Acedia (more often spelled accidie) is a spiritual state that’s a bit difficult to define. It shares some topography with depression and despair, but it can’t be cured with medication. It has been conflated with the sin of sloth, but it isn’t just laziness or indolence. (Neither is sloth, if you come to that, but that’s a question for another day.) Acedia, says Kathleen Norris, who has had a lifelong struggle with it, is the spiritual state of not-caring, of indifference. This can be the emptiness and indifference we all sometimes feel in the face of daily tasks (I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes/ make lunches/ exercise/ go to work again; I’ll just have to do it again tomorrow), but it can also be an all-encompassing yawn of apathy in the face of suffering (at least that’s not my kid/ I’ve got compassion fatigue/ they shouldn’t have used such cheesy music in this famine documentary.) This range of spiritual torpor goes from the mundane to the horrifying, and indeed Hannah Arendt had some enlightenment to offer on the subject, but it’s all of a piece. The “bad thought” of acedia that tormented 4th-century monks still troubles us today, in the form of ennui, boredom, alienation, and low voter registration.
Norris has written before about the inspiration she’s found in the austere Dakota landscape (Dakota) and in the rhythm and liturgy of monastic life (The Cloister Walk.) In Acedia and Me, she writes about her own tendency to withdraw into not-caring, especially in the face of long-standing commitments — to writing, to marriage, to faith — and the way that landscape and that monastic rhythm have been of service to her when fighting that greyness.
The book is a little disjointed. Norris writes now about the 4th-century monks I mentioned (the wise and rather humorous Evagrius plays a particularly significant role), now about the way acedia shows up in history and literature throughout the centuries, now about her own personal experience with it as a writer and a partner. The book isn’t structured in any obvious way, and it suffers for it: I would have liked to see acedia broken down into its component parts, perhaps, or a chronological timeline. Some way to map personal experience onto the spiritual history, anyway.
Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book are those in which she discusses her thirty-year marriage to David Dwyer, who was also a poet and who suffered terribly from depression and other physical ailments. It is always striking for me to see two people learn to love each other over a long period of time, through the changes both experience, especially since I’m engaged in that same process, and I found myself skimming through some of the less interesting parts to get to the good bits.
The book could have been much shorter and less cyclical (I look to my recent experience with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence as a wonderful example of saying just what needed to be said and no more), but by the end, Norris had been reasonably clear. Acedia affects most people who take on long-term commitments, at some time or another during that commitment. Whether it’s monastic life or a marriage or parenthood or the writing life or a vocation, most people are likely to feel that what they are doing is not worth it; that they are a fraud; that they can’t go on another day with this restless emptiness. Norris has many suggestions, for believers and unbelievers, but mostly she simply bears witness: you are not alone, you are not insane, this state is real. Praying the psalms helped her, and so did taking things one day at a time, and you can find what will help you. In this age of intentional numbness — an age where everyone sedates — it was a witness worth hearing.