Acedia & Apathy

Kathleen Norris has developed a excellent reputation as a writer of books that are part autobiography, part spiritual reflection, part cultural critique. Her 'Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life' is no exception. In a discursive, circumambulatory way, she explores the Desert monks notion of 'acedia', its cultural history and modern relevance.

'Acedia' is not an easy concept to grasp. It was the foundational 'evil thought' in the fourth century monk and theologian, Evagrius', list of eight such patterns of thinking that together combine to lead us astray. In the medieval world, they become hardened, and reified, as the 'seven deadly sins' from the list of which 'acedia' has fallen by the way side, co-opted and supplanted by 'pride'.

'Acedia' is 'boredom' or 'lassitude' with or in what is present. 'Here', right now, is not a good and necessary place to be. 'There' might be. Let us not stick with being here, let us go there (wherever, pick your distraction).

Or, alternatively, 'Here', right now, is not a good place to be, and, frankly, no 'there' is, it will be just another 'Here', why bother moving, you can engage with life's meaning nowhere, it does not have one, let's despair.

'Acedia' has you moving betwixt distraction or despair; and, though it has always been with us, it may be a peculiarly modern affliction. Traditional societies bear patterns of shared meaning making, in their communal repetitions of known histories, shared stories and symbols that shelter us. In our ever fracturing 'post-modernity', we are left to our own devices and so the effort to engage, to share, to be at home in the world, and grateful for its gifts, is potentially harder.

Kathleen Norris notes that after the traditional remedy of 'naming our affliction' (rather than suffering it anonymously), one response is 'enthusiasm' - to repulse 'acedia' by engaging in a zealous activity that is preferable repeatable, repetitive- a monk might sing psalms or repair the hay loft, Norris sings psalms, bakes bread and walks.

But one dimension Norris misses, except a brief passage towards the end, is the importance of cultivating 'apatheia'.

Now you might think 'apathy' is a strange antidote to 'boredom' (indeed they sound perilously close) but for the Desert monks, 'apatheia' was the counterpointed opposite to, and transcender of, 'acedia'. So rather than a floppy, what does it all matter, boredom, you can have 'apatheia' which is a vigilant, awake, dynamic stillness that creates a space within where our thoughts can emerge, we can watch them and turn away from those that lead us down paths of self-destruction, 'acedia' included. It allows us to handle and navigate what is present, the 'space in mind' that liberates us from the confinement of our 'thoughts'.

Norris reading of the tradition is very Protestant (for all her communing with Catholic monks), it is an activist, practical focus on more skilful, less busy, 'doing' (as, I think, befits her nature and outlook) but there is a whole, complementary dimension, that of contemplatively 'being with' one's states of mind in a radically deepened mindful attention that eludes her, even as some of its most acute representatives, like Thomas Merton, make welcome appearances in her book. We need both how to 'be' better and how to 'do' more skilfully, less hastily. We need to believe in the possibility of the transformation of consciousness as well as in its more skilful navigation.

It is, nonetheless, a lovely, rich book for anyone, which is probably everyone, that finds themselves, periodically either frantically busy but to what purpose or stuck in a place of 'whatever' or 'so what' (or, paradoxically, I notice, in both at the same time)!


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