Wineskins Archive

January 20, 2014

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Mar – Apr 2009)

Filed under: — @ 7:32 pm and

by Alan Cochrum
March – April, 2009

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

Kathleen Norris
Riverhead Books, $25.95

If your reaction upon picking up Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life is “Who cares?,” you may be exactly the kind of person who needs to read Kathleen Norris’ latest volume.

Of course, if you are the sort who keeps up with such things as bestselling religious books – yes, Virginia, there are such things – you may need no further spur than the author’s name. The 1996 book The Cloister Walk introduced many people to this South Dakota writer whose spirituality is Presbyterian on one side and Benedictine on the other; 1998’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith is a fascinating (if sometimes frustrating) meditation on religious words and phrases; 2001’s The Virgin of Bennington is a memoir about Norris’ early years.

Giving Up Sin for LentAcedia & Me is … well, just what is acedia, aside from something that sounds like a brand name for a happy pill? Is it sloth, depression, perhaps something halfway between?

“I believe that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as ‘apathy,’ ‘boredom,’ or ‘torpor’ do not begin to cover it,” Norris writes, “and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.” [[p. 3]]

And there’s the rub: Despite our distance from the lifestyle and theology of the early desert monks, we can’t really shrug off this condition about which they wrote – not when every one of us, on matters great and small, has heard (or unfortunately used) the classic phrase “I just don’t give a ——.”

As the book opens, Norris recalls a moment during her Honolulu high school days when she was confronted by the oddly threatening thought that at some point she would have to take care of herself.

“How in the world would I manage? Whatever would I do? Suddenly, the future seemed oppressive, even monstrous. Deeply discouraged, but unable to explain why I should feel defeated before I had even begun to live as an adult, I felt foolish and alone.

“The bracing thought of adulthood as opportunity, as terra incognita that I might be glad to explore, was swept away by a burgeoning sense of helplessness, self-pity, and terror. The present moment had become unbearable, and I could conceive of the future only as more of the same, an appalling, interminable progression of empty days to fill.” [[p. 8]]

An odd fit of adolescent angst? For Norris, this was the same “noonday demon” that has assaulted monks after their vows of repetitive contemplation, work, prayer and austerity. And those who still might be tempted to write off such stuff should consider how many divorces and adulteries have begun with this thought: “The rest of my life? With this person?”

“In a consumer culture we are advised to keep our options open …,” Norris writes. “How could we ever have imagined that we might find self-fulfillment in this place, among these demanding people? The church choir is incompetent; my colleague talks too much about her children; my wife doesn’t understand me. Slamming the door behind us, we head for greener pastures, confident that we are seekers on a holy quest.” [[p. 25]]

Into her musings on her life as an author and admirer of monastic thought, Norris weaves the story of a marriage that was, in the biblical sense, a trial if also a comfort. Like his wife, David Dwyer was a creative soul and an occasionally troubled one as well – “two of God’s patients, not yet cured,” as C.S. Lewis said in A Grief Observed. He died in October 2003 after an infection turned into pneumonia.

“Were I asked to sum up my marriage,” Norris says, “with all its ups and downs, I would respond …: It was a gift from God. Beautifully, comically, and against the odds – David a classic depressive, me harboring an equally classic acedia – we were able to make it work. But while my store of memories helps me grieve, it cannot diminish the reality of my loss.” [[p. 258]]

Many readers – particularly those who question the wisdom of monastic life – may not buy into all of the author’s thinking. But Acedia & Me still has plenty of rewards, and challenges.

Norris says: “If the life of faith, like depression, is a cycle of exile and return, I am a prodigal become a pilgrim, if only I can remember to turn toward home.”

May we all be able to do so.New Wineskins

Alan Cochrum

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