "acedia" is somewhat difficult to translate. It literally means "to have no care." A better translation is "apathy," or better yet, "restless boredom."

Influenced by the oppressive heat of the baking afternoon sun, the desert monastics would often be overcome by a sense of restless boredom - bored with their work, bored with their prayers, bored with the routine of daily meditation, bored with their study, and bored with one another. They often felt a restlessness rise up within themselves - eager to escape the boredom, to find something else to do, other people to be with, other places to live, far away from the emptiness of the fierce desert terrain. . 

I find one particular description of "acedia" to be amusing and insightful as a 4th century monk describes what the "noonday demon" looks like:

As the monk reads he yawns plenty and can easily fall asleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a while. He then wastes his time counting the pages of the book, ascertaining how the book was made,  finding fault with the writing and design. Finally, he just shuts the book and uses it as a pillow.

I guess I find this passage so entertaining because the monk in the story could be me.  I am often afflicted by that "noonday demon" of "acedia." I sometimes find it hard to focus when I meditate or study. I get bored when I engage in the same routine day after day. I often feel restless, wondering what my next project should be. 

Yes, I can certainly understand how the triple digit heat of a desert day would make a person pretty lethargic, apathetic, bored- ready to shut the book and use it as a pillow.  

Actually, I think the experience of "acedia" is common to anyone on any sort of spiritual journey. I often hear from people who tell me how hard it is for them to focus during their meditation and prayer time - how difficult it is to maintain a daily spiritual practice, especially after they have been engaging in these practices for a while, and it has all become so routine. 

But "acedia" doesn't just afflict the spiritual journey.  Lots of people experience "restless boredom" every single day - tired of the same old job, tired of the same old daily routine, tired of the same old relationships. When the "noonday demon" strikes," people get restless. They want to move on to something newer, bigger, better.

The ancient monks told one another that the way to ward off the oppression of "acedia" was to "persevere." Stick with the routine that makes you feel bored and restless. Just keep "doing it"- don't run away from it.  

One of the "Mothers" of an an ancient desert monastic community admonished her young nuns:

Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk and the nun grow cold when they go from one place to another."

In another story, a young monk, bored, restless and afflicted by the "noonday demon," came to an Abba and asked him what he should do?  The wise old Abba told the young monk to go back to his room and just sit there,

Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything 

What great advice, not just for 4th century monks and nuns, but for any one of us who find ourselves  tired of the same old routine - tired of the same old people. When the noonday demon shows up and we feel a sense of restless boredom coming on, don't run away from it, escaping into something new and different, bigger, better, more exciting. Stick with it!  Just do it! 

Ultimately the eggs you are sitting on will hatch and your cell will teach you everything. 

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