Curing Lethargy ... or Whatever
Putting to death the noonday demon. A review of Kathleen Norris's Acedia & Me.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher | posted 8/21/2008 10:15AM
Book Review - Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life
by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead, 352 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)
Kathleen Norris has accomplished the impossible again. Who else but this much-loved author, poet, and Benedictine oblate could resurrect a Latin word from its oak-gall-ink-and-vellum grave? And why should we care about acedia, a word with no direct translation in English? Centuries before Pink Floyd sang the haunting, "I have become comfortably numb," the earliest monks experienced this debilitating apathy. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life (4 stars) chronicles Norris's own struggle with soul-killing tedium, starting at 15, when she first asked, "Why bother?"
Norris tells us how acedia accompanied her into adulthood, and how it became a part of her marriage. But for years her "inner devastation" had no name. In her 30s, she discovered Evagrius Ponticus in a dusty monastery library, and the writings of this fourth-century Christian monk identified acedia as "the noonday demon" that attacks the hungry, weary soul, making us run from God's love in the middle of our days.
Norris calls acedia the "spiritual morphine" that we choose when life or other people become "too demanding"—admitting that "you know the pain is there yet can't rouse yourself to [care]." Still battling this ennui today in her 60s, she complains to a Benedictine friend about the 24/7 nature of the so-called "noonday demon," only to be told: "Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere."
Although Norris defines despair as the central problem of our day, Acedia & Me is full of hope and what the philosoper Søren Kierkegaard called "the passion of possibility." Norris dedicated her book to her husband, the poet David Joseph Dwyer, who died on October 24, 2003, after a long illness. We follow her love through this dark time and witness acedia's antonym in her caregiving. During the last, hard year of her husband's life, Norris could not pray. Instead, she cleaned his urinals and commodes day by day, finding gratitude in this menial activity, which she called making "the prayer of the commode."
Acedia & Me is the most intimate work to date by the author best known for The Cloister Walk. The result of Norris's decades-long meditation on acedia is peaceful, graceful prose, amplified by word histories and gentle humor. Throughout, she quotes her friends both living and dead. The desert fathers and mothers; the psalmist David; other poets, especially Dante; rock musician Lou Reed; contemporary theologians and monastics like Martin Marty and Mary Forman; novelists John Bunyan and Graham Greene; Kierkegaard; Martin Luther; and mystics like John of the Cross—they all have a say. In dialogue with them, Norris asks the big questions. Are acedia and depression synonymous? Are we overmedicated? What is sin? What does it mean to be human and made in God's image? Can monastic wisdom help us live better?
In the end, her remedies for acedia are simple: Go for a walk. Memorize Scripture. Sing Psalms. Seek community. Worship. Shovel manure. Dust a bookshelf. Wash dishes. Study. Read. Write. And be kind to one another.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher, associate professor of medieval studies at Shorter College, and author of Man of Blessing. Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today.