Books

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris

A modern take on the sin of sloth: Can a spiritual life help break us out of our collective apathy?


Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 352 pages
Author: Kathleen Norris
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-03
Amazon

If we think of the seven deadly sins, sloth isn’t the one that jumps out as the most dangerous. Greed? We’ve got plenty of that. Rage? Of course. But sloth? There’s no room for sloth in our fast-paced, overburdened lives. We are on the go. We are stretched too thin. But, writer Kathleen Norris argues, that is exactly sloth. Our busyness masks an inability to pay attention or care; it’s business as usual. Please do not rock the boat because Survivor is on and this season is really good. Sloth not only infects an individual’s ability to care but a society’s ability to care, she says.

Norris was in her thirties when she abandoned her beloved New York City and moved into her grandmother’s rambling old house in South Dakota. Pretty soon she was hanging out with the local Benedictine monks, becoming increasingly drawn to their life of solitude and prayer. What followed was a grounded spiritual journey that Norris described in her popular books, The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Little has changed for Norris in Acedia & Me: Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Building off her previous books, Norris now tackles depression and its twin, acedia, which is commonly defined as carelessness, apathy, or sloth. Norris seems to prefer the fourth century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus’ term “noonday demon” as a more fitting expression for what has plagued religious, artists, and everyday folks throughout the centuries.

Her first task is to define the boundaries between Acedia and depression. A difficult and convoluted charge since Norris admits that they are “notoriously fluid”. She finally allows that, “At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.”

While spiritual practice and prayer may be uncomfortable and radical advice for those of us weaned on Facebook and Xbox, Norris has very definite and very generous ideas about her readers. Never smug or preachy, she truly believes we are hungry for a connection and deeper meaning that can be found through community and spiritual guidance. This belief permeates her book.

Those who turn to Acedia & Me expecting a slick self-help manual may be bitterly disappointed or quietly astonished. The questions that Norris poses are not easily answered. Why aren’t we, with all of our technology and science and ease, happy? Why are we more concerned with the lives of celebrities than the fact that many children in the United States go to bed hungry?

As in her previous books, Norris' meticulous research is clear and reflects someone whose curiosity and passion pulls them deeper and deeper into the nuances of her chosen subject. She doesn’t allow her less informed readers to flounder alone, though. Norris has a knack for pulling apart lofty spiritual quotes and laying them at our earthly feet. It also helps that some of the quotes have a decidedly modern ring like the Desert Father who counsels, “Do not worry about a thing once it has been done. Control your tongue and your belly.”

At its heart, Acedia & Me is a a love story as Norris reflects on her marriage and how she supported her husband through his severe depression and debilitating illnesses. (Norris husband died in 2003). Depression, Norris states, has many causes. “Can we agree that there are many treatments as well?” For Norris and her husband, the close and supportive community of Benedictine monks and friends in addition to medication provided them with relief.

Despite its lovely language, Acedia & Me meanders at times and spreads itself a bit too thin. The section on “Acedia’s Progress” was unfortunately too short and contained some of the book’s most compelling writing. Norris makes the case that society’s rampant consumption is connected to acedia as is our own unending search for ‘the next best thing.’ This erodes our spirit and ultimately distracts us from more important issues. “Whenever we focus on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the real world -- the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain forests, the ecological damage caused by factory farming -- Acedia is at work.”

In the end, while Norris challenges us as individuals and as a society, she also offers comfort in an uncertain world. “We do not know what will happen,” Norris writes. “Disasters will strike, and great blessings will come. Our difficult and glorious task is to live through them all.” Acedia & Me provides a startling glimpse into how we might live but how we also might begin to heal ourselves.

6

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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