Fighting the Noon-Day Demon

Whenever we think about spiritual attack, I think it’s pretty common to assume that it’s something only the most devout endure, that it’s big, bombastic – demons attacking St. Anthony style madness, for instance (see picture below). Too often our minds default to assuming it’s out and out ranged battle, or that we’ll even recognize the attack, and see the enemy, and the lines of discord will be equally and clearly drawn. I wish it were that simple. I really do. I don’t think that’s the norm at all though.

I think- and this holds true for specialists and laity– that when we start committing ourselves to our spiritual work, that when we become increasingly more devout, that as we learn and grow in piety and respect there is often deep resistance, from both within and without. The internal resistance can simply be a matter of our unlearning bad habits and reconditioning ourselves to the habits of devotion, but the external resistance, that’s something quite different. I consider it the Filter or Nameless at work. It’s often subtle – the whisper in the darkness of our minds that urges us toward despair, the niggling thought that snickers impieties in our head, or maybe the push to do…nothing at all. It’s the echoing void of doubt that beckons ever so logically to us, that mocks our efforts in the unguarded corners of our hearts.

The Christian monastic Fathers understood this all too well. I suppose monastic solitude is a terrible and strict teacher. The benefit of their work is that they discussed this seriously and developed various means of countering its effect. Evagrius of Pontus, (345-399 C.E.) for instance wrote about the ‘noon-day demon,’ the personification of acedia. Psalm 91.6 calls it the ‘pestilence that stalks the darkness’ though of course, modern translations tend to elide the personhood of such a thing, preferring, with all the comfort modernity offers, to think of it as a metaphor for a spiritual state, rather than a pernicious being that might cause such a state. I tend to think the Church Fathers had this one right though. And when we expect bombast, when we expect something out of a horror movie, we are left completely unprepared for the reality of what the spiritual life entails.

In the Prologue to Antirrheticus, Evagrius writes: 

“I write of the reasoning nature that fights beneath heaven: first, what it battles against; second; what assists it in the battle; and finally, what the fighter keeping valiant watch must confront.  Those who fight are human beings; those assisting them are the angels of God; and those opposing them are the evil demons.

Failure results not from the enemy’s formidable strength, nor because the protectors are careless: rather, it is because the fighter is unprepared that the knowledge of God vanishes and fails.”

This is as true for us as it was for these antique Christian monks. When we go toward our Gods there is resistance. To restore our traditions is to reorder our world in ways large and small and just as when we cast a stone across a pond, there are ripples and we cannot know the ultimate significance of the smallest acts of devotion which we now do. Personally, I tend to think that the more resistance one faces, the more surety one has that one is on the right track spiritually. That, however, does not make the imposition of acedia any less devastating. It’s not that our Gods and spirits don’t protect us, it’s that we often are moved into such a despairing state spiritually that we cannot sense or hear Them, or trust that They are there. We can become wrapped up in the darkness of our own despair lacking even the motivation to call out to Them for help. (I know that sometimes we must make that first call for aid. We must make that choice to range ourselves on the side of our Gods, to claim for ourselves the order and architecture of Being that They have created and sometimes that seems damned near impossible).

This is also why I struggle with the idea of being a woman of faith. How is it faith when you experience the Gods? What happens when the noonday demon, as the Christians called it, clouds that perception and there is a despair and loneliness deeper than any human being could ever inflict? That is where faith must come in and that is where we are dependent on the grace of our Gods, that we might summon the strength to trust They have our backs.

What is acedia? What is it that this noon-day demon does? It fills us with malaise, with exhaustion, and worse of all with an aversion to the holy, with an aversion toward devotional practices that in the end are the very things that will sustain us. (Later writers such as Bernard of Clairveaux wrote of a sterility of the spirit that renders every spiritual practice barren – that is a powerful description of acedia).

In his Praktikos –(and John Cassian later drew heavily upon this in his own work) Evagrius described the effects of this demon on monks trying to live the monastic life:

“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”

Evagrius offered techniques for combatting acedia, including reading and meditation upon specific Biblical passages. This is less useful for us, but the core of what he was advising is absolutely relevant: maintain your practices. This is also why purification is so incredibly important. Accumulated miasma makes it that much more difficult to maintain any sense of spiritual discernment or clarity and much more likely that we can be infected by this pestilence.

We have tools to fight this: prayer, purification, the rites and rituals of devotion, powerful invocations like the Oration of Aristides. We have, or should, the support of each other, all of us working together to do this thing called devotion. We have the cultivation of art and beauty and those things that ennoble the soul and draw them closer to the Gods. We have our sacred stories of those Gods to inspire us. Most of all, we have the Gods Themselves Who will absolutely guard and gird our spirits against this type of desolation if we are mindful enough and brave enough to turn toward Them when it comes calling.

Finally, I’m reminded of an anecdote I read once about Teresa of Avila, who when the noon-day demon came calling to torment her again, shrugged, laughed with the words ‘you again.’ And went back to work; because in the end, that which we do for our Gods is so much more important than anything that would pull us away.

Otto Dix (1891-1969), 'La tentazione di sant'Antonio II', 1940“Saint Antony Tormented by Demons” by O. Dix

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Posted on March 3, 2018, in Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Good post!

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  2. Interesting post! I really like the ending of the ‘you again’. Now, I understand the concept of being spiritually attacked, but in the case of the monks this ‘acedia’ sounds more like boredom and lethargy similar to that which high school students get in the afternoon hours. The monks had huge days of work back in ‘ye olde days’ (I am not sure which era we are discussing nor am I a specialist in those eras of monkhoods) and wouldn’t this ‘acedia’ just be that particular cocktail of boredom and exhaustion and not a spiritual attack per se? Just curious 🙂

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  3. ganglerisgrove

    No. I believe there is a malicious force behind it, but a collection of miasma makes it that much more difficult for us to have any discernment and opens us up to bottom feeding spirits. It also clouds any spiritual perceptions we might have.

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  4. I would agree with the Filter, which seems to attack everyone including devout Christians. I guess It is hungry and needs to be fed in many ways. With devout Christians, making them doubt what they are doing and forcing them deeper into being devout or at least feeding their fears. With Polytheists, of course, It knows that It won’t be fed and will be denied. So, It doubles down Its efforts.

    I have found that having the habit of daily devotions is one safe guard against It. I have been living with the power being out. However, every day – morning and afternoon, I keep making offerings at my altar and saying my prayers. I felt off when I delayed doing this. So I just did it. I guess that sometimes going through the motions does have value in keeping us trained in focusing on prayers, etc.

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  5. Well written and well timed. Thank you.

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  6. This is very interesting. I know of a lot of lore related to the literal time of noon as being associated with energy currents that are just as eerie and as potentially spiritually threatening as midnight. In my Ifá House there is a belief in a literal demonic type of being that soars overhead at the time of noon, and if one is about to commence a working or a divinatory reading with a Babalawo, all gathered have to pause literally for 60 seconds to allow the demon of noon to pass. Everyone’s heads are bowed to the ground during that pause and all must remain silent; no one wants to attract this being’s attention. In Serbian folklore, agrarian workers tending the fields in the late morning have to take a work break before 12 noon because of a female evil being known as the Poludnitsa–literally “She Who Causes Insanity”–is said to stalk the fields, bringing madness and miasma to anyone in Her sights. She is said to be at the height of her powers in summertime.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Katakhanas, this is fascinating and i am glad you took the time to post. I’m really mulling over this…I didn’t know either one of these customs but I find them very telling.

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  7. Great article! I have encountered the noonday demon and the one that strikes at two in the morning with every doubt or fear or anxiety it can charge up. Once I realized it was not me, but something trying to feed on the emotions it could arouse in me, that made my job of saying, “You again!” that much easier! Truly things to be wary of! And I highly recommend your book on miasma to anyone who would gain a better understanding of these things!

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  8. I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days, generally because I tend to mull over any example a polytheist pulls from Christianity for a while because I distrust Christian sources. (There’s also a part of me that wants to relate what you said above to the recent long-form journalism works on the small percentage of people who have really bad mental health experiences at vipassana meditation retreats.)

    We do have conceptual ideas that are similar when it comes to the Filter/Nameless — I loosely call it “the nothing that ever-hungers” when I write poetry or think about it in a nonfiction/theological sense. I do think that it is not the primary thing at work, even if it may have an important role in amplifying and “hooking in” to preexisting issues. I think that for people devoted to the gods, there are MANY intersectional issues at work here, namely the two below.

    I’m going to emphasize something you mentioned above, which is the importance of purification and maintaining religious practice. Jumping from Christianity and back into the polytheism(s) practiced in areas where polytheists were persecuted and killed after state-backed conversion initiatives started is miasmically fraught — namely because our ancestors are the ones who participated in the cultural revolutions and purges of polytheisms. I wonder if the Christian monks were dealing with that miasmic taint as well, but in a way contextual for their religious practice. For polytheists, this underscores the importance of worshipping goddesses like the Eumenides (hey, I’m coming from Hellenism) and engaging in traditional purification and pacification rituals. Just being a polytheist using recon-like methodologies is not, in my view, enough. There’s also the issue that many social media platforms are designed in ways that amplify anxiety and malaise, which can produce additional miasma and negative emotions that are not conducive to religious practice.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      All good thoughts, Kaye. I’m particularly struck by your comment about Christians dealing with that miasma…yes, quite probably. Lots to chew on here.

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