In this candid chronicle of what many would call a prolonged depression occasioned in part by her husband's illness and death, Norris, a popular memoirist and essayist, seeks carefully to distinguish the psychological or psycho-medical category of "depression" from the spiritual state of "acedia" or, more bluntly, "sloth," in its oldest and most precise sense.  In doing so she raises important questions about widespread and often imprecise use of categories derived from clinical psychology, an imprecision that may muddy the distinction between spiritual and psychopathological experience.

"Acedia" she defines as a failure of will, signifying a need for spiritual guidance and prayer, whereas "depression" requires medical treatment.  Going beyond the confessional, Norris suggests that acedia may be an endemic condition among middle-class Americans, over-busy but spiritually slothful.  The book is loosely organized, often characteristically lyrical, and more invitational than diagnostic.  Her purpose, finally, seems to be to inspire readers to embrace simple life-giving spiritual disciplines like reading the Psalms as a stay against excessive self-preoccupation and actual depression as well as spiritual depletion.  


One of the many enjoyable features of Norris's musings here is her frequent forays into etymology.  She pauses over words-not just the terms primarily at issue-"acedia," "sloth" and "depression"-but over numerous other terms whose usage becomes richer for the homework she has done in the etymological dictionary.  Such digressions are typical of the meandering, thoughtful character of a book that is in no hurry, that doesn't court favor with audiences looking for a quick fix or a quick read, but brings together layers of reflection that include autobiography, historical anecdotes about the lives and practices of the ancient church fathers, reflections on personal and monastic practices, and thoughts on writing itself.  Though it is possible to imagine readers growing impatient with her pace and discursiveness, the book is rich with courageous countercultural insight and an invigorating challenge to believers and nonbelievers alike who are interested in the nature of the inner life.


Riverhead Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count