Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bookmarks--Acedia & Me

Before the concept of Seven Deadly Sins, there was the idea of Eight Bad Thoughts. When the Seven Deadly Sins were originated to help monks and others to recognize tendencies in themselves and help them order their lives, Acedia was the Bad Thought that seemed to have dropped from usage. But dropping a word does not mean the realities go away.

Acedia is a Greek word which means "the absence or lack of care." But of course there is more to the concept than this. Kathleen Norris provides a few definitions at the beginning of her excellent book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life. As I see it, the term refers to a lack of concern or care that is so strong that one might come to believe (act as if one believes) that no action is worth doing. This affected the medieval monk terribly, and was sometimes called "the noonday demon," because it took the monk (or any other spiritual traveller) from proceding with the tasks that were important for spiritual formation and growth.

I finished Norris' book months ago, but I have had the problem of finding the book and the concepts she addresses difficult to talk about at the same time I almost cannot stop talking about the book's impact. I realized that it has struck a personal chord that I cannot adequately explain or express. It is also difficult to admit problems of this nature and at the same time I notice the workings of such problems in my own life and in the lives of some around me.

Norris weaves her stories of wrestling with acedia with narratives about her dying husband and her time as a Benedictine oblate. As with her best known book, The Cloister Walk, she also intertwines healthy, but not too heady doses of theological and literary scholarship. Other gettting a handle on the concept, I found it particularly important that Norris addresses the differences between acedia and depression, noting that some who have been diagnosed with depression are actually dealing with acedia. She does not diminish the value therapy and medication, particularly from those who suffer from severe depression. However, she agrees with many today (myself included) that drugs are too easily and readily prescribed, and often do much more harm than good.

This is not a self help book or a how to book. Yet as I read, and very much after, I had a sense naming and identifying the problem could help me get up and engage the world, and I could fight this "noonday demon" whereas I have lived much of my life in a cycle of inaction, guilt, and prayer. The prayer helps, but isn't all that is necessary, and often the struggle means I might not pray when I need to most.

We live in a world where the concept of sin is diminished, often nullified by those who are supposed to offer us the most help. We also live in a world where it is easier to take a pill or spill our guts to a paid "professional" who does not actually help us to explore our real selves and what we may do or not do to harm to ourselves and others. We live in a world where the spiritual, if it is acknowledged at all, is put on the back burner or blamed for the world's ills. In such a world, Kathleen Norris' Acedia & Me is much needed.

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