Writer Kathleen Norris admits that the spiritual concept of acedia is difficult for the modern mind to grasp. “It’s sort of untranslatable,” she says, with a clutch of English words—including torpor, apathy, indifference, sloth, despair, depression—approximating, but not capturing the fullness of the word as used by early Christian monastics. “Acedia is more than just restlessness, indifference, or despair,” Norris explains. “It goes down to the Greek root, absence of care. For me, the essence of it is that inability to care.”
In her forthcoming book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead Books), Norris explores acedia through monastic literature, contemporary culture, and reflection on her marriage, including the debilitating illness and death of her husband, David Dwyer. As with her previous books The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and Dakota, Norris’ far-ranging intellectual curiosity, gentle humor, and honesty about her own doubts and missteps make it a welcoming read for people of diverse spiritual experience.
Acedia was, and is, almost a given for those living a monastic life—the commitment to place, work, and daily rhythms of prayer inevitably is dogged by periods of restlessness, malaise, even hopelessness. But Norris believes acedia is utterly relevant for the rest of us too. “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude,” she writes, “anyone who remains married ‘for better or worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.” And she suspects that the individual experience of acedia is mirrored and multiplied in our cultural and political life. “The more I read about it in monastic literature and medieval theology, the more I realized this isn’t just a personal problem, this is a societal problem,” says Norris.