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.