"Today is the first day, and the last." A Review of Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris

Have you ever sat down and tried to put into words a book that resonated with you so deeply that it feels as if the author peered into your soul and then picked up a pen? That's what I'm about to try to do... summarize and elaborate upon and "review" Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, by Kathleen Norris. Drama aside (riiiiight), this book impacted me to a degree that no other book has ever done. Except, that is, the Bible and The Chronicles of Narnia; the first because it seems like it would be sacrilege to omit it, and the second because my young mind found in Aslan an embodiment of Christ that I could understand and relate to, and that still comforts me today. So I will amend my statement slightly, to say instead that Acedia and Me is without a doubt the most monumental non-sacred work of my adult life thus far.

Obviously, this is no common book; even the term "acedia" is one that has fallen very far out of the ordinary vernacular. Acedia is, as the author explains, "the absence of care," and even more it consists of what can feel like the inability to care on a deeply spiritual level. It is an experience that Norris rightly and very carefully separates from depression, and one that can encompass phenomenon as varied as writer's block, the seven year itch, and what I recently termed "life-block" as well. For me, this book was the perfect response to what I was trying to express in that post, as I struggled to make sense of the past and the future as one continuous experience, and to find purpose and meaning in the day-to-day.

Amusingly, this earth-shattering, mind-blowing book was the first thing I read after declaring a month or so ago that "this reader just wants to have fun!" Wouldn't you know that that would be the moment that God would see fit to drop a book like this into my life, having set the stage several years ago by putting me in an English class with a professor who had the voice of an American Sean Connery and what could only be described as one hell of a gift of gab. The man was wise, and spoke the way that many people can only hope to write after several in-depth revisions. He spoke of acedia frequently as an experience manifested often through literature, and when the word caught my eye on the library shelf I was intrigued and picked it up.

I am so incredibly glad that I did.

Since Norris expresses herself in this book far better than I could ever hope to describe her message, I will now deluge you with quotes. If any of them ring true to where you are, I fervently hope you'll pick up a copy of the book and read further.

Amazing quotes from Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris:

"It is always easier for us to busy ourselves than to merely exist. Even important and useful work can distract us from remembering who we are, and what our deeper purpose might be. Monastic wisdom insists that when we are most tempted to feel bored, apathetic, and despondent over the meaninglessness of life we are on the verge of discovering our true self in relation to God. [...] the challenge we faced was the same, that of daring to become an individual."

"Losing one's way and then finding it may mimic the cyclic nature of depression, but it is also part of the natural rhythm of day and night, of the waxing and waning moon, and of seeding and harvesting. [...] Typically, the desert fathers provide a gnomic commentary on this aspect of their lives: "Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, 'Can a man lay a new foundation every day?" The old man said, 'If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation every moment.'"

"...agree that hope is nurtured when we can recall the peace of mind we once attained, and regard it as real, at least as real as our most troubled and anxious state. But we must start small. Often my first act of recovery is doing something as menial as dusting a bookshelf or balancing my checkbook. If I am tempted to devalue such humble activities, I remember that acedia descended on Anthony as soon as he went to the desert, but when he prayed to be delivered from it, he was shown that any physical task, done in the right spirit, could free him. Likewise, Evagrius gives sound advice to anyone who has begun to recover from an assault of the demon: "What heals acedia is staunch persistence... Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it."

"The contemplative life, for Evagrius, is one of remaining constantly aware of what will either hinder or help us in our quest, and taking nothing for granted."

Heaven or hell? Either place is within our reach, for we carry it within us. Today is the first day, and the last. Heaven or hell: this is the moment, here, now. Make of it what you will."

"Our busyness can't disguise the suspicion that we are being steadily diminished, not so much living as passing time in a desert of our own devising. We might look for guidance to these earlier desert-dwellers, who had no word for depression, but whose vocabulary did include words for accidie, discernment, faith, grace, hope, and mercy.
They gave each other good counsel: Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores; remember that you are susceptible, at the beginning of any new venture, to being distracted from your purpose by such things as a headache, an intense ill will toward another, a neurotic and potent self-doubt. To dwell in this desert and make it bloom requires that we indulge in neither guilt nor vainglorious fantasizing, but struggle to know ourselves as we are.""We want life to have meaning, and want to be fulfilled, and it is hard to accept that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we would like to be. Our greatest spiritual blessings are likely to reveal themselves not in exotic settings but in everyday tasks and trials.No less a saint then Therese of Lisieux admitted in her Story of a Soul that Christ was most abundantly present to her not "during my hours of prayer... but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.'""It strengths me to know that, as Evagrius points out, 'it is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by [the bad thoughts] but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us.' Whether I call my affliction "sin" or "sickness" matters far less than what I do once I admit that something is wrong. Half the battle is won if I can resist my inclination to acedia, to act as though I were a spectator at life's banquet."

"As a writer I must begin, again and again, at that most terrifying of places, the blank page. And as a person of faith I am always beginning again with prayer. I can never learn these things, once and for all, and master them. I can only perform then, set them aside, and then start over. Beginning requires that I remain willing to act, and to summon my hopes in the face of torpor. Above all, beginning again means rejecting that self-censorious spirit that will arise to scorn my effort as futile. [...] In my struggles with acedia I have learned a valuable lesson: Once I have started out, it is crucial that I not rush to the end, but remain where I am for a time. I have to trust that change is working within me, even though I seem to stagnate."
"I know that, in the words of a great hymn, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," my temperament makes me "prone to wander from the God I love." But if I have forgotten who I am, getting back on the road may help me remember. I am both humbled and exalted by the reception I receive when I make my move: the world itself seems to open up and accept me."

"Above all, [Dr.] Solomon encourages us to enlarge our capacity for enjoying the good times in life and to expect that rewards will come after pain. 'Don't give in to your depression,' he says. 'Don't accept it as the norm. Dig up from somewhere within you the will to fight back.' This is sound advice. Starting with what you know of yourself, you can find what works and claim it."

1 comment

  1. I've had this recommended multiple times, and it's on my list to buy. What she writes about resonates with me because of what I'm writing and studying about vocation right now: http://wellthoughtoutlife.blogspot.com/2009/07/vocation-job-career-or-sacred-calling.html


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