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The patient, an accomplished scholar of international reputation, presents with recurrent symptoms that suggest an underlying malady. Relevant behavior may be summarized briefly:

While reading, he “yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to read for a while; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings, finds fault with the writing and the ornamentation. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep.”

Patient reports confusion and exhibits significant distress.

The diagnostician here is one Evagrius Ponticus, a Christian thinker of the fourth century CE. He identified the malady in question as acedia (among other spellings) and associated it with feelings of restlessness, futility and ennui. It was an affliction to which monks were particularly susceptible. As a monastic leader in the Byzantine Empire, Evagrius must have encountered it frequently and almost certainly suffered from it himself. A reference in the 91st Psalm to “the destruction that wasteth at noonday” inspired him to personify acedia as a diabolical force sinking its claws into pious men and women making their daily spiritual rounds. Acedia is sometimes equated with the vice of sloth, though it implied not mere lethargy but the knowing or deliberate squandering of mental energy. For someone whose vocation made the ever-deeper study of certain texts almost a form of prayer, zoning out and nodding off at one’s desk was not funny, or a sign of exhaustion, but a sin—not unforgivable, but no trifle, either.

The normal thing in recent decades is to interpret the symptoms of acedia as a matter of depression—a tendency reinforced by Andrew Solomon’s widely hailed book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001), with its nod to Evagrius in the title. Solomon’s detailed inquiry into the available medical knowledge about the causes and treatment of depression was the capstone to the previous decade’s widespread use of Prozac and other psycho-pharmaceuticals. Given its organic (and likely genetic) components, understanding acedia as a malady of the soul seemed a relic.

A few years later, Kathleen Norris’s memoir Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (2008) treated the malady with less deference to secular psychiatry, taking seriously the understanding of it as a spiritual condition. “When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding,” she writes, “acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” Monastics were the first to recognize it, but Norris writes that the malady “can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better for worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.” Norris has a rare gift for discussing theology in its own terms while also conveying the insights she draws from it to the reader who does not share her faith.

As with Solomon’s and Norris’s books, Jamie Kreiner’s The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction (Liveright) quotes the passage from Evagrius depicting a monk nodding off before the word of God. (The author is a professor of history at the University of Georgia.) But Kreiner’s approach to acedia moves quickly past the dichotomy of theological and biomedical interpretations. She treats it instead as an especially intense manifestation of a problem contemporary readers will know at first hand: keeping the mind in a state of sustained concentration amidst a wealth of opportunities to do otherwise.

That this was a constant problem in the monasteries of early medieval Europe will be counterintuitive to a public addicted to checking its screens every other minute for a dopamine hit. Technology as the source or enabler of the atomized attention span is a given now. The monk praying incessantly—or copying book after book in calligraphic script—had the advantage of living in a quiet and narrow world, now lost forever. Or so goes the received wisdom, giving Kreiner a good hook for drawing in the nonspecialist reader unfamiliar with her field. The author’s focus here is on developments between the second century CE and roughly the turn of the first millennium. (If she uses a source from as late as the 12th century, it isn’t often or conspicuous.)

The whole point of ascetic life is to turn away from the world and concentrate the attention on matters of ultimate concern. But any means to such ends can boomerang—and inevitably will, for some practitioners. The earliest Christian anchorites (renunciates) lived as hermits, in conditions of extreme deprivation, winning them a reputation of great piety. They risked being “continuously interrupted,” Kreiner reports, “by men and women who had come to them for advice, healings, or spiritual souvenirs—or who moved next door to try the anchoritic life for themselves.” Some of the laity responded with more cynicism, seeing them as “flashy, inauthentic performers who were only pandering to the public appetite for sensational holy men.” Even leaving to one side the question of its mental health effects, a life of self-imposed solitary confinement was no guarantee of perfect spiritual communion.

And it was clearly not for everyone. Generations of what the author dubs “monastic theorists” wrestled with the paradox that the benefits of solitude were best pursued in a community of the like-minded. Mortification of desire and the body was a given, well beyond the demands of chastity. The quantity and variety of food must be limited, along with the amount of sleep. And life in a religious community meant set routines of prayer, study and manual labor. “Some theorists thought it was best to pray and work at the same time,” Kreiner writes, “because work was an anchor that kept the mind from slipping around, or because work and prayer quieted the body and mind at the same time, or because manual labor helped monks stay awake in their late-night prayers, or because prayer made work easier. Others countered that work was supposed to empty the mind of all thoughts.”

The debates over best practices are interesting—the product of much experience with interpersonal conflict. Each requirement of monastic community could become a problem: the focus of competition, jealousy or obsession, distracting the individual monk and at times the monastery as a whole. The author’s discussion of acedia identifies it as both a debilitating personal experience and something intrinsic to the system. “A monk afflicted with acedia felt simultaneously dissatisfied and incapacitated,” she notes. “He was so unsure about how to change himself or his situation that he resorted to the maladaptive solution of shuffling over to his fellow monks and poking around in their affairs, like an obnoxious coworker or neighbor.”

Books, as such, did not induce acedia: “a monk could fall prey to it without a book in sight.” But the format itself may have made them more of a problem than scrolls had been. “Books could intensify the paralysis,” Kreiner writes. “To a mind that was already conflicted, the codex-as-technology—its countable pages, its aesthetic interface, its pillow-like volume—distracted a monk from the ideas within it.”

This follows Evagrius closely. It also translates his observations into the more familiar terms of 21st-century gizmospeak, without reducing the insight to its dimensions.

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