We have a vast palette of words that attempt to express our downcast moods -- “a funk,” “the blues,” “the doldrums.” All of them abstractions, euphemisms we employ in an effort to pinpoint something elusive -- a sensation that might be a shade less than depression but still has weight, the power to hem us in, to alter our picture of the world.
Kathleen Norris -- a poet, memoirist and oblate -- was all too familiar with this vague sense of lethargy that would sometimes descend like a net. Since her teens she’d struggled with episodes of inertia that spread into a bleak stretch of anxiousness and eventually spun out into indifference.
The first one started with a single thought that “slithered into my Eden, pulling a string of other thoughts, each one worse than the one before,” she writes.
That moment would mark the beginning of a recurrence of “bleak moods,” but it wouldn’t be until Norris reached her 30s that she ran across a word -- acedia -- in the writings of , a 4th century monk, that precisely described not just the mood but the course it would run and the damage it could do:
“The demon of acedia -- also called the noonday demon -- is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. . . . He makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and . . . he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself.”
The words had shocking resonance for Norris. “I wanted to figure out why this 4th century writer seemed to know me and seemed to know exactly what I was feeling,” she says. In her new book, “Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life” (Riverhead: 336 pp., $25.95), Norris attempts to both identify this demon and trace the trajectory of this relic of a word: a term that has gone in and out of usage over centuries for an affliction that is not done with us.
It is, in fact, a state that runs rampant through contemporary culture, in many forms: indifference, workaholism, lethargy, ennui, commitment phobia. “People don’t know the word, but they know the condition,” says Norris.
“The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying,” Norris makes clear early on in “Acedia & Me.” “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.”
Delineating the differences and how both have affected her life make up Norris’ study. “In a sense it’s a miracle that the book got finished. Because there were periods where I almost gave up on it,” she explains, as we walk across the main plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Later, she says, she’s eager to tour the tar pits. It’s a desire that seems to go hand-in-hand with her literary and spiritual pursuits: Although her book is a variegated memoir about marriage, writing and the contemplative life, it is also an elaborate excavation.
“The theologian [Pope] Gregory the Great took the monastic version of the ‘eight bad thoughts’ -- which acedia was considered one of the most treacherous -- and developed the seven deadly sins,” she says, with acedia being replaced by sloth. “People don’t think of sloth as a sin because we associate it with physical laziness -- who cares if you make your bed? But that’s just the beginning. Ancient sloth incorporates a spiritual side and that’s a nasty situation. Acedia is the root of a lot of bad things because of its ability to nourish other vices.”
Norris is known for her no-stone-unturned pursuits of the mind and spirit. In her bestselling books “The Cloister Walk” and “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith,” she explored the territory of monastic life and the often abstract language of Christianity. In town to tape a segment on the seven deadly sins for the History Channel, she notes that at first this book was much more difficult to portray in thumbnail. “When you tell people you’re writing about the spiritual aspect of sloth, they don’t know what you mean. But when you say ‘indifference,’ they do. They understand not being able to care, and being so not able to care that you don’t care that you don’t care. The not caring is the sin; it’s worth something to be present with others.”
Acedia belongs to many. Anyone who pursues a creative discipline, anyone whose life is bounded by routine, “anyone who has been married more than 10 years,” says Norris. In other words, everyone engaged in the pursuit of life who is unexpectedly derailed. Norris’ prodigious study shows us that acedia’s reach is both wide-ranging and profound. She points to examples of how acedia has atomized within the culture -- the ploys of advertising that engender dissatisfaction, our highly structured multitasking lives. “We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.”
All told, the project took her more than 20 years, working between other books and life events (including the 2003 death of her husband, the poet David Dwyer). She began to collect articles and quotes from a wide range of sources -- citations from monastic study or medieval history; occasionally a contemporary reference. But her trepidation to jump in was a hint about the very nature of the task at hand. There were even more direct warnings. When Norris told an Anglican nun what she was at work on, her reply? “That’s like taking on the devil himself.”
She says she wasn’t spooked but sobered. It confirmed what sort of ride she was in for. “I kind of laughed it off. But there was this little voice in me, ‘She knows what she’s talking about.’ ”
Though finding her own pain voiced in the language of a monk from some distant time was her journey’s impetus, the writer in her was sparked by the idea of tracking the evolutionof an obscure word. “The timeline in Oxford English Dictionary online is phenomenal for this word. The most interesting part was that [acedia] was marked as obsolete in the 1933 OED, but after World War II it was back: Why did we need this word again?” Most likely, says Norris: the postwar mood. “The violence had been so horrible all over the world. The Holocaust in Europe and the atomic bomb in Japan. And in America . . . we were supposed to forget about all of our troubles by buying a dishwasher.”
Norris sees a distinct path to contemporary culture, one that is oversaturated with data but little real information. “In this hyped-up world, broadcast and Internet news media have emerged as acedia’s perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce and the latest advance in nanotechnology,” she writes. But the ceaseless bombardment, she suggests, “makes us impervious to caring.”
While at work on the book, she still had bouts with the desert monk’s “noonday demon,” yet somehow being steeped in its study gave her a plan of attack. “There were so many days when I woke up indifferent to everything, especially when my husband died,” she says. “When he was alive, the care-giving had to be done so I couldn’t be indifferent. But I think one of the worst phases -- and I don’t want to malign the show because it was kind of entertaining -- was when I watched an entire season of ' America’s Next Top Model.’ In one sitting.”
This familiar form of lassitude was different from depression -- at least how it was experienced within her. With depression, “I can’t get past a certain level of fear and worry that’s caused by more or less an external experience. But with acedia: Well, like the other morning, I had nothing to be particularly anxious or fearful about but it occurred to me, ‘If I stay with this thought, I may not get out of bed.’ So what I did was the classic monastic remedy: I recited a psalm, and that cleared my head.”
“Trying to talk about acedia is like trying to define a negative or grab a shadow,” Norris writes early on in “Acedia & Me”; and so trying to push away something so elusive can be equally vexing. But thinking in terms other than “deadly sins” makes it easier to grapple with. “I like the term ‘bad thoughts.’ Sin just turns people off. Bad thoughts is better, it’s a more evocative, hospitable term.” Detaching it from sin, Norris suggests, makes it easier to begin tackling the spiral at its onset.
Knowing the name of her malaise was the first step to conquering its worst indulgences. Although she makes clear that she isn’t writing prescriptions, just telling a story, there is some concrete advice to be gleaned for those who are devout as well as those who are not. “The Psalms are just poetry. There is much more room in them,” she says -- metaphor to lift the spirit or simply to lean on. “But really it’s trying to find the lesson in there even if it is painful and difficult. The whole notion that ‘all things teach’ is the one thing that any of us can grab onto.” Whether you find your inspiration in nature, meditation, poetry or scripture, the first step on the path to healing, she says, “is about getting outside that closed circle of self.”
Kathleen Norris will read at Barnes & Noble, Third Street Promenade, 1201 3rd St., Santa Monica, 3 p.m. Oct. 5.