Kathleen Norris combines ancient classical writers on spirituality with the modern search for God. She thinks for herself and yet her memoirs seem to tell the story of others. Her newest book, Acedia & Me: Marriage, Monks and the Writer’s Life, tells her story through what ancient classical writers, like Evagrius Ponticus, called “acedia” — the so-called noonday demon.
So what is acedia, a word that at one time was what all spiritual writers talked about but which has fallen out of favor these days? “He [acedia personified] presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor…. The demon drives him along to desire other sites … [and] leaves not leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. … but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle” (Evagrius, from Norris, preface).
Have you experienced acedia? Is it depression? Is it chemical? What is it? Norris, as a person who has suffered for a long time from depression, knows both depression and acedia and thinks there is a difference.
Now Norris: “I think it is likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon in modern dress… 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” (3).
Acedia is the “absence of care” (3). That is, it is a kind of “spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn” (3).
And she thinks it can strike anyone: “anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better or worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life” (6).
I recommend this book for pastors, for professors, for artists, for writers … for those who are suffering from depression … for those who feel “blah” too often. Join us on Fridays to converse about this book.