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.