Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me
Lauren Winner opened her 2002 debut memoir, a conversion account entitled Girl Meets God, with a breakup tale—her account of a failed romance with another history graduate student. “The only other person I have fallen in love with that way is Jesus,” she wrote, “and I hope that goes more smoothly. I hope I remember, when I’m bored with Him, and antsy, and sick of brushing my teeth next to the same god every morning, I hope I remember not to leave Him” (26). Well, the course of true love never did run smooth. Ten years later, Winner confides in Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis that she got “bored with all things Christian” (121) shortly before divorcing a man she describes as “generous and friendly” (12) and “liked by everyone he meets” (4). She writes:
I remember that I started feeling bored in church at precisely the moment that various Christians were telling me to do something I felt I couldn’t do, that is, stay married. Maybe I evaded their instructions and my discomfort by going to boredom. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say, to those Christian voices, “I reject your authority”…. So I distanced myself from the whole thing: I’m bored. (125)
Winner’s remarkable candor—in this passage and elsewhere in Still—has earned the book N. T. Wright’s dust-jacket praise for being “an unusually painful story, told with rare honesty by an unusually gifted writer.”
Winner is an unusually gifted writer. Many of Still’s images are fresh and surprising, and its attention to language is noteworthy. Among the book’s most memorable passages is the brief chapter entitled “loneliness, ii,” in which Winner personifies the emotion that overtakes her on a spring afternoon after her marriage has ended:
I tell loneliness to pull up a seat. I notice she does not look so threatening after all—she has a touch of the dowager about her, actually. She is clutching a handbag made of fat white beads, and she smells of rose water. We sit next to each other on my screen-porch sofa, with its faded hibiscus fabric and fraying wicker. I lean back. I breathe…. I ask her what she has for me. She takes a letter opener from her bag, and tells me she can kill me if she wants to. (59)
That passage’s punch, the dagger thrust in the context of the comfortable, demonstrates Winner’s virtuosity as well as her verve.
Somehow, though, Still falls short—partly because it is too short. Girl Meets God was theologically rich and dense with incident at 296 pages before its endnotes. Many of its chapters would function just fine—and have, in magazines and anthologies—as stand-alone essays, although they also work together effectively in the religious seasonal units Winner used to group them under one cover. In contrast, Still weighs in at 198 pages, quite a few of them blank or nearly so, and several of its consistently bite-sized chapters fail to satisfy. Moreover, the book ends abruptly. Winner indicates that she “wrote through eight different structures” before opting for a “fairly loose three-part structure” (201). Loose, indeed; I felt startled when I realized I’d finished the book, even though Winner outlines her structural intentions in Still’s preface.
Perhaps the comparison between Girl Meets God and Still is unfair; what Winner calls the “middle” of her spiritual life can hardly contain the excitement of a conversion romance and honeymoon. She acknowledges to Mary Keangy Mitchell in the seventeen-page interview that follows (and pads) the book that Still’s later chapters are “closer to pure reflection” than to narrative. “In a sense,” she explains,
that movement [from more to less narration] follows, formally, what I understood to be happening in my own spiritual life. In the crisis moments, I was desperate to narrate. As I moved somewhere else spiritually, out of crisis and into a new odd calm, I was more peaceably floating through whatever else was happening. I wanted to record moments, but not so intently to tell stories. (213)
Unfortunately, floating just isn’t very satisfying literary material.
A far more satisfying treatment of one Christian’s “middle” experience is Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life (2008). While Still provides an impressionistic snapshot of a young person whose marriage died and whose faith nearly did as well, Acedia and Me is the richly textured, detailed portrait of an older believer who has weathered both marital and spiritual storms. While her book traces Christian understandings of acedia, or spiritual apathy, from fourth-century Greece to the present, Norris also explains that the backdrop for her own struggle with acedia was her marriage to a man who struggled for years with suicidal depression. After recounting many of their difficulties, she concludes, “It was an honor to be with him as he dealt with addictions, a crippling guilt, and the difficulties caused by his chronic procrastination” (258). Neither minimizing the challenges nor gloating about having maintained both her marriage and her faith, Norris offers in Acedia and Me insight as well as an example for other Christians who find themselves battling acedia.
Norris’s study, which manages to be both scholarly and meditative, summarizes acedia’s great temptation to duck out of difficulties:
There are situations, as in the case of abusive relationships, when seeking a change is the right course of action. But often it is acedia that urges us, for no good reason, to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions. Whatever the place of our commitment—a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage—well, [we conclude] we are better off just walking away. (25)
Winner insists that her own battle was with boredom, not with acedia. “I would like to dress up my own feelings with the more elegant ennui, or the more spiritual-sounding acedia, that state of spiritual listlessness and disengagement that the desert fathers described—but even the impulse to use those words is part of my effort to coat this tedium with the patina of age and angst” (123). She has certainly resisted one aspect of acedia that Norris describes, that of convincing oneself that “acedia will make [her walking away] seem divinely inspired, perhaps sanctioned” (25). In Still, Winner repeatedly interrogates her decision to end her marriage, shouldering all the blame for the break-up and daring to consider that her period of spiritual darkness was its result.
Although she does not mention Acedia and Me in the body of Still, Winner acknowledges having read it and expresses appreciation for Norris in Still’s endnotes. I can’t help but wish that she had dealt more explicitly in her book with Acedia and Me’s implications—some of which she raised a decade ago in Girl Meets God, contending that “marriage is a school of sanctification…. there is plenty of sanctification in the faithful, ordinary daily grind of lots of marriages” (279). I also wish she’d followed Norris’s example and written a meatier book—but maybe she was worn out after completing her 2010 scholarly publication, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, which she describes (in charmingly self-deprecating terms) in Still as “a book about colonial Virginia that one day maybe six people will read” (50).
More people than that will read Still—those struggling with their own dark nights of the soul, those who admire Winner’s earlier books, and those who just wonder nosily what happened to her marriage. To most people looking for an intellectually stimulating and spiritually challenging book about the hardest work of loving and believing, however, I would say, “Forget Winner on this topic—go for the Norris.” Just today, though, after hearing a young colleague speak about her own life experience, I found myself asking her over lunch, “Have you read Lauren Winner’s Still? I think it may really speak to you.” In short, a few of us probably could use both these books as we muddle through our own romances with others and with God: Winner’s, when we need reminders of His faithfulness when our own falls short; Norris’s, to remind us of the worthiness of our goal and to provide us with one painful, beautiful account of getting there.