Acedia & Me: A Book Review

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Browsing the shelves of wicked-cool used bookstore here in Nashville, McKay Books, I happened upon Kathleen Norris’s (The Cloister WalkDakotaAmazing Grace) latest, Acedia & Me. Though I had no idea she had a new book out, the cheap sticker price for a primo first edition (Note: you will recall from a previous post that I have a more than slight affinity for used bookstores and, especially, first editions) was an easy decision. The title itself was mildly intriguing since I was vaguely familiar with the word, “acedia”, but of which I knew very little. The subtitle, “A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life”, though hardly an enticing, round-em-up, gather-em-in slogan, is true to Ms. Norris’ midwestern style, neither flamboyant nor melodramatic.

norris-book.jpgAcedia, coined the “noonday demon” by the early monastics, is the absence of care when life becomes overly challenging, repetitious and boring, while engagement with other people is too demanding. In short, it is spiritual apathy, and is described as a weariness of soul. Though it is not readily a part of the modern scientific lexicon, acedia, in today’s culture, is generally lumped in with depression and the sin of sloth, one of the supposed seven deadly sins. We treat it with medication, just like everything else. But, as Norris continually illuminates, acedia possesses spiritual roots, and, thus, can ultimately only be treated with spiritual attention and resolve.

The tedium of daily routine, whether you are a writer, an athlete or a garbage collector, can grate on the westernized image of living life to the full, souring the tinseled concept in such a way that daily repetition of just about anything breeds in us contempt. After all, repetition is not very glamorous. We get bored and despair in the seemingly mundane task of being, wondering Why even bother?, seeking salvation from unromantic drudgery at those times when we see our lives as being anything but full and robust. Surely Jesus meant the “abundant” life to be more than this?, we think. As Norris points out through her experiences as a writer, Benedictine oblate, a wife and caretaker of her dying husband, it is that same daily repetition – the redundant, monotonous splendor – which holds the seeds of that very salvation. Learning the true name of the enemy gives us greater advantage, even granting a degree of freedom.

I, admittedly, am an undisciplined writer, writing whenever I feel like it, when inspiration strikes, or when the trees and skies themselves take to writing me their own message. In other words, I enable the acedia in me, by failing to embrace repetition – that “monotonous splendor” – and the creative discipline. Languishing with nothing to say, I lay the guitar aside for months at a time wanting nothing to do with its steel and wood language, because more often than not that language is as foreign to me as a lust for life itself. I lay aside pen and paper for a writer’s millenium, choosing instead to blame it on those familiar culprits, writer’s block or depression. As Ms. Norris states, like marriage and faith, writing is a mystery. The “person” you’re committed to spending life with is known, yet unknown. It is strange when, after years of being together,  the one you thought you knew all too well seems a sudden and complete stranger. I am compelled “to either recommit to the relationship or get the hell out.” In my own torpor and despair, I seek to avoid both blunt writing instruments because, in a very real sense, it is my way of avoiding the physically manifest representations of spiritual mistrust, doubt and my failure to ultimately believe that the things God once declared about me as being good, actually and truly still are. Acedia, as the author observes, “always takes the path of least resistance and attempts to go around, rather than through, the demands that life makes of us.”

Throughout the book Norris continually draws from the early monastics as well as a slew of modern writers, both religious and secular. She often quotes fourth century monk and writer, Evagrius Ponticus, who states that “endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God.” I can only hope Acedia & Me will serve and inform you, fellow hopeful despairer, in your own wobbling journey as it has given identity to that which has hounded me, personally, for many years. A Name is more than just a name.

Profile photo of Eric Peters

Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


15 Comments

  1. UaMV

    Eric, thank you. i have never quite been able to name this. For me it was once mingled with depression and now stands alone, at a distance … returning to haunt at times. In the past, even while loathing its presence, i think i came to develop a semi-embraceable dichotomy of acedia and faith. What it’s really an enemy to – is love. And for this we must fight. Thank you, again. i will certainly have to track down this book.

  2. Loren Eaton

    I, admittedly, am an undisciplined writer, writing whenever I feel like it, when inspiration strikes, or when the trees and skies themselves take to writing me their own message.

    Eric, have you ever read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? It’s got some good stuff in it on discipline and short projects. Also, it’s good to kill your muse.

  3. evie

    Me sloth. Need book.

    But seriously, this will be my next read. I just finished Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and this seems like a fitting follow-up. I first read “Dakota” quite a few years back and was completely blindsided by its quiet brilliance. Norris is a superstar. I read “Cloister Walk” after that and again, wow. So thanks for this review — I’ll be visiting the very same wicked-cool bookstore this afternoon in hopes of finding another copy lurking on those crammed shelves.

  4. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I’ve read most of Acedia and Me. It’s one of those books for which highlighting the good parts ecame almost useless: page after page was highlighted. I was going to write a RR review, but I’m glad you did, Eric. I didn’t know where to start. For me, the starting point for understanding acedia is the idea of rejecting the gift of time. Whatever else God has given or withheld, the one thing you can be sure he will give you is time–every day until the day you die. To throw that time away is to rebel against God-to say, ‘Keep your gift; I wanted something else.’ Those are stark terms, but for me, at least, it helps to put things in those terms–to acknowledge what I’m choosing when I choose to waste another day. That doesn’t mean I always choose correctly…

    To waste time is, to borrow Kathleen Norris’s phrase, is to “spin gold into straw.” That’s a very felicitous phrase…

  5. becky

    “Acedia, coined the “noonday demon” by the early monastics, is the absence of care when life becomes overly challenging, repetitious and boring, while engagement with other people is too demanding. In short, it is spiritual apathy, and is described as a weariness of soul.”

    I immediately connected with this definition. My life is very challenging at the moment, and engaging with other people is always a struggle for me. I tend to be a hermit, especially when something is bothering me. I find myself not feeling very much of anything a lot of the time. I think I need to find this book.

    “…daily repetition of just about anything breeds in us contempt. After all, repetition is not very glamorous. We get bored and despair in the seemingly mundane task of being, wondering Why even bother?, seeking salvation from unromantic drudgery at those times when we see our lives as being anything but full and robust.”

    These lines reminded me of a sermon my pastor preached about Jesus’ life on ordinary days. We only have a record of a few extraordinary days of Jesus’ life before he began his ministry–a few days during the first two or three years, and one day when he was twelve. But his sinlessness during those 30 years of ordinary days is just as vital for our salvation as the day of his death or resurrection. Boring, unromantic days of drudgery matter.

  6. Profile photo of Eric Peters

    Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    I think Kathleen Norris (NOTE: not to be confused with another writer by the same name, but of a different era) would laugh at being called a “superstar”, Evie. But you’re right, she is. “Dakota” remains one of my favorites.

    P.S. Search the Biography section of your local wicked-cool used bookstores for Norris.

    Jonathan, I KNEW you should have been the one to write this book review, not me.
    “It’s one of those books for which highlighting the good parts became almost useless: page after page was highlighted.” Dead on, sir.

    Loren, I have read “Bird by Bird” and loved it. But my retention ability is admittedly not so good. That needs to be a re-read for me.

  7. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Bird by Bird deserves its own RR review. I haven’t read a whole lot of books about writing, but of the ones I’ve read, I think that’s my favorite. My favorite takeaway from that one is when Lamott likens writing a book to driving by headlights. You can’t see around the next curve, but you don’t have to; when you get there, the headlights will illuminate to the next curve. You just take it take it one curve at a time and trust that the way will be lit when you get there. That applies to a lot more of life than writing.

  8. Camille

    Sounds like a very interesting concept. I have often experienced ‘acedia’, even though I have never heard it termed thus. I have found it the most prominent, really, not when I was actually performing the repetitious nature of life and work and duty, but when I extracted myself from my work and let myself laze around and allow a feeling of lethargy creep in, telling myself I didn’t want to work. Fulfilling one’s duty creates happiness and creativity, essentially––and, as Chesterton talks about in ‘Orthodoxy’, repetition is not something that should be avoided, but rather the divine pattern that copies the ecstasy in the sun’s daily rising and the mote nature of the seasons. I’ll definitely have to look up the book. Thanks for taking the time to write about it!

  9. whipple

    Eric, thank you. The name of this malaise makes it a visible target in my mind. And its commonality among us all gives me the hope that only a fellow sinner can possess.

  10. jcm

    Thanks for this review, Eric. I’ve been reading Acedia & Me off and on, when the weariness and busyness of life allow (obviously she wrote this with me in mind).

    One of Ms. Norris’ books not yet mentioned above is Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. This is another one you should look for in that used bookstore. When she came back to the Christian faith, she encountered what she called “a word bombardment” of all the religious terms (“scary words,” she calls them) with which she’d lost touch. The book is the result of her attempt to define these words for herself. Here’s a taste from a piece in the book called “Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity”: “Perhaps my most important breakthrough with regard to belief came when I learned to be as consciously skeptical and questioning of my disbelief and my doubts as I was of my burgeoning faith.”

    Thanks to all for keeping two of my favorites, Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, out of the shadows.

  11. Mike G.

    I first learned of Acedia through LeAnne Payne at her PCM School at Wheaton. It opened up a new world to me and helped me understand much of what was taking place in my life. Thank you for this review, it provided a refreshing reminder of truth.

  12. Profile photo of Jen Rose Yokel

    Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Huzzah for New Rabbit Room’s Great and Terrible Searchability! I was curious if someone reviewed this… lo, and behold, time traveling to 2009!

    Just finished reading this a couple weeks ago, because my sloth makes me perpetually late to the party. So, so good, because it’s helpful to have a name for that sort of foggy, uncaring, undisciplined dark cloud that blows in from time to time. Acedia as a concept came to my attention when I read Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” and finally recognized my own ongoing struggle. These two authors were a huge help in naming that sneaky demon. I can’t recommend this book enough.

    And prior comments make me want to revisit Bird by Bird soon. Also my favorite book on writing!

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