The National Catholic Review

Leave it to Kathleen Norris to make an ancient and almost unknown word relevant to modern readers, believers or not. The poet and author of a number of best selling memoirs, such as The Cloister Walk and Dakota, which brought the wisdom of the desert monks and nuns and of the Rule of St. Benedict to bear on modern life, here brings close attention to her own experience and her immense reading to bear on exploring the nature of acedia, the “noonday demon,” as the basic temptation besetting the modern world. True to her calling as a poet she notes that the word acedia at root means a lack of care. In the noonday sun the monks of the desert were tempted to give up caring for their way of life and eventually for God. Norris is careful to distinguish acedia from depression, with which it has many similarities. She comes at the distinction from a number of different directions, among them the following: “A crucial distinction between depression and acedia is that the former implies a certain level of anguish over one’s condition, while in the latter it remains a matter of indifference.”

In an account of the “noonday demon” by the desert monk Evagrius Ponticus (A.D. 345-99) she found an explanation of her experience as a teenager overwhelmed by an ennui that left her with a sense that nothing really mattered. Over the years she collected references to it and during the writing found herself reflecting not only on its effects on monks and nuns, but also on writers like herself and her husband, on commitments such as her own marriage and on modern life. Readers walk with her through life in a small town in South Dakota, a difficult but deeply loving marriage; her husband’s bouts with alcoholism and severe illness and finally his death; her widowhood; and her dialogue with ancient and modern writers who have grappled seriously with life’s ultimate issues. It is a bracing and enlightening journey.

Along the way the reader learns a good bit of healthy spirituality and theology as an antidote to much of the shallow tidbits of both that pervade modern life. Many have banished the word “sin,” for example, but often its real meaning is terribly distorted, not least because of a sadly truncated theological and catechetical teaching. A biblically sound notion of sin has to start with the knowledge of God’s abiding love. Sin can be understood only by those who realize that they are the apple of God’s eye, made in God’s own image. In other words, a Christian understanding of sin begins with a healthy self-regard. Only from that viewpoint can we see our sinfulness as a falling short of our best selves. Norris also notes that acedia was one of the eight bad thoughts that are not sins themselves but can, if they are not discerned and fought, lead us to fall short of our calling to be images of God. In time these bad thoughts became the seven deadly sins.

Norris writes that the shift from “thoughts” to “sins” led to an emphasis on acts rather than underlying dispositions. The monks expected to be besieged by bad thoughts; hence they encouraged paying attention to them to note their provenance and their outcome so as to discern them as leading human beings to becoming less human, less whole, less caring.

Jesus himself had noted that the problem was not so much our acts, but our dispositions: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Mt 15:19-20). Also, in the move to seven deadly sins acedia was dropped. Norris believes that acedia’s loss of prominence allowed it to continue its deadly work with less restraint. I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape reminds his young devil nephew that their policy is to keep their existence secret.

Commitment to a profession, to a marriage, to an athletic or artistic career or to any way of life requires the hard work of practice, often boring practice. It is such a commitment that acedia attacks so insidiously. When she was a teenager, Norris played the flute but hated to practice. Her teacher told her that she was an amateur. That’s the difference between someone who can bear the discipline of daily practice and routine and someone who cannot; the latter remains an amateur in the game of life. “The early Christian monks staked their survival on their willingness to be as God had made them, creatures of the day to day.” They saw clearly that the antidote to acedia’s blandishments was commitment to the discipline of developing good habits, another name for which is virtues. Our age flees from such commitment and finds, like ancient Rome in its decline, that it needs “bread and circuses” in order to stave off boredom.

Acedia and Me is not a book for the amateurs of life, but for those who take seriously their creation as images of God—God who cares enough to create our world and us and to pitch his tent within it and with us. For the sake of God’s world Norris has written this book. I hope that many will take it to heart.

Listen to an interview with Kathleen Norris.

William A. Barry, S.J., is co-director of the tertianship program for the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, a retreat director and editor of the periodical Human Development.

Comments

jay franklin | 12/16/2008 - 9:46am
"Also, in the move to seven deadly sins acedia was dropped." Not so much dropped as incorporated into sloth, perhaps.
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 9/30/2008 - 11:37am
Nikos Kazantsakis as a young man asked an old monk, "Do you still struggle with the devil?" The monk replied, "No, it's worse. Now I struggle with God!" That response seems to hook into "Acedia And Me" by Kathleen Morris and reviewed by William A. Barry, S.J. Someone I've know for decades wrote the following lines that also seem to focus on "Acedia" which I offer much abridged. He writes, "The spiritual life is like a giant furnace blast drying up all my faculties." Then he says, that God casts the spiritual person around "like dead leaves in winter's gale." Later he admits, that spirituality which leaves him dry is like "a walk in an arid desert" However he says, God can be found in both darkness and light and in that he finds some reassurance but not for long, as the Divine invitation to familarity is twisted by the "nooneday devil" (is it that?) telling him to "come close, but not too close, seek familarity, but seemingly from afar!" My friend concludes by recalling the words of Jesus to St. Faustina, "Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to My Merciful Heart." He does so by hanging on to the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola as if to a lifeline, "Take Lord and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will ... Your love and your grace are enough for me!" And indeed it is.
David Pasinski | 9/28/2008 - 1:57pm
I rember a simple but, to me, wonderful book by Myles Connolly, I believe, entitled "Dan England and the Noonday Devil." I look forward to reading Kathleen Norris' reflections and remember the impression that little novel made 40 years ago in making me aware of that subtle lethargy that evisceratess meaning and love.
MICHAEL MILLER | 9/26/2008 - 5:26pm
"The demon of *acedia* - also called the noonday demon - is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all...He makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long...He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned...No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle." ~ Evagrius Ponticus, "Praktikos #12", tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, pages 18-19