Acedia, in case you didn’t know, is a word that fourth-century Christian monks used to describe a temptation that’s difficult to translate into modern English. The word has been used in lots of ways and contexts since, although it’s fallen out of common use: it’s closely allied to, though not identical with, the Deadly Sin of Sloth, and attempts to explain the concept in a modern context relate acedia to: boredom, laziness, ennui, even depression. It’s a tough concept to explain, but not so difficult to recognize — especially for the reader to recognize aspects of her own struggles in Norris’s book, which is part memoir, part reflection on the meaning of acedia and its relevance for the twenty-first century.
Acedia is something much stronger than just feeling a little bored or discontented, although it can begin that way. And, I think Norris suggests, it’s less extreme, and more within our control, than a major clinical depression, although it certainly might be a step along the path that leads to that diagnosis. Acedia is not a disease; it’s a temptation — to disconnect, to stop caring, to stop making an effort. Knowing that you’re overcommitted and planning to take a step back to refresh and restore yourself — that’s not acedia. Feeling, “I’m so bored with this routine and I just can’t be bothered to make the effort to do the things I know I should do” — I think that’s closer to acedia. A minor temptation, you might think, but one that can grow and harden into a persistent attitude of apathy and cynicism which is deadly to any kind of personal or spiritual growth.
The book is subtitled: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Norris, who has been a writer, a married woman, and a lay oblate of a Benedictine order, draws her examples from all three areas. She suggests that they are each areas of endeavour in which acedia is a particularly strong temptation, as success — in religious life, in marriage, and in writing — is so deeply rooted in routine, in the willingness to accept getting up and doing the same thing, day after day. The temptation to become bored or to disconnect is powerful, but the rewards of staying committed are rich.
Norris illustrates her exploration of acedia with examples from her own writing life and her religious life, and, most powerfully, examples from her long marriage to a man plagued by both mental and physical illnesses. Her stories about her husband’s illness and eventual death vividly demonstrate both the difficulties and the rewards of remaining faithful to a lifelong love, even in painful, lonely and frightening times.
This book rambles a little in places, but that’s OK. There’s nothing scientific or particularly psychological about it; it’s primarily a personal and spiritual reflection. I found myself reading it and thinking about my own tendencies to acedia. Somewhat like Norris herself, I’m a person who appears to work hard and accomplish so much in some highly visible areas of life — like writing — that most people who know me don’t recognize my hidden tendencies towards acedia, the areas in which I say, “Oh, I can’t be bothered” and let things slide. But reading this book, apart from providing a rich and thought-provoking glimpse into another writer’s life, helped me recognize acedia in my own life and identify it as a temptation — which will, hopefully, allow me to pray for the grace to resist it.