Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Kathleen Norris writes 'Acedia,' finds God's joy again

It was just last night that I first heard of Kathleen Norris. I was listening to a show on the radio (Grace Matters) as I was getting ready for work. I had never heard of the word "Acedia" until last night. During the radio show, I heard Kathleen make the statement that "Acedia" is when you just quit caring that you don't care. That's tragic.
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY (9/16/2008) LOS ANGELES — "I thought I was finished." Kathleen Norris, author of three best-selling spiritual memoirs in the 1990s, found herself "stupefied and unable to write even a postcard." It was 2003. Her father had died the year before. Now after 30 years together, her husband, poet David Dwyer — brilliant, infuriating, chronically ill, endlessly absorbing David — had died at age 57. "I just gave up for a while and hoped I would find my way back," Norris says. She did by way of a heartfelt new book on acedia, an ancient term for suffocating gloom that robs one's soul of joy in God. In Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, Norris, 61, tells how bouts of "helplessness, self-pity and terror" began in high school in Honolulu, infiltrated her college years and continued into her marriage. She and David lived in her grandmother's house in Lemmon, S.D. She wrote, taught and began to study and pray in nearby monasteries. She become an oblate, or a lay associate, of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. The experience was the inspiration for her most acclaimed book, The Cloister Walk. "I was not aware that even as I maintained a busy and productive life, sloth, acedia's handmaid, had a firm grip on me. For I had become aware that it was possible to reject time, as well as embrace it. If I wanted to, I could live just barely, refusing the gift of each day," she writes. Acedia is like morphine, she says: "You know the pain is there, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn." Acedia & me draws wide and deep from biblical desert fathers to philosophers, from Dante to Ian Fleming. "Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks," Norris writes, but a modern force that "easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. "We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do more still." Sloth is one of the Catholic Church's seven deadly sins; acedia is defined as spiritual sloth. Unlike the grave illness of depression, acedia is a conscious choice, a moral choice; that's what makes it a sin, Norris says. She chose to fight back. It had been eight years since The Virgin of Bennington, a confessional look at her college years and early career, which did not fare as well with critics or sales as her earlier books. A publisher's deadline loomed. "I was trying to do essays about the monastic experience of acedia and the writer's side. Finally, I realized the personal had to be there as well. All three in strange juxtaposition." Acedia & me has an unsparing beauty, like a Georgia O'Keefe painting of bleached bones, and flashes of unexpected humor. Norris, who had devoted every waking minute to David's care, recounts how she missed his last breath. A poet at another poet's deathbed, she was offended by the chaplain's choice to pray from a clunky translation of the Bible [It was the NIV version, as I learned when hearing her say it on Grace Matters] and turned to rummage in her purse for another. "I'm only trying to find you a decent translation," she told David. At that moment, his heart stopped. "I inherited from my father's side a humorous fortitude, a gift for jokes in dire moments," Norris says. [Continue reading]
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