17 November 2008

Book, Recommended on balance: Acedia & Me

The subtitle is A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. To be honest, I could have done without the marriage and the writer's life. I was really after the acedia and what the monks had to say about it. Let's start here: Acedia is an old word from the Greek describing a state of listlessness, of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. Sound familiar?

Sloth is (let's face it) a big part of my life, and I was surprised when I learned that it traditionally ranks pretty high in the hierarchy of sins. What's so bad about being lazy, right? Well, anyone who is really committed to it knows the infectious spiralings of sloth, or as they sometimes used to call it in the wild Latin West, acedia. There's more to it than not doing what you're supposed to be doing. To keep not doing it, you have to stop feeling guilty about it, and then to stop feeling guilty about not feeling guilty, and if you really keep at it you don't feel anything, you don't care about anything, you are dead.

The difference between a Concordian Sister and a monk is that children forcefully demand some amount of care. It's really, really hard not to do something about a bum that needs wiping or a child who needs feeding, if for no more honorable motivation than the smell or the howling.

I'm never comfortable with the talking points about how kids will teach you not to be selfish. It's still usually for selfish reasons that I deal with them. But the work itself is a partial antidote to acedia, so even if it's not making me good, it may make me the tiniest bit less bad every once in a while, or at least keep me from slipping even farther down, I don't know. If it can't put a smile on my face, it can get me out of my implosive pod of self-absorbed indifference to everything. Typical of my tendency to feel guilty about the wrong things, I would feel bad if I created a black hole in this lovely parsonage. I can hear myself apologizing to the trustees: the kids befouled the carpets, Dad broke that door upstairs, and there's a singularity in the playroom where the couch used to be so you might want to think about relocating.


Anyway, if you're interested in exploring the boundaries of and relationships among sinful sloth, clinical depression, and plain human sadness and life-fatigue, this book is worth your time, especially the beginning and end where Norris explores acedia less autobiographically. The middle of the book is the story of her husband's death and her own difficulties as a writer. The former was too sad for me to invest myself in, and I just don't have any sympathy for the latter as someone who has lost so many phrases because someone needed me before I got a chance to put them down. My other complaints are the occasional gratuitous digs against the kinds of things liberals of faith look down on (eg creationism), and the [descriptor of your liking] notion that the author was made to "know motherhood" by some days spent caring for her sick niece and, of course, writing.

While Norris helpfully ponders many quotations and insights from those heroes of prayer, the monastics, the most valuable testimony her book gives is to the power of the Scripture (especially the Psalms) not to inform, but to heal. Seeing the Word as an educational exercise or a tool for personal enrichment is a deficiency of our hypereducated, therapeutic time. For people who are busy, who are bored with these stories they've heard from infancy, whose brains have been hormonally curdled or perforated by time from steel trap to (in the words of my mother) steel sieve: pick it up anyway, even if you know you won't remember it in a month or a day or an hour, even if it won't make you feel any differently than you do now. The Word will not return void, and that's a promise.

So that's the answer I got, and it's a good one. The question the book didn't answer for me is old: how shall I pray? I know it's been answered, but I still find myself asking it all the time. When I read the monks and the mystics on prayer, they speak a language I don't understand. They speak of silence, and days filled with and framed by prayer, whereas my life feels like a spiritual "Harrison Bergeron": whenever a devout thought enters my mind, a cry or a whine or a fight drives it out to prevent me from excelling in piety.

I have trouble relating to Kathleen; we obviously have our differences. But her personal spirituality, in both its muckiness and transcendence, resonates with me, if I could only go where she has gone. I long for a spiritual retreat where I could learn the language of prayer without interruption, where I could learn silence before God, where I could restructure my life within a framework of prayer, where I could deprogram myself from the Pietist approach to prayer I contracted in ages past, where I could imprint the Psalms on my heart and no one would shout them out of my ears, where I could make the canonical hours my default setting so that when I returned to my shapeless life their rhythm would set me right, upset my rut. But I would also risk the the deeper acedia from which the tasks of my vocation protect.

A more immediate problem of monastic life is its artificiality. Most of us cannot spend our lives in retreat, and some cannot spend even a day in it. We must work, and not in contrived ways (cf. basket weaving Abba Paul from the first chapter). So I'll keep plugging and piecemealing, struggling to pray as I go about my day, putting in marathon prayer sessions in the snatches of time I can get, and struggling moreover to use those snatches for prayer and not idleness, the ever-emptying food of acedia.


Rebekah said...

Sheesh, who wrote this long thing? I got bored scrolling through it. Sorry.

Sarah D said...

Good read. Your post.

I wonder if blogging is a form of acedia.

Reb. Mary said...

Great explanation of an important nuance about children not being a magic antidote for selfishness (or any other sins, for that matter...childolatry, anyone?). They're another temptation to do the right ("unselfish") thing for the wrong reason (and while resentful,no less), whether it's just to make the noise and smell stop, or keep the trustees happy, or impress everyone at church with our brilliant mothering skills (good thing I'm in no danger of pulling that off...).

But at least having the little critters around forces me to face just how frequently I'm deep-down awful. I can't get away with pretending. When I'm given oh so many opportunities to see how wretchedly self-centered I am and how the truism of needing "grace for each moment" is actually...true...I can occasionally catch a glimpse that I can become "the tiniest bit less bad every once in a while."

And your point about prayer and the hours....I keep longing for some more hours-like structure to my life at home. Seems like every time we hit our stride, or are about to, someone reaches a new developmental phase and it's back to catch as catch can. And for petitions, I rely heavily on those groans that words cannot express :O.

Rebekah said...

Sarah D, blogging wards it off for me. If I ever stop posting (and I'm not postpartum), call 911.

RM, I have that developmental phase problem too. I keep working not to get too attached to my quasi-schedules since they always end up not working anyway. :P

Gauntlets said...

Schloop, 'dere it iiiis.

I like the idea of devotion in action (where did I read about that recently?) wherein changing that diaper is, in fact, a sort of prayer. The shoemaker in St. Anthony's dream (was it Anthony?). . . This little digression proved very helpful, I think. I'm glad for all of you that you got to read it. :D

Reb. Mary said...

Gauntlets, I like devotion/prayer in action too. But why am I always tripping on it instead of striding smoothly along in it? Maybe I have to stop muttering first before it works :P

Blogging as anti-acediac is one of the reasons I'm able to justify the time I take to do it :O

Gauntlets said...

Yeah . . . striding smoothly isn't exactly one of my strong points. I'm no good to you.