It's not been a satisfying month for me. Too much of it has been spent coughing. And the rest has just been a plain, old nose to the grindstone kind of month. I told Warren we have not taken any time just to do something fun. I didn't mean go on vacation or have a Big Night Out. I just meant something simple—a walk, an ice cream cone—that wasn't tied to a chore or a job or an obligation or a meeting. He nodded. We then both turned back to our respective tasks to get more chores done.
I have spent more time than usual this month thinking about dying. No, this is not an announcement. My health is good. My cancer is stable. But I have of late been more contemplative about the reality of living with cancer, the impact it has had—for better and for worse—on my life, and the inevitable return of it somewhere in the future. Those thoughts tend to curve towards death much like a winding road whose end is over the hill still but not so distant as to fade into the far horizon. I shared some of these thoughts with Warren recently, adding that I thought death will be interesting. I am pretty sure that last comment caused Warren to take a deep breath before replying quietly "I know you have been thinking about it."
In the midst of muddling through May, I stumbled across a book, Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris, that has caught fierce hold of me. I am reading it slowly. (I tend to read swiftly, so the fact that I am taking this work slowly says something.) Norris writes about the concept of acedia, which can mean spiritual slothfulness, but which also signifies a greater spiritual malady of just not caring. In her book, she explores acedia in the context of her own spirituality, her work as a poet, her marriage, and the death of her husband.
For Norris, acedia is the inability to care about anything important, whether it is one's relationship with God, one's relationship with a spouse, or one's relationship to the community and society as a whole. Acedia is not depression (although they are related), but rather an intellectual and personal disconnect from caring and from being committed to anything. It is the response of "whatever."
Norris looks often to a line from Psalm 51: "Put a steadfast spirit within me." She has spent much time in Benedictine convents and monasteries and draws upon those spiritual communities. She often turns to early Christian writers, especially those from the fourth centuries, for solutions to being overextended and over stimulated to the point that she is numb.
Her reflections speak to me as I try to scale back on the external chatter—the visual and audio clutter—that filters into my life every day. It makes sense to me to continue to shut down my home computer early and often, although I still haven't weaned myself of it over both days of the weekend. (Question to self: why do I need to be on a computer on Saturday?) We don't go out to eat or run to the mall just for "something to do." We don't watch television. (Warren does listen to a lot of Cincinnati Reds baseball on the radio, which is a minor issue not because I am opposed to radio or baseball, but because I am not a Reds fan.)
But it is still hard. I live in the world, not in a bubble, and recognizing and taking part in the world is a much a rebuke of acedia as prayer.
Norris also writes about turning down the internal static as well. Turning to her fourth century guides, she counsels: "Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores; remember that you are susceptible, at the beginning of any new venture, to being distracted from your purpose by such things as a headache, an intense ill will towards another, a neurotic and potent self-doubt." She reminds us that those early writers were living and struggling in the desert, trying to make it bloom. She goes on to discuss using the repetitive, plain rhythms of life—baking, walking, pulling weeds, doing dishes every night with her husband—to ground herself in her beliefs.
I nod as I read her words. Potent self-doubt is always trying to plant itself in my mind. Combined with the headache, the nagging cough, it is too easy to sigh and say "whatever" when asked to care, when asked to contribute, when asked to pray. By focusing on those humblest of tasks, balking perhaps but doing the steps nonetheless, I am able to give today—this moment, this life—its due time and attention. By grounding myself in today, I can move further down the road towards that unseen but certain destination.
I spent a chunk of the winter exploring issues of faith at the behest of my friend Katrina. In the end, her firm nudge propelled me back into the ocean of belief again, having lingered for the longest time on the shore. With the thoughtful words of Kathleen Norris, I am able to lean back against the stern of my boat and gaze up at the Milky Way.
For most of human history, we have navigated the seas by the stars. Put a steadfast spirit within me, Lord, that my hand stays steady on the tiller as I sail along under the endless heavens.