Friday, September 4, 2009

The Ancient Demon of Acedia in Modern Dress: The Journey Begins

In the past few weeks I’ve told several friends that I’m depressed. A couple of them were surprised, probably because I’m good as masking it. But when I wrote several blog posts about it, like “I Want A Rush,” and "Artificial Loneliness and Man-Induced Boredom." I was happy to receive a comment from an out of town friend, suggesting that I read Kathleen Norris’s book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life.

I’m only 40 pages into Acedia & me. Usually I finish a book and then post a book review. But this book is so rich that I’m eager to “share as I read.” I’ll be “journaling my journey” with Norris, sharing bits of her own struggles as well as my own, but also highlights from the well of spiritual and psychological wisdom that she dips into over and over in her book. I’ll try not to be too wordy. If something strikes a chord with you, get the book!

Norris’s own words in her Author’s Note introduce the work better than I can:

“Several themes are threaded throughout this book: the much-maligned doctrine of sin; the question of whether acedia may be equated with depression; the implications of believing that human beings are made in the image of God; the psychological insights to be found in monastic literature and practice; and the meaning of marriage and motherhood.”

Right up front it’s clear that this book isn’t a sensational confessional, although Norris states clearly that she has “experienced both conditions,” referring to depression and acedia. I think I have, too, as I read more of Norris’ definitions of each term, and also the definitions and comments from the Church Fathers, especially John Cassian and Evagrius.

But to make things clear, at the risk of over-simplifying the issue, I’ll share these 3 abbreviated definitions from the front of her book:

acedia (from Webster’s)
1. the deadly sin of sloth
2. spiritual torpor and apathy

acedia (from an online medical dictionary)
a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and mealacholia

Before you quit reading, thinking this is only applicable to the ancients, listen to how Norris places this struggle squarely in middle of modern times:

“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. The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer. Christian teachings concerning acedia are a source of strength and encouragement to me, and I hope to explore its vocabulary in such a manner that benefits readers, whatever their religious faith or lack of it.”

She goes on to give more modern tags to aspects of acedia:

“When life becomes too challenging, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.”

Spiritual morphine. Wow. What does she prescribe? CARING. Even as early as page 3, she counters:

“Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worthy something to be present with others, doing our small part.”

I find I’m identifying with page after page of Norris’s personal narrative and appreciating the way she shoots it through with wisdom from the ages. For me, personally, the subtitle of her book would have been enough to hook me, had I seen it on a table at my local bookseller:


My own spiritual memoir explores all three of these areas, although Norris isn’t Orthodox. We share a lot of common ground. As she says at the end of her first chapter:

“Acedia is the monk’s temptation… Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better for worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.”

As a writer, my work certainly requires self-motivation and solitude; my husband and I will celebrate 40 years of marriage next June; and I’m part of a (local and national) church family that is currently undergoing extremely difficult times, so I identify with Norris on all three counts.

If this sounds too ethereal, don’t stop reading yet. Norris brings the struggle to
every corner of our lives, even our refrigerators:

“I develop a loathing for fresh food, letting salad greens and strawberries languish in the refrigerator while I fill up on popcorn.”

Call it a carb craving or just unhealthy eating, it’s the source of that craving that’s being addressed here, and I so I keep reading.

Chapter III brings the battle more clearly into the spiritual arena, where Norris asks:

“Can [acedia] ever be considered a rational response to the vagaries of life?”

And she answers:

“From the perspective of Christian theology, the answer would be no, for acedia is understood as the rejection of a divine and entirely good gift. Because we are made in God’s image, in fleeing from a relationship with a loving God, we are also running from being our most authentic selves.”

Being our most authentic selves. I want that. I might even want that enough to fight this demon, this spiritual laziness. So where do I start? According to Norris, I start by NAMING THE DEMON. Calling a spade a spade, or in this case, calling sin sin. Ouch. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I keep reading, asking God to give me strength to face whatever truths I will find between the pages of this book. Norris herself helps me, holding my emotional and psychological hand, so to speak, as she paves the way in this final excerpt that I’ll share in this post:

“By treating acedia as a sin, I am not suggesting that people bear responsibility for being overwhelmed by the medical condition diagnosed as depression, which is not a moral failing but an illness. Yet like any essayist, I am an explorer, and I mean to explore freely what I have experienced for most of my life as ‘acedia’ in the light of literature, theology, psychology, and pharmacology. I need to essay, in all its senses—try out, test, weigh, and probe the distinctions between the disease of depression and the ice of acedia. I suspect that an informed understanding of sin can assist us in sorting them out.”

I also am an essayist—an explorer—and I’m signing on for this journey through Norris’ book. I hope lots of my readers will join me. And please leave a comment, a reflection, a question, a doubt, a disagreement, whatever comes to mind.

Have a great Labor Day Weekend. We’re going to enjoy a wedding and a cookout on Sunday, but on Monday, I just might be doing battle with the demon of noonday… especially if I get bored or lonely. Pray for me.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post - I did not know what acedia was, and I hadn't heard of the Norris' book. I'm going to read the book and am looking forward to more posts from you about it.

MatSIE said...

I have flirted with this book since it came out. I liked Dakota and loved Cloister Walk! In acedia, there is a sense of having to rouse oneself into a sense of purpose. Sometimes it is as simple as basic catechism - we were created to praise God, to reflect his Love and are in his image and likeness. God rested on the seventh day because it was in the eternity before the sin of Adam.

Mom always used to say there is no rest for the wicked. Although 'wicked' is perhaps too strong, fallen is the absolute truth. For in 'rest' there is also acedia....blessings and felicitations on your journey in this book. I look forward to future posts!

Anonymous said...

I will pray for you Monday. Though acedia isn't my biggest problem, I often get too caught up in "how I feel" instead of remembering the truth in which I believe. "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" - Jeremiah 17:9

We don't have to "listen to our hearts." We just have to trust in His Word (believe me, I'm preaching to myself here, haha).

Peace and grace,
katie e.

Anna said...

So glad you are enjoying the book -I have to say, I read this over the New Year break, and it is one of the few books that truly brought me to tears multiple times. It hit me in so many ways. I decided to read it because her lecture "Quotidian Mysteries" has had such an impact on me and my whole perspective on my daily life that I had to read this one (I tried to read Cloister Walk and did not care for it as much - perhaps an honest but too honest in some areas for me look at the pitfalls of monastic life). Look forward to reading more about your thoughts on it!

Sandi Butler Hughes said...

I had purchased this book, primarily attracted by the sub-title, and I was not totally certain of the definition of "acedia." I have read only a few pages, and in my typical fashion, I started another book (The Sacred Romance).
I was stunned to see this post! Sometimes God whispers what we need, and sometimes He whops you on the head with it!
I look forward to your insights on this book - thank you!

priscilla said...

The comments to this post are adjacent to pictures of your son and their new born daughter. --So, stark a contrast for me!!
I am intrigued by the book. I must read it. I am so "acedia" about my work situation. I am hoping that after I am Chrismated I shall have help with my 11th-year malaise.
...Time to look at a pretty plant: I'll water the oxalic on the filing cabinet!

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks to all six of you for your comments. To Priscilla I'll say that having a precious new granddaughter can't "fix" acedia... especially when she lives a thousand miles away. Nothing can fix it, outside of ourselves, that much I know to be true. I've only read another chapter or so in the book, so I won't post more comments for a few more days. Maybe next week, even, as I'm about to leave town tomorrow. THANKS FOR READING!

brenda said...

so that explains why i got into social work!

now turned artist with last child leaving home next weekend, your review has highlighted why i should be thinking now of ways of keeping the inevitable malaise at bay...