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

Of the seven deadly sins, some seem deadlier than others. What of sloth? How bad can it be? The lust of philandering public figures and the greed of businessmen can bring down governments and capsize the globe’s economies. Even gluttony seems an appalling indulgence of both waste and waists, inviting civic intervention against fast-food chains and trans fats. By comparison, I doubt many can define sloth, even if they know it — like obscenity — when they see it. Slothful behavior may seem wanton and disdainful, but it poses nothing of the menace to the individual or the social good that its half-dozen dangerous brethren threaten. Whether conceived of as melancholic apathy or lazy indolence, sloth goes a lonely path.

Most sins are passions grown deformed and outsized by excess. The gluttonous overdo it through too much appetite; the wrathful are blinded by a surfeit of anger. Sloth, by contrast, is characterized by lessness, by an inward indifference. It is hardly the stuff of tragedy — Bartleby, maybe, but not Ahab. Accordingly, Kathleen Norris, in her memoir Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, uses the word “sloth” only sparingly and instead examines its antecedent transgressive cognate, acedia, a sloth-like concept familiar to the early Christian monastic traditions. In doing so, she not only considers how slothfulness leads to a rejection of active thinking and self-examination, but also restores sloth’s stature. After all, for the desert monks, she reminds us, acedia was a gateway sin, the gravest of them all: a demon that, having sown the seeds of despair, permitted other more venial sins to take root.

“The cenobites of the Thebaid were subjected to the assaults of many demons,” writes Aldous Huxley in his 1923 essay “Accidie.” “Most of these evil spirits came furtively with the coming of night. But there was one, a fiend of deadly subtlety, who was not afraid to walk by day. The holy men of the desert called him the damon medieanus; for his favorite hour of visitation was in the heat of day.” A monk stricken by acedia “would go back to his meditations, to sink, sink through disgust and lassitude into the black depths of despair and hopeless unbelief. When that happened the demon smiled and took his departure, conscious that he had done a good morning’s work.”

Norris consults Huxley’s essay, along with Dante, Chaucer, Kierkegaard, and Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case, to rehabilitate the gravity of acedia. At its root, acedia means the absence of care. “When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding,” Norris writes, “acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” A poet and memoirist (The Cloister Walk and The Virgin of Bennington) who re-embraced Catholicism after moving from New York to the South Dakota plains (she is now an oblate of the Benedictine order), Norris began to recognize in the writings of Evagrius, Cassian, and other fourth- and fifth-century monks the description of a malady, a “nagging unease” that had appeared and reappeared throughout her life. Monks faced the unceasing demand of menial work, repetitious prayer, and the unrelieved sameness of day after day spent living with minimal distraction. Norris saw a similar set of anxieties in her life as a writer: the burden of boredom, the demands of despair as a poetic muse on her mental well-being, the soul-deflating comedown when she wasn’t experiencing the mania of creative inspiration and writing. Even the “compulsive productivity” that she experienced as an overachieving square-peg high school student was one of the “masks” of acedia. Amid the unchanging winters of South Dakota, practicing a vocation “whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value,” she saw that acedia was a demon she knew.

Norris’s personal confrontation with acedia is tested with the long physical decline of her husband, himself an agnostic lapsed Catholic writer who suffers a psychiatric breakdown followed by a lengthy bout with cancer. His ongoing debilitation, the demise of the two-person “community” Norris shared with him, his own bouts with depression — all these lead her to reconsider the meaning of despair in relation to faith and to rethink the connection between suffering and sin. “What the Church later defined as sin, desert monks termed ‘bad thoughts,’ which to my mind is a much more helpful designation.” Norris’s preference for the latter allows her to see sin less as a list of transgressions than as that which denies her the ability to find grace, to exercise forgiveness, to extend care to others. “The monks understood the great difference between a harmful action and the temptation to do it, and they maintained that while we can’t control whether or not the bad thoughts come to us, we can learn how to respond to them.”

Acedia was a particularly dreadful “bad thought” for monks because it seemed to strike out of the blue, completely unannounced. Norris attempts throughout the book to contrast this spiritual lassitude with the condition of depression, which she writes “generally has an identifiable and external cause that acedia lacks.” Perhaps. She argues that depression implies a certain level of anguish over one’s condition, while acedia “is an unearned indifference to the vagaries of experience and emotion.” While her memoir is filled with stories of contemporary monks on antidepressants, these tales seem geared more toward convincing the reader of the variety of ascetic experience today than to the therapeutic benefits of psychotropic medicine, of which she is at the least dubious — in places mildly so, in others railing against the excesses of Prozac Nation. It’s possible, I suppose, that in many cases what has become medicalized as depression is in reality, and in essence, the old-fashioned sadness of acedia, but the popular magazine articles that Norris cites to make her argument, and the anecdotal evidence she provides of the malignant effects of therapy culture, detract from the appeal of her memoir. Are there really that many neurotics who wallow in their own diagnoses, preferring self-consciousness, as she puts it, to self-knowledge? “We cause another kind of harm, I think, when we assume that literature, particularly literature about depression, is necessarily prescriptive,” she writes as a reminder that she is describing her own history — which is good to keep in mind when she begins to overindulge her inner Frederick Crews.

Most of Acedia and Me avoids such cavils and sticks to a thoughtful engagement with the emotional and spiritual aspects of sloth. Writing in the wake of Baudelairean ennui and anticipating Sartre and Beckett, Huxley concluded his essay on the evolution of acedia by considering its “progress ?from the position of being a deadly sin, deserving of damnation, to the position first of a disease and finally of an essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature.” As a devout Catholic, Norris would likely disagree with Huxley’s conclusion, but many readers of her memoir will recognize themselves in his seemingly still contemporary finding: “The mal du si?cle was an inevitable evil; indeed, we can claim with a certain pride that we have a right to our accidie. With us it is not a sin or a disease of the hypochondrias; it is a state of mind which fate has forced upon us.”