Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

by Kathleen Norris

Paperback, 2010

Status

Available

Call number

Adult > Saints/Memoir/Biography

Publication

Riverhead Books (2010), Edition: Reprint, 334 pages

Description

Kathleen Norris's masterpiece: a personal and moving memoir that resurrects the ancient term acedia, or soul-weariness, and brilliantly explores its relevancy to the modern individual and culture.

User reviews

LibraryThing member zibilee
Though almost everyone is familiar with depression, acedia is a much less well known affliction. Mostly a term used in the monastic community, acedia can be described as a type of emotional slothfulness. Everyday tasks become harder and more pointless to perform, and emotions are dulled almost to
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the point of desensitization. Acedia takes the form of an unsettled boredom that permeates every area of life, be it physical, emotional or social. In her new book, Kathleen Norris examines acedia in all it's mysterious forms, attempting to explain why it is different from depression and some of the ways that it can be dealt with. Interspersed with her reflections on the issue, we become familiar with the religious implications of acedia and get a crash course on the spiritual response to this ponderous problem. In addition, Norris chronicles her life with acedia and her relationship with her husband, who battled physical and mental illness. Part memoir, part reflection, Norris attempts to explain the emotional lassitude that so many suffer from and so few can name. With courage and determination she delves into her psyche and that of the community at large to engage and define a problem that defies drugs, therapy and advice.

In large part this book was theoretical and illusive. Not really recognized by the mental health community, acedia lies merely in the realm of speculation and experience. While the author's attempt to explain and understand this problem was interesting, many people to whom I mentioned the topic "acedia" gave me a blank stare and said they had never heard of it. This included a mental health professional who expressed interest in the book. Though this problem seems to be an unknown entity, Norris gives us a historical frame of reference for this malady and explains why it is no longer recognized in society. She encourages the reader to look at this problem in terms of a spiritual dissonance that can be corrected with reflection and prayer rather than medication and rationalization. As the book went on, though, there were a few things that stuck out. The first was that although an attempt was made for the book to be hopeful, it was not. The picture portrayed was not unlike the myth of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down over and over. The author seems to suggest that this affliction is doomed to be suffered over and over again, with different results from each self-administered treatment. Her own battle with this problem, she acknowledges, has been a lifetime struggle that she can never seem to overcome. Another issue that I came across was the implication that only those sufficiently pious would be able to overcome this problem. Many times her solution to acedia was prayer or spiritual reflection. While prayer is something that I do regularly, and does indeed benefit me tremendously, many people do not have the same feeling towards spiritual meditation. This makes her discourse a little alienating. With as many religious ideologies as there are out there, there are many people who don't ascribe to religion at all. To them, this book would be pointless. One can argue that most of those people wouldn't pick up this book, but the good points made in this book should be able to be shared by anyone affected by this problem. I think it is a bit dismissive to only examine one way of dealing with a problem. I am aware that this is the author's show, and it is her prerogative to handle her reflections in any way she would like, but the effect is a bit non-inclusive.

Despite these misgivings, I found that this book had a hypnotic quality to the writing that kept me wanting to explore further and delve deeper. Many of the passages had bits and snippets of prayers wrapped in, and some were moving and beautiful. I found many hidden gems among this book, new ways of looking at things, and reflections and connections that I would have never made without the author's introspective analysis. Her information had a way of winding around itself, coming back to the same points repeatedly, but this was not troublesome. In a way it was like a good speaker highlighting the same points in order to reaffirm their importance and drive home the message. The book was also very informative about the monastic community, its tenants and its values. There is no doubt in my mind that acedia exists, and that there is relief from this problem. I believe that the ability of this author to take a foreign and illusive concept and relate it in a way that everyone will recognize and understand is a great achievement
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LibraryThing member avisannschild
I have been struggling with my review of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life for quite a long time now, not only because I find nonfiction more difficult to review in general, but also because Norris’ struggle with acedia resonated with me on a personal level and I’m having
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trouble articulating my thoughts about this book without rambling.

At the beginning of the book, Norris explains that:

“At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. 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, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. . . . Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother” (pp. 3-4).

Norris gives an example of how acedia can take hold of her life:

“It begins as a deceptively slight shift in thought, or rather—in a process much commented on by the desert monks—a quick succession of thoughts that distract me from my right mind. I’ve been working too long and need a break; maybe I should read a mystery novel to clear my head. I tell myself that I’m too weary to concentrate. I tell myself that it is a matter of respecting my limitations, and of being good to myself. If I manage to read one book, and then return to my other obligations, no harm is done. But often, one book does not satisfy me. My ‘rest’ has only made me more restless, and as I finish one book, I am tempted to pick up another. If I don’t check myself, I can slip into a state both anxious and lethargic, in which I trudge through four or five paperbacks a day, for three or four days running. I am consuming books rather than reading them. . . . The contemporary maxim, ‘Listen to your body,’ is useless to me when all I want to do is lie down, turn pages, and ignore that ringing phone [my emphasis]” (pp. 15-16).

This resonated deeply with me: reading this passage was an “aha” moment. I do this. I know this helplessness in the face of what seems like mindless repetition, this hollowed-out feeling like nothing matters, everything is meaningless. I’ve also struggled with the fact that in those moments listening to my body doesn’t feel helpful at all.

Norris goes on to meditate on the nature of acedia based primarily on the writings of early monks, as well as to examine its impact on her life, her writing and her marriage. Although I would recommend Acedia & Me to anyone who identifies with Norris’s description of acedia—this book certainly gave me a different perspective on my own “soul weariness”—I found the book lacked narrative structure. It is possible to combine a more scholarly approach with a memoir: Noelle Oxenhandler did it successfully in The Wishing Year: An Experiment in Desire, which I just finished reading recently. Unfortunately, Acedia & Me felt disorganized to me, as if Norris did not have enough distance from the subject matter to write about it clearly. I also wished the book was more personal—with more about her marriage and her writing life and less about the desert monks (these parts of the book started to feel repetitive after a while). Despite this, Acedia & Me is a thought-provoking primer on the all-but-forgotten "sin" of acedia. Norris even includes a commonplace book at the end of Acedia & Me, with quotes about acedia throughout history, starting with the Psalms and Seneca and ending with contemporary writers as diverse as Anita Brookner, Maurice Sendak and Roland Barthes.

A slightly different version of this review can be found on my blog, she reads and reads.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Ms. Norris' writings on such an obscure word were extensive and insightful. I really respected her willingness to try and tease out the differences between "classical depression" and acedia. I recognized myself in many of her descriptions of struggling with repetition, and boredom, and
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"soul-weariness". I wished that there was more of a narrative of her personal life experiences - particularly since the subtitle sort of suggests that the book will be about her marriage and her writing life. However, I'm a big fiction fan, so I'm partial to narratives. This book is dense with the history of acedia, with all the myriad meanings attached to the word, and with ancient suggestions for combating acedia that somehow seem to be strangely modern. The middle of the book was somewhat difficult for me to keep reading, but as the book draws to an end, I found that the journey brought me, at last, to a hopeful place. I look forward to re-reading passages and chapters and re-discovering gems of insight.
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LibraryThing member jocraddock
Acedia & me
By Kathleen Norris
Hardcover: 352 pps.
Publisher: Riverhead Books
ISBN: 978-1-59448-996-9

Kathleen Norris' memoir brings us her personal journey of spiritual awakening, acedia, depression, meditation and loss.

Although I've appreciated Norris' stories in The CloisterWalk, and some of her
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other writings, her style is not an easy one for me. Her spreading of parts is difficult for me to follow, and I often have to re-read a section, or even a chapter, to feel I'm gathering the pertinent parts. However, this is not a chore, and I do so knowing I will often find another gem in my re-reading.

Her historical and theological discussion of acedia is fascinating. And insightful. The “noonday demon” recognized in the early Church still haunts us, but we search too often for the latest diversion (usually pharmacologic or commercial), rather than challenging it head on, with prayer and discernment of the true need of our soul.

Norris is careful to distinguish between acedia and true depression and shares her personal experiences as well as of those vital to her which affected her and successfully encourages appropriate responses to both.

I will not face my noonday demon in the same way again.
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LibraryThing member reader247
Kathleen Norris parallels some of her life with the ancient "soul weariness" term acedia. Partly a memoir and partly poetry, she looks at her life and this slothful, soul weary indifference that we really can relate to in many ways in our world today.
This was at times very hard to read when Norris
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pointed out certain moments in her life that were so common to me and yet I never looked at this perspective before. The book is filled with references to acedia throughout history. I thought it was a very interesting read.
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LibraryThing member seph
I picked this book up when I was suffering a bout of depression and looking for a handhold or two to aid in my climb out. It's not so much a self-help book as it is a memoir, but there are always lessons in other people's struggles, and there were lots of valuable lessons shared here. I was
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thrilled just to learn the word, "acedia", and to know that the particular kind of dark ennui/depression I was fighting had a name and a history, relieved to find out it was not my own personal hell but something people have always had to fight. I'm not Christian and I find a lot of scripture rubs me the wrong way, but the Psalms shared here, as well as the common sense of the monastic wisdom, really did provide comfort and helpful advice for dealing with these moods that take hold of me. Thanks to Norris' sharing what she's experienced and learned, I now feel more capable of keeping those dark moods at bay.
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LibraryThing member robinamelia
This is a powerful and profound book. I recommend it for readers over 40. While the problems of acedia may exist at any age, I don't think we perceive them as clearly until we reach the "noonday" of our lives: middle age. This is a book about what it means to be in it for the long haul, in life, in
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a relationship (a marriage), on a spiritual path. Our culture doesn't appreciate the repetitive, day to day activities, but, Norris argues, Christians should. The book does not give us precise instructions on how to do that, but it does present the wisdom of centuries of theology that has somehow fallen by the wayside. She's done a remarkable job of unearthing a myriad of references to acedia (the condition that devolved into the sin of sloth, but is so much more and, as Norris teaches, naming one's demon can be a step towards liberation), She has learned these truths the only way to learn them, the hard way, and tells her story with her usual skill.
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LibraryThing member 2chances
So I bought this book because I truly love Kathleen Norris. We both have a thing for the Desert Fathers and medieval mysticism. We both like esoteric knowledge, like knowing what "acedia" is. Acedia is the sin that is often translated as "sloth", but it's actually quite tricky to define - it's a
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sort of spiritual laziness, a kind of soul-deep boredom and distaste for the world and everything in it. So that's a pretty deep concept there, and Norris is usually pretty good at exploring that stuff and connecting to stories of daily life.

But her husband died in 2003 and it really seems to have checked her ability to tell stories. This is a sort of recap of everything the medieval dudes had to say about acedia with very little to link it to contemporary experience. No stories to speak of, in other words. And - sorry, Kathleen, but it has to be said - it's kind of...boring.

But cheer up! Kathleen, I know you can do better! Next time, tell me some good stories and I'll be your biggest fan again, I promise.
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LibraryThing member IndyLibrarian
I've only read one chapter. I have nothign to say.
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I remember reading Norris's earlier books Dakota and The Cloister Walk ten years or more ago and really enjoying them as books about the inner life, or spirituality, which were very accessible to the everyday lay reader like me. This one not so much. The various definitions and the idea of acedia,
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which were a unifying thread throughout the book were, I think, simply beaten to death - torpor, indifference, not caring, a kind of depression, even. Okay, okay. I get it - I think. I found myself skimming and skipping over long sections about this concept and what the various ancients, saints, philosophers and theologians had to say about it. Maybe it was simply all a bit too scholarly and esoteric for a clod like me. Norris obviously has studied the subject deeply. So it was me, not her.

What I did find most interesting, were the more personal parts, the "memoir" aspect of the book - about Norris's adolescence and her marriage to poet David Dwyer, who was probably bipolar, and had a long history of mental illness and serious health problems, which finally caused his death at the age of 57. I learned that she was writing her earlier memoir, The Virgin of Bennington (which I liked very much), during the final months of Dwyer's life, while taking care of him and gettting him back and forth to the hospital and various appointments and therapies. She knew he was dying, and yet she kept working, which must have been an incredibly difficult and stressful time for her. Some of her description of the aftermath of David's death and how it affected her brought to mind passages from another memoir detailing grief, Anne Roiphe's eloquent Epilogue.

In short, the parts I liked I liked very much. The other parts were... well, they all but put me to sleep. But I still think Norris is a wonderful writer, and will continue to seek out and sample her books.
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LibraryThing member shannonkearns
I really enjoy Norris' writing and how she weaves history, theology, and personal narrative together.
LibraryThing member empress8411
I understood this book to be about depression and marriage and God. It was so much more. Acedia is not depression; it is much more insidious. Norris once again wields her words with amazing dexterity. I might write ad nauseum about how much I adored this book and home much is helped my
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understanding of my own struggles. Instead, I offer a selection of my favorite quotes from the book.

"At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. 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, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn." (page 3)

"Whatever age we live in our perspective is always much more limited than we believe, and even as we progress in our understanding, blind spots remain that astonish and appall those who come after us." (page 35)

"“The very nature of marriage means saying yes before you know what it will cost. Though you may say the “I do” of the wedding ritual in all sincerity, it is the testing of that vow over time that makes you married.” (page ?)

"Because we are made in God's image, in fleeing from a relationship with a loving God, we are also running from being our most authentic selves.” (page ?)

"To quote Merton, "It takes real courage to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of our own unhappiness.” (page ?)

"To people schooled in a religon that has often seemed to define sin as a grocery list of dos and don'ts, these monks can seem, as Dominican Simon Tugwell explains in Ways of Imperfection "rather casual about morality". They were not concerned, he writes, "that people should behave correctly according to the rules, but rather that people should be able to see their situation clearly for what it is, and so become free from the distorting perspective which underlies all our sins" (page 135)

"When I saw the film I was reminded of the helpful distinction that Thomas Merton makes regarding Cassian's differentiation between acedia and sadness. Merton comments that the "sadness caused by adversity and trial in social life" generally comes from "a lack of peace with others" But acedia is far more insidious; it is "the sadness, the disgust of life, which comes fro a much deeper source - our inability to get along with ourselves, our disunion with God." (page 148)
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LibraryThing member katzenmicd
Kathleen Norris’ Acedia & me is a wonderfully helpful read. I was struck by how she wove biography in with historical theology to create a book that speaks directly to readers’ lives.

She bases most of her discussion on acedia on Evagrius’ writings (two of which I’ve written about here and
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here). Evagrius defines acedia as the noonday demon that makes the day feel 50 hours long, urges the monk to abandon his way of life, and stirs up hatred between brothers and sisters. Fundamentally, Norris points out, acedia means “lack of care.” Once acedia removes one’s ability to care, one is left in a potential downward spiral, leading from not caring to not feeling to not wanting to be. This follows Evagrius’ demonology: the external demon stirs one’s thoughts; one can choose to harbor or dismiss the through; if harbored, the thought stirs a passion (a technical term for Evagrius) causing a person to act harmfully/sinfully. Acedia is one of the thoughts that can get stirred, and we can either accept the thought or “wage war” (cf. Abba Agathon’s words quoted on 96) against it with prayer and psalm.

Norris begins with the story of Abba Paul, one of the desert fathers, who spent his days making baskets, praying while he worked. Living too far from civilization, he would simply make baskets as a means to occupy himself with labor and so create space to pray, avoiding idleness which is conducive to acedia. Since he could not journey to sell his baskets, he simply burned them when his cave began to overflow with them. This seeming “useless activity” was actually nourishing life-giving habits in Paul. Norris writes, “The tale is a wry comment on the futility of all human effort, and on mortality itself. . . . Our work is bound to be forgotten. But monks still tell Paul’s story because they take heart from his perseverance and bold humility in the face of acedia. His steadfast labor at both work and prayer reminds us that even if what we do seems worthless, it is worth doing” (19). Norris points out that the repetitive work Paul engages in is nothing less than training (“a root meaning of asceticism“) for coming to rest (from the Greek hesychia which “refers to the spirituality of the desert”). She adds that Nouwen claimed “pray always” could literally be translated “come to rest.” All this repetitive training for resting “mirrors eternity in its changelessness (5). Here, then, acedia’s snare is especially troublesome: instead of training for ceaseless praise, acedia temps solitaries (and everyone else) to accept “the ease of indifference” (6). It is that ease that we must resist.

Norris traces the decline of the use of acedia as a term, saying that as we’ve lost the language for the noonday demon, we’ve hindered ourselves from being able to identify the true cause of our despondency. Although we tend not to use the term demon (though I have no problem with the word as Evagrius used it), Norris contends that an apt translation might be “issues”: “what we call ‘issues’ the early monks called ‘demons'” (33). And while they spoke of demons, the desert dwellers rarely spoke of sin — especially in regard to acedia. It was one of the thoughts that the demons stir up. Thought not sin, as Norris points out. In this nuance, Norris sees an opportunity for healing by naming acedia as a source of carelessness instead of a cause of fallenness. Healing is offered by being able to name and tame, as it were, the corresponding thoughts — nostalgia, sadness, etc. — that accompany acedia and take us down the downward spiral of carelessness.

As alluded to above, one of the two weapons against acedia, and indeed against all the demons, is prayer, and prayer requires always beginning again. Norris writes,

"Monastic writers have always emphasized that maintaining a life of prayer means being willing to start over, after one has acted in a sinful or destructive way. Both pride and acedia will assert themselves, and it may appear that we are so far gone we may as well give up and not embarrass ourselves further by pretending to be anything but failures. It seems foolish to believe that the door is still open, that there is always another chance. I may accept this intellectually, but I have come to appreciate its depths only through experience. Just when I seem to have my life in balance and imagine I can remain in this happy state forever, I lose sight of the value of contemplation and prayer, and try to live without it. Soon enough, once again, I am picking myself up out of the ashes.

". . . When acedia tempted [early Christian monks] from [their prayer rules], they were admonished to make their way back as quickly as possible. It is all a matter of falling down and standing up again, no matter how many times. Typically, the desert fathers provide a gnomic commentary on this aspect of their lives: 'Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, "Can a man lay a new foundation every day?" The old man said, "If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment"'” (86).

Acedia can make us feel that prayer is impossible, but Norris suggests that if we get to that state a good short prayer is taken from Psalm 70: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” She quotes a monk who said lowering standards can also help break us out of a funk; when he was unable to pray the liturgy of the hours, the monk simply prayed Psalm 117 (the shortest of the Psalms). Norris cautions that lowering standards can be a good short-term fix, but that acedia can lay claim to the lowered standards until all standards are abandoned. Caution and discernment are required (282–284).

The other weapon against the demons was the Psalms, and more broadly speaking, the whole of Scripture. Psalms and books of the Bible were memorized in their entirety so that they readily combat the demons.

Labor is also a weapon against acedia; Evagrius counseled: “What heals acedia is staunch persistence. . . . Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it” (100). Additionally, being fully present when undertaking tasks is vital for flourishing (132).

Another strategy for overcoming acedia Norris suggests is reading the desert fathers and mothers can help break us out of acedia’s grasp because their stories remind us that these demons can be overcome (269).

Throughout Norris compares and contrasts acedia and clinical depression — an interesting exercise though I feel unqualified to speak to her psychological insights. She also narrates her own struggles with acedia and depression and with her husbands failing health — a moving story that shows how the stability of marriage can prop us up in ways we can’t see coming. I’m grateful for her vulnerability and openness in telling these stories.

My suspicion is that you’ll benefit from this book — a literal must-read.
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LibraryThing member nmele
A mix of personal reminiscences and an examination of the phenomena lumped together under the title "acedia", this book held my interest throughout, and gave me some resources for further reading, not always on the subject of acedia.
LibraryThing member autumnesf
This book was not what I thought it was going to be, hence the low rating. I thought it was going to focus more on solitude. Instead, I got an education on Acedia (kinda like depression but not) and then a lot of Catholic theology. Parts were very interesting, but this is just not my preferred
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reading.
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LibraryThing member JRobinW
Someone asked me to summarize "Acedia" when it took Norris an entire book. The best way I understand it after reading the book is it's the feeling of "why bother?" This book helped me look at my life differently and start opening to some things in my personality that need review. The last chapter
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of the book is tedious and I want to say, unnecessarily depressing. She got my mood turned around by the penultimate chapter and then brought me down in the last chapter. And yet, the last chapter is important because she's wanting to assure that the reader has all the different pictures that show acedia's face.
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Original language

English

Original publication date

2008-09-16

Physical description

334 p.; 5.48 inches

ISBN

1594484384 / 9781594484384

Awards

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