The Devil at Noon

A monastery is an eschatological community of celibate solitaries, as paradoxical as the notion of a "community of solitaries" may sound.

 The Christian eremitic tradition--that is, the tradition "of or pertaining to hermits," which is to say "solitaries"--talks about what it sometimes calls "the devil that prowls at noon." 

            "Noon" in the old Christian monastic-eremitic tradition was not the noon of today. The word noon actually comes from a Latin root that means "ninth." The monastic "noon hour" was actually the ninth hour of the total of twelve into which the period of daylight was divided, as the hours of the night were also divided. So monastic "noon" corresponded roughly to our 3:00 p.m., and the "noonday devil," that "devil that prowls at noon," was the one that most often visited the solitary monks in their hermit cells mid-afternoon, by our modern time-reckoning. 

That is the time in the monastic day when one's daily chores are done for a while, and all that one has left to "do" to while away the time that remains till evening and the renewed activity—or simply escape into sleep—it brings is to sit in one's cell and, in short, listen to the sounds of silence.

Hermits’ cells in the desert.

Hermits’ cells in the desert.

The ancient monastic tradition names the "noonday" devil who prowls in the silence of one's inactivity in one's cell at that hour "acedia." 

Various English translations of that word have been suggested over the centuries. One is enshrined in common lists of what are most often called "the seven deadly sins," lists that themselves come from the same tradition as does that ancient word. In English versions of such lists, acedia if often translated as "sloth."

Another old translation used an English word that is probably better used to mean what, at the beginning of the tradition that gave us the standard list of "seven deadly sins," had often been counted as an eighth such "sin." That is the English word depression.

However, the translation that I have long preferred myself is neither sloth nor depression. Rather, it is boredom.

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What could be more boring than being alone in some hermit's cell in the middle of some vast wilderness, with nothing left to do to divert oneself any longer, the long hours of the afternoon spreading out endlessly before one? The boredom would just bore into one, as it were, hollowing one out.

Nothing could be more boring, surely. 

Unless, perhaps, it is being held alone in solitary confinement in a prison somewhere, as Kevin Cooper, for example, has been confined now for more than thirty years in San Quentin State Penitentiary of California, or Jimmy Santiago Baca was confined for so many years in the Arizona State Prison at Yuma. 

Perhaps the crippling boredom of being held in such solitary confinement in a prison cell would indeed exceed that of confining oneself to a hermit's cell deep in some wilderness, since there is no daily break in that prison-cell’s boredom for engaging in daily work or other activity..

That is worth some thought, at any rate.

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Our natural reaction to boredom, that noonday devil, is to flee from it immediately in any direction we can. We flee by "occupying" ourselves with whatever might happen to be handy for that purpose at such noontimes, at whatever hour of the clock they may occur. We reach for any diversion available.

Watching mindless drivel on TV is good for the purpose (maybe old episodes of Captain Kangaroo). Smoking and drinking are good too, either instead of, or along with the TV. So is tweeting, texting, checking, posting, and generally "keeping up" via computer or cell-phone with whatever is current on the so called social media--which, of course, would more accurately be called anti-social media, since all these means that supposedly are there for "making connections" actually are far more likely to dis-connect us.

Absent any handy televisions, radios, cell-phones, or other such mechanical/digital devices, of course, we can always just drift off into daydreams, with or without accompanying masturbation and/or other physical self-stimulation.

What all such devices of diversion, whether mechanical or mental, are set to divert or disconnect us from is, above all, ourselves. That is the heart of what we experience as the dreadful threat from which the devil of boredom falsely promises to deliver us, tempting us with such furious pursuit of diversion.

What, after all, could be more terrifying? What could be more threatening than the prospect of no longer having anywhere to hide, anywhere to flee to, to escape having to face oneself?

Who would not take the bait of diversion in order to escape such a horror?