Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Heat of the Noonday Sun

"120 Degrees"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Summer has now officially arrived and an “extreme heat warning” has been issued for this desert region where we live. In fact, yesterday afternoon the outdoor temperature got up to a scorching “120” degrees and when I finally mustered up enough courage to make my way out to the usually-crowded gym, I discovered that there were only five other people in there with me. In this kind of weather no one wants to move around – myself included. When it gets this hot out,  all I want to do is sit in a chair inside my house with the air conditioning at full-blast.

Yesterday as the afternoon temperatures kept climbing, I went home and tried to motivate myself to read a book or maybe to meditate, but found I was too lethargic to do anything at all. It reminded me of a piece of wisdom taught by the 4th century Christian desert monks who moved away from their homes in the cities to live in a region very similar to the one where I now live.  They devoted the themselves to prayer, work and study and to more carefully follow the teachings of Jesus.

Interestingly enough, these ancient “Desert Mothers and Fathers” actually had quite a bit to say about living under the scorching heat of the noonday sun, observing that during the “sizzling” afternoon hours as the desert baked in the sun, they felt particularly afflicted by what they called a “noonday demon” which they referred to as “acedia.”

While the word “acedia” is somewhat difficult to translate, in general it means restless boredom, lethargy, apathy

Under the rays of the summertime sun these ancient monastics talked about how bored and lethargic they all became - no one wanted to move around or to do anything. They became bored with their prayers, apathetic about their work, lethargic when it came to studying, they even became easily bored with one another. Afflicted by the “noonday demon” of “acedia’ many monks talked about how spiritually restless they became, eager to escape to a better place far from the dry emptiness of the fierce desert terrain.

I find one particular description of “acedia” to be quite insightful if not amusing:

In the heat of the noonday sun
as the monk reads, he yawns plenty and can easily fall asleep.
He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms.
He stares at the walls and then goes back to his reading for a little while.
He then wastes his time counting the pages of the book,
sometimes finding fault with the writing or the design.
Finally he just shuts the book and uses it as a pillow.

I find this depiction of “acedia” so entertaining because the monk in that story sounds a lot like me.

Actually I think that, from time to time, many if not most people are afflicted by a “noonday demon” as they make their way along a spiritual journey and you don’t have to live in a desert when its 120 degrees outside to experience this affliction. There are many times when we just don’t feel like praying or meditating and when being kind or compassionate becomes a real burden.

But acedia doesn’t just influence people on a spiritual journey, lots of folks experience a sense of “restless boredom” in their routine of life - tired of the same old job, bored with their everyday tasks, tired of the same old relationships. Like those 4th century monks, when tempted by the “noonday demon” we also want to escape, to move on to something bigger and better and newer.

The ancient “Desert Mothers and Fathers” told one another that the best way to fight off the “noonday demon” was simply to persevere, to persist in the everyday tasks of ordinary life.  If those monks were around today they would tell us that when we don’t feel like praying or studying or working, when we are bored by living into our routine, when we don’t feel like being kind or compassionate, do it anyway!  Soon the “noonday demon” will leave and a sense of peace will return.

The English poet, Samuel Johnson, once said:

Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.

It’s supposed to get up to 120 again today. There are lots of books I want to read.

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