Finding yourself and nobody home

Going on a journey to “find yourself” and discovering nobody is home sounds like a gag Chesterton would make frequent use of. In fact, he did! And it’s opposite, which he preferred: the man boards a ship to far off adventure, only to find himself at home.

Without self-respect, one runs away to find oneself and finds no one at home

-Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, quoted by Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.321

Schmaltzy hymn tunes lifted from Broadway musicals

For us protestants and evangelicals who are dismayed at how worship services have often been turned into circuses, Rome can sometimes look appealing. Ah, but they a lot of the same trouble, and the same reactions!

My husband used to describe himself as “a member of a church that no longer exists.” Having been raised a Roman Catholic in the pre-Vatican II era, he was disoriented by wedding or funeral services in the contemporary Church. He heard the Mass as a not particularly inspired translation from the Latin, and was indignant that a gender bias had sometimes been imposed in English where none existed in the original. He was glad to see altar girls alongside altar boys, but in annoyed him that many of the kids could not recite the Nicene Creed from memory. The schmaltzy hymn tunes, some lifted from Broadway musicals, made him laugh. At times he would remark, “My mother would not recognize this place as a Catholic church.”

-Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.238

Several of my RC friends attend a traditionalist perish where the mass is said in Latin, the women wear head-coverings, and they sing each part of high mass. Pushing a bit further out, there is a rather large SSPX community not far north of here. There is certainly some common ground on which to relate.

To fulfill our created purpose is to love

Idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man renounces the claim implicit in his human dignity…He does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, IS… The contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, of earning one’s living; it is man’s…affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God – which is to say love.

-Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, quoted by Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.309

Firing a machine gun at the tide

Introspection is very useful, to a point. Then you just have to get off your butt and do something, even if you don’t have all the answers or details. This is why a determined simple-minded person can often get more done than the next guy who may be quite a bit smarter. I’m preaching to myself here – on who is not stranger to lacking brains AND motivational energy.

Psychoanalysis is good at explaining things, but it is not an efficient way to change them. When I hear of psychoanalysis being used to ameliorate depression, I think of someone standing on a sandbar and firing a machine gun at the incoming tide.

-Andrew Solomon, Quoted by Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.267

How meaningless repetition is not

Whether it’s liturgy or speaking in tongues, or even “going through the motions”, perhaps these things are not as meaningless as they are sometimes accused of being.

A recent study that monitored the daily habits of couples in order to determine what produced good and stable marriages revealed that only one activity made a consistent difference, and that was the embracing of one’s spouse at the beginning and the end of each day. Most surprising to Paul Bosch, who wrote the an article about the study, was that “it didn’t seem to matter whether or not in that moment the partners were fully engaged or even sincere! Just a perfunctory peck on the cheek was enough to make a difference in the quality of the relationship.” Bosch comments, wisely, that this “should not surprise churchgoers. Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person – even if you’re not totally ‘engaged’ in every minute.”

So there. So much for control, or ever consciousness. let’s hear it for insincere, hurried kisses, and prayers made with a yawn. I may be dwelling on the fact that my feet hurt, or nursing some petty slight. As for the words that I am dutifully saying – “Love you” or “Dear God” – I might as well be speaking in tongues, and maybe I am. And maybe that does not matter, for it is all working toward the good, despite myself and my most cherished intentions. Every day and every night, whether I “get it” or not, these “meaningless” words and actions signify more than I know. Repetition… helps us to be more honestly and fully human. It knows us better that we know ourselves.

-Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.187

Treating depression

I essentially agree with Norris’s conclusions about depression. She says that in the past 50 years especially we have seen it almost completely secularized and described only in terms of chemicals in the brain.

Robert Burton, writing in 1621, spoke not of assaults of the devil but of the “anatomy of melancholy.” Burton’s stated purpose in devising this “anatomy” was to reveal melancholy as “an ordinary disease,” for if it could be shown that to be causes by the physical “humours,” a natural remedy might be found. As an Anglican priest, Burton did not discount the religious element in the struggle against despair. His seven-point prescription for healing includes acknowledging that the source of our misery is sin, and that our help comes from a God we approach by the practice of repentance and prayer.

Still, his work had the effect of turning despair into sickness. This coincided nicely with the eclipse of theology and the rise of scientific methods as the best, if not only, way of understanding human behavior. The literary historian Reinhard Kuhn speaks of the late Renaissance as a period in which an ennui arose “whose germs had lain dormant in acedia, the monastic sickness,” and entered a long, slow process of secularization, becoming today’s “nameless melancholy.”

-Kathleen Noris, Acedia & Me, p.165

This wholly scientific explanation is not to be discounted. On the other hand, we have some demon chasers who insist the devil has a hand in nearly every case. I actually do NOT discount this either, at least not completely. What Norris is mostly trying to bring back into the equation of our understanding is personal sin.

This combination idea of depression, sloth, boredom, restlessness, apathy – it’s source can be found in some combination of these three and if we only fight ONE of these, are we unlikely to be very effective.

1. Sleep, exercise, and maybe psychotropic drugs

2. Repentance and spiritual disciplines

3. Prayer from others, deliverance or even exorcism

See how if you ONLY deal with one of these, you are probably missing something important?

Does now suck worse than ever?

Here are some good questions:

Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?

Why has man entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history?

Why is the good life which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings?

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, quoted by Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.314

Growing up, I never once heard particularly good answers to these questions.

The answers I always heard were, “Well, people have forgotten God.” or “Oh, things were bad 500, 1000, and 3000 years ago too. Nothing has changed that much.”

Both of these are in fact true, but they are dismissive.

It’s only recently that I discovered some folks, (oddly enough, both of them French), that have come up with some really serious and compelling answers to these questions.

Jacques Ellul says technology is to blame. It is amplifying our own sin and evil. (See his 1964 work The Technological Society)

Rene Girard says we are progressively unable to resolve our own conflicts due to the breakdown of the scapegoat mechanism – used for ages to hold society together but now beyond repair due to the complete undermining of it in AD 33. See any of his books, but with regards to wars, Battling to the End)

Running from our demanding art

This is good. Look for the money quote, “eagerness to squander the precious time I have in running from the emotional demands that [writing/music/art] will make of me.”

People often remark that they would write, or paint, or sculpt, if only they had the time. But this is pure fantasy: the artist does whatever is necessary to arrange her life so that she will have the time to make her art. Even as I fret over juggling responsibilities to my aging mother, my disabled sister, my friends, and my art, I have to admit that it is not obligation I fear, but my distressing eagerness to squander the precious time I do have in running from the emotional demands that writing will make of me.

I may gripe about the inescapable chore of revision, of laboring over what I have written until I get it right. But in my current state, revision is less my problem than a reluctance to allow the flow of words to come in the first place.

-Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.?

We are the cause of our own unhappiness

In her book on acedia, Norris explores it from all sides. Though she plenty of credit to modern approaches to depression, (such as treating it with psychotropic drugs), one the purposes of the book is to bring sin back into the discussion. Whodathunk? It’s been lurking all along.

I can readily accept what Thomas Merton said to a group of monastic novices, in relating John Cassian’s teachings to their lives as contemporary monks. While we are tempted to “think sadness is a mood, an emotion,” he told them, in truth it is “a passion which easily leads to sin.” Merton’s admonition that “the causes of our sadness are not to be sought…in other people, but in ourselves” is an essential for surviving in the rock tumbler of relationship, whether one is within a place of business, a monastery, or a marriage. “It takes real courage,” Merton insists, “to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of our own unhappiness.” The trick is to maintain a nuanced view as we attempt to discern what trouble we have caused and are responsible for, and what is truly beyond our control.

-Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p.273