Acedia & Me

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life
By Kathleen Norris
New York: Riverhead Books, 2008
Review by Carl McColman

Acedia — a spiritual state of soul-weariness, boredom, or perhaps even wilful depression — is hardly the kind of topic I would expect to see an entire book devoted to; not even a book by an author renowned for her keen insight into the ongoing relevance of monastic spirituality in our time. But Kathleen Norris is capable, like few other authors I know of who are writing today, to unpack this mysterious concept and make it not only recognizable, but even urgently relevant, to both the spiritual and secular landscapes of our time. Norris does not revel in the kind of bat-guano craziness that characterizes the confessional writing of an Anne Lamott, but rather offers a calm yet steady narrative in which she recounts not only her own lifelong struggle with boredom and depression — but also the much more dramatic story of her husband, whose struggle with depression, attempt at suicide, lengthy battle with failing health, and eventual demise at age 57 proves to be a compelling account against which she dissects her own ongoing struggle with acedia. Norris has a rare gift of being able to combine a genuine, heartfelt faith with a keen critical recognition that ours is an age that is too depressed or cynical or bored to believe (yes, I’m choosing those words on purpose). Consequently, not only is her insight into her own faith candid and honest, but her evocation of the link between acedia and unbelief is vital. This book soars when Norris does what she does best — tells a story — and is a bit less engaging when she gets theological. Still, her poetic voice not only brings this particular ancient concept of sin to life, but she makes quite a strong case for rethinking much of how we see our contemporary world, in the light of acedia. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to listen to Kurt Cobain scream “Entertain us!” the same way again. For that primal yell may not be merely the pout of a bored generation, but rather a cry for help within a world where soul-weariness has all but triumphed on a universal scale.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Busting the "Goody Two Shoes" Stereotype of Saints
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Peggy Goforth

    Oh Carl why are so unkind to Anne Lamott? “Bat – Guano Crazy”! Really now. I’ve enjoyed her essays immensely. Funny and serious and very grounded. You as one who advocates community and relationship must know that the theme running through her essays and life story is the strength and support she received from her pastor and church community as she struggled to overcome her drug and alcohol and relationship addictions, and later to raise her son as a single mom. If you find her story telling offensive “shit” which is what bat guano is, then I would guess the problem is not her or her writing…it’s you. And that means YOU need to check out YOUR contemplation meter!

  • Carl McColman

    Peggy, I’m sorry that you took umbrage at this, but I’m afraid you’re simply misunderstanding my awkward attempt at humor. Far from finding her “offensive,” I adore Anne Lamott, and have said so repeatedly on this blog. Have you read Bird by Bird? In that book, Anne all but calls herself (and every other writer) bat-guano crazy (I’ll freely admit that I’m at least as nuts as Lamott, especially when it comes to the process of writing). I admire her as one of the few authors truly willing to admit to her own “shitty” craziness as a creative writer. Frankly, I see my comment more as a subtle criticism of Norris than of Lamott, since I’m suggesting that Lamott may well be the more nakedly honest of the two. Let me state this unequivocally: My “bat-guano crazy” comment was not meant as a put-down. I was simply trying to be funny in describing Lamott’s candor, and I apologize for my humor not working. I’m sorry that my words could so easily be misconstrued.

  • Sue

    Haha :) My homour is awkward also, Carl. It’s easy to misunderstand each other on paper without the benefit of raised eyebrows and such, isn’t it :)

    I have been thinking a lot about this book since you posted about it. I think I might have to buy it.

  • Peggy Goforth

    I’ve read Anne Lamott but nothing by Kathleen Norris. Just never got around to it. Currently reading (skimming and perusing) a book of excepts from Rilke’s correspondance.

    I tend to avoid writings on or about depressive illnessess unless the author is someone I am especially interested in (Julia Cameron’s biography is very good). I have three family members who have suffered from mental health issues and I have spent entirely too much of my time in ER’s and everything else related to it to relax with book on it.

  • Carl McColman

    Peggy, my heart goes out to you. You probably would find Acedia & Me somewhat difficult, as she speaks honestly about her husband’s suicide attempt. I’ve had a loved one go through mild depression, which fortunately was addressed with short term use of Lexapro followed by diligent attention to diet and exercise. I know it’s a toughie, not only for the person going through it but for those who love them. I’ll hold you and your family in my prayers.

  • Robbie Monsma

    Hi, Peggy. My heart also goes out to you. But don’t deprive yourself of Kathleen Norris. She has written many other books. I found The Cloister Walk to be really positive and uplifting. I probably would not have bought Acedia unless I already trusted Norris. So try that first.