Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris.
First, what is acedia?
The ancient word acedia, which in Greek simply means the absence or lack of care, has proved anything but simple when it comes to finding adequate expression in English. Modern writers tend to leave the word untranslated, or to employ the later Latin accedie.
Dictionary definitions Norris provides include heedlessness, torpor, a non-caring state, anxiety, grief, the deadly sin of sloth, spiritual torpor and apathy, a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia. But my favorite definition from the book is from the desert monks who call it “the noonday demon”.
I usually devour books, downing them in enormous gulps without taking time to chew. But Acedia and Me demands to be taken at a slower pace. It requires attention and time for reflection. It demands to be read on its own terms and may prove frustrating for an impatient reader.
It is also a book that is difficult to categorize. I noticed two objections by reviewers on Amazon that hardly seem they could apply to the same book. One reader objected that it wasn’t a memoir, the other that it wasn’t a scholarly study of acedia. Both seem to be not so much problems with the book but with the readers’ expectations. Rather like complaining that a chocolate cake isn’t an apple pie. Hardly a solid foundation for critiquing a cake. The book’s full title, I think, gives one a pretty clear idea of what to expect: Acedia and Me this book is about a relationship, not just about acedia but about acedia as experienced by the author. And as the subtitle promises the themes it will explore are the intersections of acedia with the writer’s marriage—especially with her husband’s illness and death; with monks, who come in both because Norris first encountered the term acedia in the writings of the desert fathers and because she’s a Benedictine oblate and thus has found that participating in the monastic life as a lay person has been for her a primary means of combating acedia; and the writing life, both Norris and her late husband are published poets. That’s quite a grab bag of topics to explore. Ambitious and such a complicated geography portends some serious meandering. But in my book meandering is sometimes a good thing.
It isn’t surprising that a book on acedia is hard to categorize because acedia itself is a slippery term defying easy definition. Acedia, Norris says is an elusive subject and a frequently misunderstood condition. Although she begins with definitions, throughout the book Norris is teasing out distinctions. Among them, what is the difference between the spiritual malaise of acedia and clinical depression? There is a fine line between the two and perhaps a great deal of overlap. Thus Norris tells stories about her experiences with both acedia and depression, stories of her spiritual journey and of her psychological experiences as she explores the shadowy borderlands of a previously unknown realm. And although this is not a scholarly work on acedia, still Norris has done much research on the subject and her book overflows with quotations from the desert fathers to modern day poets and spiritual writers. Lots of insights from monks both historical and contemporary and lots about her life as a writer and what she has learned from the lives of other writers. It’s full of anecdotes not only of her own experiences but of her many encounters with acedia in literature. Additionally, the final appendix is a “commonplace book,” a collection of quotes about the spiritual state of acedia. (I guess they must be the quotes that didn’t otherwise find a home in her manuscript.)
In any case I think the reader who complained that the book isn’t a memoir is wrong because the book is a sort of memoir. What it isn’t is an autobiography. Memoirs are usually about part of a life rather than the chronological telling of a life from childhood to adulthood or old age and tend to be less structured than formal autobiographical works. Gore Vidal defined a memoir as “how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Of course Norris’ book does differ from the more traditional kind of memoir that deals mainly with public life and that emphasize personalities and events other than the writer’s. Rather, I’d say this is a personal memoir, a spiritual memoir, a memoir of a relationship between the author and an idea.
Although to many readers the book seemed disjointed, unfocused and disconnected, I think it is very focused but that the structure is dependent on the subject matter. The subtitle also promises a variety of threads that will weave through the narrative. Marriage, monks and the writing life? That promises to be a complex work. Yes, Norris sometimes seems to wander a bit, but I don’t think she is lost. No, if we seem to come back to the same place again and again it is because each time we approach from a slightly different angle. Acedia is a slippery beast and stalking it requires an indirect approach and a discursive technique.
What Norris’ book is not is a prescription. She’s not writing self-help, though I believe it might be of great assistance to persons suffering from acedia. Rather it is a collection of stories, her own and other people’s. What it is is inspiring, thoughtful, hard to put down. Highly recommended for anyone struggling with spiritual dryness, difficulty in prayer.