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

By Kathleen Norris
352 pages; Riverhead

You say you have "issues"—galloping restlessness and an inability to concentrate; habitual, crashing boredom; a sour take on life; a certainty that nothing matters and you couldn't care less. But Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk as well as other reflections on spirituality, is tempted to say you're plagued by a demon (think of it as an activator of destructive thoughts), specifically the "noonday demon" that medieval—and modern—monks called acedia. This unnerving state has much in common with depression, but there's a difference, as Norris is keen to point out: Depression, she believes, is a medical condition, treatable with therapy and drugs; acedia, quaint as this may sound, is a vice, a ruthless spiritual sloth that grips any number of contemporary souls, and that must be named—like the wily Rumpelstiltskin—in order to be defeated.

"Acedia's genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are and mock that which sustains us," Norris writes. It's the mockery that rankles most, whether we shrug at the thought of washing our hair or making our beds—basic expressions of self-respect—or, in Norris's case, writing a book. But write she does, clearing a path to clarity for the rest of us. A deeply personal narrative, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life (Riverhead), shows how the numbing repetitions of everyday life, whether in a monastary or a house in rural South Dakota, can lead to a sense of hopelessness, leaving us "immunized from feeling itself." She tells how she came to understand and finally embrace her own difficult marriage—to a self-sabotaging poet with increasingly debilitating illness—"as a form of asceticism." Sifting insights from early Christian desert fathers, from Kafka and Kierkegaard, Huxley, Baudelaire, Ionesco, Styron, and others, she considers the artistry of despair, "the fashionably negative pose of ironic detachment, of experiencing life as 'less than zero.'" And gently, with no fanfare, she preaches the practicality of love—healing, empowering, sustaining. What demon, however insidious, can compete with that?


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