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Acedia & Me: A Book Review

Browsing the shelves of wicked-cool used bookstore here in Nashville, McKay Books, I happened upon Kathleen Norris’s (The Cloister WalkDakotaAmazing Grace) latest, Acedia & Me. Though I had no idea she had a new book out, the cheap sticker price for a primo first edition (Note: you will recall from a previous post that I have a more than slight affinity for used bookstores and, especially, first editions) was an easy decision. The title itself was mildly intriguing since I was vaguely familiar with the word, “acedia”, but of which I knew very little. The subtitle, “A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life”, though hardly an enticing, round-em-up, gather-em-in slogan, is true to Ms. Norris’ midwestern style, neither flamboyant nor melodramatic.

Acedia, coined the “noonday demon” by the early monastics, is the absence of care when life becomes overly challenging, repetitious and boring, while engagement with other people is too demanding. In short, it is spiritual apathy, and is described as a weariness of soul. Though it is not readily a part of the modern scientific lexicon, acedia, in today’s culture, is generally lumped in with depression and the sin of sloth, one of the supposed seven deadly sins. We treat it with medication, just like everything else. But, as Norris continually illuminates, acedia possesses spiritual roots, and, thus, can ultimately only be treated with spiritual attention and resolve.

The tedium of daily routine, whether you are a writer, an athlete or a garbage collector, can grate on the westernized image of living life to the full, souring the tinseled concept in such a way that daily repetition of just about anything breeds in us contempt. After all, repetition is not very glamorous. We get bored and despair in the seemingly mundane task of being, wondering Why even bother?, seeking salvation from unromantic drudgery at those times when we see our lives as being anything but full and robust. Surely Jesus meant the “abundant” life to be more than this?, we think. As Norris points out through her experiences as a writer, Benedictine oblate, a wife and caretaker of her dying husband, it is that same daily repetition – the redundant, monotonous splendor – which holds the seeds of that very salvation. Learning the true name of the enemy gives us greater advantage, even granting a degree of freedom.

I, admittedly, am an undisciplined writer, writing whenever I feel like it, when inspiration strikes, or when the trees and skies themselves take to writing me their own message. In other words, I enable the acedia in me, by failing to embrace repetition – that “monotonous splendor” – and the creative discipline. Languishing with nothing to say, I lay the guitar aside for months at a time wanting nothing to do with its steel and wood language, because more often than not that language is as foreign to me as a lust for life itself. I lay aside pen and paper for a writer’s millenium, choosing instead to blame it on those familiar culprits, writer’s block or depression. As Ms. Norris states, like marriage and faith, writing is a mystery. The “person” you’re committed to spending life with is known, yet unknown. It is strange when, after years of being together,  the one you thought you knew all too well seems a sudden and complete stranger. I am compelled “to either recommit to the relationship or get the hell out.” In my own torpor and despair, I seek to avoid both blunt writing instruments because, in a very real sense, it is my way of avoiding the physically manifest representations of spiritual mistrust, doubt and my failure to ultimately believe that the things God once declared about me as being good, actually and truly still are. Acedia, as the author observes, “always takes the path of least resistance and attempts to go around, rather than through, the demands that life makes of us.”

Throughout the book Norris continually draws from the early monastics as well as a slew of modern writers, both religious and secular. She often quotes fourth century monk and writer, Evagrius Ponticus, who states that “endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God.” I can only hope Acedia & Me will serve and inform you, fellow hopeful despairer, in your own wobbling journey as it has given identity to that which has hounded me, personally, for many years. A Name is more than just a name.


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