“Why are we so depressed?”
A Review of
Acedia and Me:
A Marriage, Monks and A Writer’s Life.
by Kathleen Norris.
By Chris Smith.
Acedia and Me:
A Marriage, Monks and A Writer’s Life.
Hardcover. Riverhead Books. 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I have long harbored an intuition that the desert fathers and mothers have provided humanity with some of the keenest insights into the depths of the human condition. Kathleen Norris in her newest book Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life, demonstrates a similar intuition, as she probes the little-known temptation acedia, which – although its usage has all but ceased in the English language – is alive and well in our consumer culture. What is acedia? Well, considering that Norris devotes a 40+ page appendix to laying out definitions and illustrations from historic and literary sources, one could say that acedia is hard to nail down. In brief, acedia comes from Greek roots that denote a lack of caring and could be described as a sapping of energy, motivation and focus that often leads to a restlessness culminating in “a hatred for the place, a hatred for [one’s] very life [and] a hatred for manual labor” (xv) – to use the words of the fourth century monk Evagrius. The desert monks found that acedia often set in during the heat of the mid-day hours, which also led some to refer to it as “the noon-day demon.”
Norris uses her own life, and particularly the story of her marriage to the late poet David Dwyer, as a framework to explore the multi-faceted temptations of acedia in the present age. Thus, her writing style follows in the pattern established in her previous autobiographical works including Dakota and The Cloister Walk. Her crystalline prose penetrates to the heart of the reader and her frequent illustrations from history (in this case, especially those from the monastic tradition) and literature draw the reader into a grand conversation about temptation, sin, desire, grace and hope – i.e., the fundamental elements of human nature. One of the key themes of this book is an exploration of the dynamics of the relationship between acedia and depression. From the definition given above, on can easily see the parallels, but Norris warns us early in the book that “It is an easy temptation to equate acedia and depression” (20). Thus, although frequently returning to her explorations of how the two interact, she is clear to draw the distinction between the spiritual experience (acedia) and the medical condition (depression). And therefore, she recognizes that sometimes one needs to treat the medical symptoms with therapy and/or pharmaceuticals in addition to addressing acedia with the three traditional monastic non-negotiables: community, stability and prayer. Norris’s wisdom here should be taken to heart: let us first recognize and address the temptation of acedia by being rooted in community, stability and prayer. If then, the symptoms of depression are still unbearable, then let us explore medical therapies. How often do we jump to the pursuit of the latter, when we are unwilling to work through the real or perceived challenges of the former!
As we noted above in Evagrius’s definition of acedia, one facet of acedia is the temptation to hate manual labor. As Norris is quick to point out, our middle-class American lifestyle is particularly vulnerable to this temptation. We have the capacity to pass off the daily work of life onto others or to “labor-saving” devices. Thus, Norris’s chapter on the “quotidian mysteries” is perhaps one of the most pointed in the book. Here she asks the vital question: “Could we regard repetition as a saving grace, one that keeps returning us to essential understandings that we can discover in no other way?” (187). Norris goes on to observe that her experience is that the rhythm of repetitive actions lends itself well to contemplation and prayer. She would no doubt concur with the farmer and poet Liberty Hyde Bailey, who keenly observed that “to love and to work is to pray.”
There is also a powerful undercurrent of cultural criticism in Acedia and Me, lurking ominously beneath the surface at every turn of Norris’ narrative. For instance, one could ask the relevant question: “Why do so many people today experience depression-like symptoms?” While Norris does not directly answer this question, in exploring acedia, she reminds us how vulnerable we are to this temptation. The monastics, she notes, resisted acedia with three non-negotiable practices: community, stability and prayer. We, on the other hand, go to great extremes to resist these three practices. We resist community, instead glorifying individualism; our selfish ambitions and constant mobility shatter hopes of stability; in the increasing secularization of our culture and in our middle-class opposition to menial work, we find ourselves resistant to prayer. It is little wonder then that we have such little capacity for resisting the temptation of acedia!
Kathleen Norris has offered us here one of the finest books of 2008, deeply probing some of our cultural neuroses, and yet at the same time pointing us to the rooted wisdom of the monastics, which shines the light of hope in the midst of our individual and cultural brokenness. Indeed, the essence of the monastic tradition is to remind us that God is redeeming all of Creation through the formation of a contrast society. Acedia and Me is essential reading for the Church as we seek to understand the nature of Christian obedience in the present age, but it is especially important for those with a calling to (or at least a fascination with) new or traditional monasticism, in that it describes in depth one of the fundamental temptations that would shatter community and render as impotent our witness to the transforming Gospel of Christ.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com