Friday, July 15, 2016

Acedia & me

by Kathleen Norris

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • It's about what I believe is one of the primary sins of our age: sloth (in all its forms).
  • There are so many fascinating points to ponder, scattered throughout the book. And so many differing points of view on this one, ever pervasive issue.

And Why You Might Not:
  • I found it a little meandering sometimes. It was just the style, and this is not a criticism per se, but sometimes I prefer books which state their point a little clearer, without circling.
  • For Catholics, there are a couple of weird points theologically speaking, but these are few and far between, so I wouldn't worry overmuch

Thoughts: The illuminating and ponder-worthy points were all over the place. From historical references to modern poetry to intimate autobiography, Norris gave a broad and nuanced view of a single sin. My scribbled notes of things that caught my attention was a very long list indeed (I listed many below, but not even all of them, since there were too many).

Upon finishing the book, however, I realized I did have a main problem with it, though it was difficult to pin down. I think I found it too diffuse and unclear. I used the words "meandering" and "circling" in the bullet points above. I'm not sure I liked the book as a whole, if that makes sense. Some things I really just wanted stated clearly and precisely.

Because of this issue, and because of my bad writing skills, I don't have the ability to coalesce all my various thoughts into a nice, coherent review. So I'm just going to list everything I made note of while reading--feel free to skip them. They're mostly just for my own remembrance anyway.
  • The story on page 1 about the monk who would make baskets all year and then burn them at the end of the year reminds me of my darling sister-in-law, who will crochet all night and then unravel it because she has a different idea. This causes her no fretfulness or anxiety--it's joy of crocheting she loves, not the end product.
  • "I felt a weight life from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy [...] puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free." (Page 4.)
  • Page 5: The routine of monasticism mirrors the changelessness of eternity. This isn't exactly comforting...
  • On page 6, there was a quote from Henri Nouwen saying the words "pray always" means "come to rest". Nouwen is such a fascinating writer--a new discovery for me this year. Thinking about his sayings like this always bring such fruitful ideas to me. It's cool.
  • This is a long quote, but it's exactly what I go through frequently, except with the computer and internet instead of books (I've always been good when it comes to books): "I've been working too long and need a break; maybe I should read a mystery novel to clear my head. I tell myself that I'm too weary to concentrate. I tell myself that it is a matter of respecting my limitations, and of being good to myself. If I manage to read one book, and then return to my other obligations, no harm done. But often, one book does not satisfy me. My 'rest' has only made me more restless, and as I finish one book, I am tempted to pick up another. If I don't check myself, I can slip into a state both anxious and lethargic, in which I trudge through four or five paperbacks a day, for three or four days running. I am consuming books rather than reading them. [...] Morbidly conscious of the time I am wasting, I race feverishly through a book so preposterous and badly written that it nauseates me. If I pick up a more serious book, something that might bring me to my senses, I am likely to plow through it as thoughtlessly as if it were a genre thriller." (Pg. 15-6)
  • "[E]ven if what we do  seems worthless, it is worth doing." (pg. 19) Repetition can be worth it for its own sake. This thought gives new purpose to regular activities that seem so pointless sometimes otherwise.
  • "Until the early thirteenth century, acedia was seen as exclusively a monastic vice, caused by the rigors of an ascetic life. As the concept was applied to laypeople, it lost much of its religious import. It came to mean physical as well as spiritual laziness, and to combat it meant embracing what is now both extolled and disparaged as the Protestant work ethic." (pg. 21-2) Yes! I have seen this! This is accurate!
  • There is much talk about depression vs. acedia, and when it is one instead of the other. It can be a difficult but important thing to discern, since treating them require different methods. A scholar Norris quotes summarizes Thomas Aquinas's views thus: "For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing." (pg. 24) It's something I'm going to have to think about more, because even after reading all her thoughts, I'm still not clear. I suppose it's one of those messy human things that needs discernment and direction and doesn't have a pat answer...
  • "To 'find ourselves,' all we need is an open road. But soon we discover that no place will satisfy us, and no one person, no group of friends, can meet our needs. The oppressive boredom we had hoped to escape is lodged firmly within us." (pg. 25-6) Yeah.... This one I've felt.
  • On the bottom of page 27, there is an interesting take on lust: "[T]he danger is that I will use others as an excuse to avoid confronting matters that require my full attention. Evagrius defines this temptation as lust, the desire to draw others to ourselves for selfish purposes." I had never connected sloth and lust very much before, except that both are "fleshy" sins. This comparison really interested me.
  • There are a few places where you can tell she doesn't quite have the Catholic perspective: "[M]onks such as Evagrius were free of the heavy baggage of Western Christendom's concept of sin. What the Church later defined as sin, desert monks termed 'bad thoughts', which to my mind is a much more helpful designation. Given the history of the Church's emphasis on sins of the flesh, contemporary readers may find it odd that the early monks regarded lust as one of the lesser temptations." (Pg. 29-30) It's still considered one of the lesser temptations, and anyone who has been properly education in the teachings of the Church knows that lust is talked about so much only because it's so common, not because it's worse than other grave sins. She also doesn't seem to understand that the deadly sin of sloth is actually very similar to acedia. She seems to think that the Church thinks of it in the same way as modern culture (i.e. basically just simple laziness), but that's inaccurate. (I forget where she talks about this, so I can't quote her.)
  • "F. Scott Fitzgerald speaks of boredom as not 'an end product' but an important and necessary 'stage in life and art,' acting like a filter that allows 'the clear product [to emerge].'" (pg. 41) I have definitely observed this myself. It's often the combination of boredom and necessity that produces the best writing from me. Also from Bertrand Russell on the same page: "a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men ... unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, in whom every vital impulse withers."
  • "The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug." Flannery O'Connor. (pg. 54)
  • Page 139: "These monks were also well aware that in order to give up the instinctive impulse toward self-justification, a person needed a healthy self-regard in the first place. This is a subtle point, yet a critical one. The advice to blame oneself assumes, a scholar has written, that a person is already 'anchored in [an] essential disposition which puts [one] at peace with God.'" I really like this, because I've been trying recently to reconcile the fact that I feel the need to compliment many of my friends that seem to need it, but on the other hand don't particularly want people to compliment me because it really doesn't help in my struggle with pride.
  • Advice very applicable to me on page 144: "[O]ften the tasks I don't particularly want turn out to be the ones I most need to perform. One test to determine whether I am receiving a call from God or from my ego is to ask whether this is something I would rather not do, or feel incapable of doing well. If either is the case, my best course may be to set my feelings aside and try to do the job."
  • Fascinating rumination on the meaning of humility on page 169: "While today the word humility may connote a placid servility in the face of mistreatment, its Latin origins suggest strength and fertility. The words comes from humus, as in 'earth'. A humble person is one who accepts the paradox of being both 'great and small' and does not discount that hope which Kierkegaard terms 'possibility'."
  • "Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person--even if you're not totally 'engaged' in every minute." (pg. 188) She goes on to mention "insincere kisses" and "prayers made with a yawn" are still important. Simply the repetition of them changes you. And I think it's an important thing to remember in our time, that "anything worth doing is worth doing badly" (Chesterton).
  • Page 190: "No less a saint than Therese of Lisieux admitted in her Story of a Soul that Christ was most abundantly present to her not 'during my hours of prayer...but rather in the midst of my daily occupations' (emphasis mine)."
  • Some cool stuff about how the different atmospheres of the different times of day reflect in our prayers: "At dawn, lauds reminds us of our need to renew, remember, and recommit our lives to their proper purpose. [...] Noon prayer is a time to briefly rest from our labors, and take stock as we prepare for the demands of the afternoon. As sunset approaches, vespers is a surrendering of contention, a willingness to surrender the day, and let God bring on the quiet, brooding darkness in which dreams will wrestle with and nurture our souls. Every night compline invites us to e like the farmer of the Gospel parable, to admit to the limitations of our consciousness, and submit to the realm of God: 'The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how' (Mark 4:26-27)." (Pg. 193)
  • "When the Dalai Lama was asked for advice about how people could improve their spiritual lives, he laughed and said that it was obvious: Eat less, don't stay up so late, and sleep more." (pg. 193-4) Obviously there's more to it than that. You could eat and sleep properly and still be an evil person. But the point is a good one, especially for people like me who tend to forget that we are soul and body.
  • "[M]onks have always insisted that each hour of the day and night has its own distinct message for us." (pg. 194) YES! This is a really cool thing I've just discovered myself recently.
  • On page 195, there is an idea discussed about turning work into play, the way young children will continue doing repetitive tasks over and over with great joy. I really like that idea. And it does seem like most work can have the attitude of play, if you know how to do it.
  • "There is a good psychological basis for the impulse, borne out in many of the world's religions, to pray at the hinges of time, at morning, noon, and night, when we might be most open to God but are also susceptible to acedia and its attendant despairs. The psalmist asks us to place our hope in a God who will not grow weary of watching over us at these risky moments, who will 'guard [our] going and coming / both now and forever' (Psalms 121:8)." (pg. 218-9) I really like this imagery of the "hinges of time"--it gives a rational reason for the traditional times of prayer, and make it feel more like a spiritual battle, rather than just following tradition for its own sake.
  • "Waiting, then, is not passive but a vigilant and watchful activity designed to keep us aware of what is really going on. Isaiah evokes this radical waiting as a wource of vitality: 'Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, / they shall mount up with wings like eagles' (Isaiah 40:31)." (Pg. 220-1)
  • It was really sad to hear of the author's husband's experiences with and subsequent leaving of the Catholic Church after Vatican II (page 238). She talks about his dislike for the new schmaltzy hymn tunes (some lifted from Broadway musicals), and bad translations. What I found interesting was his indignation about the gender bias in the English translation where apparently none existed in the Latin. I know traditional-type people seem to think the gender-biased language of English is the older, and thus better, version, but this seems to cast that into doubt.
  • "'[God] permitted my soul to be swamped by the thickest darkness,' Therese wrote, 'so that the thought of heaven which had been so sweet to me became nothing but a subject of bitterness and torment.' [My husband] greatly admired her determination to regard this experience as a grace, a gift from God that enabled her to identify more fully with unbelievers." (Pg. 241) This is how I was inclined to view some of my own struggles, as an opportunity to identify with unbelievers, but was worried this was a wrong way of going about things. So a bit of saintly validation was nice.
  • "Gergory of Nyssa recommends [the Lord's Prayer] as a way to 'remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is 'daily' life. We can, each of us, only call the present time our own... Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow." (Pg. 260)
  • "[P]ersevering in a spiritual discipline, especially when it seems futile, is the key to growth... When 'one is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feels separated from our Creator and Lord,' [Ignatius] writes in his Spiritual Exercises, 'one should never make a change." (Pg. 261-2) I'd heard this before reading books on spiritual formation, but it's always useful for me to hear again.
  • On page 265, it mentions that acedia is often has a precursor of a "spirit of sadness".  I totally understand what this mean, having experienced it multiple times. It "can arise suddenly, and with no apparent cause, making us irritable and intolerant even of those who are dearest to us".
  • And more on sadness: "While we are tempted to 'think sadness is a mood, an emotion," [John Cassian] told [a group of monastic novices], in truth it is 'a passion which easily leads to sin.' Merton's admonition that 'the causes of our sadness are not to be other people, but in ourselves' is an essential for surviving in the rock tumblr of relationship." And more: "'It takes real courage,' Merton insists, 'to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of our own unhappiness.' The trick is to maintain a nuanced view as we attempt to discern what trouble we have caused and are responsible for, and what is truly beyond our control." (Pg. 273)
  • On page 282-3, she talks about how lowering standards can help deal with acedia. There was this monk, Joseph Hazzaya, who lost the ability to pray, but instead of giving up, decided to only recite Psalm 117 (the psalm with only two verses) for each hour of the liturgical office. The poet William Stafford claimed never to have experienced writer's block, because whenever he started to, he lowered his standards instead. These both sound like great ideas to me, except that they seem to contradict what Ignatius was quoted to say above (on pg. 261-2) about never making a change when feeling listless, tepid, or unhappy. I'm sure there's a way to reconcile these two ideas, but I haven't figured it out yet. (Very useful idea for writer's block though. Got to remember it and try it out.)
  • Page 297 quotes Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) complaining about how his modern era was "[blunting] the discriminating powers of the mind and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor". This is a great example of how people have been saying all throughout history that their modern era was the worst, and that everybody was becoming stupid now, and that critical thought was at its lowest point. It seems especially common among the type of traditional Catholics I belong to, and it annoys me.
  • "You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again." Samuel Beckett, quoted on page 309. I know this feeling so well. Sitting on the couch and doing nothing does not actually make one as productive as one thinks it will.
  • "Sameness is both the most beautiful and repulsive thing that exists. The most beautiful if it reflects eternity. The ugliest if it is a sign of something endless and unchangeable. Conquered time or infertile time. The symbol of beautiful sameness is the circle. The symbol of cruel sameness is the ticking of a pendulum." From Simone Weil's "The Power of Words", quoted on page 312. I think this sums up all the ideas presented here, really. It's a great quote.
  • "[T]he specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question." From Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, quoted on page 321. This is completely relevant to me, and happens frequently. I hate it.
  • "In general, a man shooting heroin into his veins does so largely for the same reason you buy a video: to dodge the redundancy of time." From Joseph Brodsky's "In Praise of Boredom", quoted on page 323. Although I haven't used heroin, I can very much see how this would be true, and an improper response to my boredom has been the cause of many failings in me.
  • The quote from Jean Bethke Eishtain on page 323 calls sloth a form of "practical atheism", which is a brilliant and true idea, I think. And definitely very applicable to my life.
So yeah. There they are, a billion different random things that occurred to me. If you got this far, which I doubt, I apologize for my lack of summation abilities. You should just go read it yourself, and then you won't have to rely on my bad writing.

Grade: 3 1/2 stars

If You Like This, You Might Also Like:
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis: Because Lewis really gets at some of the common but little realized human qualities that cause issues such as acedia and sloth. The Great Divorce might be another good option by him.
  • These Beautiful Bones by Emily Stimpson: Because it's all about the parts of the Theology of the Body that are not frequently talked about, i.e. the parts not about sex. And I think this Theology of the Body is of special importance for those suffering from acedia. Stimpson is a very different writer than Kathleen Norris, so I'm definitely recommending it based on complementary ideas rather than any similarity in style or thought process. (Actually, the same goes for the Lewis mentioned above.)

No comments: