Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Why Bother? Kathleen Norris Explores How an Ancient Concept of Spiritual Malaise Speaks to Us Today

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Why Bother? Kathleen Norris Explores How an Ancient Concept of Spiritual Malaise Speaks to Us Today

Article excerpt

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.

Among her primary weapons against acedia, Norris counts self-awareness, prayer, monastic writings, and the psalms. "I can always turn to the psalms and say, 'someone has been here before,'" she says. Hers isn't a precious piety, however; she observes that "the early monks are so great, because if you start thinking too highly of yourself, they really nail you."


In June, Kathleen Norris spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter by phone. At home in Hawaii, Norris was preparing to go on a pilgrimage to the Middle East and was looking forward to seeing the Sinai, where some of the desert mothers and fathers once lived.

Julie Polter: What impact did writing this book have on your life?

Kathleen Norris: One very personal thing is that it helped me put a lot of things from my marriage into perspective. I needed to do that because my husband passed away almost five years ago, and it still feels like yesterday in some ways. This let me put the marriage into perspective and honor it. Another effect is realizing that I'm always going to struggle with acedia--just having written a book doesn't get me off the hook.

Polter: How is acedia different than depression?

Norris: The biggest difference is that clinical depression is an illness that can be treated. Acedia may feel like a kind of a psychological affliction, but it's a temptation. If you're aware of the workings of acedia like the early monks were, you can observe it: It pops up in your mind, you go ah-ha, what is it tempting me to do? …

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