Placelessness

Have you ever noticed how some places have such a strong sense of identity? Being there is like being in no other place on earth. For me, many of these places are natural; the South African Lowveld, the Drakensberg, and the kloofs of the Magaliesberg. (I think it has something to do with the way running water sounds when it echoes off three billion year old rock.) No wonder the ancients believed that each place had its own genius locus. The spirit of the place.

And then there are other places: fuel stations, shopping malls, chain restaurants, hospital waiting areas. Placeless places. There is no distinction between one and the next, and no day or night. There is no ‘there’ there, as Gertrude Stein said. Even the bright colours only serve to announce their own futility.

We often talk about our emotional state as being in a “good place” or maybe “a bad place” if you are in pain. Hebrews even talks about ‘rest’ as being a place, and equates it with the Promised Land. But one can also experience spiritual placelessness. We have forgotten the word, but is called acedia. The place medieval monks came to fear the most: they called it ‘the noonday devil’. Acedia is a spiritual torpor. It is not depression, and it is not poignant enough to be melancholy. Those are bad or bittersweet places. It is listlessness, wanting neither to work nor to play. The placessless place of the soul, like when Jesus talked about spirits drifting across waterless places: blank spaces. Acedia is the roadside fast food joint of the soul, with faceless people and plastic food. Zero nutritional value under harsh fluorescent light, where the air is thick and clammy and barely stirred by the roof fans and R.E.M.’s Daysleeper plays in the background.

I have come to realise that for most people, the question is not Where is God when it hurts? but rather, Where is God when it doesn’t?

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