Last evening, the “Take and Read” book discussion group wound up its four-book season with Acedia & me by Kathleen Norris. (See previous post.) Since this book fits the form of spiritual autobiography, our host/leader Paul Doerksen followed suit by being somewhat confessional in his introduction. His extended family has just faced some close calls with death and disease and it’s like “a face-off with my own mortality,” he said. He’s been reading the late David Foster Wallace, and Soren Kierkegaard, one of the writers Norris also references. And, there’s been some sense of personal spiritual malaise. “I read almost hungrily,” he admitted.
It’s significant that Norris differentiates acedia from depression and that she calls it a vice, Doerksen went on, because the cures she proposes depend on it. Acedia is related to bad thoughts, to sin, to “demon” activity, all of them spiritual categories. Since it’s a spiritual condition, it must be resisted on spiritual terms. That, at least, is the thrust of Norris’ book. We must become more aware of what’s going on with us soulishly, get beneath the surface of things, perhaps re-visit early Christian theology, and embrace repetition and routine — whether they be daily tasks or disciplines like prayer.
Although I’m not sure that acedia is more of a problem now than in other eras, I was struck by a couple of relevant examples that came up. One is the search for novelty that has church folks going from one conference or seminar to the next, seeking the latest, newest speaker or trend. Another is the inability to give the right weight to things, exacerbated, as Doerksen put it, because these “perfect vehicles have emerged” in the media to flatten everything, yet overwhelm us with their bids for our attention.
Some of us, me included, had particularly enjoyed the personal narratives of the book. Paul Doerksen felt some ambivalence about the “level of self-referential material,” however, wondering to what extent Norris was “poaching her own life” and how much he was “being played as a reader.” Ambivalence, in fact, may be the best word to sum up the group’s general reaction to the book. A doctor in the group felt that, in spite of Norris’s statements otherwise, her opening descriptors sounded very much like someone dealing with lifelong depression.
As for what we would take away from the book, perhaps the best summary was one participant’s words that it’s about “getting up and dusting myself off.” In other words, falling but getting up again and again and going on.
It being the last of the series, Doerksen wrapped up by noting some of the common threads or themes we’d encountered. The books we read were The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, Original Sin by Alan Jacobs, and the Norris book.
And the threads? 1. The Bible is a powerful text. 2. Humanity (remember that moving passage by Hart on Peter’s tears?). 3. Sin, original or otherwise. 4. Take monasticism more seriously.
It sounds as if “Take and Read” will run again next year, for any in the Winnipeg area who may be interested. I know I’ll be watching to see what’s on tap. It’s been good to be stretched, and to read together with others.
P.S. Congratulations to Paul Doerksen, whose book Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan (Wipf & Stock) was launched tonight, at McNally’s.