Saturday, May 2, 2009

Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life, by Kathleen Norris

Hardcover 334 pages, Penguin, $28.50 ISBN 978-1-59448-996-9.

"Acedia's genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us," writes Kathleen Norris. Her precise definitions and understanding of the spiritual affliction acedia makes her spirituality-autobiography Acedia & me a most satisfying reading.

Acedia is a term usually associated with monasticism and ancient Christianity. A sinful thought and temptation, Norris explains how it is alive and well today. We ignore it at our own peril. Usually associated with depression, it differs in important aspects. While therapy can alleviate depression, spiritual practices such as simple physical labor, prayerful Bible reading, and thoughtful living work well on acedia.

The condition convinces people that their work and relationships are doomed. It tempts people not to make their beds and clean their houses, because beds and houses will become unmade the next day. It invites people to take the easy way out on a career path, rather than accomplishing one's God-given potential by fulfilling a vocation.

Since the opposite of acedia is zeal, Christians are called to overcome the temptation by being active, prayerful, and full of hope. Norris even finds hope within the affliction itself: "[I]f I am especially susceptible to acedia, it is because I harbor within myself the virtue of zeal." We must focus on doing our work, however mundane and tiresome, as best we can.

But things are not so easy. Acedia is nasty because it can hide and transform itself. People tell themselves that they are being zealous and conquering acedia by working hard. But, Norris warns us, it is actually lurking behind a lot of workaholism because it has convinced many that careers, money, and material rewards are more important than building real relationships and community, and work that is edifying for the Lord.

In other words, acedia gets people to ignore what is really important, and to focus too much on what is unimportant. Norris blames unhealed, unnamed acedia for today's runaway consumerism, including the consumerization of Christmas:

"[F]ragmented people are better consumers. It is the aim of advertising to make us anxious, doubting that what we have is enough, or enough of the best and latest stuff."

Acedia is indifference, and leads to despair. Whereas the dark night of the soul is a relatively healthy spiritual condition because people suffering from it deeply care and hope for much more from their relationship with God, acedia tells people not to care about such a relationship. A true dark night is impossible with this sinful condition.

Acedia has also reared its ugly head in the indifference that tempts people to trumpet their "freedom" when faced with social connections and obligations.

Norris brings new life to theology and its terminology simply by exploring the original and fullest sense of concepts. Acedia & me shows that theological innovation is not as daring or exciting (or pleasurable to read) as a faithful and deep understanding of the original sparks of theology.

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