The Oppression of Idleness

Be on your guard against idleness, O beloved, for it conceals a sure death… On [Judgement] Day, God will not judge us about psalmody, nor for the neglect of prayer, but because by abandoning them we have opened our door to the demons. Whenever they find room, they enter and close the doors of our inner chambers and of our noetic eyes,” subjecting us to their tyranny and impurity and holding us captive. [1]

St. Isaac’s warning is even more relative to us today, especially when we understand “idleness” not to be a state of twiddling our thumbs and doing nothing, but all of those moments that we waste our attention on things that God has not called us to, which happens perhaps hundreds of times a day.

The above teaching from St. Isaac surprised me a bit because the Desert Fathers, and St. Isaac himself, praised psalmody and continual prayer so much in their teachings, and now he is saying God may not even bring these things up in our judgement. Why? Because these things are tools, means to an end and not the end themselves.

Within all of us we have this thing called a “nous,” which has a multitude of definitions and uses, but can frequently be thought of as “the spiritual eye of our soul” or “the spiritual organ that enables us to commune with God.” When our Lord taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” many fathers of the church understand that scripture as referring to the purified nous that enables us to commune and unite to God. The purified will not simply admire God as one would a beautiful landscape, but “will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), which necessarily means entering into deep communion and oneness.

In his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul teaches, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Greek=nous), that ye may prove what is good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (12:2)

Sin, idleness, and distractions darken the nous and prevent us from entering into communion with God.  For that reason, the Desert Fathers pursued constant prayer and singing of psalms in order to keep their minds fixed on Christ and to prevent them from aimlessly wandering.  A mind unfixed on Christ is a playground for the demons.  And not just a playground, but a conquered land in which we are unwittingly taken hostage and begin entertaining our new masters’ thoughts.

As laymen, we cannot be expected to engage in prayer and psalmody at all times.  We will have tasks at work and at home that require our full attention.  But learning to occasionally pray during and in between those things, reading spiritually beneficial books, and keeping our minds focused on loving and godly things will begin the “renewal of our minds.”

Success will not come easy.  We are bombarded with noise and distractions almost continually.  These things lead to idleness, accedia, and ultimately a blinded nous.  When I want to fill my car up with gas, I am blasted with worldly music or, now, video ads coming from the gas pump itself; when I have a moment of alone time, I pull out my phone and check my messages or Facebook; when I turn off my electronics and try to pray, my cat may throw a hairball up on the carpet just a few feet away from me; when I think, I’ll pray in my car, I hit heavy traffic or some other irritating inconvenience.

While technological advances are often a blessing, they are a double edged sword that frequently keeps us from prayer.  Social media and our easy access to the news (or whatever easily grabs our attention) overstimulate our brains and lead to a type of brain damage.  One archimandrite told me that most of the monks and candidates he receives into his monastery have sustained some sort of “brain damage” from the effects of technology and noise in our world; another medical practitioner told me that he is frequently seeing physical manifestations in the bodies of children and young people that only occur when the brain has been overstimulated to the point of being damaged.

St. Isaac warns us, “As long as your senses are alive to every occurrence, understand that you are [spiritually] dead…peace will not be able to settle into your soul.” [1] God knows our struggle today; He knows that we are bombarded with noise like humans have never been before.  The world calls this freedom and progress, but it is truly a form of slavery and mind manipulation that prevents us from ever learning to pray deeply.

If we struggle against it, if we push out whatever noise we can, if we call upon God to renew our darkened nous, if we use the tools at our disposal (prayer, psalmody, asceticism, etc.), then I believe God will hear our prayer and come quickly to our aid.  We will still struggle, but the more we resist, the weaker the demonic hold becomes on our minds and the more truly free we will be.  It is possible to find freedom, but it will take grace and struggle.  May God be with us!

End notes:

[1] The Ascetical Homilies, Homily Thirty-Two, pg. 176.

Featured image by Cesarr Spencer Terrio at

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