Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris is a book about acedia, to be sure, but it is so much more than that. The book is a personal memoir, and a wonderful read, but it is Norris’ keen interest in the monastic tradition that makes this an important book. Norris discovered the word “acedia” in a dusty monastery library more than twenty years ago, when she read The Praktikos, written by Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century Christian monk. Evagrius spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia. Norris states that upon reading this she “felt a weight lift from my soul…he’s describing half my life.” She has been collecting books and articles on the subject ever since. It is clear that Norris has done her homework. Acedia may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature, but was considered one of the “eight bad thoughts” of the early Christian monks (along with anger, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust and pride). In her book, Norris talks a great deal about the desert monks, who termed acedia “the noonday demon” because “it usually struck during the heat of the day when the monk was hungry and tired and vulnerable to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort”. Acedia & Me explores the concept of acedia, a term that has often been understood as spiritual sloth, but really signifies the serious malady of being unable to care. Her research includes the effects of acedia on society, her life and her marriage.
According to Norris, acedia causes us to be desensitized and unable to care about what is truly important. The book talks about Andrew Solomon’s book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, but makes it clear that one can suffer from acedia without being clinically depressed. Her analysis is that society’s restless boredom, fear of commitment and other struggles are the result of the ancient demon acedia in modern dress.
Norris writes about the personal battles both she and her husband David had with acedia and its relative, depression. Her narrative articulates the challenges she encountered in her writing and in her marriage, including caring for her husband during the last five years of his life, as his health slowly failed (he died of lung cancer in 2003). Norris draws much comfort and inspiration in her life from prayer and the psalms. She states “While many people are helped by psychotherapy, I suspect that there are also many like me who have benefited from occasional counseling but have received more help from spiritual practices such as prayer and lectio divina, or holy reading.”
The last chapter of the book lists quotes that have to do with acedia from all types of writers, including John Cassian, St. Benedict, Chaucer, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Maurice Sendak, along with many others. It is amazing to see the vast number of references to acedia.
Acedia & Me is a worthwhile read because it eloquently tells Norris’ personal story in an engaging manner. Just as importantly the book makes us much more aware of a human condition that ultimately affects all of us.
Norris is an award-winning poet and author of several books including The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, all national bestsellers. She is a Benedictine oblate of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota and is a member of the Saint John’s University Board of Regents.