At once I must admit my own inadequacy in reviewing Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, by Kathleen Norris. I feel wholly unqualified, so daunting is the subject; nevertheless, I will venture some brief comments in recommending this as a “must read.”
The work itself brings many descriptives to mind. It is informative, compelling, challenging and convicting, altogether serious but with healthy doses of humor along the way. At times quite heart-wrenching ~ many times I was moved to tears ~ yet the author is inspirational, too; there is hope in combating the “noonday demon” of acedia.
Often deeply and poignantly personal, Norris addresses the subject of acedia in a broad sweep of history including incisive and often provocative insights from theology and psychology, philosophy and medical research, prose and poetry, striking an almost unbelievably judicious balance between the scientific and the spiritual, the contemporary and the ancient.
Before we get too carried away, though, what exactly is acedia? The word is not one we commonly use, to be sure, but it is an ancient idea very closely related to, and sometimes completely identified with, the deadly sin of sloth. More than this, acedia may be defined as the inability to care; “weariness of the soul … an empty indifference.” (323)
As Norris quotes Karl Menninger, “there is a sin of not doing, of not knowing, of not finding out what one must do — in short, of not caring. This is the literal meaning of acedia, recognized as a sin for so many centuries and plaguing us still.” (306) And it leads, as the author vividly proves, to a kind of “flattening out” of everything in life.
We live more than we probably care to admit in an “imaginary world” in which we care little more “about a suicide bombing” than we do about “a celebrity divorce, and the latest advance in nanotechnology.” (128)
Advertisements direct our attention to automobiles; medications to combat high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, and insomnia; the Red Cross; a new household cleanser.
When the ‘news’ returns, there are appalling segues, such as one I witnessed recently, the screen going from ‘Child Sex Offender’ to ‘Gas Prices Rise.’ It all comes at us on the same level, and an innocent from another world might assume that we consider these matters to be of equal value and importance.
We may want to believe that we are still concerned, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming across the bottom of the screen… (129)
But are we? On my Internet “home page” the day’s “highlights” include “Death Toll Soars in the South … 240 Killed” within an inch of something about an “American Idol” romance, the “Daily Show” and Sarah Palin “mocking Couric’s departure” because she may “still be upset about their 2008 interview.”
The well-known 20th century monastic, Thomas Merton, was correct in his prophetic warning, Norris submits. “Our world has been flattened, and we’ve been had.” (129) And “as we grow ever more sluggish, negligent, and careless, we come to a ‘dull coldness of the heart’ and arrive at acedia’s threshold.” (152)
And so we are tired and bored and restless; always moving, chattering, shopping, looking for diversions, but upset, unsettled, plagued, anxious, afraid, stressed, despondent, depressed. As Norris quotes Charles Baudelaire in a letter to his mother, “Oh, how weary I am, how weary I’ve been for many years already, of this need to live twenty-four hours every day!” (299)
In the grips of acedia, Gustave Flaubert appropriately asks:
Aren’t you tired, as I am, of waking up every morning and seeing the sun again? Tired of living the same life; of suffering the same pain? Tired of desiring and tired of being disgusted? Tired of waiting and tired of possessing? (299)
There is hope, of course, “a way where there is no way,” for all who care to take up the fight against acedia. But “this is what God, and only God, can provide,” says Norris, who for years wrestled with religious faith and her own spirituality (or, more appropriately, her lack thereof), eventually converting to Catholicism, going on to become a Benedictine oblate. (72)
This is salvation, which in Hebrew means widening or making sufficient. As we move from death to life we discover grace, a force as real as gravity, and are reminded of its presence in the changing of the seasons, and in the dying of seeds from which new life emerges, so that even our deserts may bloom… (285)
It is by no means an easy struggle nor ever a quick, one-time battle. To read Acedia & me is, perhaps, to realize that it is lifelong and touches ~ should we say “assaults” ~ the very depths of our soul, and does so unabashedly in broad daylight, so to speak, which is why acedia has been called “the noonday demon.” Reading Norris may very well be an excellent first blow against this insidious enemy!
Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life
By: Kathleen Norris