Highly Contagious

If the word “monks” wedged into the title above sets off a warning bell for you, I am sympathetic. You too may be tired of the endless number of “spirituality” books that repackage friendly bits of monastic wisdom and hospitality (sometimes even recipes) for busy people. Even the ancient discipline of lectio divina seems to have come in for a new wave of popularization. “You read with a candle next to you,” one participant in a local L.D. workshop recently explained to me. A book-with-candle combo package can’t be far behind.

But then, my world-weary dismissiveness may stem not from the candles but from acedia, a monastic spiritual affliction which, says Kathleen Norris, is highly contagious outside the monastery as well: “a slackness of the mind,” according to the early monk John Climacus, “and a hostility to vows taken.” If you think that doesn’t describe you, cast your thoughts for a moment over all the irksome daily obligations you’re tired of, and the relentlessly imperfect people in your family, your parish, and the church generally. Acedia makes us unhappy with the mundane, the routine, the disappointingly human, and, perhaps especially, with the daily slog of finding some way to pray. It attracts us with the always appealing idea that surely we deserve to be any place but where we’ve ended up.

A long book about monastic restlessness might seem like it would accelerate a slackness of the mind, rather than slow it. Yet Norris’s sprawling but ultimately memorable grand tour of acedia is not only worth the trip, it makes fighting acedia seem, well, urgent. Since her first book, Dakota (1993), Norris has been writing from the refreshing perspective of someone who is not Catholic but nevertheless had her life transformed by an unexpected adult affiliation (as an oblate) with Catholic monasticism. Part memoir, part literary meditation, and part subtle spiritual guidance, Acedia & Me is more than the sum of its meandering parts. After all, what we often want out of what we call “spiritual” reading is not a road map but companionship, a trustworthy voice who will manage to say some unexpected words in which, suddenly, we see our situation more clearly. If that’s what you are looking for, Acedia & Me deserves the next slot on your spiritual reading list.

The book’s sprawl, sometimes frustrating, is also part of its appeal. Norris moves unpredictably between the monastic literature on acedia and its cures; extended portraits of writers and ordinary people who have struggled with acedia, melancholy, or just plain misery; and reflections on how acedia has felt in her own life. She writes honestly (and with a welcome lack of emotional manipulation) of her own depression, her husband’s mental and physical illnesses, and his early death five years ago at age fifty-seven. She’s disarmingly honest about not only her occasional spiritual victories but also her discouragements and imperfections. A scene where she recounts her urgent fussing for a more literary translation of a psalm to pray at her husband’s deathbed is a memorable detail that helps us understand what she has been through, but also gives a vivid sense of her as a person we could easily imagine as a friend. Over the course of the book, you too, I suspect, will be convinced of her credentials as a veteran in the war against spiritual discouragement, and as someone even the cynical among us might be willing to trust.

Like most vices, acedia thrives when it can disguise itself as a virtue, or a harmless pleasure. Admit it: far from disliking our own chronic dissatisfaction, many of us think it must be a sign of intelligence and good sense. (Sometimes, of course, it really is.) For writers and poets, as Norris recounts through brief snapshots of Robert Burton, John Berryman, and others, disillusionment and unhappiness are practically a merit badge. As for the rest of us, Norris says our culture’s cheery advice to “always follow our hearts” and “be good to ourselves,” bland and harmless as it seems, can be just as corrosive to our relationship with God and other people as misery and depression. All the ways we tell ourselves to keep moving on, when what we really need is to work harder at the relationships and the tasks we have begun, ultimately undermine more than our commitments. The real damage, Norris claims, is to our ability to love.

If you’ve spotted a touch of acedia in your life by the end of this book—and after more than three hundred pages, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t—you will not find any easy cures. The old monks themselves called acedia the demon “that causes the most serious trouble of all,” and their advice for dealing with it is alternately Yoda-like (“Don’t pray at all, just stay in the cell”) and annoying (“What heals acedia is staunch persistence”). The cures Norris herself quietly proposes are not magic either, and she is honest about their partial and intermittent effectiveness. Yet by the end you may be convinced she’s right: a certain plodding adherence to our daily routines and commitments is an integral part of what keeps us focused and sane. “Repetition,” she writes, “can be life-giving.” That’s where the monks come in. Norris is wonderful on the Psalms, and on how praying them, day after day, has provided her with unexpected defenses against spirals of discouragement. If she sends you back for even a few days or weeks to Psalm 42, which her hero Evagrius Ponticus recommended as an acedia treatment to “sow firm seeds of hope within ourselves,” she’ll have done her monastic duty.

It’s inevitable that in a book on one single vice there will be some overdiagnosis, but it’s jarring for a Norris fan to hit a pocket of overheated preachiness. She runs off the rails in a chapter called “Acedia’s Progress,” where this previously obscure affliction is denounced as the unseen force behind everything from corporate jargon to weapons proliferation to homelessness. (I mean, gluttony or lust must be causing some of this.) In other places, you may also find yourself bogged down with one-too-many Abbas of the desert to keep track of. But don’t give up. Flip ahead a page and you’ll find some pithy common sense to underline, or a completely unexpected quotation. (Who knew, for example, that Aldous Huxley wrote extensively on what he called accidie?)

So just for the moment, put aside any aversion to yet another monk book. This one will remind you that in the midst of so much in our faith and our church that can discourage us, the healthy amalgam of warmth, routine, and austerity in Benedictine life may yet keep us sane. With Acedia & Me we owe thanks to Kathleen Norris for again putting us in touch with the best of it.

 


Related: Bare Ruined Choirs, by Joel Rippinger
Catholic Spirituality, by Laurence S. Cunningham

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 
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Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal

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