A few years ago Katie suffered unexpected bleeding in her brain. She survived and her mind is still active and sharp but after months of therapy it became apparent that she would most likely never walk, talk or even write her name again. With a slew of other medical problems she requires full time nursing home care. I visited her a few times before I moved, the facility where she lives is not much nicer than the prison where I once worked. Her only other occasional visitor is her devoted yet emotionally abusive, alcoholic husband. Sitting in her room Day Time TV blares in the corner and Katie stares out her small window. She tries to talk but after a few muddled attempts she stays quiet. She is only 41 years old.
For our Liturgy of Life Reading Group we are working through Kathleen Norris’ Cloister Walk. It is a poetic memoir reviewing her time spent in Benedictine monasteries. I just finished up my reading for this week with Norris’ section on The Noonday Demon. At first I thought Norris was referring to my hysterical 3 year old kicking and screaming as if possessed just before nap time. But with a little more research I found that the idea of The Noonday Demon is an ancient one, it refers to a real life devil who stalked the faithful at noonday, interrupting their work with whispers that all they do is meaningless convincing them that their days will go on and on without purpose or satisfaction.
Whether we have encountered an actual devil or not ( I sort of hope not but then again it is hard to know I guess) the idea isn’t foreign. Looking up at the piles of laundry and dishes that never end or heading back to work after a quick lunch break just to keep on working, to go home eat and sleep and return the next day to do it again, in one way or another we have all felt the ache of monotony. It leads us to question, who am I? What am I doing? What is the point?
Those moments usually strike me mid temper tantrum. Tired from a busy morning, cleaning up lunch dishes, ahead of me the task of cooking yet another meal that evening. For the most part, I have been able to keep myself from desperation. After all, I have my daughter and husband who rely on me, plus friends and family. We are part of each others’ lives and I know my role is valuable. I think about my work in the present and in the future and all I can make, write or teach. With the technology and capacity for travel and communication we have today, I know my impact can go well beyond my physical community. Plus I know that God has a purpose in both my relationships and in my productivity. So I can usually quiet the Noonday Demon before he gets me feeling to hopeless and I can get back to my meal planning.
But I am left wondering, what about Katie? What does she do when this devil starts whispering to her? Or what about Leyla, who fled IS in Iraq, who saw her husband and son shot, who lives in a shipping container, watching herself and the families around her starve and die? What about those who are alone, who have no work who can’t walk or talk, those who are not caretakers but instead are being taken care of? I realize my values, that pull me out of of loneliness and despair, won’t work for their scenarios. And I wonder how do they keep going? What is the point of a life spent alone or in silence? At the same time I feel like a jerk, of course those lives have value, I mean I know the “answer,” God made them. God has a purpose for them.
But I wonder, is that enough? Would that be enough for me if I stood in their place?
Can I believe that a life alone, or a life without work, without anything physical to show for it, could be gratifying? Does it even count as a life? (I mean when we hear the phrase tossed around, “Get a life.” Isn’t that what we are saying? Go find something to do or go find someone to be with, go make something of your self. )
My deepest fears are found in these questions. What if I was trapped in Katie’s hospital bed? What if I had fled Iraq? Or I was sick? What if I couldn’t do the things I do today? What if I lost my daughter or husband or my eyes or my legs? Would my life still be worth living? Would I find the strength to keep going?
And then Norris pipes up again and reminds me of the Desert Fathers.
The Desert Fathers are a group of ancient monks who are also hermits. They left their communities to live alone and be with God in the desert. They are know for their wisdom, their enlightenment, their humility and their nearness to God.
Hermits have existed all throughout the history of monasticism. Benedict describes them in his Rule,
. . .hermits, who have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life. Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line to the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God’s help to grapple single-handed with the vice of body and mind.
These devout believers give up relationship and productivity. They live alone and in silence. They live a life dedicated to prayer and praise of God.
I realize that all the things I value in life, all the things that appear to give my life meaning are the wrong things. Not that their existence is wrong, but my understanding of them is wrong. Whether I acknowledge it or not, it is experiencing God in my life, through my family and home and work, that gives everything in my world meaning.
I wonder if much of the depression in our world springs from this: that we worship the things that allow us to experience God rather than God Himself. Such that when my work or my relationships fail I see myself as a worthless failure.
The purpose of life is unity with the Trinity.
The purpose of life is mysterious but God has made His spirit so close to me that it exists in my heart and draws me to communion with Him. He has placed me in a world so full of Himself that through illness or war, temper tantrum and monotony, I can never be apart from Him. And in Him alone can I be satisfied.