Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Kathleen Norris, Acedia & me

A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life

In this theological memoir Kathleen Norris explores her relationship with acedia, a term long forgotten and now difficult to define. It is often described as chronic apathy, boredom, sloth, bleakness of soul, an inability to care." She applies this concept to contemporary society as "the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress".

Norris goes to great length to define the word acedia, a complex and little-known word that feels frighteningly familiar, and then to describe it's presence in herself, her marriage, and in the writer's life. She also compares acedia with it's often misdiagnosed cousin, depression, and tells of the effects of both within her marriage.

After reading about acedia I find myself wanting to talk about it, to name the sin in myself and find it's evidence  all around me. I would recommend this book to anyone who struggles at times to love, to find meaning, to commit, to wake up in the morning. "I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married "for better for worse," anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life."

Twenty-first Century Acedia
I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we have managed to lose the word acedia. Maybe that's one reason why, as we languish from spiritual drought, we are often unaware of what ails us. We spend greater sums on leisure but are more tense than ever . . . We turn away from the daily news, complaining of "compassion fatigue,". . . We are tempted to regard with reverence those who make themselves available twenty-four/seven, and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible. But when distraction becomes the norm we are in danger of being immunized from feeling itself. We are more likely to engage in public spectacles of undemanding pseudo-care than address humanity's immediate needs. Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own? How can that be, when so few know its name? (46)
Norris attempts to prescribe an antidote to acedia, based on spiritual tradition, ancient monastic writings, and her own experience, believing it can be dispelled by embracing life and faith. " She suggests the Psalms. Maintaining habits. Solitude. Nurturing relationship with God and with others. To lower our standards. "Do nothing, gallantly. Awake, not asleep, and not trying to escape." She considers medication and counseling and writes about both.

     Waiting seems at odds with progress, and we seldom ask whether it might have a purpose in and of itself. Etymology helps us here, for when we look up the work wait we are instructed to see vigor. Waiting, then, is not passive but a vigilant and watchful activity designed to keep us aware of what is really going on. Isaiah evokes this radical waiting as a source of vitality: "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,/ they shall mount up with wings like eagles" (Isaiah 40:31). Such waiting is meant to engender a lively hope rooted in the physical as well as the psyche. It is an action, the "hop" contained within the world. To hope is to make a leap, to jump from where you are to someplace better. If you can imagine it, and dare to take that leap, you can go there- no matter how hopeless your situation may appear.
      Hope may seem a flimsy thing in the face of acedia's cold assurance that nothing matters and that waiting is unmitigated hell. In midlife, waiting can seem a barren thing indeed. What are we waiting for, except the increasing disability and inevitable indignities of old age? But hope has an astonishing resilience and strength. Its very persistence in our hearts indicates that it is not a tonic for wishful thinkers but the ground on which realists stand. For thousands of years the psalmist and the prophets have been a source of strength for people facing plague, warfare, massacre, imprisonment, execution, and exile. This is the sort of hope that matters, for it can conquer not just acedia and despair, but death itself. (220-221)
The last chapter of the book is dedicated to quotations about acedia:

"A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, or men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase." -Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, said Blake, everything would appear to man as it is- Infinite. But the doors of perception are hung with the cobwebs of thought; prejudice, cowardice, sloth. Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way. It needs industry and goodwill if we would make that transition: for the process involves a veritable spring-cleaning of the soul, a turning-out and rearrangement of our mental furniture, a wide opening of closed windows, that the notes of the wild birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with wonder and freshness, and drown with their music the noise of the gramophone within." Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism.

"Let it stand that there is a sin of not doing, of not knowing, of not finding out what one must do- in short, of not caring. This is the literal meaning of acedia, recognized as a sin for so many centuries and plaguing us still." Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?

"[Sloth] is the sin that believes nothing, cares, to know nothing, seeks to know nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing . .. and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die." Dorothy Sayers, The Other Six Deadly Sins

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