My initial goal for this post was to discuss acedia in 25 words or less. That opening line (including its ungrammatical modification of a countable noun) was meant as a joke, but it turned out to be not much more laughable than my actual intention, which was to express my understanding of and grappling with the so-called “noon-day demon” over the last quarter century. Even that proved too tall an order.
I started with my first exposure to the idea that something like depression could be considered a sin—in the characters of Sansjoy and Despair in The Faerie Queene. But then I had to backtrack and acknowledge that my quasi-theological upbringing would have led me to a similar understanding. My central focus was to be a discussion of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris. But I soon I realized that I am not equipped for the discussion.
I had already read three of Norris’s autobiographical/spiritual contemplations and been profoundly affected by one of them when I came upon her book about acedia. I read it in 2010; it may have been one of the first books I tackled after a particularly dark year in my own life—of which I wrote in the margin of p. 76, “2009, the year of loss and loss and loss,” and, on the flyleaf of another book, “The whole year was winter.”
I started by listing as bullet points everything I wrote in the book. I briefly thought that my marginalia alone might serve as interesting guideposts through the book about and the theology of acedia. I looked up definitions. I read a couple of scholarly articles on acedia in Spenser and accidie in Huxley. Thomas Aquinas. Kierkegaard. St. Augustine. I found a wonderful blog with more references to acedia than I could read in an afternoon. And I almost gave up—but not quite.
What is acedia? Norris begins her book with an acknowledgment that acedia has no real English equivalent and then provides three possible definitions from three disparate dictionaries:
- “Heedlessness, torpor . . . [a] non-caring state”;
- “The deadly sin of sloth; spiritual torpor and apathy”; and
- “A mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia.”
Even these definitions reveal to me a great deal about why I am so interested in the topic. I have seen a few psychiatrists and swallowed thousands of anti-depressant capsules over the last four decades; I still have 20mg of fluoxetine every morning with coffee. However, competing with that enlightened approach, I also had two parents and one priest of the just-get-over-it school. The latter was even somewhat inclined to the view that depression manifests a lack of trust in God.
And here’s where the complications arise. To be thorough and clear, one must discuss the error of equating depression and acedia: depression is a mood disorder, and acedia is a spiritual disorder; depression is a failure of the body, but acedia is a failure of the will. Then, inevitably, comes the mind-body dichotomy. And of course there is what Norris felicitously calls “the much-maligned doctrine of sin.” I am not equipped to present—even in ridiculously over-simplified terms—the discussions of philosophy, religion, psychology, and neurochemistry required to do justice to this topic. Instead, I will offer my unique contribution along with a selected bibliography.
What I have to offer is one photographic image. This sculpture in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, has enabled me to understand more about acedia than all the scholarly discussions in the list that follows.
Blazer, Dan. “What Faith Communities Can Teach Psychiatrists about Depression.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 42.3/4 (2014). Harvard Divinity School, 2016. Web. 29 July 2016.
Daly, R. W. “Before Depression: The Medieval Vice of Acedia.” Psychiatry 70.1 (2007): 30-51. PDF file.
Maier, John R. “Sansjoy and the ‘Furor Melancholicus.’” Modern Language Studies 5.1 (1975): 75-87. JStor. Web. 29 July 2016.
Norris, Kathleen. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. New York: Riverhead, 2008. Print.
Nowén, Lars F. “Aldous Huxley on Accidie (AKA Melancholy, Boredom, Ennui, Despair).” Mind Your Maker. WordPress, 3 Oct. 2008. Web. 29 July 2016. [Note: This blog has 14 additional entries under the category “acedia.” I fact, this blog is so good that I am including a link: Mind Your Maker.]
Renzo, Susan. “Depression and Acedia: The Mood and the Spirit.” PsyWeb.com. PsyWeb.com, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 July 2016.
It turns out that this post has even more twists and turns than I originally thought. As I was searching my computer for the photo attached above, I came upon an email I wrote on June 4, 2010–before I had even read Acedia and Me. I had recently reconnected via Facebook with Leslie Gant, a friend from high school, and quickly realized that my new relationship with her would become one of the most precious of my life. One of the larger narrative episodes in my attempt to catch up on the 40 years since our graduation was the death of my husband in January 2009 from multiple myeloma. What follows is a highly relevant excerpt from that message:
I did get your email on May 21, and my intention was to respond right away. However, since approximately that time–until this past weekend’s trip, in fact–I have been unable to leave the doldrums that I entered as a result of the “graduation blues” I wrote about previously. My failure to write is complicated by the fact that I wanted to tell you about my feelings of listlessness (or even hopelessness) but felt so ashamed (and listless) that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Now I’m starting Tangent #9, I believe. I took some photos of a statue on Sunday whose aspect revealed exactly the mood I am describing. On the way home I searched and searched for–and finally located–the precise word to express to Pavel what I saw in that face: acedia. I am attaching one of the photos. I will also refer you to the source of my understanding of the term acedia. It’s a wonderful book by Kathleen Norris called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Norris is a poet from South Dakota, whom I first encountered through the book she wrote about her year as an oblate in a Benedictine monastery, The Cloister Walk. That book affected me deeply in many different ways, and I do recommend it–primarily, now, as a guide to what the thinking person can get from religion (primarily the ritual thereof) even when faith is absent.
I had to begin a new paragraph here because if I were a religious person at this moment, I would definitely say that God has led this email precisely to this juncture. I was looking on Google to make sure I had the exact title of the first book I mentioned. It turns out that Norris has subsequently written a book entitled Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, which she wrote after the period of acedia following her husband’s death! I am going to order it immediately, as I am sure Kathleen Norris has more to say to me–and the topic seems so . . . well . . . close to home?