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Religion & Spirituality

 Acedia & Me

Q&A with Kathleen Norris

What is acedia?

I think of acedia as the spiritual aspect of sloth. The word literally means not-caring, or being unable to care, and ultimately, being unable to care that you can't care. Acedia is spiritual morphine, but it does more than mask pain. It causes us to lose faith in ourselves and in our relationships with others.


Why is it so little known today?

In the fourth century the early Christian monks regarded acedia as one of the worst of the "eight bad thoughts" that plagued a monk trying to live and pray in peace. Acedia was right up there with anger and pride. Over the next few centuries, however, as the "eight bad thoughts" evolved into what the church came to define as the "seven deadly sins" acedia was subsumed into the sin of sloth. And as sloth became associated more with physical laziness, we lost the sense of acedia as a deadly spiritual affliction.

Also, for centuries people believed that only monastic people, who were deliberately pursuing a disciplined ascetic life, would suffer from acedia, growing bored with the daily routine and ultimately so discouraged that they could no longer care about what had drawn them to monastic life in the first place.


Why did you decide to write an entire book about acedia and its effects in your life? Why do you call it your primary temptation?

This is a book that chose me, in one of those experiences that reminds me why writers keep writing, and readers keep reading. About twenty-five years ago, when I first discovered the monastic tradition, I found mention of acedia in a book written in the fourth century by a monk named Evagrius. He was describing something I had felt for years, but had never been able to name. This led me to explore the subject of acedia, and I began collecting articles about it even as I worked on my first non-fiction book, Dakota. Acedia made a brief appearance in my next book, The Cloister Walk, but I felt it needed a book of its own. The early Christian monks taught that every person has a primary temptation, or "bad thought" that is likely to cause trouble in one's life. This makes sense to me. When I start to go off track, acedia is usually the root cause of the problem.


How do you see acedia manifest not only in the lives of individuals, but in our culture as a whole?

One reason I wrote this book was to explore my suspicion that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plague us today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. When we look at acedia's root meaning, as not caring, we can see it as a social problem, and perceive that the sloth it engenders is anything but an insignificant physical laziness. It may even manifest as hyper-activity, but it is more like the activity of a hamster on a treadmill than action that will enhance the common good.

I was very glad to find the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein's observation that "When you achieve true slothdom, you have no desire for the world to change. True sloths are not revolutionaries," she adds, but "the lazy guardians at the gate of the status quo." The question she raises is one I think we have to ask ourselves: "Are these hyperscheduled, overactive individuals really creating anything new? Are they guilty of passion in any way? Do they have a new vision for their government? For their community? Or for themselves?" She suspects that "Their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis." Lethargy, acedia: in some ways I think they define American culture today. The plethora of 24-hour news sources are perfect carriers of the disease, bombarding us with so much "information" that we can no longer distinguish between what is important and what is not, and discern what we truly need to care about.


What are the differences between acedia and depression? How can people tell which they are suffering from?

I may be stomping through grounds where angels fear to tread, but I have long sensed that there are important distinctions between the two. One reason I felt compelled to write this book was to explore those differences. At a basic level, depression is an illness that will respond to medical intervention, and acedia is a temptation that may be resisted. The big problem is trying to discern which affliction we're dealing with, and what we need to do about it. Being willing to seek help is always of primary importance.

In my own experience, I can usually spot the reasons behind depression; when I look at my life, it is obvious why I might be feeling low. But acedia can arise suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, to turn a good day bad. One reason I am certain there is a difference between acedia and depression is that for monastic people depression is not a given, but acedia is. Everyone goes through it. As one Benedictine sister put it, acedia for a monk is as unfair, inopportune, and inevitable as acne for a teenager.

Another Benedictine commented that like acne, acedia can also leave permanent scars. Benedictines in charge of formation for new members know the importance of discernment in trying to determine whether someone is struggling with acedia, or suffering from depression. If it is the latter they do not hesitate to refer the person to a physician. This matter of discernment is of concern to psychiatrists as well. In my book I cite a physician who worries about the danger of over-diagnosing mental illness, and medicating people who are not ill, but suffering from what he termed "a normal sadness response" to loss. But he is also aware of the danger of overlooking what could be a treatable depression.


While you were writing this book, you were the main caregiver for your husband as he suffered through many years of chronic illness that ended with his death in 2003. Your father also died, and your sisters had major illnesses. How did your understanding and experience of acedia change over that time?

Acedia is tricky. It can surface as boredom, but it can also attach itself to our busy schedules, making us too weary to care about much except the next task on the list. In caregiving I adopted the role of a woman warrior, and it worked for a while, especially during times of crisis. I got things done for the people I loved. But the eternal question that acedia asks—the "why bother?"—was always there, lurking in the shadows, suggesting that what I was doing was useless, and that there was no hope.


Although both poets, you and your husband were quite different in many ways. For one thing, although he had been raised and educated in an intensely Catholic environment, he gave up his faith as a teenager, while you rediscovered yours in your thirties. How did your battle with acedia figure in your efforts to sustain your marriage for thirty years?

Acedia fosters a lack of commitment, tempting us to abandon relationships when they no longer seem to work to our advantage. Back in the fourth century Evagrius described the syndrome very well: a person feels unappreciated, and blames others—these people I live with, or work with, who are incapable of understanding or encouraging me. As these thoughts progress, a person comes to feel justified in seeking fulfillment elsewhere.

Discovering the monastic wisdom about what it can mean to remain in a vowed, committed relationship strengthened my conviction that my marriage was something I truly needed, and helped me survive some difficult times with my husband. Looking back, I am deeply grateful: not only was our marriage strengthened when we came through the rough spots, now I have many good memories that sustain me in my life as a widow.


In your earlier book, The Cloister Walk, you wrote extensively about your experiences with Catholic monks, monasteries, and monastic spiritual practice. In your new book, you reaffirm the central importance of monastic spiritual practice for you. What have you found to be the unique healing powers of spiritual practice?

I discuss this a bit in the book. I think it is the witness to stability that monastic people give in an unstable world. No matter what, they pray the psalms, day in, day out, and they've been doing it for seventeen hundred years. Even when I am unable to pray, knowing that others are praying is a great support and encouragement.


Why is discipline so important to spiritual practice? How do you move people past the very negative connotations that word has come to have in our culture?

The root meaning of the word "asceticism" is "training." I find it curious that we find it acceptable when people train as athletes or musicians, but weird when someone seeks to train and become more disciplined in the spiritual life.

It's important to avoid any elitism here, not to assume, for example, that if I pray twenty psalms on my knees that makes me better than someone who prays them sitting down, or doesn't pray at all. Monks have always warned against this kind of spiritual pride.

But it makes sense to me that practice in prayer will help, just as it does when you are learning to play the piano, or trying to write. The best things in life are not those that come easily; you don't get it right on the first try but have to work at it. But when you make something a habit, you also become more open to new possibilities. You have a grounding that allows for growth. This is true in prayer, as in anything else.


How can the concept of sin be helpful to us in understanding acedia? Again, how do you use the term in a way that does not stir up unhelpful and negative connotations?

The early monk's designation of "eight bad thoughts" that plague human beings was a liberating concept for me. It allowed me to let go of some of that old, useless church baggage. Theologians who came after the monks came to define sin as acts, and once you do that, people tend to either escape into self-righteousness (thinking, well, if I haven't committed adultery, I don't have to worry about lust), or they wallow in needless guilt, feeling themselves to be beyond redemption.

But if I admit that the bad thoughts come to me—greed, pride, anger, and so on—I am also admitting that I am no better, and no worse than anyone else, in being susceptible to temptation. The important thing is what I do with the thought when it comes, and how I act on it.


Some of the most perceptive commentators on acedia were Christian monks from the fourth and fifth centuries. Why was it so significant to them? What did they have to say about it?

These were people who were fleeing a newly respectable and wealthy church, going into the deserts of the Mideast to pursue a life "off the grid," as it were, a simple life focused on prayer and the sharing of goods. It was a life stripped bare, and often lived in such solitude that these people became extremely alert to their thoughts as they arose. They noted which were helpful, and which were destructive. They thought about their thoughts, and in so doing, became the original psychologists, at least in the West.

These monks practiced what they called the "manifestation of thoughts," which meant telling an elder about any disturbing thoughts that arose in the course of pursuing the monastic life. I detect links between this informal arrangement and what later became the ritualized confession of the church, and still later, in the twentieth century, the practice of psychotherapy. It interests me that two contemporary monks who have taken a special interest in the early monks, and Evagrius in particular, are also physicians; one did his residency in psychiatry. I cite both of them in my book.


Acedia has had a long history in Western literature, from the Hebrew psalms through the Christian desert fathers, Dante, the Romantic poets, Aldous Huxley, and the confessional poets of the 1960s. Can you talk about the evolution of the idea?

Acedia has always had a specific meaning for monks. One abbot described it to me as people going off a cliff, once the romantic allure of the monastic life has worn thin. He said that it usually manifested itself as: "I'm a fraud; you're all frauds; and I have to get out of here!" Acedia also appears in older monks who have built up a store of resentment against the community over the years. Their mantra goes, "These people have never appreciated me, never given me a chance," and this attitude erodes their monastic vocation. They often leave—I know one Benedictine who departed after forty years in her community—and if they remain they often nurse a bitter isolation, and exhibit passive-aggressive behavior. Either of these syndromes would be recognized by a fourth century monk as acedia.

But acedia has a long history in Western culture, and one theme of my book is the way that the concept of acedia has penetrated our thinking, called by many different names: black gall, bile, melancholy, boredom, mal du siecle, ennui. I read somewhere that in the eighteenth century people feared ennui much as we now fear cholesterol. I think that this observation by Czeslaw Milosz, cited in my "Commonplace Book," perfectly sums up our situation at present: "No one can call this failing laziness any longer; whatever it may once have been, now it has returned to its original meaning: terror in the face of emptiness, apathy, depression... It is not isolated hermits, however, who are experiencing its sting, but the masses in their millions."


How has acedia specifically affected your work as a writer?

At times I'm tempted to think of acedia as a fancy word for procrastination, but I know from experience that it is more than that. It deadens the creative instinct. The problem with acedia is not that I grow slothful, and fritter time away, but that I am tempted to give up on the vocation of writing itself, losing faith in the whole enterprise, and in my abilities as a writer.


What particular kinds of help can psychotherapy offer that spiritual practice sometimes cannot, in your experience?

It depends so much on the individual. My husband was helped by psychotherapy, while practices like reading the psalms and consulting a spiritual mentor have worked better for me. Twice in our marriage we benefited from seeing a marriage counselor; just having a third party who would listen to us, and not take sides, helped us heal our relationship.

I think that for some people the notion of spiritual practice as healing is tinged with a deep-seated guilt. They can't shake the notion that if they were really "good," or if they really had strong religious faith, they wouldn't ever be depressed. Psychotherapy and/or medication might help such a person out of that bind, but I wouldn't count out a spiritual mentor, someone who could help them shed the needless guilt. Nowadays the people who work in "spiritual formation" or counseling are likely to have education and training in psychology; some are psychiatrists.


What do you think about the use of antidepressants and other psychotropic medications?

These medicines represent a great advance in our understanding of brain chemistry, and have obviously helped millions of people to live better lives. I can't imagine wanting to turn back the clock. But I also think we need to be honest about the fact that we are still at a primitive stage in our knowledge of neurochemistry. Given that reality, it is not always in our best interest to believe the promotional material put out by the manufacturers of these drugs, who are known to put pressure on physicians to prescribe them. It is Big Business, and that makes me wary.

The largest, non-industry sponsored test of anti-depressants to date, conducted by the National Institute of Health, revealed that the drugs fail to cure the symptoms of major depression in nearly half of the people taking them. Although the drugs tested—Celexa, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and Effexor—work in different ways, they had roughly the same effectiveness, or lack of it. I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing: it tells us where we are, and should push us to do more research. The director of the study said, "The glass is half full from our perspective," he said, but it is also "half empty in that we need to come up with better treatments in the future."


You write that our culture has come to value sincerity above all else, but that it is truth, not sincerity, that sets us free. What do you mean by that?

The word "sincere" derives from a word meaning pure, or unmixed. The truth is rarely that simple. Perfectly sincere people seeking "purity," whether in race, political ideology, or religious dogma, usually do more harm than good. To embrace the truth is hard, because it means humbling yourself before a host of contradictions. It means fighting for some balance between many shades of gray, and refusing the comfort zone of sincerity, which seeks to stuff complex matters into neat little boxes marked "black" and "white."


What do you mean by the term "spiritual celebrity"? Are you one?

We live in a celebrity culture, and this means that we keep trying to make more of them, turning even hapless authors into instant experts. Often we assume that people who write books about the spiritual life are those who have succeeded at it, figured it all out, and can tell us how to do it. But I am just a storyteller, and stories are not prescriptions.

Spirituality does not traffic with success or failure. The Christian tradition teaches that it is not proficiency that saves us, but faith, hope, and love. One of the pleasures of attending church is knowing that I have entered a celebrity-free zone.

If I start to think of myself as a celebrity, I have a good reality check. I can imagine what my mother would say if I refused to clean out her refrigerator or take out her garbage because, "I'm a spiritual celebrity."


At times, you have questioned the decision you made early in life not to have children. Do you feel that you have come to "know motherhood," as you put it, in a different way?

The sense that I was not cut out for motherhood is deeply rooted in me, and I believe I made the right decision. I respect children, and value their company, and am glad that I was able to work with them for many years as an artist-in-the-schools. The main way that I've come to know the trials of motherhood, and how much patience is needed (and how much I lack!), is through being a caregiver.

As I grow older I am increasingly aware of the danger of being cut off from younger people. I want to think of new ways to be, for lack of a better term, a generative person. Writing is one way I might do this, but personal contact is also important.


How do you sustain your faith at times when you feel you have lost contact with God and prayer seems impossible? Is the kind of persistence necessary to do that comprehensible any longer in our 24/7, on-demand, instant-gratification culture? How is this connected to your statement that there is "something even greater than hope, and that is grace"?

Well, I guess the first thing to do is forget about instant gratification. If that's what you're after, religion will be a big disappointment. But it can offer a kind of stability over the long haul that allows hope to bloom, even in dire circumstances. I've found that whenever I feel that God has abandoned me, it is usually the other way around. This isn't cause for guilt; it simply means that I need to wait until my mind has cleared a bit, and I can focus on things in a new way.

When my husband was in the last years of his life, I sometimes grew angry and bitter over his situation. But my faith in God was not shaken. It was a curious sensation to know that God was with us in our suffering, even though I could not sense God's presence. Just knowing it was there was enough. Over the years I seemed to have developed a trust in God that could withstand great trials; the grace and sense of peace that came to me was pure gift, nothing I could have found or developed on my own.


How do you stand with acedia today?

I feel grateful to have finished a book that I nearly abandoned many times, but I know that I will always have to combat acedia. It is part of who I am. I'm trying to talk my publisher into making me a t-shirt that reads: "Got acedia? Who cares?"

I like the idea of "standing with" acedia, facing it head on, because acedia would prefer that I lie down and moan and just not give a damn.


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