An ancient ill revealed today
In her latest book, well-known poet and spiritual writer Kathleen Norris draws the veil away from the boredom, escapism, commitment phobia, and inertia she sees in our culture and makes a provocative proposal: much of this is “the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.”
Acedia? It means “absence of care.”
Norris addresses both religious and secular readers, and weaves her personal wisdom with the teachings of ancient and contemporary Christians. Having experienced both apathy and depression herself, she maintains that “the boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid.” She suggests, “while depression is an illness treatable by counselling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.”
Acedia was originally understood not as a sin or moral failure, but rather as one of the “eight bad thoughts” that needed to be identified and resisted before evil actions ensued. It was, in fact, considered the most harmful of the thoughts because it could drain away all hope and capacity for trust in God. It was a sign of fleeing from a loving God and rejecting God’s gifts, including the gift of being one’s true self.
The symptoms of acedia are myriad. They can be concealed in feelings of disgust with the life one has chosen or in the loss of a sense of meaning. Norris suspects that acedia was lurking in the cynicism of her liberal arts education and in her teenage resistance to repetitive tasks. It took many years for her to come to terms with her mother’s outlook that “making the bed is a meaningful expression of hospitality towards oneself.”
For believers of all stripes, and certainly for those like me with a proclivity toward a level of melancholy, Acedia and Me is a timely read. I, too, at times, have matched the description of one who succumbs to acedia: “She knows what is spiritually good for her, but is tempted to deny that her inner beauty and spiritual strength are at her disposal, as gifts from God.” I resonate with the notion that acedia is “the enemy that sets into motion an endless cycle of self-defeating thoughts.”
Norris believes that for a Christian, acedia is never a reasonable response to life’s challenges. She encourages the practices of solitude, silence, prayer, and spiritual direction, not as techniques for achieving spiritual bliss, but as means for creating space for God and letting go of thoughts that lead to despair.
I have found healing through these practices as well as through cognitive exercises to correct thinking errors. I am grateful for a church community that supports contemplative spirituality, and for friends who prod me to turn towards the Light and think true thoughts. Norris does not resolve all the issues of acedia or give easy answers, but she offers prudent counsel to anyone desiring to turn away from despair and embrace hope.
“In a consumer culture we are advised to keep our options open, so that we are always free to grab the new, improved model when it appears. It is not easy for us to recognize acedia in ourselves, as it prompts us to see obligations to family, friends, and colleagues as impediments to (that) freedom… often [acedia] urges us, for no good reason, to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions.” (page 26)