Date: February 28, 2021
Bible Text: Ecclesiastes 2:1-26, Mark 8:31-38 | Bailey Pickens
I was reflecting recently on last summer, which I—and I sure do hope it’s been long enough that I can admit this and people will say “oh yeah me too” and not “what is wrong with her”—which I do not remember.
I think this is probably because of the pervasive and unrelievable stress of a slow-moving catastrophe… and because, very suddenly, my world shrank to the dimensions of our apartment and all of the things I was accustomed to doing—preaching and presiding at the Lord’s Table, meeting people for lunch, facilitating groups, going to campus to see students, running errands—were out of reach. It was not safe to go inside anywhere, and it was too hot to go outside for its own sake. I lost both habit and the feeling of purpose I had had in walking out my front door to go do things in the world.
Now there’s a difference between forced isolation because of pestilence and the vocation of a desert solitary. Monks, at least, in theory, chose to go into the desert. They fled cities to avoid the temptations of wealth and ease, frequently inspired by Jesus’ command to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor… and follow me.” They lived in villages or colonies of solitary huts or “cells,” far enough from each other not to be distracting, sometimes even out of sight and earshot of each other. They spent their days in solitary prayer and physical labor, seeing other monks only occasionally for corporate prayer and worship. And many new monks were rudely awakened by the difficulty of desert life and did not stay. It was lonely, frustrating, difficult, physically uncomfortable, boring, and sometimes intolerable. We know this because there’s lots of advice for monks that’s been preserved, and the monks say so themselves.
Evagrius of Pontus, the solitary I’ve been thinking with for this week, was born in the middle of the fourth century in north-central Turkey. He ended up in the desert instead of a city church because he got very sick and Melania the Elder, a holy woman and patron of monks, told him he had to stop strutting around Constantinople and go to Egypt instead. He spilled a lot of ink on the spiritual struggles of solitary monks, writing about the eight kinds of bad thoughts that plagued and distracted them. Evagrius understood these thoughts as demons that constantly harassed anyone trying to pray or be holy. Those eight demons, or kinds of thoughts, were gluttony, impurity, greed, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Of these eight, vainglory was the most subtle, anger the most fierce, and pride the most spiritually destructive, but the most problematic Evagrius understood to be acedia, which he describes like this—listen and see if any of it sounds familiar to you:
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 (that is, midmorning to midafternoon). 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, the gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour (that’s 3pm and dinnertime), to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps… (there will be someone to distract him). 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 the monk in some way or another, 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 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.
All a solitary did was pray, work, pray, work. They ate what they had, not what they wanted. They didn’t see people. They didn’t leave their cells. They didn’t leave anything behind them when they died, and no one would notice they’d died at all unless they happened to visit or realize that they weren’t at church. What was the point of any of that? It was a ready mark for acedia.
But “What’s the point of any of this” is hardly a new question. Ecclesiastes describes the struggles of a wise and wealthy teacher (traditionally King Solomon) to find meaning in what human beings can do. He tries hedonism, he tries great building projects; but nothing. No meaning to be found. What was the point of making anything, if it just went into another’s hands once you died? What was the point of being wise or productive if you died anyway? “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me,” he writes. Whether you’re an ascetic monk living alone in the wilderness or a rich and powerful ruler with vineyards and palaces to your name—or whether you’re a regular person who has had their life upended and their normal paths to meaning cut off—hatred of your life and conviction of the meaninglessness of what you do is always ready to hand. Acedia is nothing if not a constant companion.
We’ve all learned, explicitly or implicitly, ways to assign meaning to our actions or our lives. It’s meaningful if it makes another person happy. It’s meaningful if you get money for it. It’s meaningful if it creates a change you can see. It’s meaningful if it’s recognized by other people. It’s meaningful if you enjoy it. It’s meaningful if it accomplishes something outside of you. It’s meaningful if it accomplishes something inside of you. It’s meaningful if it lasts beyond your death. It’s meaningful if, if, if. I know you have predicates to this “if.” Consider: What is it that makes something meaningful, the opposite of pointless, for you? What does something have to be in order to not be a waste of your time, or not worth doing?
Peter is hit hard with such a question of meaning, or pointfulness, in this gospel portion. Immediately before this passage, he has correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah. And yet, when Jesus begins explaining what it is that the Messiah has to do, Peter cannot stand it. He scolds Jesus, only to have Jesus scold him back. “You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Your way of measuring what’s worth doing, where the point of something lies, is entirely out of whack. Peter wanted, we can imagine, a Messiah who looked and acted like a Messiah should, who got stuff done. He could not imagine a Messiah whose work looked like humiliation or sacrifice. But that’s the Messiah he got.
When Jesus says that, if we want to save our lives, we have to be willing to give them up, to take a cross on our shoulders and follow him even to Golgotha, he is inviting us to more than one kind of death. Perhaps we will follow him even to death at the hands of the world; but if we are to follow him at all, it has to mean death for the ways we have lived, measured, valued, assigned worth. And we are extraordinarily resistant to letting those things die. Hasn’t this country spent most of the last year trying to get on as though there were no pandemic? Haven’t we all scrambled to find ways to keep working, keep producing, keep profiting, even as those things became increasingly impossible? Haven’t we struggled to prevent any kind of deep reckoning with the way our society is set up? We don’t want a cross; we don’t want to put the ways of the world, which are our ways, on it and accept Jesus’ accounting instead.
But has any of this saved us from acedia? Has our push for “normal” work, “normal” school, “normal” productivity, “normal” recreation saved us from melancholy, hopelessness, from the creeping suspicion that no one cares and nothing is worth doing? Perhaps it has saved you; but it has not saved me. It did not save the Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes. It did not save Peter. It doesn’t save. Jesus does.
God made us and Jesus calls us. Ephesians says that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” This is the good toil, the labor in which we can find joy and reward, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes finally recommends. The question of what is worth doing comes down not to productivity or accomplishment, but to following Christ, living in the world in humility and love for neighbor, valuing as Christ values, not fearing scarcity but embracing sacrifice for the benefit of those whom God loves. And that—living in humility, love, and willing sacrifice—can look like almost anything. It can look like caring for your family. It can look like knowing your neighbors, so that they can come to you if they have need. It can look like growing things, cooking things, making things. It may look like your daily work. If the center of your life is Christ, if your shoulders are willing to bear the cross, your whole life can be prayer. Your life is meaningful, your actions are meaningful, because God made you, in Christ, to walk in goodness. You don’t have to produce meaning for yourself, through effort and force of will, that other people will see. Your life has meaning because God gave it to you.
The practice I want to invite you to this week is observance and contemplation: turn inward to turn outward. Evagrius advises the monk who wishes to grow in holiness to carefully observe their thoughts and feelings. What troubles and distractions arise to keep them from prayer or work? Does one cause another, or does one always follow another? And then, Evagrius says, “let the monk ask from Christ the explanations of these data he has observed. For the demons become thoroughly infuriated with those who practice active virtue in a manner that is increasingly contemplative.” So try that. Your thoughts and experiences are worth observing and considering; there is meaning to be found in them.
Try to check in with yourself at least once, better twice a day; make a note of what happened and how it felt; ask God to help you understand what you can learn from those experiences. Observe what happens in you, and spread it out in front of Jesus like a book passage you can’t understand yet and ask him to help you read. Try it because there is meaning to be found in whatever the shape of your life is. Try it because it makes the demons furious. Try it because, if you are still searching for what it means to enjoy the work of your hands or to follow Christ, to lose your life in order to gain it, there’s no better way to find the answer than to ask him about it directly. Try it because I want to hear about it before the service next Sunday.
May God make all our struggles fruitful. Amen.
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