By Brian Welter
“Acedia is a spiritual affliction, which includes indifference and hopelessness. You can't care that you don't care anymore,” well-known American spiritual author and Christian Kathleen Norris said in an interview with The BC Catholic.
While acedia is normally associated with medieval spirituality, Norris sees it all around now: “Not caring is a big problem today.”
Her new book, Acedia and Me, for which she was in Vancouver on November 10, 2008, took more than 6 years to write. “I've been collecting stories for 20 years,” she noted. She found the term “acedia while in a dusty old monastery library. When I came across the term, I said 'My God, I k were developing technology but knew that the human race is capable of these things from World War II. So there was this u monk, in The Eight Bad Thoughts. He was highly educated, unlike other monks. He was the first to codify the sins. Acedia, pride, and anger were the 3 worst. Two centuries later, Gregory the Great codified the 7 deadly sins. Acedia was associated with sloth, which became associated with physical laziness. So acedia is lost for centuries.”
“Ennui, boredom, lassitude: these terms were used more in the seventeenth century, but acedia is what people are writing about,” Norris noted, stating her dissatisfaction with these 3 terms in explaining acedia. “Acedia comes in and out of English. It appears in the fourteenth century, but not again until the seventeenth. In 1933, in the Oxford English Dictionary, acedia was declared obsolete. After World War II it was put back in. Why did we need that word again?” Norris asked.
That question was the “impetus to write the book.”
She offered some thoughts on why the word was dug up again in the second half of the twentieth century: “In the twentieth century with World War II there was terrible devastation worldwide. After World War II there was consumer culture but there was still also a level of anxiety about reality. We were developing technology but knew that the human race is capable of these things from World War II. So there was this underlying anxiety.”
“The 1950s were also a time when tranquilizers were being used and Eisenhower spoke of the military-industrial complex,” Norris continued. More than all this background, the author found a simpler explanation: “It's just human psychology.”
Norris acknowledged that it is difficult to write about a negative topic such as acedia, but that many others have already written about it, “so it was fun to find these writers.”
She added, “Acedia is a monastic thing.” When she asked American Zen monks about it, they called it torpor, one of the 5 hindrances to enlightenment. “The Buddhist monks knew instantly what it meant.”
“Any monastic person will have to deal with acedia, because their lives are regimented and boring, even if they entered with roht, the prayer life is very dry, but the person can envision something better. With acedia [which Mother Teresa didn't have], you don't care to envision anything better. It's more about hopelessness. Acedia is a nasty critter.”
Concerning Mother Teresa, Norris asked,” Why are people so surprised by this? The dark night of the soul is nothing to be ashamed of. It is one way how people work through their belief.” Norris contrasted that wa share the fact that they both afflict common people.
Whereas depression has roots in life events such as the death of a loved one, “acedia comes out of nowhere,” Norris warned. Unlike depression, “acedia is a temptation. You can resist it. Clinical depression can't be resisted. If I have acedia, I need to identify it and ask 'what is going on here?' Evagrius also wrote about the 8 good thoughts. Christianity doesn't leave us there, without help for acedia. Zeal is the opposite, because acedia says none of it matters, so just give up. To have zeal is to be devoted and to look at my gifts. It means that we work past the hopelessness.”
Acedia and the dark night of the soul are not the same thing. Norris said, “Mother Teresa is a classic case of the dark night. She was aiming for a more intense relationship with God. In the dark night, the prayer life is very dry, but the person can envision something better. With acedia [which Mother Teresa didn't have], you don't care to envision anything better. It's more about hopelessness. Acedia is a nasty critter.”
Concerning Mother Teresa, Norris asked,” Why are people so surprised by this? The dark night of the soul is nothing to be ashamed of. It is one way how people work through their belief.” Norris contrasted that with acedia, and again mentioned its modern face: “With acedia, we don't care. It can happen with marriage, your job. Complacency could be a part of that.”
“Everyone suffers from acedia,” Norris concluded, noting that the monastic literature refers to it as “the noonday demon.” She also warned that with acedia, inertia is often the outward manifestation, but hyperactivity can also mask it, where someone is “too busy so they can't care about anything.”