Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Book Review: Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life

In my last entry, I promised a review of Kathleen Norris' new(ish) book, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and A Writer's Life. So, here it is.

I have to start with an admission. I am a fan of Kathleen Norris and have been for about ten years or so. It was my wife who introduced me to her writing, just before we got married. I fell in love with Norris' blend of Benedictine spirituality, married experience and introspection so much so that, when I have problems sleeping (an annoying frequent experience for me), it is, most often, Kathleen Norris' prose to which I turn to calm down, let go of whatever I'm worrying about and re-connect to the reality that God has it all under control.

Acedia and Me is an excellent addition to Norris' better known books, Dakota, Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace. It focuses on the 'bad thought' of acedia- a kind of restless apathy, called in monastic literature, the 'noonday demon'. It is that feeling that I think we all get from time to time that what we are doing is completely pointless and which makes us so restless that we can't sit, we can't sleep and we can't work. All we can do is to sit an contemplate how pointless anything we can do is. Norris examines the idea of acedia, but also looks at in her own life, marriage and spirituality (all of which are closely intertwined). She considers acedia's relationship with depression, of course, but with a sense of balance which places her in between the extremes of modern thought which medicates any bad feeling and which rejects all medication- the pro-psychiatry and anti-psychiatry positions, if you like.

As she usually does, Norris weaves in a goodly amount of autobiography as she traces the impact of her life-long battle with acedia on her life. The details of the autobiographical elements aren't necessarily new to those who have read her new books, although there are more specifics at times, partly because there is less need to circumspection now that many people in Norris' stories have died, including her husband. This is one of my favourite parts of Norris' writings in that she takes the spiritual things she is discussing and traces them out in real life, in her real life. This makes them more real because it is all too easy to write about spirituality in a spirit of abstraction which leads directly to irrelevance and ennui in the reading. Norris' insights hit home because they are the result of a happy marriage of learning and experience without which no spiritual truth can be expressed.

Here the spiritual truth is one that needs expressing, but has somehow disappeared off the radar for centuries. We live in an age so filled with acedia that it seems to be part of the air we breathe. We even raise it to an art-form or, at least, we seem to make acedia a condition of being an artist/writer. I can see it in people around me. I can see it in my students. I can see it in my colleagues, friends and acquaintances. I can see it in myself. That voice which tells me that all of what I'm doing doesn't matter is the 'bad thought' of acedia.

It is ironic that we, sophisticated and modern as we think we all are, have to turn to the monastic tradition to figure out what to do with this 'bad thought'. Of course, the very tedium of the monastic life- the same pattern of worship, study and work day in and day out can be wearing, I'm sure- spawns it. The sanity of the monastic tradition's response makes for a refreshing alternative to our psychologizing of acedia. On one hand, we're told to stay in our cells and stop wandering about looking for the thing that will distract us from the acedia we are experiencing. We have to, in effect, get on to the life we have, not wander around for the life we don't. On the other hand, we're told that acedia is serious and that, if it is prolonged, we have to look for causes including spiritual direction and, now, psychiatry. We use the help we can get.

For me, Acedia and Me didn't show or tell me anything new, but it brought into focus a lot of disparate thoughts I've had over the years. Norris' blend of acute perception, contemplation and insights from the Desert Fathers makes for compelling spiritual reading. I know I'll be coming back to it regularly, along with her other books.


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