A couple of weeks ago I started reading Kathleen Norris’s new book Acedia and Me. My introduction to Norris was in college where I had to read The Cloister Walk for class. I have to admit that I wasn’t that in to reading her stuff back then. Although I am certain that my disinterest had less to do with her than with me. CW is a spiritual autobiography of sorts tracking, as she calls it, her “immersion into the liturgical world.” She makes her way through the early church fathers such as Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Gregory the Great. She talks about the “mystics” such as Hildegard of Bingen. She also spends time working through the Rule of Saint Benedict. CW is a wonderful account of a Protestant becoming familiar with her own ancient tradition.
In Acedia and Me she tackles a particular subject found all through the Christian tradition. Acedia is a difficult thing to define. The short version definition is lack of care. She says, “the person afflicted with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.” She likens it to a kind of “spiritual morphine” that not only stifles our desire for God and one another but our desire to take care of our selves (3). Suddenly nothing seems worth it. Making the bed every day is pointless since you will just climb back in at night and ruin what you have done. Worse is the loss of desire to sleep at night and wake up the morning. Modern psychology has often confused laziness and sloth and even depression with Acedia. Part of this has to do with the fact that Acedia as a word/concept went under the radar for so long. Perhaps what doctors and therapists have tried to treat with medication required a more “spiritual” form of direction. Norris always seems to go back to fixed-hour prayer and the Psalms.
Norris is not trying to establish an either/or between Acedia and whatever we have discovered through medicine and psychology. Rather, she wants to recover the idea that part of our depression, laziness, sloth, boredom, etc is not so easily resolved with medication, or even a swift kick in the pants. There is a formational aspect to health and wholeness that Acedia names quite well. Of course, naming is not the name of the game. Naming our conditions helps, but there is also overcoming them, which requires an end to which we must go, a self that is possible. At this point Norris talks about being the image of God.
Acedia, however, is not to be confused with the dark night of the soul, as many call it. What troubled Saint John of the cross, and even Mother Teresa, cannot be labeled acedia. Lacking the felt presence of God is not Acedia, for often time we still long/desire for God and we maintain a sense of what we must do in this life in terms of caring for our others as well as ourselves.
So, that’s the jist of what she is talking about. It’s a good and timely read, I think. Shifting gears a little, I do want to leave with a quote that seems apt to our present digital/virtual age. On the one hand, I couldn’t help but wonder how many us just simply don’t care; I mean really don’t care. On the other hand, in light of the recent political divide in the United States, could it be that many are fighting of the despair of acedia because they hope for something better? Although this quotes ends on a somber note, it’s very revealing. Anyways ...
“When acedia has so thoroughly possessed us, making life seem so dull that only artificial stimulation can get our attention, it may be crazy to suggest that the ordinary rhythms of time, the passing of day and night, have something to teach us, or that there is a world to be revealed when the mall is closed, the electric power has failed, and it is too dark to see anything but shadows and stars. Cast back on our lonely, raw, and wounded selves, we may find the nobody is home.”