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Q & A
Q&A: Recognizing the spiritually debilitating ‘demon’ Robin Russell, Apr 28, 2009
PHOTO BY CALLIE LIPKIN
Kathleen Norris is an award-winning poet, writer and author who lives in Hawaii and South Dakota. In her latest book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead Books), Ms. Norris explores the experience of acedia through monastic literature, contemporary culture and reflection on her marriage, including the debilitating illness and death of her husband, David Dwyer.
She talked recently by phone with managing editor Robin Russell.
You describe acedia as a “lack of caring.” How is that different from depression? That was one of the biggest problems I had in writing the book. We use depression as a catch-all term for everything, from a mild disappointment to severe clinical illness. Despair has always been an element of acedia: a combination of boredom, restlessness, indifference and despair. When I use the word depression I tend to be talking about a clinical medical depression. I knew there had to be a difference between acedia and depression simply because every monastic person that I’ve ever met does experience acedia in some form because their life is so routine and ritualized. But not every monastic person suffers from depression.
I’ve experienced both. When I’m depressed, I can pinpoint the reasons. Acedia is more like a temptation. It tends to spring up for no reason at all.
You liken it to a sort of “spiritual morphine:” you know the pain is there but you can’t rouse yourself to care about it. Profound indifference is really debilitating. I think of acedia as the great disconnector. It basically serves to disconnect you from the people, the communities, anything that helps you connect with the human race somehow is stripped away. Anything you can think of to do to help you get out of it, you go, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” The early monks talked about the assault of the demons or the assault of the bad thoughts. And it can really feel that way. It’s like you’re under siege by your own thoughts.
Monastic communities recognize the symptoms in someone who all of a sudden will start not showing up for prayers, not showing up for meals, not being willing to participate in the community life. If it’s a club you belong to, a church, whatever, you’re just going to be kind of withdrawing. It can manifest itself either in that withdrawal or in kind of a hyperactivity, so that someone appears to be almost too committed to everything. Of course they suffer burnout and can’t care. It’s a really curious condition because it can manifest itself in both passive and aggressive ways.
Talk more about acedia being a “bad thought.” Is it a sin or just a temptation? One of the things I love about the early desert monks is they never use the word “sin.” They talk about bad thoughts and demons. And to me, that makes a lot of sense. There’s no blame associated with it because everyone is subject to the bad thoughts. All the moral baggage that came in later in the church with the word “sin,” that’s kind of absent from their thinking. And I think it’s more useful maybe for modern people because when you use the word “sin,” a lot of people just want to run for the hills. All of [the monks’] thinking was directed at if you think about your thoughts and you observe them as they come, you might be able to resist the bad things that they’re suggesting to you.
An Anglican nun cautioned you about this project: “When you take on acedia, you’ve taken on the devil himself.” What did she mean?The monks and early theologians dealing with acedia did regard it as the worst of bad thoughts because it engendered other bad thoughts. It was considered the worst of the demonic temptations.
How does acedia engender other bad thoughts? One of the first things is it engenders a hatred of the place. You go from having this kind of restlessness to all of a sudden having a hatred of the place, and from a hatred of wherever you are at the present moment to a hatred of the people around you. Anger and pride come right in. When I first read this description years ago I thought, “Oh, this is so true. This is how it works.” I don’t know that I would have called it an onslaught of the demons, but that’s not bad. That might pretty much describe what’s happening.
What are some things that people do to cope with acedia? Well, the ancient remedies are prayer and psalmody. Prayer, fasting, tears. That sounds kind of weird to modern people, but I think refusing to disconnect and maybe staying in this place that you have chosen: your job, a marriage, a monastery, whatever it is. Saying, “No, I’m going to stay here. This is where I’ve made my stand. The grass is not greener. I am going to remain faithful to my commitments.” Just the naming of it—it really is like Rumpelstilskin—once you’ve named it: “Oh, this is acedia. I know you.” It does tend to deflate it. That’s another reason I wanted to write the book, to give people another name for dealing with it. Because when you recognize it, and say, “I see where this is leading,” anybody can figure out ways to cope and resist at that point.
And depending on the reason for their acedia, monks were counseled to either stay in their cell or get out and be with people. That’s where discernment comes in—that ancient Christian word. You need to discern what’s causing the problem. I just love the subtle profound psychology that comes from the fourth century. They said if you are motivated to stay in your cell because you detest other people—you’re enjoying your own company and spurning others because they don’t appreciate you or they’re not good enough for you—then that’s when you have to get out and volunteer at the church, get out in the world, because that’s the world you live in. We are connected.
But if you’re sitting in your cell and restlessness is motivating you to get out—and you think, “Oh, I could do all these good things, I should visit so and so who’s sick”—because you can’t tolerate being alone or you can’t tolerate the discipline of praying by yourself, then you have to think about it. “Wait a minute. Should I stay in my cell? Because if I just go out in the world and dissipate all my energies, if I’m just going to use other people for distraction. That’s not good.” In fact, that’s how they define lust: You’re desiring to draw other people to you but not for any good reason. It’s using other people for your own satisfaction, your own distraction.
In fact, that’s how they define lust. You’re desiring to draw other people to you but not for any good reason. It’s using other people for your own satisfaction, your own distraction. Any use of another person that’s not healthy. It’s fascinating to me that they had that kind of wisdom.
Besides monks, are there certain temperaments or occupations that are susceptible to acedia? I think anyone whose work is self-motivated, and that would be any writer or artist, because the world is not waiting for you to do another piece of art. So you have to get that inner kind of motivation going. But I also think it’s just anybody. All those things that acedia will feed on are going to happen in a marriage sooner or later. Anybody who makes a lifetime commitment is going to face it.
I was fascinated when I was doing my research to find that acedia was a temptation of research scientists because they had to work long hours over a long period of time and taking the risk that their work wouldn’t mean anything; that the test would fail. And they could very quickly feel underappreciated. I shared that with some monks and they were fascinated. Here you are in a monastery praying and the world is telling you this doesn’t mean anything. Here you are in a laboratory and you’re doing a research project that maybe the only way you’re going to learn anything is if it fails. We want instant results in this culture. So yeah, I could identify.
I really liked the description right after your husband passed. It was so calm and peaceful. It was calm. It was really strange. I think partly because I had been with him that whole last week. The hospital let me stay overnight that one night. They realized I needed that kind of quiet time. Even taking the body down to the morgue with the attendants, they knew I needed to do it and it was fine with them. I guess it doesn’t happen all the time. I don’t know what other people do. They panic or whatever. But death is just part of the process. You can’t go with the other person, but I wanted to accompany him as much as I could.
And also my experience with the Benedictines. There’s a marvelous little quote in the Rule [of Benedict]: “Remember every day that you’re going to die.” That’s not a morbid preoccupation; it’s just common sense. And their whole attitude toward the dying in their own community: how they sit vigil with them and recite the Psalms, how they will remain with that person as long as they can. To wash and dress the body after death. That’s real devotion. These are people you’ve known for years. Why would you run away from that? Their example really helped.
Anything else you want to say? Just that I have deep Methodist roots. I have a great-grandfather and grandfather who were Methodist pastors. My great-grandfather was a circuit rider in West Virginia and a chaplain in the Confederate Army. My grandfather had this conversion experience and went to West Virginia Wesleyan. He was kicked out of a church in 1919 for playing the banjo with the youth group. Obviously everybody knew the banjo was an instrument of Satan! He used to be in a jug band before he “got saved,” as it were, and he was a good musician. But that’s how they ended up in South Dakota, I guess. He was so fed up with the West Virginians that he wanted to get as far away as he could. Beware the demon banjo.