Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Deadly Couch Potato Bug

Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life
by Kathleen Norris

It was only about a year ago that I learned about the spiritual condition known as acedia. The desert monks of the first few centuries knew all about it, but for reasons that Norris articulates in her book, acknowledgment of acedia and frank discussion of it went out of fashion for several hundred years. Acedia is loosely identified with the "deadly sin" of sloth. Formal definitions go on and on, but some of the common ones are listlessness, apathy, despondence, indolence, and (for me the scariest one of all) an inability to care.

A fellow writer, when Norris admitted that she was writing a book about acedia, said to her "when you take on acedia you have taken on the devil himself." The descriptions that Norris writes of acedia, and the personal examples taken from her own life of when she has struggled with it, are helpful in illuminating the characteristics of this temptation. However, even though Norris devotes a lot of words to describing the spiritual condition/temptation of acedia and how it differs from the clinical illness of depression, I still found it difficult to distinguish between the two. While I understand that acedia can be combated with prayer and scripture and physical activity, I would want to be very careful about implying that someone who is coping with mental illness is succumbing to sin and should just pray his/her way out of it.

Norris herself acknowledges this slippery slope, and is clear that psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs help a multitude of people who are coping with depression. She also raises the possibilities that we are too quick to medicate, that some people who believe themselves to be depressed may really be overcome by acedia, or that their depression is a result of their acedia. For me the book's primary strength was its reminding the reader that there are resources available to help us through gloomy times that are right at our fingertips: psalms, hymns, consistent prayer, journaling, and other monastic disciplines. These practices, possibly undertaken in conjunction with medical assistance if necessary, can go a long way toward helping someone move from an inert state (both spiritually and physically).

This is not Kathleen Norris's best book. She has clearly done years of research on the topic, and really knows her stuff. However, there are places in the book where several pages read like an endless string of quotes from Evagrius, St. John of the Cross, and other early monastics. I appreciate that Norris has done her homework, and a few quotes to back up her points are fine. But she is a persuasive enough writer in her own right, she does not need to back herself up with every word ever written on acedia. The final chapter, consisting only of quotes and definitions of acedia, is repetitive and feels like a weak finish.

Nevertheless, there is good information to be mined here. Norris's candor is refreshing and her perspective as someone who struggles with acedia but who has come to the other side of it many times is hopeful. Reading Kathleen Norris always helps me be more consistent in my own practices and disciplines, and inspires me to nurture my own inner poet. If you have never read her, you really should, but I would recommend starting with Dakota or Amazing Grace.

Reverent Reader


At 8/11/09, 12:18 PM , Blogger Saying Grace said...


Another example of why we are kindred spirits in all things literary.

This book has been profoundly important to me precisely because KN names so carefully what I've experienced deeply. While it is certainly not here easiest and most elegant book, that would be Dakota, I think it is her most mature. There is more seasoned wisdom here than in others and I found it to be here most theologically informed.

This book also explains the oddness of her presentations that she made while experiencing what she writes about here.

The recovery of the notion of Acedia may help a great many people and not the least, clergy folk who too easily self medicate rather than consider the spiritual depths that Norris describes in such honest detail.

At 8/11/09, 1:57 PM , Anonymous Leslie said...

Roy - you may be right that in facing acedia head on, she displays a spiritual maturity that has grown over the years, through the ups and downs of her life that she reveals in her other writings.

It's clear that she feels passsionate about getting people to think about the topic, perhaps because (at least in part) she wants to spare us some of the pain that she endured.

She's great and I'm glad I read the book. Thanks for writing, and welcome back from Colorado. I liked your pics on facebook!


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