That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
Kathleen Norris introduced me to a great word: acedia, the noonday demon. I encountered it in her book, The Cloister Walk, but she wrote an entire book about her struggles with acedia. She also calls it soul-weariness. Others call it a dustiness of the heart. In The Cloister Walk, she talks about sitting in high school, realizing that there were countless days ahead of her, countless lunches, and the sense of weariness that overcame her in that moment.
Acedia was well known among the desert fathers and mothers in Egypt. Surprisingly, acedia is not the same thing as sloth. It wasn’t seen as sin, not exactly. It was an aﬄiction, spiritual, even.
Her description sounds like mental illness, the kind of thing that can leave a person in bed for days on end. And likely it is. But it’s an illness that can aﬄict anyone, almost at any time. Norris says it’s like a virus that can attack us when we’re worn down by the vagaries of life.
I recently encountered a popular quote from William McRaven. Whatever else you can say about McRaven, he’s got a cool last name. In a commencement speech at UT in Austin, McRaven said, “If you want to change the world, start oﬀ by making your bed.” Like a lot of bonmots, the actual wording gets changed in the retelling; the superfluous “oﬀ” gets dropped or the end gets to “… begin by making your bed.”
I suppose McRaven means a person should be disciplined if she’s going to transform the world and bed-making begins the day and sets the pattern for what follows. There’s something useful about being structured and disciplined as we go about our days. Personal experience tells me that as I tick oﬀ my to-do lists, as I clean up after myself, as I plan and execute my schedule, I feel pretty good.
McRaven’s advice for combatting acedia is discipline and comes from within the individual. That can be very useful at times. Sometimes, though, that sentiment has been used to honor one kind of personality and shame others. We all know artists whose creating puts bed-making in the back seat, at least for a while, and we celebrate the end result.
Norris prescribes at least two other things for the fight against the noonday demon: silence and love. There is something deeply spiritual about silence. I’ve practiced silence on my own, with believers of various kinds, and even with atheists. Sitting in intentional silence can allow a person to see and hear the sources of his anxiety. That kind of encounter can be terrifying. The shadows of monsters loom large on the walls, but sometimes silence can show us the ways minutiae become monsters. And silence itself, when directed toward those voices of fear, can start to quiet them.
And, of course, love. Love is so commonly spoken that sometimes it loses meaning. Its authority over and under us is diminished. But the Christian call to love still finds meaning, still creates meaning, still undergirds human movement and silence.
Love draws us toward, never away. I used to think of true love as other-directed, so it was a kind of negation of the self, a diminishment of one’s person. But if love is movement toward the other, all of me moves, so love heals both the lover and the beloved, and even recasts the roles. I’m sure most of us have experienced that in odd moments, when the raw connection with another draws us out of the shadows and toward their light.
Of course, all of us have experienced idealized relationships — parent/child, siblings, friends, lovers — that have broken and in turn broken us. That goes without saying. Still, there’s something in us that knows love, the movement toward, can heal and save us and the ones we love.
Especially as we do the things love requires. Love often requires forgiveness and discomfort and even loss. The work, when it forgets love, might even drive us toward acedia, into the arms of the noonday demon.
Maybe that’s where McRaven can be useful. Maybe the discipline of making a bed, or a cup of coﬀee, can work together with the art of silence, of intentionally caring for oneself. The impulse of love is always toward, and the experience of acedia is one of alienation — from the self and from others.
We’re facing a lot of dislocation. Maybe we always have. I can see in how you gather as a church, the pleasure you take in one another, even in the ways you fight without breaking, that love is doing its work. I can see in how you respond to needs around us, in how you respond to solutions that are heavily institutional as well as seat-of-the-pants novel, that love is doing its work. I know that the strange art of following this 2,000 year old story of despair and love, of death and resurrection has been working on you for a long time.
The balancing stone to The Preacher’s observation that there’s nothing new under the sun is from the book of Revelation: “And he that sat upon the throne said, behold, I make all things new.” Love renews, it restores, it transforms. As old as it is, as trite as it can seem, love makes al things new.