William A. BarryOctober 06, 2008
Book cover
Acedia and Meby By Kathleen NorrisRiverhead Books. 352p $25.95

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.

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