Demon of the Noonday
With each swing of his hammer, a blacksmith hits precisely where he wants. It is an art nearly as old as history and profound for being so rudimentary. A smith begins with a lump of raw, black iron. With fire and the strength of the arm, he pounds that iron into something beautiful. One day, as he was going about his routine, blacksmithing came to the mind of St. Anthony. He was a hermit who lived in the desert. Some pilgrims were with him and asked for advice about the spiritual life. The hermit responded with this illustration:
“Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
How intentional are we about our spiritual life? We are often intention about everything else. We set goals for dieting, for earning more money, or for balancing our schedule around our jobs and hobbies. Are we as equally intentional in our spiritual life? Are we deliberate in the only real work that we have to do, to garden our souls?
Today is the first day of Pre-Lent. Lent is around the corner, so now is the time to get ready. Lent is the most critical of all seasons in the year. So our gospel reading take us to the Parable of the Hired Laborers. A landowner goes out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. He finds a handful of men and women and hires them at the usual daily wage. Later in the morning, he goes out again to find more labourers, and again around noon, in the mid-day and finally in the evening. At the end of the day, the landowner pays each the daily wage (Matt. 20:1-16). Christ is the landowner. Your soul is the vineyard. If you are an athlete preparing for a marathon, you have to start weeks in advance. You need to buy your clothes and supplies, as well as to begin training. Now, we have the time to draw up our plan. How are we going to spend Lent?
The Epistle to the Hebrews gives us a hint. “Therefore, we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (2:1). This letter is so rich. You get the sense that it was written to a modern audience. It was written, in fact, to Christians who had lost their first love. They converted with fervor, but then the path got rough. Their brothers, sisters, parents, and even spouses began to reject them for their convictions. So they were tempted to turn back or, perhaps, to water down the faith. Cannot we relate?
Christianity is not popular anymore. Orthodoxy is so counter culture. In an era when anything goes, it is hard to submit to something bigger than us. In a time when it is so easy to run away as soon as things get hard, it is hard sticking through with anything, let alone something that requires a life, a whole life, revolving around the church. It gets old explaining to families and peers why missing Mass on Sundays or major feast day is non-negotiable, or why we cannot eat meat on Fridays. Life has so many distractions and comforts. A path of contemplation, confession, forgiveness, and steadfastness is simply inconvenient and unappealing.
So, after urging the Hebrews to take their faith seriously, the epistle to the Hebrews writes: “We must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation” (2:2-3)? This little phrase, “Drift away,” is paramount. It is a nautical term. It was used to describe a boat that was not properly latched to a dock. As soon as the waters got rough, the boat snapped off and drifted to the torrents. A little negligence leads to total destruction. Are our souls properly latched to Christ? What practical, daily habits are we building to fasten our hearts on God?
My son is fascinated with ogres. Somehow, in his mind, he has associated an ogre with true wickedness. If you wander off the path or away from mom and dad, you can be sure you will be taken by an ogre. To my surprise, whenever he fails to refrain from his more devious nature, he excuses it by imagining that he is an ogre. The other day he came running to me and scratched me on my face. It hurt! I asked him to explain himself. He replied calmly, “Papa, I was a bad ogre.”
What are the ogres in our Christian life? They are not what we’d think, the “big sins,” adultery, murder, theft…The real ogre is apathy, indifference, sluggishness, unconcern, forgetfulness… The psalms call this the “noonday demon,” the ‘Míketev yáshud tsohórayim’ (in Hebrew) the ‘destruction that despoils in the midday.’ The Church Fathers describe it with a Greek word, ‘acédia,’ spiritual sloth, a simple not caring. That is the ogre that “despoils in the noonday,” when we are sleeping. Every “big sin” is merely a symptom of something deeper. We let ourselves get off guard. We did not fasten the rope, and when the waters rose the boat toppled over.
Hebrews goes on: "Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet" (12:12-13). “Lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1). What is the weight? It is the ‘Míketev yáshud tsohórayim,’ the ogre of the noonday, the spirit of sluggishness, indifference, and just plain not caring.
This is why it is so crucial how we prepare for Lent. Do you remember the letter to the Laodiceans in John’s revelation? We Americans would do well to take this to heart:
“‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’” (Rev. 3:15-22).
God asks us to live intentionally. Spirituality is not anything lofty and ethereal. It is always right in front of our noses. Spirituality boils down to habits, being intentional, deliberate, about our daily habits. What habits do we need to form in Lent? What habits do we want to become the foundation of our life? The blacksmith sets to work with a specific intention. Our work is no different. We should search out in our hearts and in our weeks whatever it is preventing us from intimacy with God?
In a book called, Living Into Focus, Arthur Boers talks about habits. He observers: “Muscles are hard to get and easy to lose. Fat is easy to get and hard to lose.” It is easy to get addicted to television and surfing the internet. Scripture reading or daily prayer is not as so addictive. It is hard to build healthy habits. So he suggests four steps: “First, initiate new habits with determined commitment. Second, do not allow exceptions to habits until the habits are firmly established. Third, never hesitate to practice the habit that you have chosen. Fourth, do small things every day to remind you of this habit’s priority (193).” Can we go about our Lent in this same way? We are all laborers in the field. Our Gospel today invites us to get ready. Lent is on us. The field is ready for labor.
Our parable gives us one final bit of advice. God gives you work to do. He does not ask you to worry about the work of others. In the end, he gave to each the reward they had agreed on. Yet a few were not content. They poked around to see what others had done and gotten, and walked away angry and bitter. What a trap! Too often, on our journey as Christians, we get caught up in the lives of people around us. That is not our work. Simply keep your head down and do your job. Wisely, the Epistle to the Hebrews concludes: “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).