Monday, February 15, 2010


I decided to read "Acedia and Me" by Kathleen Norris for two reasons. I wanted to discover if acedia was the malady that has dogged me since my 30s (it is not), and whether or not Norris is as intellectually dense to me as she has always been. Or rather, to see if I am as intellectually dense - in the sense of a dullard - as I usually am when I read her.

Kathleen Norris is a familiar name to those of us in western North Dakota. She is a New York Times bestselling author that we can claim as one of our own. Actually, she lived in Lemmon, SD, but that's close enough for us Dakotans. Her other bestsellers include "The Cloister Walk" and "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography."

You could even say that Norris is my bugaboo, journalistically speaking. I actually interviewed her once when I was working at the Bismarck Tribune. When I went to my notes afterward, I discovered that I could not write the story, as I could not make head nor tail out of what she had said. That had never happened to me before, and never happened again.

And I doubt very much that Norris was at fault. I do not remember her being inarticulate, or scattered, or deliberately obtuse. If she were, she could not have had such success with her books. No, I feel as if it is I, not Norris, who is the problem. I'm afraid she is often inaccessible to me, intellectually.

I approached "Acedia" then, with a sense of impending failure to comprehend it; a failure, even, to finish the book. I am relieved to say that I did finish it and I did understand it.

As I mentioned before, I wanted to read the book to see if acedia is the "ailment" that has plagued me for so long. But no, my albatross is plain old depression, not of the weeping and sadness kind, but of the "can't get up off the couch" variety.

And acedia is neither. Norris believes that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as apathy, boredom or torpor "do not begin to cover it". Other concepts of acedia include weariness, despair, ennui, restless, futility, sloth.

Indeed, French monk Placide Desaille describes acedia as "so pregnant with meaning that it frustrates every attempt to translate it." At its Greek root, acedia means the absence of care. Writes Norris, "The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, you can't rouse yourself to give a damn."

The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid, Norris writes. "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."

Acedia was a problem for monks as early as the Fourth Century AD, and so Norris studied their writings extensively to understand their "noonday demon" in order to learn how to conquer her own acedia. To these monks, acedia was one of the eight "bad habits". In the Fifth Century, these became the 7 Deadly Sins, with acedia dropped from the list.

Norris' study of "Monks" explains one word of her subtitle; as does her interaction with the Benedictine monks at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND. Although she was and still remains a Protestant, fully engaged in her religion and in her worship at the local Presbyterian church of her grandparents, Norris becomes an oblate of the abbey. In particular, she takes great comfort in the singing of the Psalms.

Another word in the subtitle is "Marriage". Norris' husband David, a lapsed Catholic, doesn't quite comprehend her affinity for monastic ways, but is understanding. And she is understanding and compassionate about his depression. I found it fascinating that a woman with acedia and a man with depression (he nearly commits suicide and is hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a time) had such a strong and long-lived (30 year) marriage. They did work on it.

The best parts of the book, for me, were when Norris wrote about the "Me" in "Acedia and Me." As a teenager growing up in Hawaii, she was a shy, awkward teenager holding on to her copy of one of Soren's Kierkegaard's books as if it were a rescue raft. She eventually "escapes" to New York. In her 30s, she and her husband, both poets, move from New York to rural South Dakota. There, she struggles with her acedia and also with depression, thinking herself at one time to be manic depressive.

She also wrestles with her writing and her tendency to turn people away from her. She becomes an advocate and a fierce warrior for her husband in his battles with his emotional and physical illnesses. Finally, she writes of the tender, loving way they together faced his death at age 57 from cancer. At the end of the book, she is a widow trying to define herself but still walking a spiritual path.

Even though I learned that acedia is not a problem of mine, I still found great value in this book in Norris' discussions of attaining grace, dealing with unresolved anger and the general acedia that plagues inhabitants of the technological 21st Century world. "Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some Christian monks," she says, "but a force we ignore at our peril."

"We may look to physicians or therapists, when our lives go off track, or we may pray the Psalms, or take refuge in a favorite novel. But in a sense we are all seeking the same thing. We want to prepare a good soil where grace can grow; we want to regard the cracks and fissures in ourselves with fresh eyes, so that they may be revealed not merely as the cause or the symptom of our misery but also as places where the light of promise shines through."

~ "Acedia and Me", Kathleen Norris

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