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New York Times bestselling author reads book on spiritual struggle

BY ALYSSA MARCHETTI | MARCH 08, 2010 7:30 AM

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Kathleen Norris — the author of New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace — first discovered the concept of “acedia” more than 20 years ago while reading about monastic traditions in a fourth-century book by Evagrius.

“He was describing something I had felt for years, but had never been able to name,” she said.

Acedia, long recognized by Christian monks, is a condition of extreme apathy and indifference. The word literally means not caring, or being unable to care, even to the point of being unable to care that you can’t care.

Norris refers to acedia as a “spiritual morphine” because it creates a numb dullness that “causes us to lose faith in ourselves and in our relationships with others.” Her newest book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, details her lifelong struggle with this spiritual illness.

“I was not aware that even as I maintained a busy and productive life, sloth, acedia’s handmaid, had a firm grip on me,” she writes.

Norris will read from Acedia & Me today at 7 p.m., at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St. Admission is free.

The book blends memoir, essay, and spiritual writing into a captivating work of literature, theology, and personal narrative. It weaves the literary and religious history of acedia with Norris’ lifelong struggle with the illness, especially during her marriage to the late poet David Dwyer.

“With both my father and my husband, who were clearly in the last years of their lives, hope became both fragile and more precious,” she said. “Acedia would tempt me to hopelessness.”

Acedia is not only restricted to individuals, she said; it should also be seen as a social problem.

Looking at the statistics for the University Counseling Services, this might well be true. There was a 10 percent increase in the number of counseling sessions from last year, which translates to 2,165 counseling sessions last fall alone, with around a quarter dealing with depression.

The differences and similarities between acedia and depression is a topic of much debate and a prevalent theme discussed in Acedia & Me.

“Having experienced both [depression and acedia], I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating desire that plagues [us] today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress,” Norris said.

Weary of the over-prescription of depression medication, she cites a National Institutes of Health study stating that pharmaceutical drugs failed to help nearly half of the test patients. The difficulty lies in figuring out the difference between acedia, situational depression, and clinical depression.

Even mental-health professionals recognize acedia as a common experience.

“I think it’s important for us to learn to sit with some level of distress,” said Julie Corkery, a University Counseling assistant director. “It is important, in part, because distress is a normal part of the human experience.”

Despite this, Norris acknowledges the seriousness of clinical depression.

“[Depression] is a very real thing that should not be ignored,” she said. “Some people with actual brain-chemistry imbalance benefit greatly from the aid of antidepressants, but there is a very real danger of over diagnosing.”

Both Norris and Corkery stressed the importance of the willingness to seek help.

“Acedia traps [us] within ourselves,” Norris said. “It helps to recognize it … to join the community instead of rejecting it, anything to stop the flow of negative thoughts.”


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