On Sloth and the Noonday Devil

"Hammock nap on patio"  by Michael Nutt from New York, US - David asleep in hammock.  Licensed under C  C BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Hammock nap on patio” by Michael Nutt from New York, US – David asleep in hammock. Licensed under C C BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more misunderstood of the deadly sins is sloth. In the wider culture sloth is often equated simply with laziness.

But sloth has a lot more subtleties than simple laziness. In fact, sloth can sometimes manifest as workaholism and other frantic worldly activities and busyness.

This is because sloth is most fundamentally defined as a “sorrow or aversion to the good things that God offers” such as a moral life, and deeper spiritual fruitfulness etc. There are some who find such things unappealing, and instead of joyfully accepting these gifts, they are sorrowful toward them or averse. One way to avoid God, and to avoid engaging in spiritual practices is to busy one’s self with the world, to dive into career and become a kind of a workaholic. Thus one simply says, “I’m far too busy to pray, or to spend time reflecting, or to read Scripture, or go to church etc. Such a person is not lazy but they are slothful.

Other forms of sloth do more consistently manifest in the form of a kind of laziness. Some people permit themselves to be mired in laziness or boredom, and a kind of tiredness such that they cannot rouse themselves to prayer other spiritual activities.

Yet another form of sloth, a form that is subtler, is a kind of discouragement that sets in once one has embarked on the spiritual path or vocation, and been at it a few years. And thus, one may get married, or become a religious or be ordained a priest, and after four or five years, when the newness worn off, a kind of Discouragement and boredom set in. And this boredom tempts one to think they made a mistake or must leave the path simply because the thrill and newness is gone.

The secular world often refers to this sort of sloth as the “five-year itch.” And usually applies this expression to marriage. And it is a very common thing that after four or five years of marriage, the greatest danger for divorce arises. The same is true of the priesthood and religious life. Four or five years into a vocation is a critical time period. The newness and thrill have worn off and now it comes time for the daily living, without the previous emotional intensity.

CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters has “Uncle Screwtape” explain the slothful discouragement to Wormwood in this way, and instructs his “student demon” thus:

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming….It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing…..[Careful my dear Wormwood], If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt! (Letter 2)

And by this form of discouragement (a subtle form of sloth) one is tempted to give up one’s current course of action and run off to something new and seemingly more thrilling. Grave becomes the temptation at this point to stray from, or end marriages, leave the priesthood or religious life, or some other spiritual course. One is no longer thrilled and excited of the gift that God has given. But now there is sorrow and a kind of aversion to it. This is sloth.

The Desert Fathers of the Church, based on Psalm 91 referred to this type of sloth as the “noonday devil.” (Psalm 91:6 in the Latin Vulgate spoke of a morsu insanientis meridie – the scourge that bites at noon, i.e. the “noonday devil”).

Indeed, most of us experience this noonday devil, at least from time to time, between noon and 3 PM as a kind of sluggishness sleepiness that sets in on us. Many cultures, rather than battle this, have introduced an afternoon siesta.

Whatever the case, shortly after lunch, a sleepiness and boredom sets in. The newness of the day is gone and the day now seems to drag on and cannot end fast enough. The eyes are heavy and one longs to sleep. Yes, the noonday devil is upon us.

And this noonday devil which besets us is also a symbol  of the discouragement that often sets in when one has embarked on a vocation or spiritual path that is no longer new, and now requires the daily work which may no longer thrill. Early afternoon in ones vocational or spiritual walk is a dangerous and tempting time.

One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus (A. D. 345-399) writes as follows:

The demon of acedia (sloth), also called the “noonday demon,” is the most oppressive of all demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour and besieges his soul until the eighth hour….He makes the sun appear sluggish and immobile as if the day had fifty hours…. Moreover the demon sends him hatred against the place…. and makes him think he has lost the love…. and stirs the monk to long for different places…and to flee from the race-course. (On Eight Evil Thoughts, Acedia)

A pretty clear description of the kind of temptation besets many, both in their vocations and in their Christian walk.

Beware of sloth, beware of the noonday devil. See it for what it is; name it; know its moves. Understand too, that the noonday devil manifests for only a time. If one will persevere through the midday hours of life and the Christian walk, one will also find that the noonday devil eventually departs, as one settles in to a proper and steady rhythm of the Christian walk or vocation.

However mystifying, disconcerting, and discouraging the noonday devil may seem, most who are able to persevere are glad they did, and that they stayed the course.

Always remember, the devil is a liar. Life cannot be and should not be thrilling at every moment, or lived at a 1000 miles an hour. Such a pace and intensity cannot be maintained. Slow, steady and organic growth is ultimately what is best for the human person.

Stay the course and ignore the noonday devil who taps into the subtleties of the wound in our soul called the deadly sin of sloth. Presuming that one has properly discerned the Christian walk and particular vocation, one should trust in the Lord and stay the course.

Whatever the emotional state steady as you go, Age quod agis – Do what you are doing! Rebuke the noonday devil in the Name of Jesus.

20 Replies to “On Sloth and the Noonday Devil”

  1. I wrote this up for my own benefit a bit ago so I don’t mind sharing if anyone might benefit.

    pigritia seu acedia — sloth and acedia: laziness of the body, mind and spirit, which ultimately leads one to reject a God whom one has never attempted to know, love and serve, and thus leads one into despair, which is itself a sin.
    Associated demon prince: Belphegor

    Inverse corresponding virtue: diligence

    This vice is destroyed by our dear Lord on the Cross by one of the Seven Holy Wounds: the Feet which traversed the holy land, exerting hard labor on behalf of man.

    7 Turn back, O my soul, to thy rest, For the LORD hath conferred benefits on thee.
    8 For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from falling.
    9 I walk habitually before the LORD in the lands of the living.
    10 I have believed, for I speak, I — I have been afflicted greatly.
    11 I said in my haste, `Every man [is] a liar.’
    12 What do I return to the LORD? All His benefits [are] upon me.
    13 The chalice of salvation I lift up, And in the name of the LORD I call.
    14 My vows to The LORD let me complete, I pray you, before all His people.
    15 Precious in the eyes of The LORD [is] the death for His saints.
    16 Cause [it] to come, O The LORD, for I [am] Thy servant. I [am] Thy servant, son of Thy handmaid, Thou hast opened my bonds.
    17 To Thee I sacrifice a sacrifice of thanks, And in the name of The LORD I call.
    18 My vows to The LORD let me complete, I pray you, before all His people,
    19 In the courts of the house of The LORD, In thy midst, O Jerusalem, praise ye the LORD!
    –Psalm 116 (numbered according to some translations)

    This vice is also destroyed by one of our dear Mother’s Seven Sorrows: the flight to Egypt, wherein the feet of the Holy Family wearily made their way back into Egypt, only to be called forth again.

    14 Therefore, lo, I am enticing her, and have caused her to go to the wilderness, and I have spoken unto her heart,
    15 And given to her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor [near Jerusalem] for an opening of hope, and she shall sing there as in the days of her youth, and as in the day of her coming up out of the land of Egypt.
    16 And it hath come to pass, in that day, an affirmation of the LORD, thou dost call Me — my husband, and dost not call Me any more — my master.
    –Hosea 2

  2. Wow, this text, Monsignor, seems just written for me today, both for working and loving reasons. Thank you!

    Pope Benedict says that the devil is never clumsy, but a refinate deceiver.

  3. I wonder if the Noonday Devil strikes between the hours of noon and three the better to distract us from contemplating the three hours of the Crucifixion?

    1. wow, what a good observation…….I would have never thought of that. I really must pay more attention
      to what is going on around me, and the time. thank you for that. may God have mercy on us all.

  4. Thank you, Monsignor, for writing on this subject. I think it is important, and one of those things that people can struggle with without having a name for it, so being familiar with the accumulated spiritual wisdom about it can be invaluable. I have also heard of its being confused with depression, and read that, whereas depression is not a sin, acedia is — I suppose that would be because one has, at some level, a choice about whether or not to fall into it?

  5. And I was thinking it might be an age related low testosterone level. But just because we can raise the level, the question is should we?

  6. Thank you for this holy insight. I find it applicable also to the “noonday devil” of midlife.

    “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
    ― Saint Paul

  7. I have been attending noontime Mass for about the last 6 months. It has helped, although quite slowly, with the daily temptations in my life. A good way to break up the day and rejuvenate the spirit.

  8. This reminds me of the old Marriage Encounter teaching on Romance, Disillusionment, and Joy. If more couples would remember that disillusionment is a given, that we all have to face the reality of the day to day, then eventually our diligence and patience will give way to joy.

  9. Msgr,

    A fantastic book on this is Kathleen Norris’s ‘Acedia and Me’. It’s very edifying and makes a convincing point that Acedia underlies our entire culture.

    Prayers for your ministry!

  10. A “Second the Motion” on Ryan’s suggestion concerning Kathleen Norris’ book. She clearly reveals the parallel symptons of acedia and some forms of depression, an insight helpful to families and therapists. The two need to be distinguished lest one be present and remain untreated… a potential for tragedy.

  11. Giving up sugar can help with the “noonday devil.” The blood sugar dips between noon and 3pm. Sugar makes it worse. It can take years to get over sugar, but it’s worth it. To really get it out of your system, you also have to temporarily give up alcohol, yeast and fermented products, as in excess, these do the same thing as sugar.

      1. Msgr. Pope, I respectfully disagree-it seems, to me, Clare is getting the point quite clearly, and is simply giving some advice for not aggravating the symptoms of one version of acedia.

          1. Msgr. Pope, you are right that there is more to it than just sugar. Going to confession weekly helps just as much as giving up sugar. I was working on this issue even before I was Catholic (and I gave up sugar before I was Catholic) and that was the best I could do without the grace of the sacraments. It helped but wasn’t the solution to fix the root problem.

          2. You are welcome. One of the issues with ‘natural religion’ is that they would say the issue is sugar, not the devil. I asked teachers in Eastern traditions how to get over sloth over and over again and I never got a good answer. I am so grateful to the Catholic Church for having practical advice (that works) regarding the problems that we face as creatures.

  12. Please pray for me and my descendants, we are under the acedia attack. Thanks and God Bless you too.

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