- Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life
The woman sits in her spiritual director’s office, listless, twirling her hair. Only a month ago, her prayer life had been crackling with joy and promise. Now it’s tepid at best. Scripture, which had just begun to open its depths, has grown tiresome, and pulling herself out of bed on Sunday morning demands a heroic effort. Even her much-loved children now feel like obstacles in the way of true fulfillment.
A clear case of depression, right? Phone the therapist and reach for the Prozac!
Not so fast. In this challenging, compulsively readable book, Kathleen Norris revives the ancient monastic concept of acedia. One of the “eight bad thoughts” diagnosed by desert fathers and monastic theologians, especially Evagrius and Cassian, the vice of acedia merged in the Middle Ages with the sin of sloth. The Greek word is difficult to translate, but Norris defines it at bottom as inability to care—a syndrome compounded of boredom, laziness, indifference, despair, ingratitude, and unreasoning sadness. The desert monks called acedia “the noonday demon” because it struck them at the hottest, drowsiest time of day, when their meal was still hours away and the monastic cell caged body and soul like a prison. Acedia provoked sudden, desperate flights from the monastery—a phenomenon well-known to monks and nuns even today.
While most readers of this journal are not monastics, it’s a good bet that we have all met the noonday demon. Acedia is the disaffection that poets and novelists know as writer’s block, married people as the seven-year itch, and workers as seething dissatisfaction with their jobs. All these forms of acedia, Norris admits, have bedeviled her own life. As a cultural syndrome, acedia entails a pervasive loss of meaning, its symptoms ranging from the corporate greed of CEOs to the callous incompetence of flunkies, from mindless consumerism to the Columbine school shootings. A friend of the teenaged killers, though horrified by their act, offered the defense that at least “they finally did something” (118). His remark confirms the ancient wisdom that saw deadly sin in what may look to others like harmless boredom. Shockingly destructive and self-destructive acts can proceed from that impulse to “do something,” to relieve the tedium and make a splash—even if it means grabbing headlines through suicide and murder. We are now living in an Age of Acedia, Norris suggests, just as W. H. Auden christened the Age of Anxiety in the Forties.
Obviously, the vice of acedia overlaps with the illness of depression, which some psychiatrists believe is overdiagnosed—partly because of the relentless advertising of pharmaceutical companies. Acedia, on the other hand, is underdiagnosed; even books on Christian spirituality rarely mention it. So how can patients, therapists, and pastors tell the difference between a spiritual vice and what most doctors believe to be a medical illness rooted in faulty brain chemistry? One guideline, Norris claims (though not all psychiatrists would agree), is that “depression generally has an identifiable and external cause that acedia lacks” (147). Another is that a depressed person usually knows something is wrong, even if he or she cannot act on that perception, whereas “acedia will always take the path of least resistance,” blaming circumstances and denying any fault in the self” (150). Although Norris acknowledges the value of psychotherapy and medication, which helped her late [End Page 123] husband’s depression, she warns that therapy is not the same as healing. It can even become an addiction in its own right, fostering narcissism and dependence in some who would profit more from the bracing command of Jesus, “take up your pallet and walk.” But readers who want a checklist of six danger signs or ten ways to tell acedia from depression will be disappointed. Like most of Norris’s books, Acedia & Me is non-linear, a meditation rather than a manual.
Blending memoir with historical theology, cultural critique, and practical spirituality, Norris interweaves the strands of...