When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
There’s a midday trouble which comes upon a soul the world around. This trouble goes by many names. The classic name is acedia. The Greek origin of this word ακήδια, (akedia), is a compound word, “a-kedia“, combining two Greek words: “care for others”, kedia, and the Greek letter alpha (α), which means “not”. When placed as a prefix, this little Greek word negates the root word. Acedia is a negation of our care for others. Acedia: also known as despondency, listlessness, ennui, apathy, the opposite of compassion.
One ancient spiritual writer, John Cassian, describes acedia as “the noonday demon”. Evagrius, another ancient spiritual writer considered acedia the most troublesome of all the evil thoughts we face. A person suffering from acedia, writes Cassian, “looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness” (John Cassian, The Institutes, [Boniface Ramsey, tr.] 2000:10:2).
Jonah suffers from acedia. He grows faint under the heat of the noonday sun. He wants to die. His well of compassion has run dry. He cares for no one. Not for himself. Not for others. Especially not for the tens of thousands of lives spread across that great city of Nineveh, before his eyes. He’s given up on life and people, and he’s given up on God.
God keeps providing. God provides Jonah with second chances. God provides compassion and saving grace to the people of Nineveh. God provides for the greening of Jonah’s soul with the growth of a leafy plant and shade. God provides a worm to eat this plant, exposing Jonah to the midday sun. God now provides a scorching east wind to help Jonah better understand the dangerous condition of his soul.
Just like acedia, hot desert winds go by many names across the planet: Diablo (east wind in Bay Area of California), Chinook (Pacific Northwest coastal east winds), Brickfielder (Australia), Chocolatero (Mexico’s gulf coast), Santa Ana (Southern California), Harmattan (Africa), Kamsin (Egypt), Levanto (Canary Islands), Nor’wester (New Zealand, especially in Christchurch), Samiel (Turkey), Shamal (Iraq and ancient Nineveh), Sirocco (North Africa from off the Sahara), Sukhovey (Mongolia off the Gobi), Xlokk (Malta).
In our Oregon coastal village, east wind blows overland off the high desert of eastern Oregon once a year, for a day or two, raising temperatures and eyebrows at the odd behavior of locals not used to hot air. Anything odd that happens on those rare warm days, we all blame it on the east wind.
The east wind blows only a day or two each year in our village. The rest of the year, many people suffer from acedia along our coastal area. Too many people suffer from too little motivation to intentionally live with compassion towards self and others. Like Jonah, people often grow faint and even lose a desire for life.
The antidote for acedia is not easily found in contemporary culture. We need to look backward to move forward. When we return to the well of ancient wisdom, sit awhile, let down our empty bucket into the depths of God’s compassion, taking time and precious limited energy we still have to pull that bucket upwards into our soul, we can once again drink deeply and be restored with passion for God and compassion for the world.
Fr Pascal Chenline, OSB, a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon writes these words of wisdom about this contemplative approach to living: “The world is a noisy place. We have become a fast-paced people, and it sometimes seems that contemplative reading might be in danger of becoming a lost art. Reading a book lends itself to contemplation — books are the record, the wonder, the way we come to know ourselves, our history and the great mystery of God. Today, people have to intentionally look to find places of quiet, and they come to the monastery to rest in silence for a while — to read, to walk, and to practice the kind of reflection that comes from the deepest part of our being.” (Quoted from Mount Angel Letter, Fall 2014, p.7).