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Do You Struggle to Focus? Medieval Monks Did Too

New book shows how ancient monks fought distraction and what they can teach us today

While the battle against constant distraction might seem like a new problem posed by our diffuse technologies, a new book from Jamie Kreiner argues that the struggle is perennial. The book is The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction. Kreiner takes the problem of distraction and puts it into the hands of the religious recluses of late antiquity. It turns out they had a lot to say. Like us, they struggled to maintain vigorous work routines. They courted the opinions of other monks and writers on what a modern-day LinkedIn guru would call “workflow” or “hustle.” In short, they were not so different from us.

In his review of the book for Wired, Matt Reynolds writes,

Early Christian devotees also loved searching for ways to get the most out of their days. Just as we obsess over the bizarre routines of tech bros today, the 4th-century theologian Augustine of Hippo wished that he knew more about the productivity tips of the apostles. In The Work of Monks, Augustine wondered how Paul had divided up his day. If only Paul had written his routine down, then monks would have some useful guidance to follow, Augustine griped. Other monks wrote their own guides: The 6th-century Rule of Saint Benedict set out a strict routine monks should follow, including advice on when and what to eat, how long to work, and how to keep a routine while traveling.”

Matt Reynolds, Easily Distracted? You Need to Think Like a Medieval Monk | WIRED

Moderns tend to think concentration came easy for the ancients, but Kreiner argues they had to work just as hard at “single-mindedness” as we do today. While today’s technologies are certainly designed to addict and manipulate attention, dealing this generation an unfair hand, these medieval monks still struggled to overcome a myriad of distractions. Indeed, if it came so easy to them, they probably wouldn’t have agonized over their weaknesses so much! Reynolds also thinks that ancient monks would have tried to incorporate social media into their practices, noting that many adopted the “codex” in place of the traditional scroll. Of this I’m skeptical. John Mark Comer, a pastor from Portland who has been shaped profoundly by the minds of medieval Christianity, recommends a minimal online life at most in his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. The spiritually attuned Christian today seems to lean more Luddite than techno-optimist. To me, it’s unclear how technologies specifically designed to distract could enrich one’s inner focus. Because social media trades in images and quips, it gluts and weakens our attention for deeper things.

The description of the book comments,

“Ancient Greek and Roman intellectuals had sometimes complained about distraction, but it was early Christian monks who waged an all-out war against it. The stakes could not have been higher: they saw distraction as a matter of life and death.”

The Wandering Mind | Jamie Kreiner | W. W. Norton & Company (wwnorton.com)

Early Christianity stressed the significance of focused prayer and meditation amidst distractions and demonic influences. For Christians, the contemplation of God is the highest good and end goal, the telos, of human life. It would make sense then that the worst ill that can befall us is any obstacle that directs the inner eye away from the Divine—God himself. It’s in contemplating and perceiving God that we fulfill our created natures. In the words of philosopher Josef Pieper, “The wholly happy man is one who sees.” (Emphasis mine.)

Kreiner’s book is available to purchase now.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

Do You Struggle to Focus? Medieval Monks Did Too