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Medieval Monasticism’s Timeless Lessons on Concentration

Photo by Egor Myznik / Unsplash

The modern world is steeped in distraction. Technological advancements in the age of information have provided an abundance of distractor stimuli and in parallel distorted the divisions between the offline and virtual world. The smartphone has facilitated cyberspace’s expansion into all realms we inhabit, diminishing boundaries and rendering us incapable of fully “unplugging.” Resultantly, our ability to focus is going out the window.

How many of us know a friend or colleague who, or ourselves for that matter, deactivated a social media account to “focus”; or went to the cabin for the weekend to “get away from it all”; attended a yoga class to be more “mindful”; or simply did the breathing thingy Apple watch instructs us to do “to decompress”? As we contend with the intrusion of screens and incessant scrolling on our modern scrolls, we tend to look to the past with nostalgia. We imagine monks as experts in discipline, possessing mastery of the mind. Yet, monks too struggled with distraction and went to phenomenal lengths to seek a state of pure concentration and stillness of the mind.

In her new book The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction, historian Jamie Kreiner provides a portal into the world of Christian monks in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and their incessant battle with distraction. Kreiner is a professor of history at the University of Georgia and a specialist in the early Middle Ages. Her deep interest in the mechanics of culture—cognition, narrative, and the interplay between science and religion, and ecologies—is evident. The book is exquisitely researched, highly-detailed, and Kreiner writes with exuberance, wit, and fluidity—captivating the reader chapter by chapter. Historic figures, some known but many first-time introductions to non-theologians, are transported from antiquity to the present through the historian’s resurrection of their lives and philosophies.

Apart or In the World?

Monks no matter who they were or where they resided, believed distraction lay in many dimensions. As Gregory the Great put it, “The ship of my mind is battered by cyclones.” This vivid imagery speaks to the relentless struggle monks faced to dispel distraction. Monks were obsessed with distraction and concentration. The great desert father Abba Poemen from Scetis, today known as Wadi el-Natrun in Egypt, was famous for his analogies and is the most quoted abba in the Apophthegmata patrum or Sayings of the Elders. Christian monasticism was of course born in Egypt and stories of monastic heroes in Egypt from the fourth and fifth centuries called “desert fathers” and “desert mothers” were circulated far and wide. These elders became beloved monastic mentors across centuries.

The book tracks monks’ approaches from the outside in and monastic separation from the world is Kreiner’s first destination on the journey inwards. Renunciation was step one and worldly detachment was viewed as spiritual aptitude in Christianity, just like in the religions of the East. Conversion to monasticism was arduous in itself but disconnecting from people, possessions, and places seamlessly undistracted was near-impossible. The efficacy of renunciation was widely discussed and monks gravitated toward origin stories.

The methods employed to renounce the world and its distractions are humorously illuminated through some stellar examples. Macedonius “the pit” lived in holes in the ground. Frange lived in a pharaonic tomb in Djeme which would lead one to think that he sought unequivocal isolation. Nope! Despite his quirky choice of abode, he left behind correspondence showing he kept in touch with over seventy people. He sent them greetings, gave them blessings, asked for cardamom (why not?), and invited them to visit.

Monks reminded each other that regardless of their surroundings, they should feel detached from anything that distracted them from God. As desert mother Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” As one monk remarked in the seventh century, “It was the tropos that made a monk, not the topos.” How, not where, mattered.

To commune or not to commune? Monks’ views widely differed on whether living in a community would be disruptive to concentration or enhance focus, making a pastime of comparing and critiquing forms of monasticism. Ephrem the Syrian was very much “team solitude,” suggesting monks living alone in Syria and Mesopotamia possessed a state of tranquility only second to the silence of a tomb. Basil of Caesarea by contrast, was faithful to “team community,” firmly believing communal monastic life had a multitude of benefits from strengthening monastic vows to elevating the potency of prayer. He felt nobody was self-sufficient and an organized community could collectively maximize the good it carried out.

Despite the distinctions between solitary and communal monasticism, Kreiner tells us the types were often blurred and monastic arrangements were plural. At Kellia in Egypt known as “the Cells,” the fourth-century monastic community in the Nitrian Desert grew to encompass 1,500 buildings across twenty-five square miles by the ninth century.

Monks were in agreement when it came to daily routines, deeming them a practical strategy for fighting distraction. They believed variation in scheduled activities beneficially conditioned them. Routine prevented boredom from creeping in, as the hermit Alexandra had remarked. A seventh-century tradition likely from a women’s monastery in Gaul suggested even the Virgin Mary adhered to a monastic schedule when residing in Solomon’s Temple. Her schedule consisted “of regular intervals of prayer, work, and study” leading to a transformation in her thinking which resulted in nothing other than—the Incarnation.

When it came to labor, monastic schedules implicitly took a position on the ethics and benefits. Some valued the monks locked in the agrarian cycle’s service to communities, whilst others were skeptical. Ferreolus of Uzès believed each monk had their assigned task and was part of a system designed to aid their concentration and “reorient the mind itself.” At his monastery in southern France, he was aware that monks would no doubt complain about their tasks, going further and predicting his aristocratic recruits would miss their former follies so much so that they may take the monastery dog hunting!

Reading and liturgies were integral to schedules, with stories about feats of liturgical concentration shared far and wide. Kreiner tells us of Palladius of Galatia, famous for his seminal work Historia Lausiaca, who spoke of the Cappadocian monk Elpidius who was stung by a scorpion during a night service yet remained unfazed and barely moved. Cognitive transparency was widely advocated. Like actions, thoughts were seen as consequential.

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