Mining the minds of ancient monks

  • November 21, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Before the Seven Deadly Sins there were the Eight Bad Thoughts. This was the name given by the Desert Fathers of the early church to that swirl of temptations by which the devil sought to drive a wedge between them and God.

Acedia, anger and pride — these were the worst of the eight, thought those proto-monks. They were powerful urges that could drive a spiritual seeker to abandon the quest, give up on holiness and give in to despair.
The first of these, acedia, was eventually absorbed into the deadly sin of sloth and the word slowly disappeared from common use. But Kathleen Norris hopes that through her new book, acedia will once again get the attention it deserves.

“It’s not depression but it shares a lot of the symptoms,” the well-known American author and poet explained in a Nov. 14 interview with The Catholic Register.

{sa 1594489963}If acedia isn’t a household word, its synonyms are: apathy, lassitude, indifference, torpor, to name a few. In her new book, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead, 330 pages, $29.50 hardcover), Norris offers a quick history of its many guises:

“To the ancient Greeks it was the black gall; to the fourth-century monks it was a vicious and tenacious temptation to despair. Petrarch called it the nameless woe, and Dante named it a sin. It became known to Robert Burton and others in the Renaissance as melancholy. In Shakespeare, it is the boredom of Richard III, arguably as responsible as ambition in triggering his monstrous violence. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope called it spleen; to Baudelaire, and to many writers in the years to follow, it was ennui. . . . To the nineteenth-century French, it was mal du siècle, or the illness of the age.”

Yet to the modern mind, acedia is completely foreign.

“When people would ask me what I was writing about, I dreaded answering,” she explained during the last stop of her Canadian tour. “Nobody knew what I was writing about.”

But when she would describe the symptoms, light bulbs would go on. They understood about those times when they felt like giving up, beyond all caring about anything, leaving phone messages unanswered, bills unpaid, friends neglected. For those of a religious bent, acedia manifests itself as complete despair about God. Praying and going to church become unbearable. None of it seems to matter any more.

Sometimes it is actually full-blown clinical depression. But often, it is more a spiritual malaise than a medical problem. And it can have social spin-offs such as withdrawal from community life and civic action.

However, its symptoms are not always lethargy and emotional paralysis. It can be unceasing restlessness and an addiction to constant stimulation in the form of television, video games, physical activity or “compulsive productivity.” We end up “doing more and caring less,” she writes.

In her study of acedia, Norris, whose earlier works Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace, were both New York Times best-sellers, once again weaves her autobiography into spiritual reflection and her own wide reading to produce a compelling journey into faith.

It will be a familiar journey for her many fans. Norris has done arguably more to reacquaint the modern world to monastic life than anyone since Thomas Merton. While in her 30s, her spiritual questing drew her to a Benedictine abbey in South Dakota where she became fascinated by the timeless spiritual life of the monks. She became fast friends and eventually an oblate, or lay member, though continuing her membership in the Presbyterian parish near her home.

The monks (and cloistered religious women) proved to be a spiritual treasure house and loom large in her major prose works. In this latest, they prove, once again, to have wisdom in abundance.

In fact, it was a fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, who introduced Norris to acedia. While reading his The Praktikos, she came upon a description of something that perfectly fit her own experience.

“That was a thunderbolt for me,” she said. “Here was another writer describing and naming an experience I had and had never been able to name. And he was someone who died in 399.”

What Evagrius described seemed to match a time during her teen years in Hawaii. A studious and socially awkward teenager, Norris found herself withdrawing from the pressures of her social circles. Later, through her university years in an East Coast college and her budding career as a writer and poet, she occasionally found her usual vast stores of ambition and zeal flagging. She would go on to marry another poet, David Dwyer, and move to her grandparents’ house in South Dakota where the couple planned to pursue their writing in a peaceful rural setting. But the outward changes could not dispel the bouts of acedia, which became more oppressive as she struggled with supremely difficult challenges such as her husband’s depression, his suicide attempt and eventual death from cancer in 2003.

She found strength in daily tasks, the prayer discipline of the Benedictine rule and the sustaining life of being part of a community of believers. The idea of turning her thoughts on acedia into a book started in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t really until after her husband’s death, followed soon afterwards by her father’s, that she was able to concentrate on writing the book.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in terms of writing,” she said. “I kept working on it, then putting it aside. It was the first time in my life that I missed the deadline.”

The writing itself draws upon her own experiences, combined with her deep reading. Literary references mingle easily with quotations from theologians and philosophers — along with those ever-present Desert Fathers.

“Those early monks are actually fairly accessible as writers. They really talk in pretty concrete terms along with metaphors from nature.”

Their timeless wisdom Norris marries with a thoroughly modern sensibility; she knows firsthand our distractedness, superficiality and hunger for authentic spiritual experience. That experience, she discovered, will be found where it has always been.

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