I would love to know whether anyone who reads this has heard of this word before…especially if you have not read the book by Kathleen Norris which includes acedia in the title. Having read all her previous prose works, I happened upon Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks and a writer’s life on the new book shelf of our branch library and took it home on the strength of the author’s name. I didn’t really ask myself what the title was (or how to pronounce it) until a week or two later when I picked it up to begin reading.
Norris’ books are all at least partially memoir, and this one is no different, focusing on her marriage to poet David Dwyer, who died in 2003. The author has been for many years an oblate of the Benedictine order, although she claims Presbyterian as her official denomination. The seeming contradiction in that will require the curious to read The Cloister Walk, an earlier book, because it would be too cumbersome to explain here.
Her reading of the early Church fathers led, many years ago now, to a desert monk named Evagrius (4th C.), whose writings introduced her to the concept of acedia…a slippery word which she spends the entire book defining. Here’s a first stab at it from page 3:
At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.
Norris is very careful to distinguish the spiritual problem of acedia from the physiological and/or psychological one of depression. A paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas from page 24 says:
For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.
In case you’re still with me, and still curious, acedia is pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh, and it is variously defined by sloth, apathy and indifference, especially to spiritual things. Before there were seven deadly sins, the early writers identified “eight bad thoughts”–the motivating cause behind the sinful effect, I suppose. What does this have to do with us, you ask? Well…
The torpor of acedia can be felt every time you sit down to read your Bible but remember something else that you “need” to do first…
Every time you question whether there’s any point in praying for so-and-so any longer…
Every time you wonder if God is really interested in having a relationship with you and instead of asking Him you turn on the TV or pick up a magazine (because perhaps the answer would be painful or require action).
And if you can’t relate to any of those scenarios, brother or sister in Christ, then you have much indeed for which to be thankful.