CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - When writer Kathleen Norris came across the word “acedia” used by a 4th century monk she knew she was onto something — the “bad thought” identified by early Christian monks that lost out to more physical sins.
Norris, a best-selling U.S. poet and essayist, is known for her writings about Christian spirituality such as “Cloister Walk” and “Amazing Grace,” and for becoming a Benedictine oblate — a layperson living like Catholic Benedictine monks and nuns.
In her latest memoir, “Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life,” she focuses on “acedia,” which is a slothful, soul-weary indifference long recognized by monastics as “the noonday demon” and traces its effect throughout her life, including the years she cared for her dying husband.
Norris spoke to Reuters about her writing and language:
Q: What sparked your fascination with the word “acedia?”
A: “I found it in the writing of a 4th century monk who was a very good writer and had a lot of psychological wisdom. A number of early monks used the word because ... they would head off into the desert to flee their wealthy church and get back to the bare bone. They knew the scriptures and went out to the desert but there realized they had not left their temptations behind and could be tormented by bad thoughts.”
Q: So acedia was a bad thought?
A: “Yes and I think that is a more useful term than sin as people have such a reaction to that word. Acedia, pride and anger were considered the worst of the bad thoughts because they could make a monk hate himself and his neighbors. I was fascinated by this and wondered what happened to acedia and where did it go.”
Q: What did happen to the word?
A: “I found that over the centuries, when Pope Gregory the Great classified the seven deadly sins, acedia was consumed within the sin of sloth and that became thought of as a physical thing. This lost the whole spiritual aspect of acedia that really means indifference, when you can’t care about things. The word really has gone in and out of English usage over the centuries. I don’t think there are that many words that have done that.”
Q: You’ve spent a lot of time with Benedictine monks and nuns. How did your relationship with them begin?
A: “I was living in the west of South Dakota and I went to their place for entertainment. They had concerts, lectures, and other programs. I discovered these wonderful people with one of the largest libraries in South Dakota. I was not going for any spiritual reason. I developed friendships with them over the years and it has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It helped shape my life in all kinds of ways.”
Q: And that led to this book?
A: “I was hanging out with Benedictine monks and nuns and they had books I had never read. A lot of 4th to 6th century material that people think is obscure is actually very accessible and immediate. They were writing from their own experience. One of the reasons I wrote this book was because I found a man who died in 399 describing the experience I had and I thought how does he know about me? I had to tell the story because it was so crazy.”
Q: Have you always been such a diverse reader?
A: “I will always read monastic literature although lately I have been reading history and novels. I will read the back of a cereal packet and I think that is something that marks people as writers — someone who loves to read. I thought I would end up being a librarian but writing took hold of me.”
Q: You’ve written poetry, essays, memoirs. Any chance of a novel?
A: “In some ways I would love to do one because there is that limitation with a memoir because you are trying not to create fiction and you would have a lot more freedom with a novel but it is also a scary concept for me. I would like to write a comic novel for me but I don’t know if I have the talent for it.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy