Acedia & me by Kathleen Norris

Leaving God out of the picture

When my daughter was young, she watched a television show called, The Magic School Bus.  It was, as the title tells us, about the adventures of a school teacher, her students, and a bus that had magical qualities.  One such quality was to shrink down in size and then go places where an ordinary-sized school bus could not go. 

A journey on this bus through man’s psyche was my general impression of Kathleen Norris’s book, Acedia & me.  

The reader gets on the bus, opens the book, and the bus dives us deep into the interior of man’s struggle with his spirituality.  The degree of scrutiny of this subject is both impressive and, well, tedious at times.

The range of possibilities that acedia may be is vast in the mind of Mrs. Norris.  We begin our journey with the view that “Acedia is intrinsically deadly.”  Depression, it seems, when contrasted with acedia, is not deadly.  Now this statement about the difference between acedia and depression might seem clear at first glance, but one weakness of this book is that as the writing goes on, one doesn’t necessarily know where one is on this trip: are we at the acedia exhibit (which is extensive), or have we taken a sudden turn and are now face-to-face with depression?

Or are they the same thing?

At times it feels that way.

Other characterizations of acedia are (1) bad thoughts; (2) a complete loss of hope and capacity for trust in God; (3) spiritual drought; (4) habitual laziness; (5) temptation; (6) a demon; (7) nostalgia; (8) the border between spiritual and physical; (9) sin; and (10) mental illness.

And I can’t imagine that I caught all the “understandings” of acedia that Mrs. Norris offers us.

How could I?

But even taking these definitions of acedia and trying to put them together into a coherent picture of what, exactly, acedia is is impossible for me.

Because in her search for exactness in defining the concept in front of her, her expansiveness of vision just makes it less and less exact.

My first, and strongest, impression of this book is that every approach to acedia is a negative one.  Let’s face it, to Mrs. Norris, acedia is bad. 

Not only is the experience bad, but the person experiencing acedia is bad for having it.  

We have, in general, left the mindset that any given illness is a reflection of our character behind, but, in this case, whatever acedia is, by having it, we are condemned.

But condemned by whom?

Here we are struggling with our spirituality.  We don’t want to pray.  We don’t want to face God in any way.  We don’t want to move, even.  And, on top of that suffering, we are to imagine that God is looking down on us and making a tick in the box, Acedia, next to our name.  

Wrong again!  Sinned again! Bad, bad, bad!

Because struggling with our spirituality is a bad thing.  We are, according to Mrs. Norris, to be in tip-top, perky, Pollyanna-like state towards God at all times.

Because God is such a teddy bear, so kind to us in all ways at all times, that how could we possibly ever come to a state of just needing a break from him?

In the book, The Life of St. Teresa, there is a story about a little exchange between the saint and God:

Teresa describes the journey thus: “We had to run many dangers. At no part of the road were the risks greater than within a few leagues of Burgos, at a place called Los Pontes. The rivers were so high that the water in places covered everything, neither road nor the smallest footpath could be seen, only water everywhere, and two abysses on each side. It seemed foolhardiness to advance, especially in a carriage, for if one strayed ever so little off the road (then invisible), one must have perished.” The saint is silent on her share of the adventure, but her companions relate that, seeing their alarm, she turned to them and encouraged them, saying that “as they were engaged in doing God’s work, how could they die in a better cause?” She then led the way on foot. The current was so strong that she lost her footing, and was on the point of being carried away when our Lord sustained her. “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed, with her usual loving familiarity, “when wilt Thou cease from scattering obstacles in our path?” “Do not complain, daughter,” the Divine Master answered, “for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that Thou hast so few!” was her reply.

There are other versions of this tale, all of which end with the exclamation, No wonder you have so few friends!

God is tough to live with.  Very tough.  He expects us to do and be things that we can’t even imagine we can do and be.

And getting to where he wants us to be is a tough road.  

So, as I read about Mrs. Norris’s definition of acedia, I thought that she was missing the point of it altogether.

Acedia, to my mind, is the exhaustion one feels after a spiritual encounter with God.  After a spiritual mission.  After accomplishing a major spiritual work.

We don’t run a marathon one day and expect that we will climb a mountain the next.  We need time for rest in all areas of our lives.

We make an effort.  We rest from that effort.

But, for some reason, to Mrs. Norris, spiritual work doesn’t count.  We are, in her eyes (and those that she researched for this book) expected to never feel spiritual fatigue.  Never have periods where we throw up our hands and cry, Foul!

Or beg for a time-out.  

Acedia is, to me, a call of, Enough!

Which happens to us after Thanksgiving dinner.  After a particularly  raucous family reunion.  After a grinding project at work.  After a serious illness.

Our active lives are punctuated with times of recovery from activity.

And that’s a good thing.

Not a bad one.

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