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A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

By Kathleen Norris

Riverhead, 334 pages, $28.50

Aldous Huxley, in his essay Accidie, observes acedia as a "fiend of deadly subtlety" that could make "the day ... intolerably long and life desolatingly empty," causing a monk to "sink, sink through disgust and lassitude into the black depths of despair and hopeless unbelief." This demon (and Huxley's chirpy essay upon it) inspired Kathleen Norris's 20-year excavation, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life.

If you're not a fourth-century monk or a learned theologian, you're unlikely to know what acedia is. My modest OED explains acedia (or accidie, in English) as spiritual or mental sloth; Norris explains it as listlessness, absence of care, torpor, spiritual depression and a myriad of other explanations establishing what amounts to the retrieval of a "lost word."

Norris, a Benedictine oblate, U.S. poet and popular writer on Christian spirituality (including Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith and The Cloister Walk), had her first mini-epiphany reading a description by her main man on the topic, fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus (345-399). Afterward, she could trace her earliest experience of acedia to bleak moods that beset her while working the milk machine in her high school canteen. She continued to experience acedia through her transition from "cerebral young woman" to Benedictine oblate. Today when it strikes her, it manifests boldly in the continuous consumption of rubbishy paperback novels.

The recovery of the lost word acedia will have poignancy for all of us. It explains my fixation on the weather and my time-wasting study of weather radars of places I can barely spell, accompanied by complete ignorance of meteorological science. Norris suggests, "Acedia is best understood not as one of the seven deadly sins, but as the eighth bad thought."

Monks (and let's not leave out nuns), whom one naively assumes to have it sorted out upstairs in the neurological chambers, struggle a great deal against acedia, and it's a challenge for monastic communities. They must rally against it with help from the liturgy, manual labour or, in the odd case, Prozac. One Benedictine sister astutely explained to Norris that "acedia is to monastics what acne is to adolescents: unfair, inopportune, and inevitable."

But the sensible rule of Benedict (by which Benedictines vow to live) includes some directions that can be applied to tackling it. Contemporary monks are advised they "need only be concerned with today." One abbot recommends physical labour, but will refer his monks to doctors if he suspects serious depression.

It is this blurring between acedia and depression that I found at times worrying in Norris's writing. Is acedia depression? No, not exactly, she says. But Norris's personal knowledge of depression (and I mean the brick-falling-direct-on-your-own-foot experience) feels sketchy. She may well have supported her beloved late husband through his attempted suicide, serious mental breakdown and recovery, but I was left with an uneasy feeling that, when she's holding forth specifically on depression, she's on shaky ground. Her doctor once informed her that what she felt to be a phase of mania "did not come close."

The recent death of writer David Foster Wallace - may he rest in peace - only underscored further the seriousness and danger of untreated or untreatable depression. Any contribution to a conversation on depression is worthwhile, as long as it steers clear of the "take a hot bath" school of thought.

Norris is obviously taken by Andrew Solomon's book, The Noonday Demon, since she quotes it regularly. The problem is, so were the rest of us; we can easily trot to the shelf and open it. It's such a recent publication that we don't need it regurgitated.

Norris leans heavily on the thinking of Evagrius, whose "theology was condemned as heretical by a church council after his death." There's something of the same individualist in Norris; therefore, with an exploratory approach to planet Norris in mind, there are valuable insights to be found in this book, alongside her infectious contemplations, which provoke a desire to think harder and read further on the themes she discusses.

Early on, she challenges the "comfortable assumption, still pervasive in literary and academic circles, that religion is of no use to us today." This is a cement-strong point. In these scary Palin times, it's easy to check your womb for protest signs and duck into a mental bunker at any mention of Jesus or the Bible. But in such a fearful shutdown, we overlook the immense value in any of the ancient holy texts. Whether you're devout or otherwise, they still constitute literature. Plus, faith is playing out increasingly in world politics and social-justice movements, so whether you find this reassuring or frightening, it pays to better inform yourself about it.

Norris's greatest strength is not that of memoirist; seek out memoirs by John McGahern or Joan Didion for a true portrait and comprehension of grief. It's rather her willingness to chronicle her own inadequacy in the face of her faith that satisfies. Though enamoured of and strengthened by the liturgy and scriptures, in Amazing Grace she bravely challenged what she terms Christianity's "scary language." She's an entrance for those of us befuddled by Christianity and an in-house articulator for those already steeped in it, writing about theology in a way that God's plain people can relate to.

If you can scrape aside your skepticism, it's intriguing to follow her rambling delve into theology alongside the big life events she endures, and how one informs the other, including parallels in the writing/creative process. There's a convincing polemic that shows how an inability to care has resulted in some of our greatest social ills and decline.

The memoir strand in the book can sometimes suffer from its own listlessness or reticence to grab truth by the collar and rattle the teeth out of it. Much of it concerns her husband's health problems and his death from lung cancer, which feels strangely hijacked and all about her. She alludes to her faith saving her marriage, yet provides vague detail. I'm not suggesting some prurient peep show into her affairs, but if you talk about your faith being salvation, it would be satisfying to see the departure point, not just the arrival.

Even though memoir is concerned with the past, as readers we need something to take us forward, and it is this concept of acedia, rather than any major reverberation from her life, that Kathleen Norris has given me. I'm grateful for it.

Vancouver-based writer Anakana Schofield continues to manifest acedia around the weather radar, and an Environment Canada self-exclusion program may prove the only salvation.