Beware the Noonday Demon: The Dark Side of Early Christianity
I came across a bit of black humor in Catherine Nixey’s sobering The Darkening Age, a book describing the Christian destruction of pagan culture in Late Antiquity. Her account is a reminder of a little-known period over sixteen centuries ago when Christianity transformed itself from just another quirky sect among many into an intolerant juggernaut.
Nixey shows that Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries often resembled ISIS and the Taliban more than any Sermon on the Mount-inspired followers of Christ. Once Christians gained power, many became hateful zealots who lynched pagan philosophers, destroyed pagan art as obscene, and burned by the thousands those books deemed demonic and hostile to Christian dogmas.
In this world of burning spiritual fervor, the idea that demons existed was a given. The early church leaders saw them everywhere. In this bizarre version of reality, diabolical spirits were continually intervening in human affairs to undermine our efforts to achieve salvation. These were not just metaphorical demons but actual, existing, evil spirits hell-bent on our damnation.
Imagine every naughty erotic fantasy in your head: demons.
Every urge to eat another piece of cake: demons.
Or drink a glass of wine: demons.
Even the urge to laugh out loud at something funny, yes, even humor: demons.
And what is the narrow path to salvation, you might ask? What might that be?
Peace, love, charity, and humility?
Well, no, not really, or at least not in practice. Renunciation of everything that brought pleasure became the only path to Christian virtue. What felt good was bad. What felt bad was good. Here we find a psychological landscape turned upside down.
One fascinating text from this era is an obscure advice book written by Evagrius called the Praktikos. In it, he offered a series of lessons for aspiring monks to help them adjust to the rigors of monastic life. Really, though, it comes across as little more than a dour list of life-hating buzzkill to the modern reader. Suffering, the more, the better, is the key to eternal salvation. On the other hand, joy and pleasure are the roads to perdition.
Remember, this was in the early years of monasticism. These monks were not living in the comfortable monasteries of the later Middle Ages, cultivating vineyards and brewing beer. These guys lived in dank, gloomy cells in the scorching Egyptian desert with nothing to do but pray, chant, and do grinding manual labor in a neverending cycle of lonely misery. According to Evagrius, the most fearsome demon the monks faced was none other than the dreaded Noonday Demon.
So who was that?
Well, here’s that bit of black humor. Suppose you’ve ever worked in a soul-sucking job that you hate, one where time seems to move at a glacial pace during the workday. In that case, you will already be well-acquainted with the Noonday Demon.
From the Praktikos by Evagrius
 The Demon of Acedia, which is also called the Noonday Demon, is the most burdensome of all the demons. It besets the monk at about the fourth hour (10 am) of the morning, encircling his soul until about the eighth hour (2 pm). First, it makes the sun appear to slow down or stop, so the day seems to be fifty hours long.
 Then it forces the monk to keep looking out the window and rush from his cell to observe the sun in order to see how much longer it is to the ninth [hour, i.e., 3 pm], and to look about in every direction in case any of the brothers are there.
 Then it assails him with hatred of his place, his way of life, and the work of his hands; that love has departed from the brethren and there is no one to console him.
 If anyone has recently caused the monk grief the demon adds this as well to amplify his hatred of these things.
 It makes him desire other places where he can easily find all that he needs and practice an easier, more convenient craft. After all, pleasing the Lord is not dependent on geography, the demon adds; God is to be worshiped everywhere.
 It joins to this the remembrance of the monk’s family and his previous way of life, and suggests to him that he still has a long time to live, raising up before his eyes a vision of how burdensome the ascetic life is. So, it employs, as they say, every [possible] means to move the monk to abandon his cell and give up the race.
One can sense in this description, especially the last one, a life of self-imposed unhappiness. Why else this need to counsel monks suffering from demon-induced ennui? Grinding boredom, loneliness, and reasonable doubts about the practical wisdom of monastic life were the whispers of a demon trying to lead good men away from God. The stakes couldn't be higher. If they succumbed to this demon, the price would be an eternity in Hell. This was a brilliant way to keep the flock in line.
But to me the demon sounds like our basic humanity. It's the will to live crying out in pain, trying desperately to squirm free from beliefs and practices utterly abhorrent to human flourishing. Life wants to thrive, and our human nature leads us in that direction.
Phantasmagorical nonsense like that preached by Evagrius created immeasurable suffering for little more than pathological fantasies.
These vampires of well-being peddled masochism masquerading as virtue, convincing millions of well-meaning but gullible souls that their humanity was something to be reviled. The only way to avoid eternal damnation in warped minds such as these was this degrading form of holy nihilism.
In any case, consider yourself warned: beware of the Noonday Demon!
He’ll get you if you let him.
Then again, maybe those demons are angels trying to set you free.
It's all a matter of how you look at it.