Acedia has been described as apathy, ennui, and even depression, but Norris stresses that while there is something of acedia in each of these afflictions, acedia is also somehow beyond such characterizations. She describes it as “an ancient demon in modern dress,” a suffering that profits us not and that can only be burned away through commitment. In both this interview and her book, Norris uses the context of her marriage, her work, and her faith to illuminate this intimate and yet surprisingly common experience of acedia. Read Part II of Norris’s interview with The Other Journal here.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Hi, Kathleen. We’re really interested in your new book Acedia and Me. Also, a lot of our readers are going into church leadership positions or are interested in current trends in theology, so we are really excited to hear your perspective on things. Thank you very much.
Kathleen Norris (KN): Oh, great! I am interested, of course, in anything that talks about theology and culture.
TOJ: When I read Acedia and Me, I found myself feeling two emotions: relief and astonishment. I was relieved that someone had named this thing and astounded at how pervasive acedia had become. It was a little bit like finding one ant in the bedroom and then on further investigation finding a million ants in the bedroom! The more I read this book, the more I really did agree with the nun that warned you about the danger of approaching acedia—1
KN: Yes, I brought her up because to me, that’s it. Sometimes, some of the audiences I’ve had have said, “Is there anything positive about acedia that you can learn from it?” No. I think you just learn from the discipline. Like the desert monks say, “Prayer is warfare to the last breath.” So, there are some positive things, but I tell them that acedia is about the most negative thing I can imagine. It disconnects you from yourself, from other people, from God. It’s an incredibly negative thing. I really can’t think of a real positive spin on it. I can’t think of one.
TOJ: I was fascinated with the fact that it really is one of the most negative things yet also one of the most subtle and invisible things. It seems that it may also be the easiest thing to pass over; because it doesn’t wear a bright uniform, it blends in with the background really well.
KN: The best writing on acedia is really from the fourth century. You can’t beat Evagrius. He’s so good.
I, also, was so enchanted to find the great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies’s statement—if you look at my “commonplace book,” at the end of the book, I’ve included an excerpt from him. He really captures it, exactly what acedia is and how it works.2 He shows how it really kind of creeps up on us; we don’t quite know what it is and how devastating it is. And here he is, a fairly secular writer, I believe, in a speech he gave called “The Deadliest of the Sins,” and somehow, he understood what acedia was better than most—that is such a great description of acedia.
The reason that commonplace book exists, of course, is because I was collecting material on this for twenty years. I just kept finding things and then finding more things. That speech was actually a fairly late find for me. It was a speech he’d given, and it was collected in a book of his essays and speeches, miscellany kind of stuff.
TOJ: I remember following up on interviews with you over the years, and you occasionally mentioned that you were going to write a book on sloth.
KN: That was the easiest way to describe what I was trying to do, to talk about sloth, because if I said acedia, unless the person that I was talking to was Benedictine or a Trappist, they would have no idea what I meant. So that was the way I chose to talk about it. I would say sloth or spiritual sloth and then people could kind of connect, but normally the word acedia, for reasons I explain in the book, has been kind of lost to us. It’s not a familiar term.
TOJ: I remember that when I saw that you were going to do this book there was a little tremor in my heart, because it seems that when you become interested in something you also invite the battle of knowing it. That must have been tough to do.
KN: We’d joke about it. I would say to people at every Christmas dinner, “Well, this has happened, and that has happened.” And finally last year, the publication date was set, it was coming. That was such a leap, because for a long time, I would say, “I’m writing a book on sloth, and I still need to do more research.” And that was kind of my joke about it. At the same time, it was both the internal acedia and then the natural depression caused by a lot of external stuff in my life—my dad dying six years ago, my husband dying five years ago now, and you know all of that other stuff going on, my sister becoming very ill, actually twice; she survived two really serious things—all of this coming in the space of a couple of years. My brain just wouldn’t function to write. I was busy doing other things and caring about other things when I could care at all. It was a mess.
What’s that wonderful Psalm that says “Give us joy for the years we knew affliction”? Boy, I love that one. You know, we’ve been through some crap, let’s have some good times!3 Actually, finishing the book and doing a tour really feels like good times. It’s been a joy.
TOJ: It has been good times for you? What is it like to write a book and then to tour for it?
KN: It’s exhausting. I’m actually doing seventeen cities in twenty-one days on the mainland. I’ve done this before but not for about six years. So I know what to expect, and I know how to do it. I know that I need to try to get sleep and exercise as much as I possibly can: take naps if I need them, and eat lightly. These are the kind of things that are good at any time, but when you’re trying to travel like this, you really need to do that, or you just feel horrible. You can’t function. But the good thing is that while I was working on this book, it was hard to talk about, and I couldn’t talk about it that much, but now all of a sudden there is this interest in it. People are asking me great questions. Every night when I give a reading I get wonderful questions, a lot of engagement with the audience. That part is just great fun. And the airplane stuff—I just read a good novel and fall asleep on the plane and get to the next city, just like any kind of business traveler. It basically is a really intense form of business travel. Which I’m not used to; I’ve done it before, but not for about six years, I guess.
TOJ: I am curious—you were talking about all of the things that were going on in your life with your father and your sister and your husband. In reading Acedia and Me, I was swept away with the intimacy of your disclosure. I couldn’t help thinking of a poet named Jeff Tweedy: In one of his songs he says, “When all your pictures have been hung / and all your songs have been sung / just remember that what is yours / is everyone’s from now on.”4 And I wonder how you get to the place as a writer that you can write so beautifully and intimately about something so personal. What does that feel like?
KN: It took a while. I learned from my memoirs that if I am willing to be really personal and tell a personal story, that’s always the story that people connect to most deeply. I think it’s mine but it really isn’t. There’s some kind of a universal thing that people will say, “My God, that happened to me!” or “Let me tell you my story.” People will really respond because I guess that they recognize that I am sharing something.
The other thing is that there was a period when I realized that in order to finish this book I had to write about my husband’s death. That had to be in it. That kind of shut me down for a good four or five months. I said, “Oh, man. I know I have to do it. I don’t know how I am going to do it, and I am not going to do it now. I don’t want to do it. I am just going to let it sit and see what happens.”
Eventually, I began to see a way that I could just do the very simple act of storytelling—“This is what happened, and this is what happened,” and sort of work my way back into it that way. And I think it was valuable. I must be kind of crazy or something because it doesn’t bother me that much. I guess that’s partly because when someone you love dies, it is a universal story. This is the thing that happens to people. It happens to people they love. So it is my story, but I do not mind sharing it. I am sure there are lots of little memories and lots of little things that my husband and I did that I will never tell. Maybe I will write them in fiction, so I can claim that it is not my real life or whatever, and there are certainly secrets and little things that I keep for myself—I mean you have to—but in term of the bigger story that I wanted to get out, I needed to do it. So there it is.
TOJ: Yeah, I thought that your writing was beautiful. There were so many times that I forgot I was reading a book. Not only were the people were so clear, but the love behind the writing was so clear. I felt like I was there in those hotel rooms or, in Dakota, in the bar next to the grizzled cowboy—
KN: Stories do that. Basically I think of myself as a storyteller: that’s what I do, and that’s important to be able to do. People connect to stories, and when you look at Christ, when he really wants to get a point across, he tells a story. You know, it works. People remember it.
I also think that’s one of the things that make these early monks so accessible. They’re telling stories; they’re writing from experience; they’re addressing the heart; they’re not abstract. It’s not like trying to read modern theology or psychology or anything like that. That’s really one of the reasons that I find them so accessible is that they’re storytellers too.
TOJ: In your book you celebrate marriage but without the usual evangelical emphasis on the need for it to be perfect or a place of perfection. Rather, you seemed to celebrate faithfulness and link it with struggle. There wasn’t an idea that marriage was something that was perfect; it was something that needed creation—
KN: Oh, yes. It needs a lot of work. I guess I am not really that familiar with the idea of perfection in marriage. But of course with the biblical word perfect, when Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—I wrote about this in Amazing Grace—it doesn’t mean what we think of as perfectionist or perfection. It means maturity. Be mature. So in a sense, a perfect marriage is a mature marriage. One that you’ve allowed to mature, and you’ve matured along with it. It doesn’t mean what we would think of as perfect, and I think that if you think of it as perfectionist, you know, everything in its place, and isn’t it wonderful, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore, that is not what a marriage is. A marriage continually requires attention, tender loving care, all sorts of things. It’s difficult. If you start to look at it, what we normally mean by perfect, it doesn’t make any sense. You’re probably going to stagnate, but if you look at it in the biblical sense of perfect, what that word actually conveys in Greek, then mature, yes, you grow into marriage. You ripen. It becomes mature and all the other beautiful things that happen.
TOJ: You celebrated the beauty in clumsiness. In marriage, like many things, we try so hard to do it well or to do it right. In Acedia and Me you celebrated the clumsiness and the work of it and then wove that together with prayer and acedia. It really was beautiful.
KN: Well, thank you, because that is intimate writing. I mean you are really writing about stuff without a mask of fiction or anything else. You are really trying to write about your own situation, your own marriage. Well, thanks, I am glad that it worked for you.
TOJ: I hope that a lot of people read it just beginning marriage.
KN: When you say “In sickness and in health,” boy, you know sometimes you are really going to get called on that! And in my case my husband was really quite healthy and robust when I married him, but he ended up having all sorts of physical and mental problems over the years that required both of us to do some really hard work and reaffirm the commitment in a sense. You know when you make that commitment, it’s serious.
TOJ: I do want to ask. In the book you mentioned that you were caring for your mother—
KN: She lives in assisted living. She does have assistance, but it’s just that I am her daughter, and I can provide things, extra things, company, I can take her out, I take her to her doctor. She sees her doctor once a week for a blood test. I just can be with her and do things with her on a daily basis, and that makes it good for both of us. I am spending time with my mom in the last years of her life; I take her out to lunch, and I take her to the movies sometimes. We pretty much have a good time together. But that is the burden of caregiving and watching her as she does become more and more limited in what she can do. She is actually in pretty good shape, and mentally, she watches the news every night, and she is aware of what is happening in the world, for good or ill. She likes to go out to the movies and lunch and stuff, so as long as she is interested in the world and everything, that is fantastic, and I am just so grateful.
TOJ: I would say that the elderly are an area of the population about which not only the church but also society as a whole is generally silent. But with the baby boomer generation coming, pretty soon we are going to have to theologically embody Christ among the elderly and bring the elderly into the church bodies. What are your thoughts around how we can do this with the elderly population from your experience in the assisted living center?
KN: Well, just with the experience of honoring the elders. Honoring your father and mother—that’s one of the early commandments—and I basically think that means honoring everyone’s father and mother, honoring the elderly. Our society doesn’t do that very well, but I perceive that commandment to not only mean my own father and mother but all the elders. And so I hang out at my mom’s building. I know a lot of the people who live there and so that’s kind of a nice connection for me to make. I can now see what growing old means; it’s actually a valuable thing for me just in the sense of learning more about the kind of decisions that I might want to make as I get older.
And they have incredible stories. These people have survived the Great Depression. They have survived World War II. They have amazing stories and often need to tell them, and they are always grateful of the young. Of course, they call me young! I’m sixty-one, but to them I’m young. But they are always happy to have a younger person that is interested and wants to listen.
Churches, I think, are well equipped with the office of deacons and sometimes with Sunday school kids actually doing some things together with the elderly. At my church in Honolulu, we often have an intergenerational vacation Bible school. And it’s really great because sometimes people bring their grandkids. So grandma and grandpa are there, sometimes mom and dad are there, and sometimes you get three generations of people all attending the same vacation Bible school; it would be a night, late afternoon, or early evening kind of thing, and it would be wildly popular. We can get so many different ages in there and involved, and they don’t all do everything together, but there are some activities that are shared. It’s really fun to see the grandparents with their grandkids and that kind of thing. I think churches are really well equipped to do it, but I think they have to be intentional about doing it.
TOJ: Yeah, definitely. One interesting thing, I worked with Alzheimer’s patients for a year, and in regards to how central story is to human nature, I got to work with people that had middle- to late-stage Alzheimer’s, so speech and organized thought were going. We did this activity where we would give them a black-and-white photo that was somewhat unique, maybe a baby in a basket or a family that had something eccentric occurring in the picture, and we would ask the patients, “What do you think is going on in this story?” We would open a wide space for answers, and then we would write everything they said down on a large piece of paper up front. By the end, there would be a whole, coherent and cooperative story. Everyone had a line of the story, and the patients would come alive in creating the story. Of course, the individual lines that each person contributed would have a lot to do with their own personal stories and histories.
KN: Yeah, I think things like that are valuable, and again, I think churches are one the few places where the generations do meet at some level. Churches are well set up to do that. It’s a real blessing in that sense because you always have two, three, sometimes four generations attending a church. Sometimes the kids might come in at a certain time in the service—they don’t necessarily hear the sermon, but they’re there for parts of the service or this or that. And on special days the kids are up there singing. There are all these things that are intergenerational. Our society tends to specialize and put people in fragments, and churches are a great opportunity for bringing the generations together.
TOJ: I almost think that may be one piece to the antidote to acedia. I was looking at our culture, reading your book, finding “ants all over the bedroom”—
KN: You know, acedia is an “antsy” thing. That’s one of the things that is so remarkable about it. It can manifest itself as this incredible ants-in-the-bedroom, antsy restlessness, but it can also manifest as this incredible inertia and boredom. Sometimes they coexist at the same time. It really is a crazy-making kind of thing.
I do think you’re right, because if you are getting the generations to connect, in a sense you are doing something healthy because acedia will always seek to disconnect you from whatever connections you have made in your life: with a spouse, maybe your vocation or job, people you work with, the place you’re living, or your church community. Acedia will always seek to disconnect you—that’s its genius. All of a sudden the grass looks greener somewhere else. There are some situations, like abusive situations, where it is probably healthier to move on; however, much of the time I think that the urge to leave is a sense of nagging acedia. You know, “These people don’t appreciate me,” “I can do better somewhere else.” These are fantasies that Evagrius describes really, really well, as one thought leading to another. “I’m restless, I’m bored, I’m seeking distraction. Oh, by the way, I’m really annoyed at that person for doing this thing to me or that person for doing that.” And all of that stuff just builds.
TOJ: I was trying to figure out why I was afraid of addressing areas and times of acedia in my own life, and I found that there was a general fear and sense of being frightened to live into the mourning of things that have happened in my story. I am afraid that there are things that would catch up with my heart that I have lived through, and this frightens me away from settling down. This is a common experience with other people I talk to as well. So having an intergenerational church setting would help to teach each other how to lament and how to mourn.
KN: Oh, yes. My husband died on a Friday, and I missed some Sundays in the months after he died—there were just times I didn’t want to be with other people—but I went to church that next Sunday and two things happened that I write about in the book. I was in a little Bible study just looking at the gospel for the morning, and there was Jesus saying, “What is it you want me to do for you?” which was really a question that stopped me in my path.
I still don’t quite know the answer, but boy was I glad he was there asking it! “What is it you want me to do for you?” And I said to this group of about eight people, “Oh my God, I’m so glad I’m here because that is a question that, yes, Jesus Christ is here asking this. He’s offering himself, and I have to figure out how to respond.”
The other thing was that one of the women in that group is an elderly widow—she has now passed away, but she was just a lovely woman—and she just put her arm around me and said, “You know, you’ll never get over it.” Her husband had died twenty years before, and that made me realize that, of course, I don’t want to get over it. There is no way that you can get over something so important in your life. Then she just said, “It will get better with time. You’ll be crazy for a while, just let yourself be crazy, and don’t worry about it.” Just really good advice, and there it was, the church congregation just by its nature: there were people there. Then, not too long later, during that same year, there were two other women who were widowed, both women were older than I was. One had a husband that had cancer for something like eleven years—they had a terrible struggle—and I was able to share some stuff with them, some things that people had sent me, some sayings of the saints about grief, just a couple of things, and I made sure that I reached out to them. You just pass it on. And that’s the nature of any church congregation.
TOJ: That’s just beautiful.
KN: But I think it’s to be expected. That’s what you really can expect from a church family: People have been through things. Like when somebody is diagnosed with cancer, there are people in the congregation who are cancer survivors, and they’ve been through the waiting, and they’ve been through the treatments, and they can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen, but they can sure help.
1. Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 101.
2. Ibid., 313.
3. KN may be referring to Psalm 126:4–5, which reads, “Turn again, O Lord, our captivity as streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (KJV).
4. Jeff Tweedy, “What Light” from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Nonesuch Records, 2007.