Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me; A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 336pp.
It's been fifteen years since Kathleen Norris captured the spiritual imagination of readers with memoirs about leaving New York City for Lemmon, South Dakota (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 1993), and drinking deep at the well of monastic spirituality (Cloister Walk, 1996). Having passed her sixtieth birthday, her latest book reflects a maturing vision of what authentic Christian identity might look like for the contemporary pilgrim. Partly a story of love and lament for her husband David who died of cancer in 2003 at the age of fifty-seven, part historical and theological inquiry, and part psychological analysis, Norris weaves these themes around a singular plot about what the early desert monastics called the "noonday demon" of acedia.
The Greek word acedia has a semantic range that is broad, complex, and elastic. Translators pile up the synonyms: torpor, malaise, ennui, listlessness, apathy and even sloth. Acedia figures prominently in the lives and literature of the early monastics who fled the chaos and clamor of the cities, only to discover a cacophony of voices in the human heart. Norris relates how she too has battled acedia since her teenage years, although she did not always know what it was. Trying to identify with precision just what this ancient and arcane experience really is proves elusive.
Is acedia an external attack by the devil? Interior bad thoughts? A temptation you can resist? How do personality types, your inherited neurobiology, family of origin, and the insights of developmental psychology on "age and stage" inform the analysis? Most important of all is the similarity between acedia and clinical depression. Is acedia a spiritual sin or a medical sickness? Maybe both at the same time? Is this a matter of "do not," "will not" or "cannot" (204)? Norris is acutely aware of this dangerous territory; she knows that in our contemporary culture to distinguish between acedia and depression "can make one suspicious of being in denial, or worse, of judging people who are ill as being morally deficient." She admits that teasing out distinctions is murky and wants to avoid the "false assurances of either/or thinking" (268; cf. 35). But she draws upon her own experiences and the reflections of writers like Evagrius, Kierkegaard, Dante, and contemporary psychiatrists to maintain that whatever their many similarities, acedia and depression are not the same.
Readers can judge for themselves whether Norris succeeds in her task. At times I thought of the joke that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For example, her final chapter is called "Acedia: A Commonplace Book" (289–329); it simply quotes without comment about 125 authors across four thousand years who speak broadly about her theme. A related problem is that the subject dies the death of a thousand qualifications, resulting in a distinction without a clear difference. Norris herself is a wise spiritual pilgrim, but an unintended consequence of her book might be that it encourages popular self-analysis of a complicated phenomenon by sufferers who are far less adept than she is, and who ought to seek professional help (whether spiritual or medical).
Let the scholars howl, says Norris (47). She knows her own story, she knows the early monastics and modern studies, and she's done her homework. She points us toward genuine human wholeness, to greater self-knowledge and less self-consciousness, and to the deep longing of Sarapion of Thmuis (4th century), "Lord! We entreat you, make us truly alive." Acedia and Me might be Norris's most controversial book; it also might be her best one. As I write, it 's #15 on the NY Times nonfiction bestseller list.