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Getting the Rhythm Right

November 1, 2011

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

(This is third in a series of talks given by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the Convocation in Chicago earlier this year).

The desert tradition tells a story about how Abba Anthony struggled with prayer in his cell until he saw a vision of another monk going into his cell to pray, then coming out to weave baskets, then going into pray again. This rhythm of “prayer and work” became a touchstone of the monastic tradition. What does it mean for a congregation to find healthy rhythms of prayer and work to share in common? How does this lead us deeper into God’s quiet revolution? The simple life embodies a practical theology of prayer and work.

Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the 2011 Convocation

The Power of Speed. God’s quiet revolution calls for Christians to cultivate stability. By “standing in place” Christian communities root themselves deliberately in the place where they live. Stability enables and encourages Christians truly to engage with the people they are with, to slow down and live the simple life, to participate in the simpler rhythms of life.  Read More…

The Noonday Demon Acedia. The desert monastics conceived of stability as a cosmic struggle. Echoing the combat imagery of Scripture, they aimed to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” taking up the weapons of prayer and fasting so that they might “stand up against the wiles of the devil.”   Read More…

The Manifestation of Acedia. The midday demons are stubborn. They do not give up easily, but rather meet our response to their temptations by re-presenting the same lack of care under a different guise. There are two key manifestations of acedia in our contemporary world. One is the hyperactivity of ambition’s frenetic activity and the other is the desperate restlessness of boredom.  Read More…

The Rhythm of Prayer and Work. The good news is that the Christian tradition, and the monastic tradition in particular, offers tactics for subverting the schedules of these “midday demons” that will inevitably assail us as we attempt to participate in God’s quiet revolution of love, forgiveness, and unity. Crafty though they may be, the demons that come to attack us midway along our journey are not stronger than the God in whom we trust.   Read More…


Questions for Reflection and Discussion



The Power of Speed. God’s quiet revolution calls for Christians to cultivate stability. By “standing in place” Christian communities root themselves deliberately in the place where they live. Stability enables and encourages Christians truly to engage with the people they are with, to slow down and live the simple life, to participate in the simpler rhythms of life. The contemporary experience of placelessness is intimately related to the speed in which we are invited to live in our culture. Placelessness is tied to mobility and it means that you have to be moving, moving, and often pretty fast. What the automobile and the construction of interstate highways created in America was the idea that we could venture forth into places that we had never known before. This was a huge transition from a culture limited by how far a horse could travel. The proliferation of fast food restaurants such as McDonalds means that we can easily get food in our cars on the go which, of course, makes it easier to keep going. But various studies have demonstrated how both fast living and fast food is bad for our bodies and for our spiritual well-being.

The emerging field of attention science indicates that the speed of our society has to do not just with mobility but also with how we work in our workplaces. The speed at which we move is actually decreasing our ability to pay attention. Research indicates that the average knowledge worker, people who work in offices, schools, and churches, changes tasks every eight minutes. Once we change tasks, they have found that it takes at least three times as long to get back to what we were doing. When things get hectic and we are busy, we can be bombarded with demands: the phone is ringing, text messages coming in, email is happening, and, of course, checking out our facebook page. People are continually trying to get in touch with us and they tend to expect instant responses. It begins to feel that we are into this constant loop. So the forty hour work week becomes forty-five or fifty or more. We find ourselves stretched into a never ending work time in which we are constantly being interrupted by all kinds of things.

The Noonday Demon Acedia. The desert monastics conceived of stability as a cosmic struggle. Echoing the combat imagery of Scripture, they aimed to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” taking up the weapons of prayer and fasting so that they might “stand up against the wiles of the devil.”

Cassian was a young man who heard the early monastic stories and made the rounds to sit at the feet of some of the desert’s most acclaimed teachers. The abbas told him the truth about stability’s challenges, describing the “noonday devil.” Attempting to embody Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing,” they found that when beginning to pray in the morning they had a lot of energy and focus, but by the middle of the day when the sun is high and beating down, a series of thoughts begin to be distract them from their vocation of praying for the world. As the joy of morning wore off in the desert, the hard part about staying was that it got boring. With the sense of adventure gone, Cassian reported, new temptations set in. Writing about what he heard, Cassian described this as acedia, literally as a lack of care, as a spiritual malady. Once acedia set in, putting down roots of love—for God and for others—seemed impossible.

In a hypermobile culture where we are always on the go, we who hear the call to stay put might imagine ourselves as a type of spiritual athlete, not unlike the desert monastics who aimed to do combat on the cosmic frontlines. Standing against the seas of constant change also means acknowledging that stability is a practice fraught with contradictions and tensions, making us susceptible to temptations we would not otherwise have the occasion to know.

The Manifestation of Acedia. The midday demons are stubborn. They do not give up easily, but rather meet our response to their temptations by re-presenting the same lack of care under a different guise. There are two key manifestations of acedia in our contemporary world. One is the hyperactivity of ambition’s frenetic activity and the other is the desperate restlessness of boredom. If ambition tempts us to a hyperactivity that fragments our focus and distracts us from daily tasks, another of acedia’s faces—boredom—invites us to adopt a carelessness that exhibits nearly opposite symptoms. Whereas ambition pushes us toward perpetual motion, boredom paralyzes, leaving us unable to love our neighbors or even take care of our own basic needs. Though different in character, these midday twins tempt us to the same lack of care, to not paying attention to the particular place or people or things that are in front of us. In their grip, it is impossible for us to find joy in community.L'Arche Communities

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche is one of the great wisdom figures in the community development. Founded in 1964, L’Arche communities cultivate inclusive communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share faith and friendship. In these communities there are core disabled members as well as other people—the “temporarily abled”—who come to live with them. Vainier once commented on the most difficult part of his ministry: the hardest part is the people who come, often young people, with lots of energy and very committed, dear, dear people. And they spend a year or two or three with us. Then they say “this has been a transformative experience for me” and then they leave. This is an expression of the restlessness of acedia, the temptation to reduce our vocations to experiences that we can wrap up and then move on to something else.

The Rhythm of Prayer and Work. The good news is that the Christian tradition, and the monastic tradition in particular, offers tactics for subverting the schedules of these “midday demons” that will inevitably assail us as we attempt to participate in God’s quiet revolution of love, forgiveness, and unity. Crafty though they may be, the demons that come to attack us midway along our journey are not stronger than the God in whom we trust.

Rutba HouseA rhythm of prayer and manual labor can, over time, help shake the stranglehold of the spiritual malady of acedia. Preserved among the sayings of the desert tradition is the story of Abba Antony who was struggling with acedia when he had a vision that he knew was from God. In this vision he saw a monk sitting in his cell praying. And then this monk went outside and began weaving a basket, he would put the basket down and go back into his cell and pray and then come back and weave another basket. That was the whole vision. This was a great gift to Antony, it was what he had been looking for. What God was saying was that the vocation to which he had been called—to pray without ceasing—was a vocation both of sitting in silence and of working with his hands. And so he began to teach the other monastics this basic rhythm of life. They would weave baskets and then they would sit and pray and then weave baskets and then sit and pray.

What this beautiful story tells us is that careful attention to the mundane tasks of daily life is the process by which we exorcise both ambition and boredom and grow in love. While manual labor is no panacea for the ills of acedia, almost anything that gets our bodies moving can be a real help for weary spirits. Participating in God’s quiet revolution within Christian communities depends on a healthy rhythm of working together with our spirits and our bodies. For example, when we put our bodies to work to share a meal together, we may find that our spirits are renewed to sing and pray together in worship. The temptations of both frenetic activity and of restlessness boredom subside, and we have the opportunity to enjoy one another again. The simple life, stability’s wisdom insists, depends not only upon constant prayer by also on our hands finding good work to do.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

    1. What are the benefits of stability for Christian communities?
    2. Where do you see evidence of the destructive influence of speed within your life? Your family’s life? Your congregation’s life?
    3. What are some of the contradictions and tensions associated with stability in our contemporary culture?
    4. What does it mean to identify hyperactivity as a spiritual malady? What within your congregation’s life encourages hyperactivity?
    5. Where do you see evidence of the negative influence of the restlessness of boredom? Within your life? Your family’s life? Your congregation’s life?
    6. How does the rhythm of prayer and work combat acedia?
    7. What within the life and ministry of your congregation encourages people to “get the rhythm right”: to slow down, to pay attention, to truly care for themselves and others?



Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an Associate Minister at St. John’s Baptist Church and directs the School for Conversion in Durham, NC. Jonathan and his family live at The Rutba House, a new monastic community, and is the author of numerous books including New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church.


(Link from “…the simpler rhythms of life” )

See Jonathan’s book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, where these themes are addressed more fully.


(Link from “…experience of placelessness”)

See older post “Finding Our Place” to learn more about the experience of placelessness in our society.


(Link from “…cosmic struggle”)

The cosmic struggle is an overarching theme in the book of Ephesians. Get the convocation printed resource that includes a Bible study on Ephesians. Also, see Gombis’ The Drama of Ephesians, a powerful study reflecting the church’s contemporary struggle with the ‘powers and authorities.’


The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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