Acedia: A Modern Study

Kathleen Norris “Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life“ [Riverhead Hardcover, 2008]
“Kathleen Norris’s masterpiece: a personal and moving memoir that resurrects the ancient term acedia, or soul-weariness, and brilliantly explores its relevancy to the modern individual and culture.
kathleen norris
Kathleen Norris had written several much loved books, yet she couldn’t drag herself out of bed in the morning, couldn’t summon the energy for daily tasks. Even as she struggled, Norris recognized her familiar battle with acedia. She had discovered the word in an early Church text when she was in her thirties. Having endured times of deep soul-weariness since she was a teenager, she immediately recognized that this passage described her affliction: sinking into a state of being unable to care. Fascinated by this “noonday demon,” so familiar to those in the early and medieval Church, Norris read intensively and knew she must restore this forgotten but utterly relevant and important concept to the modern world’s vernacular.
Like Norris’s bestselling “The Cloister Walk”, “Acedia & me” is part memoir and part meditation. As in her bestselling “Amazing Grace”, here Norris explicates and demystifies a spiritual concept, exploring acedia through the geography of her life as a writer; her marriage and the challenges of commitment in the midst of grave illness; and her keen interest in the monastic tradition. Unlike her earlier books, this one features a poignant narrative throughout of Norris’s and her husband’s bouts with acedia and its clinical cousin, depression. Moreover, her analysis of acedia reveals its burden not just on individuals but on whole societies— and that the “restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that we struggle with today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.”
An examination of acedia in the light of theology, psychology, monastic spirituality, the healing powers of religious practice, and Norris’s own experience, “Acedia & me” is both intimate and historically sweeping, brimming with exasperation and reverence, sometimes funny, often provocative, and always important.”

“In this penetrating theological memoir, Norris details her relationship with acedia, a slothful, soul-weary indifference long recognized by monastics. Norris is careful to distinguish acedia from its cousin, depression, noting that acedia is a failure of the will and can be dispelled by embracing faith and life, whereas depression is not a choice and often requires medical treatment. This is tricky ground, but Norris treads gingerly, reserving her acerbic crankiness for a section where she convincingly argues that despite Americans’ apparently unslothful lives, acedia is the undiagnosed neurasthenia of our busy age. Much of the book is taken up with Norris’s account of her complicated but successful marriage, which ended with her husband’s death in 2003. The energy poured into this marriage, Norris argues, was as much a defiant strike against acedia as her spiritual discipline of praying the Psalms. Filled with gorgeous prose, generous quotations from Christian thinkers across the centuries and fascinating etymological detours, this discomfiting book provides not just spiritual hope but a much-needed kick in the rear.” [Publisher’s Weekly, Sept. 16]
Mosaic: Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière

“According to the “Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church”, acedia (or accidie) is “a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray”. It can be a precursor to sloth—one of the seven deadly sins. St. Thomas Aquinas identified acedia with “the sorrow of the world” that “worketh death.”
John Cassian, (ca. 360 AD – ca. 435 AD) a monk from Southern Gaul who introduced Eastern monasticism into the West, wrote a great deal about acedia, including the following:
“[Acedia is] what the Greeks call ἀκηδία, which we may term weariness or distress of heart. This is akin to dejection, and is especially trying to solitaries. . . [W]hen this has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place, as if he were one who, though he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none, nor profiting any one by his teaching and doctrine.”””

“Before the Seven Deadly Sins there were the Eight Bad Thoughts. This was the name given by the Desert Fathers of the early church to that swirl of temptations by which the devil sought to drive a wedge between them and God.
acedia image
Acedia, anger and pride — these were the worst of the eight, thought those proto-monks. They were powerful urges that could drive a spiritual seeker to abandon the quest, give up on holiness and give in to despair.

The first of these, acedia, was eventually absorbed into the deadly sin of sloth and the word slowly disappeared from common use. But Kathleen Norris hopes that through her new book, acedia will once again get the attention it deserves.

“It’s not depression but it shares a lot of the symptoms,” the well-known American author and poet explained in a Nov. 14 interview with “The Catholic Register”.

If acedia isn’t a household word, its synonyms are: apathy, lassitude, indifference, torpor, to name a few. In her new book, “Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life” (Riverhead, 330 pages, $29.50 hardcover), Norris offers a quick history of its many guises:

“To the ancient Greeks it was the black gall; to the fourth-century monks it was a vicious and tenacious temptation to despair. Petrarch called it the nameless woe, and Dante named it a sin. It became known to Robert Burton and others in the Renaissance as melancholy. In Shakespeare, it is the boredom of Richard III, arguably as responsible as ambition in triggering his monstrous violence. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope called it spleen; to Baudelaire, and to many writers in the years to follow, it was ennui. . . . To the nineteenth-century French, it was mal du siècle, or the illness of the age.”

Yet to the modern mind, acedia is completely foreign.

“When people would ask me what I was writing about, I dreaded answering,” she explained during the last stop of her Canadian tour. “Nobody knew what I was writing about.”

But when she would describe the symptoms, light bulbs would go on. They understood about those times when they felt like giving up, beyond all caring about anything, leaving phone messages unanswered, bills unpaid, friends neglected. For those of a religious bent, acedia manifests itself as complete despair about God. Praying and going to church become unbearable. None of it seems to matter any more.

Sometimes it is actually full-blown clinical depression. But often, it is more a spiritual malaise than a medical problem. And it can have social spin-offs such as withdrawal from community life and civic action.

However, its symptoms are not always lethargy and emotional paralysis. It can be unceasing restlessness and an addiction to constant stimulation in the form of television, video games, physical activity or “compulsive productivity.” We end up “doing more and caring less,” she writes.

In her study of acedia, Norris, whose earlier works “Cloister Walk” and “Amazing Grace”, were both New York Times best-sellers, once again weaves her autobiography into spiritual reflection and her own wide reading to produce a compelling journey into faith.

It will be a familiar journey for her many fans. Norris has done arguably more to reacquaint the modern world to monastic life than anyone since Thomas Merton. While in her 30s, her spiritual questing drew her to a Benedictine abbey in South Dakota where she became fascinated by the timeless spiritual life of the monks. She became fast friends and eventually an oblate, or lay member, though continuing her membership in the Presbyterian parish near her home.

The monks (and cloistered religious women) proved to be a spiritual treasure house and loom large in her major prose works. In this latest, they prove, once again, to have wisdom in abundance.

In fact, it was a fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, who introduced Norris to acedia. While reading his “The Praktikos”, she came upon a description of something that perfectly fit her own experience.
Evagrius 2
“That was a thunderbolt for me,” she said. “Here was another writer describing and naming an experience I had and had never been able to name. And he was someone who died in 399.”

What Evagrius described seemed to match a time during her teen years in Hawaii. A studious and socially awkward teenager, Norris found herself withdrawing from the pressures of her social circles. Later, through her university years in an East Coast college and her budding career as a writer and poet, she occasionally found her usual vast stores of ambition and zeal flagging. She would go on to marry another poet, David Dwyer, and move to her grandparents’ house in South Dakota where the couple planned to pursue their writing in a peaceful rural setting. But the outward changes could not dispel the bouts of acedia, which became more oppressive as she struggled with supremely difficult challenges such as her husband’s depression, his suicide attempt and eventual death from cancer in 2003.

She found strength in daily tasks, the prayer discipline of the Benedictine rule and the sustaining life of being part of a community of believers. The idea of turning her thoughts on acedia into a book started in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t really until after her husband’s death, followed soon afterwards by her father’s, that she was able to concentrate on writing the book.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in terms of writing,” she said. “I kept working on it, then putting it aside. It was the first time in my life that I missed the deadline.”

The writing itself draws upon her own experiences, combined with her deep reading. Literary references mingle easily with quotations from theologians and philosophers — along with those ever-present Desert Fathers.
desert fathers
“Those early monks are actually fairly accessible as writers. They really talk in pretty concrete terms along with metaphors from nature.”

Their timeless wisdom Norris marries with a thoroughly modern sensibility; she knows firsthand our distractedness, superficiality and hunger for authentic spiritual experience. That experience, she discovered, will be found where it has always been.

“Acedia may be an unfamiliar term to those not well-versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. . . . I believe that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as ‘apathy,’ ‘boredom,’ or ‘torpor’ do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.” This observation comes from Kathleen Norris, the award-winning poet and author of “The Cloister Walk”, “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith”, and “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography”. A popular speaker and editor at large at The “Christian Century”, she is an oblate of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota. She divides her time between Hawaii and South Dakota.
In this profound book, Norris shows how acedia, which was once viewed as a terrible scourge that affects the soul, has now become acceptable, and in certain circles, even fashionable. The desperate yearning for escape from the tedious present moment and the need for novelty are driven by the powerful engines of our consumerist culture which compels us to constantly want something new, better, and different. In this context, repetitive tasks are considered boring and unimportant. Taking care of ourselves, our intimate relationships, and our environment take second place to our quest for self-indulgence.
Norris first came across acedia in the writings of Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century monk who described it as “the noonday demon.” She notes that at its Greek root, the word means the absence of care:
“When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. . . . Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.”
Norris was caught in the grip of acedia when she was an adolescent even though she didn’t know about the term at the time. It manifested itself in her life as sloth, a boredom with repetition, and an eagerness to value the future over the present moment. But the desert monks had another strategy. No escape; just perseverance. Norris quotes the story of an abba who took a piece of dry wood and told his disciple: “Water this until it bears fruit.” She uses this as a lead-in to the challenge given her to nurture a marriage over a span of 30 years and to keep up the discipline of writing and revising for even longer.
With riveting honesty, Norris writes about the many struggles in her life with her husband David, a poet afflicted with alcoholism, mental breakdowns, and a catastrophic series of illnesses. She discusses their battles with depression and provides a thoughtful assessment of how this malady is different from acedia. Caring, perseverance, and repetition become saving graces in her marriage. Whether probing “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon, looking at Soren Kierkegaard’s understanding of despair, or pondering John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, Norris reveals an openness to the ways in which others have dealt with difficulties that constrict the soul.
noonday demon
Over the years, the author tries to stave off the constant temptation of acedia in her writing career. She confesses:
“As a writer I must begin, again and again, at that most terrifying of places, the blank page. And as a person of faith I am always beginning again with prayer. I can never learn these things, once and for all, and master them. I can only perform them, set them aside, and then start over. Beginning requires that I remain willing to act, and to summon my hopes in the face of torpor.”
As a caring wife, as a creative author, and as woman of faith, Norris is taught by the words of the desert fathers who had an antidote to acedia — being truly present to the tasks and responsibilities of everyday life: “The monastic endeavor, now as in the fourth century, is to purify one’s heart so as to better reflect God’s creation.” Norris concludes the book with a top-drawer collection of quotations on acedia. It is a fitting finale to her incisive and edifying treatment of this pesky condition of the soul.
kathleen norris 2
“Kathleen Norris (born in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 1947) is a best-selling poet and essayist. Her parents, John Norris and Lois Totten, took her as a child to Hawaii, where she graduated from Punahou Preparatory School in 1965. After graduating from Bennington College in Vermont in 1969, Norris became arts administrator of the Academy of American Poets, and published her first book of poetry two years later. In 1974 she inherited her grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota, moved there with her husband, David Dwyer, joined Spencer Memorial Presbyterian church, and discovered the spirituality of the Great Plains. She entered a new, non-fictional phase in her literary career after becoming a Benedictine oblate at Assumption Abbey Richardton ND in 1986, and spending extended periods at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Since the death of her husband in 2003, Norris has transferred her place of residence to Hawaii, though continuing to do lecture tours on the mainland.”

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