It's Half-Past Twelve Somewhere
If Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett had waited a few years to perform their chart-topping hit so that they could first read Kathleen Norris' new book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, they might have described more insightfully the "half-past twelve" tedium they were escaping for a "five-o'clock somewhere" drink. And country music aficionados like me might have understood better why we seek diversions from the daily tasks that seem so mind-numbingly routine.
Ever since Norris first encountered the word acedia in early monastic writings twenty years ago, she has been mulling it over, wiping the dust off this forgotten concept. In the book that grew out of that preoccupation, she examines her life—and her marriage in particular—in order to illustrate acedia's characteristics, dangers, and cures, contemplating the many facets of this vice with the help of monks, psychologists, philosophers, poets, novelists, and pharmacologists. (Huxley, Kierkegaard, Dante, Bunyan, and Andrew Solomon are some who figure prominently among the nonmonastics. Her reflections on the lives of writers who misconstrue what kind of life must accompany creativity may resonate with artists and authors.) The result is a beautifully woven treatment braided together of these various strands, concluding with a chapter of illuminating quotations on her subject, ranging from the ancients to our contemporaries.
The Greek word acedia simply means "a lack of care." But as Norris excavates the concept we find that it is deeper and richer. She rightly traces the Christian discussion to the 4th-century ascetic Evagrius Ponticus and his list of eight "thoughts" that characterize the human condition. One of the eight—acedia—was the "noonday demon" (Ps. 91:6) that attacked the monk who kept checking the angle of the sun to see if it was time for the afternoon meal as he languished in the tedium of what seemed like a 50-hour day. John Cassian (5th century) carried forward the list of eight to Gregory the Great (6th century), who transposed acedia (along with tristitia) into "sloth" as he reconfigured the list into the "seven deadly sins."
But the word sloth is deceptive, because, as Norris perceptively points out, acedia does not manifest itself only as lethargy; it can also show up as busyness—the kind of frenetic activity which Cassian describes in terms of a monk's "ministry" to the lonely and sick that functions as a diversion from his call to solitude, silence, and prayer. Norris has found this to be true in her own life as a writer: "But acedia, as sloth's spiritual manifestation, is deceptively contradictory, and a compulsive productivity can be one of its masks." This deception can eclipse self-knowledge, which is why the "manifestation of thoughts" is necessary in this monastic tradition, beginning with naming the malady, as Norris discovered when she found the word acedia.
And we are all thus deluded, it seems. One of the strengths of Norris' book is to point out the social consequences of acedia's pervasive presence in our consumer-oriented society, where distractions not only divert us from routines like daily psalter readings and housekeeping chores, in which we can find God's presence, but also keep us from recognizing the spiritual impoverishment that results from such habitual scatteredness. Norris even lets loose with firebrand preaching against the outrageous indifference acedia breeds in our society, accompanied by our own "excessive self-justification" and "casual yet implacable judgmentalism"; at that point my old Pentecostal enthusiasm broke through my Presbyterian reserve with shouts of "Amen!" and "Preach it!"
A significant part of Norris' agenda is to distinguish acedia from depression: two intersecting sets that have some features in common but differ in significant ways. Here, she suggests, "an informed understanding of sin" helps. Though I was never quite sure what Norris means by this, she is concerned that the church long ago began to define sin primarily in terms of acts rather than something like Evagrius' "thoughts," which are part of the human condition and which we must identify before they become harmful actions and stifle the work of grace in our lives. Put more simply, Norris' "most basic definition of sin" is "to comprehend that something is wrong, and choose to do it anyway." The danger of a sin like acedia is that it can become "mortal"—that is, it can prevent God's grace from transforming our lives: "When we are convinced that we are beyond the reach of grace, acedia has done its work." That is why Norris correctly places acedia in a category opposed to love, rather than under the heading of mere apathy.
Acedia works against the manifestation of the image of God in us. While Norris would probably not align herself with the Augustinian concept of original sin (the West charged Evagrius with semi-Pelagianism), she might agree with Augustine's sentiment (in his commentary on John) that God hates in us what we have made that he did not, while—at the same time and in a mysterious way—God loves in us that which he made that still remains.
So acedia has more to do with sin, God's grace, and the manifestation of God's image, while depression is often best understood as a treatable illness with an identifiable external cause that precipitates it. Depression may be addressed by the psychiatrist and the pharmacist, while the vice of acedia requires a gracious God, a discerning spiritual director for self-knowledge, repeated spiritual practices, and the discipline of prayer. Still, Norris is right to call the observations of early monastics an "urpsychology." There is a continuity between what Evagrius, Cassian, and other premoderns were doing when they assessed the etiology of acedia, warned of its devolution into anger and despair, and prescribed remedies, and what we suppose we have freshly discovered in modern psychology. We ignore the insights of those who have gone before us to our own detriment. The human condition that the ancients observed has not changed all that much—including the pride we take in our assumption that civilization has reached its zenith in us.
Norris artfully illustrates this ancient wisdom through the story of her life and her marriage, taking us back and forth from her adolescence to the present, when she must cope with the death of her husband David. (His life is similarly narrated, with all of his virtues and vices.) The autobiographical accounts are at times so compelling—particularly in chapter 5 and in the penultimate chapter's story of David's death, which is beautifully told without being morose—that I almost forgot the main topic of the book. But that's a tribute to Norris' power as a storyteller, not a complaint.
I did find myself experiencing symptoms of acedia in the middle portion of the book, but book reviews often tell us more about the reviewer than the book, and other readers might well respond differently. In any case, I took Norris' advice and pressed on, overcame my sloth, and found myself amply rewarded by persevering. Sticking with other work (like grading papers) wasn't so easy.
Part of my problem was the summer distraction of Angels baseball and movies newly available on DVD. And that's just the point Norris is making: when tempted to escape the person, issue, or task before us, we must combat acedia with a counterintuitive strategy. "Staying in our cell" and engaging in the ordinary rituals and routines of our everyday lives—such as housekeeping chores and saying the daily office—will "enhance the relationships that nourish and sustain us."
This is good Benedictine wisdom, based on the premise that we find God and God's grace in the here and now, not in the nostalgic then and the "grass is greener" there. Appealing to her earlier book Quotidian Mysteries, Norris reminds us that we worship "a creator who loves us enough to seek us in the most mundane circumstances of our life." Not least, Norris finds God in the drudgeries and delights of motherhood that she who is childless experiences in the surrogate mothering of those who need her—ailing family members and friends. In the end, what keeps her going are the nonnegotiables of stability (the Benedictine vow to stay where God has put you), community, and prayer.
We urgently need such reminders amid the "restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair" of contemporary life, particularly in the context of a marriage such as the one that unfolds in this book. In a society where acedia results in relationships that are recycled more often than aluminum cans, Norris insists that what is most likely to maintain a marriage is not giddy romance but discipline, martyrdom, and obedience (which, at its etymological root, refers to hearing): "The very nature of marriage means saying yes before you know what it will cost. You may say the 'I do' of the wedding ritual in all sincerity, but it is the testing of that vow over time that makes you married." Good advice in a culture where that "five-o'clock somewhere" mirage always beckons.
Dennis Okholm escapes at five o'clock from Azusa Pacific University, where he is professor of theology. His book Monk Habits for Everyday People was recently published by Brazos Press.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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