Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books. 2010. 334 pages. Softbound. $16.00. www.riverheadbooks.com.
Beware the “noontime demon ” — that bad thought, that temptation so powerful it will attack you in the bright daylight of the noonhour. The desert monks named this demon “acedia” and feared its power to interrupt their day and keep them from their duties. Kathleen Norris digs deep into the word and its 1,500-year history in her book Acedia and Me.
In her earlier offering Dakota, Norris introduces the wisdom of the desert fathers, explaining the ministry of hospitality and the sacredness of place by sharing her complicated life. In Acedia, Norris invites readers even deeper into her life and marriage.
The book’s first story is of a monk named Paul. This Abba Paul is so far out in the desert that no one comes past to buy his baskets, which are his prayers of praise, the reason he became a monk. Soon the baskets fill his entire cave. Once a year Paul starts a fire and burns all his baskets. The next day he starts over again.
Norris discovered this story in the 4th century writings of John Cassian titled The Institutes. The burning, says Cassian, aided the monk in ”conquering and driving out acedia.”
Norris explains that the concept of “acedia” has evolved from bad thought and midday demon to deadly sin (sloth) in the middle ages, to a medical condition (depression), and finally to the necessary muse of poets and artists.
Innoculated against darkness
Norris blends the scholarship needed to illuminate the history of the word acedia and the deeply personal memoir of her marriage to a poet who battles depression and cancer. She is a poet who occasionally finds herself unable to write. She knows she is not depressed, although her urban friends tell her she should at least try medication. As she realizes her visceral attraction to liturgy and ritual, she discovers the ancient fathers and their instructions for the way out of the darkness.
Her husband’s illness takes her on the journey of modern talk therapy, group therapy, couple’s therapy, support groups, and, finally, medication. Her prescriptions for acedia do not work on her husband’s depression. His prescriptions for depression do not help her acedia.
Norris’ modern definition of acedia as an inability to care allows her to offer a diagnosis of modern society. She explains Columbine and predicts Aurora and Newtown and the fruitless public discussions that has followed. “[W]e are in danger of becoming immunized from feeling itself. … Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own?”
Larry Kiewel is a member of St. John Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Belle Plaine, Minnesota.