Woe Is Me 

Kathleen Norris: in high form but a low mood.

Acedia (from the Greek); accidie (from the Latin): Spell it either way, but chances are you've never heard of it. Odds are better you couldn't define it. But maybe you've known it first-hand. And if so, you've got company — throughout history, from the Greeks to James Bond. So, let Bond, in the words of his creator, Ian Fleming, in the pages of From Russia with Love, do the defining:

"Just as, at least in one religion, accidie is the first of the cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned."

And so did the early church fathers — those desert monks of the fourth and fifth centuries, who recognized acedia and dealt with it. But they understood it to be more than boredom. They took it to be as the Greek root word has it: non-caring. You can call it "depression." Petrarch called it "woe." Robert Burton called it "melancholy." Jonathan Swift called it "spleen." Baudelaire called it "ennui." Kierkegaard called it the "sickness unto death." And Sartre called it "nausea." In other words: torpor, sloth, apathy, listlessness, despair.

Kathleen Norris — poet and author of such soul-searching books as The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and The Virgin of Bennington — calls it Acedia & Me (Riverhead Books/Penguin). But she takes it several steps further. The book's subtitle is A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, and it's taken Norris 20 years to write it — 20 years to understand acedia as the desert monks understood it: as "a complete loss of hope and capacity for trust in God," and in her words, it's "as relevant today as when it was first conceived."

Read, then, as Norris traces our understanding of acedia through the ages, according to theologians and philosophers, novelists and poets, psychologists and psychopharmacologists. She does a scholarly job, and she does it as readably as any writer could. But as for acedia's relevance: Consider its role in contemporary American society (from the business of greed to the politics of self-righteousness to the cult of celebrity), and then consider the married life and a writer's life: Norris' own.

She was "Little Miss Protestant" to her husband, David, who was a "recovering Catholic" and a poet of modest success when the couple married and moved from New York City into Norris' grandparents' home in Lemmon, South Dakota, in 1974. This was to be the idyllic life, the quiet writer's life for them both — an Eden, according to the author. But as another poet observed, hell is more than half of paradise.

Norris arrived in South Dakota after suffering since high school from periods of moodiness, from vague feelings of defeat, and from, seemingly out of nowhere, deadenings of the spirit. Her husband, despite his impressive learning (and impressive tolerance for alcohol), was a guilt-ridden, ex-altar boy beset by a string of illnesses, psychiatric episodes, hospitalizations, and surgeries. The marriage didn't suffer so much as endure David's decline, until his death, from cancer, at the age of 57.

In what will come as no surprise to Norris' faithful readers, she turned throughout these years to the psalms and to the Benedictine practices of prayer that she described so memorably in the pages of The Cloister Walk. What will surely come as a surprise, however, was her own run-ins with the dread acedia at the very time her books "were out there in the world, proclaiming good news while [she] sat stupefied, unable to write even a postcard."

So she turned, for a time, to antidepressants. But she turned more often to Evagrius, a fourth-century monk, to Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk, and to William Stafford, a poet who claimed he never knew writer's block. Why? Because whenever Stafford felt it coming on, he lowered his standards.

Acedia & Me maintains the high standards set by Kathleen Norris in her previous books. It is honest, sometimes witty, at more times dead-serious, and, above all, caring.

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