Kathleen Norris, a poet and nonfiction writer, has written earlier about her life and her spirituality in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993), Cloister Walk (1996), and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998). In these and in The Virgin of Bennington (2001), an account of her college and early professional years, Norris alludes to the bouts of despondency and the resistance to commitment that marked her life. She maintained that she had found professional help for her depression, but she had no name for or understanding of the latter affliction. In Cloister Walk, written after two residencies at a Benedictine monastery, she devotes a few pages to acedia, and she credits a lecture that became The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (1999) with inspiring her to do a full-length study based on her belief in the usefulness of the literature of monasticism for herself and her world.
In Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, Norris focuses on this belief. She found that those in monastic life, going back to the fourth century, understood acedia best, identifying it as the “noonday devil,” a spiritual temptation to weariness unto giving up that may be felt by a monk after his first fervor, at a time when he is facing the reality of his day-by-day life committed to prayer. It was at noon that a monk felt most acutely the temptation to lose his belief that he could live a life completely devoted to prayer. In the first chapter, “Somewhere,” the writer acknowledges that in discovering the term “acedia” she felt “a weight lift from [her] soul.” For Norris, throughout her life, making any commitment was difficult, since the thought of having to follow through on commitments was wearying.
Discovering acedia was life-changing for Norris, giving her an understanding of the feeling she had suffered from childhood and still suffers. After this discovery, she spent years in research to broaden and deepen this understanding, and the result is Acedia and Me, which describes the connections between acedia and her nearly thirty-year marriage, her ongoing spiritual journey, and her successful writing life. Norris first briefly recounts the understanding of acedia in early monastic literature. She points to the inclusion of the term “acedia” with spelling variations in editions of the Oxford English Dictionary from the fourteenth century though the 1989 edition. This persistence of the word, says Norris, is “like the lexicon’s version of a mole, working on us while hidden from view.” The persistence even while obscure means, Norris adds, that acedia has always been and remains a human affliction. The opposite of acedia, she suggests, is caring, and to illustrate the importance of caring she gives her text an underlying foundation of her battles with acedia, moving easily in the text from an essayist’s discussion of acedia to a storyteller’s presentation of its role in the different phases of her life.
In her earlier texts, Norris connected her spirituality to her Presbyterian roots in rural South Dakota and her sojourns at the Benedictine St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. She grounded these narratives in the landscape of the midwestern plains and in the rhythms and images of scriptural and liturgical hymns and prayers of her religious roots. Though Norris’s spiritual language is also part of Acedia and Me, this style is often overwhelmed by her research. The text is replete with definitions and quotes, valuable to the reader but lacking useful bibliographical citation. “I can hear scholars howling with some justification,” she writes, “that I am mixing it all up, failing to make the necessary and proper distinctions.” Perhaps to make up for her freewheeling style, in the final chapter she gives the reader “Acedia: A Commonplace Book,” forty-five pages of quotations, arranged chronologically, that give or imply a definition of acedia. These alone make rich reading.
Norris asserts her right to her chosen writing style in the “Author’s Note”: What she is attempting is a lengthy “meditation on the subject of acedia.” Meditation as method seems to give the writer license to discuss acedia in the way that works for her. The text meanders, looking at the main topic from every angle: depression, faith, hope,...
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