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10.08.08

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Phaedra

Acedia & Me

A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

Reviewed by Richard von Busack


T HE best-selling author of Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk goes confessional, talking about the reverse side of the exhilaration she gets from her faith. As an oblate at a North Dakota abbey, Kathleen Norris favors the monastic writers of early Christianity, who first identified the deadly sin of "accidie" (spelled in various ways) as a symptom of wanting to go over the wall of the monastery. Norris proposes to retrieve and analyze this sin for today's seekers. The nature of this sin requires some defining; it is despair and doubt of God's love. It is hatred of one's workplace, and it is also good old-fashioned sloth. Some medievalists counted acedia as more dangerous than lust. Acedia & me is threefold: an analysis of this fashionable and ever-popular sin, a memoir of the suffering and death of her husband of some 30 years and a long chapter of quotations on the subjects. Dante condemned such sinners to immersion in a Stygian marsh: "Inside us, we bore acedia's dismal smoke. / We have this black mire now to be sullen in." Ian Fleming's quote From Russia With Love is also relevant: "In at least one religion, accidie is the first of the cardinal sins. So boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned." The universality of accide links us with humanity throughout the centuries—even St. Theresa of Lisieux suffered from it—and the circumstances of David Norris' many illnesses are pathetic to read about. But just as a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, a person with a prayer book sees every problem as a lack of faith. Repeatedly Norris asserts that if you have no faith, you must get some, and if you doubt, you are secretly affirming the love of God. And Norris writes, "If we are too proud, bored, or numb to pray, we are already in hell." There seems no escape, save through the kind of self-denial offered by one early desert monk, Isidore the Priest: "Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart." There are thousands out there so blasted by discontent that this will sound like wisdom, instead of the kind of authoritarianism that the modern age was supposed to vanquish. (Kathleen Norris; Penguin/Riverhead Press; 352 pages; $25.95 hardback)


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