Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris

How can I find my way in this impenetrable darkness? How can a few words from a psalm that I say upon waking be all I need to begin again, after I have been worn down to almost nothing by acedia? The danger in lowering one’s standards, with acedia, is that one might accommodate oneself to less and less, until one is lowered right out of existence. So I will attempt a bit more and turn to Psalm 90, which poignantly addresses my present condition. Now that my beloved grandparents and father are gone, and my mother is ninety years of age, I need more than ever the solace of its opening verses: “O Lord, you have been our refuge / from one generation to the next. / Before the mountains were born / or the earth or the world brought forth, / you are God, without beginning or end.”

“Poetry — psalms and hymns — can offer as a remedy for the human tendency to take refuge in indifference.”
Psalms Frontispiece by Donald Jackson. The Saint John’s Bible.

I also need the psalm’s shift from exultation to ultimate realism: “Our span is seventy years, / or eighty for those who are strong. / And most of these are emptiness and pain. / They pass quickly and we are gone.” Savoring this stark truth in a holy book, I am better able to confront my acedia, and ask myself why I am so willing to waste time, as if it were not a gift, mindlessly consuming and discarding my precious mortal life. I can pray, with the psalmist: “Make us know the shortness of our life / that we may gain wisdom of heart.” I may feel lost and weary, but these words provide hope. If the life of faith, like depression, is a cycle of exile and return, I am a prodigal become a pilgrim, if only I can come to my senses and remember to turn toward home. …

A way where there is no way; this is what God, and only God, can provide. This is salvation, which in Hebrew means to widen or make sufficient. As we move from death to life. We experience grace, a force as real as gravity, and are reminded of its presence in the changing of the seasons, and in the dying of the seeds from which new life emerges, so that even our deserts may bloom. It permeates the very language we use, and we are fortunate indeed that our words are far wiser than we are. Any poet knows that they can spark with new meaning, even years after we have written them, and tell us what we most need to know. Poetry might not seem like much in an unjust and violent world, in which acedia tempts us to give up on the fight for something better. But poetry — psalms and hymns — can offer as a remedy for the human tendency to take refuge in indifference.

  • Chuck Berdel

    How terribly profound. As I age I find there is a realism and acedia that is a part of who I am. Much of life is like she describes it…cyclical. The temptation to despair is real.

  • mary

    thank you for letting me know I’m not alone,even though I knew in my heart of hearts I am never alone;I have always taken solace in My God.

  • Priscilla Gannon

    I eagerly look forward to reading Ms. Norris’ newest book. Just reading the excerpt reveals to me how thirsty I am for the Psalms in my own struggle with acedia. Thank you Ms. Norris for brining me a word that helps me understand what I am feeling and the antidote.

  • Ellen C. Warren

    Years ago I wrote a poem that began “Care. Care. Don’t care too much.” It was a part of my attempt to armor myself against a world filled with suffering and injustice. Being extremely sensitive is a battle in this world, and not always an uphill one. I find myself stuck in the bottom of a hole too often. I truly appreciate that Ms. Norris has realized, and helped me validate my suspicion, that those of us dealing with acedia are many. And I’m also thankful for a word to use to describe it.

  • Judie Harron

    AFter reading this interview I immediately reserved Ms Norris’ newest book at the local library. How refreshing to have an author who provides an antidote for the condition being reviewed in her book. I will read, pray and sing the psalms with my favorite Cistercian community with even greater zest for the mysteries revealed there and the ready answers to our human nature.

  • Nathan Simmons

    I don’t know Kathleen Norris except through her books. I do know Saint John’s Abbey very well, having been a member of the monastic community from 1961 through 1974.
    I will say, as Kathleen has said, that monastic life does bring one to an ability to identify acedia (and depression) and teaches one to deal with it.

  • Merepeace

    To weave the sacred with the profane of daily living is brilliant and reaches the soul of each person with comfort- thanks to you for the experiences revisited and shared !

  • Judith McLauchlan

    It is so good that Ms. Norris is able to be both honest and hopeful. It was helpful to see her able to do this after years of caregiving (shown in the interview) which can easily lead to despair rather than hope.

  • Intuit Too

    Thank you so much for this.
    This morning I prayed to God to show me what was wrong with me. I dont feel like exerting myself, to be a good wife, to be what I can capable of being, and why I just plainly feel that I do not care. I went along from, looking for “work” in the corcordance, to sluggard, to slothfulness, to acedia… its painful to learn these things about yourself, but like putting medicine on a wound, it is necessary.
    All my life I’ve lived not knowing why i felt what i felt. Sometimes i stare at a wall and just cry and the utter sadness overwhelms me, and i don’t even know where it comes from.
    I thank God that He has shown me what He wants to heal me of. There is hope in God, and His love endures forever. And He does want to heal us of this and live our life to the fullness of His plan.

  • Ann Bursch

    I am visiting Waikiki alone celebrating what would have been our 5oth anniversary. Sadly my dear husband died 20 years ago at the young age of 51. We were here the year before his illness. I too have been a caregiver for him as well as others through the years. I am re-reading Ms. Norris’s Dakota as I sit on the 41st floor Lanai looking out Diamond Head The canal to my left and the beautiful beaches to my right. How I would love to find Ms. Norris having a break from her cares and have a good visit with her. Knowing that that is not possible I am visiting with her through her books and finding renewal and peace in the hustle and bustle of this beautiful place. I am looking forward to reading this new book. It is well with my soul a rainbow is shining through the clouds over the mountains to the northeast.
    Thank you Kathleen for your inspiration and Praise God for His continuing love.

  • Patty

    I needed this talk today. I spent the first part of the day feeling alive with passion manning a therapy booth at an autism walk. I cried with a few warrior moms. The day was beautiful and I spent time in my yard full of trees. Then I stepped into my empty nest and my celibate world, after a 20 year marriage and gave myself to acedia. I am presenting a workshop on active imagination, stories and active dream work where only five have signed up for. So nice to be reminded of poetry’s power.
    Thank You