St. Evagrius of Pontus and Redeeming Time in Postmodernity

The following is a guest post by Matthew Tan. Matthew is a Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College Australia. Currently he is a Visiting Professor in Catholic Studies and a Research Fellow at the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.

Matthew is also the editor of the theological blog “the Divine Wedgie” (divinewedgie.Blogspot.com). His book Justice, Unity & the Hidden Christ: the Theopolitics of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II will be published by Pickwick Publications in 2014.

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This piece will consider the challenge of time in postmodernity from a theological standpoint. It extrapolates from the reflections of the American poet Kathleen Norris on the 4th century ascetic, Evagrius of Pontus,[i] arguing that time in postmodernity is a cultural malady rooted in what Evagrius calls the “noonday demon”. The piece will highlight the impact of the “noonday demon”, which has become institutionalised in postmodern culture, and will conclude by showing how a monastic “liturgical time” can act as a corrective to this institutionalisation of the “noonday demon”.

Norris’ reflections on St. Evagrius are written in a chapter of The Cloister Walk called “Acedia” (which is translated to mean “the absence of care”). The centrepiece of her chapter is a passage of St. Evagrius’ most famous work, the Praktikos. In it, Evagrius spoke of a “noonday demon”, a reference to Psalm 90:6 which refers to “the destruction that lays waste at noonday”. He regarded the noonday demon as “the most important of all the demons”, striking from the fourth hour (our 10am) and “besieging the soul till the eighth (our 2pm)”. At the start of the attack, the demon gives its victim “the impression that the sun is very slow in its course, even immobile and that the day is fifty hours long”. One is given the impression that at the start of the attack, time stands still. Evagrius notes that when that happens, the monk sees before him his life “stretching out for a long period of time”, and sees ahead his life as a “toil of ascetic struggle”. The monk is then driven to “constantly…examine the sun to see whether the ninth hour (lunchtime) approaches”. In that wait for the ninth hour, the monk is driven to “look in all directions…[and] hate the place where he finds himself, his type of life and the work of his hands”. The demon will say to the monk that “there is no charity among his brethren and that he cannot count on anyone”.  One can already see that, for Evagrius, the noonday demon is has social ramifications, and Norris ties the noonday demon to her chapter’s heading, Acedia, in such a way as to have cultural ramifications as well. Norris writes that when the demon strikes and the day is stretched out before you, “whatever I am doing, indeed my entire life of ‘doings’, is not only meaningless but utterly useless”.

The Praktikos is useful in considering our contemporary cultural situation, for modernity and postmodernity have more parallels to the noonday demon than meets the eye. Indeed both cultures manifest the demon’s institutionalisation. Consider Evagrius’ notion of time standing still in contemporary clock-time. At first glance this may be counter-intuitive, for clock-time is premised upon a procession of one moment to another. However, this seeming difference glosses over a profound similarity with the noontime demon, for Clock-time is a quantifiable perception of time, that renders time into a unit of scientific measure. This in turn requires turning time into what Walter Benjamin calls “homogeneous, empty time” -[ii] homogeneous because scientific measurements require all units of measure to be absolutely identical to one another, and empty because consistency is best assured by striping these units of time of any substantive content. Thus, the kind of time you can set your watch to has to be such that each moment has to be made to pass by and pass away, which can only be done if the moment had no significance in and of itself.[iii] Thus, while contemporary clock time is characterised by march of moments, it is a march of the same type of moment, with that same type of moment brought before you over and over again. When moments become homogenised, the procession of those moments has no inherent end in sight. The effect of clock-time is the same as that of the noonday demon, and this applies to both Modern and postmodern notions of time for, according to Scott Bader-Saye, the “homogonous empty time ushered in by the modern era continues to reign supreme” in postmodernity.[iv]

When time becomes defined by an endless string of moments, what becomes denied is the possibility of radical transformation, what Walter Benjamin calls a “Messianic cessation of happening”.[v] Things are always the way they are, and things will always be the way they are. There is a despair that becomes particularly acute when you consider that in postmodernity, the essentially modern search continues for individual security. There is a hyper-emphasis on the isolated monad, which heightens the sense that social relations are, as Daniel M. Bell observes, merely relations of “combat and sheer assertion”.[vi] This observation echoes the final reflection from St. Evagrius on the attack of the noonday demon – for there is no help from the brethren, indeed, there is no brethren from whom to seek help. According to Catherine Pickstock, these relations of combat instil in the individual an urge to obtain some security over his circumstances, which she calls the “stockpiling of the present”.[vii] However, what the stockpiling of the present entails is the freezing of one’s life in a single secure moment – a commodification of time that finds its cultural outlet in the consumption of material commodities. This freezing of a single secure moment makes one come full circle to the problem to begin with, the first stage of the attack of the noonday demon.

Time in postmodernity may seem hopelessly lost, but The Cloister Walk does suggest a corrective to this malaise. In a chapter entitled “Noon”, Norris remarked that in the face of the noonday demon’s attacks, she found the only answer was to “sit at noon, in the monastery choir, and let the bells of the Angelus wash over me”.[viii] For Norris, the only response to the noontime demon was immersion into the practices of the Liturgy of the Hours. At first glance, this might seem counter-intuitive. The Liturgy of the Hours follows a rhythmic calendar with an array of textual cycles. How this liturgical pattern of repetition can be a correction to post/modern time, that is also characterised by a pattern of repetition, would strike us as curious. However, under the similarities at the surface, liturgical time properly conceived is actually substantially different from clock-time. Because of this, monastic liturgical practice can bear the possibility of redeeming clock time.

The first point to consider is the relationship between time and content. Recall that both modern and postmodern time requires stripping time of any significance. Liturgical time, by contrast, in following a liturgical calendar, actually fills the time with meaning. In parts of the liturgical calendar that celebrate the feast of a saint, the day is marked by a commemoration of that saint’s actions. In the liturgical calendar, the hours do not pass without marking it with an aspect of that person’s life. The logic then transposes itself into the days when the life of a canonised saint is not celebrated, the so-called ordinary time. In this “ordinary time”, the calendar becomes marked by the life of the person praying the psalm in the choir stall, the present-day saint. The psalms are thus not disconnected bits of poetry disengaged from the life of the person singing the psalm. Rather, they give articulation to the range of human experience and emotion. Joy, bitterness, lethargy, anger, lamentation, vengeance, love, thanksgiving, all the minutiae of the saint’s life find articulation in the psalms that constitute the liturgy of the hours. The time of that life becomes infused with meaning, rather than be vacuated of it.

There is also the relationship between time and agency to consider. In the modern and postmodern context, the ability to measure clock time presumes one to be in control of history. By contrast, liturgical time presumes that the Master of history is not humanity but God. The Psalms presume that God is supposed to act in that world, or is responsible for that emotion. If one experiences tragedy, it is because God has not acted in that tragedy, if one experiences joy, it is because God has provided that joy. The person at prayer in the Liturgy of the hours is constantly waiting for the Lord of history to act in history. In waiting for God to enter history, the person at prayer is not just waiting for a person to enter history, but also a kind of time to enter history. As opposed to the Kronos of clock time, the entry of God is the entry of a Kairos, an appointed time, within history. As opposed to the homogenisation of Kronos, the Kairos constitutes a radical individuation. God’s time is a time that has become individuated. One moment is fundamentally different from every one that came before and after it.

The liturgical standpoint then cannot help but be a disruption to the smooth surface of modern and postmodern culture, a culture that provides a false individuation by providing varieties of fundamentally the same thing. There has to be further reflection on the contours of the practices that can build on this liturgical foundation, but hopefully this piece has provided a helpful starting point.


[i]
        The Cloister Walk (NY: Riverhead, 1996).

[ii]
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (NY: Schocken Books, 1968), 263–4.

[iii]
Robert Gibbs, “Eternity in History: Rolling the Scroll,” in Liturgy, Time and the Politics of Redemption, ed. Randi Rashkover and C. C. Pecknold (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 128.

[iv]
Scott Bader-Saye, “Figuring Time: Providence and Politics,” in Liturgy, Time and the Politics of Redemption, ed. Randi Rashkover Pecknold and C.C (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 95.

[v]
Benjamin, Illuminations, 263.

[vi]
Daniel M. Bell Jr, “Only Jesus Saves: Towards a Theopolitical Ontology of Judgement,” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate, ed. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 202.

[vii]
Catherine Pickstock, “The Sacred Polis: Language As Synactic Event,” Literature & Theology 8(4) (1994): 367–83.

[viii]
Norris, The Cloister Walk, 139.

  • http://camostar.wordpress.com/ Camo Star

    “All streams flow to the but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they continue to flow” (Ecc 1:7). I think the above reference is supposed to be Psalm 91:6 too?

  • Bryne Lewis

    Simone Weil also wrote compellingly about the modern experience of time associated with industrialization and mechanization. I am less convinced that the clock is the culprit. Rather, I think we suffer the loss of expectations assigned to certain activities or practices. Like Heidegger’s boring book. If that’s the case, then content is not only an insufficient remedy, but may be more susceptible to failure.