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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 ...