The Noonday Devil

The ninety-first psalm speaks of “the scourge that wreaks havoc at high noon.” It also expresses confidence in God’s protection from that scourge, as well as other evils. Based on that psalm some spiritual writers speak of the “Noonday Devil.” The Noonday Devil stands for the trials and temptations that assail us after our youthful fervor has faded and before we reach the age of peace and resignation.

There are temptations peculiar to that in-between period — fear, guilt, lack of fervor, loss of conviction, discouragement. And that period may be very lengthy. The boundaries are not well defined. It is more a question of a mental or emotional state than of chronology. That peace and resignation of old age may well prove elusive and we may struggle to attain it for a long time.

Bernard Basset, in a little book entitled The Noonday Devil, speaks of various fears to which we may be subject: fear owing to past sins, fear that God will prove stricter than we think, fear that our standards are too low, fear that we will never get things exactly right, fear that we are unprepared for death.

Many of our fears are imaginary and can be safely discarded. We would do well to set aside all fears that are based on the past or on the future. Why? Because such fears are concerned either with facts that cannot be altered or with imaginings that may never see the light of day. We cannot change the past, however much we worry about it. We cannot foresee the future with certainty. The second-worst thing about such fears (fears based on the past and on the future) is that they are useless. The worst thing about them is that they can be damaging to our peace of mind and our spiritual well-being.

Among the things that are commonly experienced in one’s later years are feelings of guilt and regret over past failures. We become more conscious of our sinfulness. Sins from long ago surface anew in our memory. We may experience the anguish of feeling unable to pray and of our sins seeming to multiply and overwhelm us. This is very discouraging, even frightening, but it is not necessarily bad.

St. John of the Cross has said that one of the surest signs of interior growth, of progress in prayer, is a growing awareness of our own sinfulness. An example of this is the phenomenon of saints speaking of themselves as the world’s greatest sinners. How can that be? Are they serious? We need to understand they are not comparing themselves with others, but expressing their heightened sensitivity to the way God sees us, as sinful but at the same time loved and redeemed.

St. Gregory the Great offered a good analogy to illustrate this idea. He wrote: “The sun turns brown him whom it touches closely; so the Lord when he comes, darkens him whom he touches by his grace, for the closer we come to grace, the more we recognize that we are sinners.”

Everyone is subject to the aforementioned fears. There are other fears to which priests are subject. To put this a bit differently, the Noonday Devil has some distinctive ways of plaguing priests. They relate especially to celibacy, obedience, and faith.

It can be very troubling for priests when they discover that advancing age does not free them from temptations against chastity. A story to illustrate that point: A young priest, greatly troubled by temptation, sought the advice of an elderly priest. He asked, “When can I expect these temptations to cease or at least to become less severe?” The elderly priest replied, “I’d say about seventy-five.” A week later the elderly priest called and said, “Make that seventy-six!” The elderly priest would do well to also remind the young priest of that reassuring passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (10:13): “None of the trials which have come upon you is more than a human being can stand. You can trust that God will not let you be put to the test beyond your strength, but with any trial will also provide a way out by enabling you to put up with it.”

Obedience is the second virtue on which the Noonday Devil focuses attention when dealing with priests. In our contemporary culture, in which individual liberty is highly prized, obedience can present a serious challenge. The practice of obedience can become more difficult as one grows older. For the younger person, what is resented is typically the object of a directive or the refusal of a request. It is not so much that someone commands. That is accepted as natural. The real challenge, and consequently, the real opportunity for perfection of obedience, presents itself to a conscience that has already achieved a certain maturity. It is then that the fact of command, more or less independently of the object, is difficult to accept. It is when a person is equal to or above the competent authority (bishop and/or religious superior) in everything: intelligence, experience, work accomplished, everything — except the fact that the other is the lawfully constituted authority, that one must proceed in faith, faith to see what remains hidden from a human point of view, faith to recognize Christ in the person of the authority.

Appropriate as the conclusion of any prayer of petition, the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane is surely appropriate when one is challenged to submit to legitimate authority in obedience. “Let it be as you, not I, would have it” (Mk 14:36).

The third and most dangerous temptation presented by the Noonday Devil relates to faith. With the passing of the years a priest typically begins to realize more fully what faith involves. He learns that scholarship does not always serve to support faith. In fact, current biblical scholarship sometimes seems to undermine what he learned many years ago in his seminary course in Sacred Scripture.

He begins to see more clearly that his faith is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. To believe does not mean there is something fixed and finished which is simply to be perceived and accepted. Faith is not a matter of intellectually assenting to a set of propositions. It is dynamic. It is never fully complete in this life. It must be constantly renewed and nurtured. It is like a trail. The best way to keep a trail open is to walk on it, because every time you walk on it you create it anew. The Noonday Devil knows very well that if faith is not constantly renewed and nurtured it will wither and weaken. Consequently, it is there that the Noonday Devil focuses his attention, i.e., on subverting any efforts to renew and nurture one’s faith.

Challenges to one’s faith can take many forms. There are relatively small challenges, challenges to accept in faith particular difficulties that come into one’s life from time to time. A much greater challenge arises when one reflects on the enormity of evil, of pain, and of suffering in the world, especially of the innocent and of children. How is that compatible with the existence of a loving and powerful God? The alternative to meeting that challenge is atheism or deism.

It is only in the light of faith that we can accept Jesus and his message. Inevitably, however, to turn on a light is to create shadows. Even with the light of faith there are things we do not see, do not understand. It is then that we would do well to emulate the prayer of the man who approached Jesus requesting that his son be cured. When Jesus told him all things are possible for those who have faith, he replied: “I have faith. Help my lack of faith!” (Mk 9:24–25)

Years ago, a commentator on the evening news, Eric Sevareid, made an observation which could be very helpful when one encounters the Noonday Devil. Sevareid stated: “What counts in the long haul of adult life is not brilliance, or charisma, or derring-do, but rather the quality the Romans called gravitas — patience, stamina, weight of judgment. The prime virtue is courage because it makes all other virtues possible.” For a priest, it would be good to add another virtue of still higher importance: the virtue of hope.

Fr. William P. Clark, OMI About Fr. William P. Clark, OMI

Fr. William P. Clark, OMI, earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He took additional coursework at the Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Minnesota. He taught at the Oblate Major Seminary, Lewis University, in Romeoville, Illinois, and at St. Joseph Theological Institute in South Africa. He served as academic vice president at Lewis University, as president at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), as director at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and as director of the Missionary Association. He is currently semi-retired, and doing occasional preaching for parish missions and retreats.

Comments

  1. Rev. John R. Evans says:

    Father, thank you for this! You’ve answered a question that I’ve had for some time now. Why do I think nothing of spending hours before the screen, but when I start to read theology, I feel guilty, like I could be doing some pastoral activity?
    Answer: “The Noonday Devil knows very well that if faith is not constantly renewed and nurtured it will wither and weaken. Consequently, it is there that the Noonday Devil focuses his attention, i.e., on subverting any efforts to renew and nurture one’s faith.”
    My mind is sufficiently blown. Thank you, Father.

  2. An interesting take on the understanding of the noonday evil. It suggests being at the middle of our journey of faith. I look at “the noonday devil “as the most intense spiritual attack. What the Christian believer is faced with is one’s besetting sin. That particular sin that is disguised in all forms :revealing itself in certain habits ,emotional reactions ,dispositions,attitudes that to this point dispicts our character. It is trying to navigate through it all and getting a handle on the noonday devil and why it would attack so intensely is what ought to be our main focus. We ought always to be watchful and at prayer at all times aware of where we are most vulnerable and an easy target for “the noonday devil.”

    Thank you
    Bernadette

  3. Adrian Johnson says:

    Fr Bernard Basset’s wise and witty little book “The Noonday Devil” has brought me comfort every since I was a depressed teenager in a seriously dysfunctional family.
    I have returned to it again and again, so that I read the original paperback into tatters. I am now 70 and have a hardback version. Though I have a degree in Theology, and have read all the spiritual classics, –this is the contemporary book which speaks most usefully to a person who has had to deal with a hereditary & lifelong tendency to depression. I cannot recommend it too highly, and have many times given it as a gift to those who I thought would gain hope and courage from it.

  4. Timothy Suter says:

    Fr. Bill was the retreat master at Our Lady of Snows for the retreat that changed my life. God bless.

  5. Dear Father,

    Your article is spot on, and explains what’s happening to this particular baby-boomer. As the psalmist says, “My sins are ever before me” (even though absolved in the confessional); therefore, humility abides instead of self-satisfaction. Recently, to counter the attacks of my high-noon nemesis, I have resolved to remain open to the Holy Spirit – perhaps this is a prelude to the patience and resignation that occurs in old age, which you mention. I am trying to walk in step with the Spirit of God: If He grants peace, I enjoy it; if frustration, I bear it because it won’t last. The Blessed Virgin Mary was always open to the Holy Spirit; I take my cue from her.

    God bless you, Father, for your insights.

  6. Psychiatrist Carl Jung said that real middle age is in one’s 30s. I have heard it also said that we commit most of sins in our 30s, and I can attest to wilful wrong decisions in those 30s. This may be the actual noonday devil.

  7. James Ignatius McAuley says:

    Father, this article actually exposes some of the strange incongruities in the contemporary Roman Rite. The 90th Psalm in the Jerome-Gallican version was found in the pre-Pius X Breviary, the Pius X Breviary of 1911 right through its last incarnation in 1960 in Compline for Sunday. However, this Psalm with its reference to the Noonday demon began to vanish from Roman Catholic consciences with the adoption of the Pian Psalter in 1945 , in which the reference to the noonday devil is removed. Finally, with the adoption of the Masoretic Grail Psalter in 1975 in the Liturgy of the Hours, Psalm 90 became the 91st psalm for English speaking Roman Catholic liturgical purposes. Funny enough, the noonday demon never vanished from the mind of the Orthodox or Byzantine Catholics, who use the Septuagint psalter (almost the same as Jerome-Gallican). A review of patristic works and Commentaries that address Psalm 90 all reference the Noonday Demon. The great Spiritual Master Evagrius Ponticus and his disciple John Cassian all discuss the Noonday Demon as the demon associated with the Sin of Acedia. Gregory the Great’s source would have been John Cassian

    I would recommend anyone looking for more information to look at Evagrius’s Praktikos, Eight Thoughts, To Eulogious, and Thoughtsor Cassian;s Institutes, Book 10, in the Ancient Christian Writers from Paulist Press, #58.

  8. Maureen Papps says:

    Dear Father Thank you so much for this Insight just what I needed to hear what I needed to read this has given me so much consolation Thank you and I Thank God for for you Gods blessings to you !

  9. Lawrence Miller says:

    Excellent article. I at 75 years old and ordained in April 1982 and deal with this still. My much younger Confessor and Spiritual Advisor told me that my major problem was scrupulosity. After getting absolution in my weekly Confessions, I rode a spiritual high for a few days and then the doubts creeped in. I am currently reading a work on the subject. As a Psychologist, I have dealt with many other people dealing with the same issues. The fear of Hell lingers all the while God’s Divine Mercy calls to me. I have grown much in my spiritual life. Temptation is not as prevalent but I stay on guard anyway. I must say that my spiritual condition brings me great joy now and I am experiencing quality growth. The years back were challenging to say the least. Thank you again Father for an excellent article. I shall retain it and review it from time to time. All to Jesus through Mary.
    In His Service,
    + Father Miller

  10. It is unfortunate that there is no mention of where one can purchase this book! It is ridiculously expensive on Amazon. Please advise if it is available at a “reasonable” price somewhere…Thank you.

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