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Dear Abbot: Monastic Advice for Modern Living
What Do Monks Know? Plenty. Reviewing 3 Books of Monastic Wisdom about Work, Life, and Everything Else
Life requires a few fundamentals. I’m thinking primarily of air, water, and food but also of advice. Think about it: There are far too many ways to go wrong and nowhere near enough lifetimes to find the best course by experimentation alone. We either rely on advice or we die early. Not perfect, but it beats an accidental checkout.
The question is where to get it. If you lived in Palestine in the sixth century, you might query Barsanuphius of Gaza and discover what this famous monk thought. Barsanuphius and his disciple, John, left hundreds of letters responding to people who did exactly that. Subjects range all over the map: everything from piety and prayer to marriage, lawsuits, money, and work.
Such practical questions might surprise us, but people sought wisdom from the monastic pair about hiring, firing, buying, selling, and other workaday quandaries. What do monks know about stuff like that? Plenty it turns out, and a trio of new books underscores the point for us today.
Work Matters More than You Think
In Lead Like a Monk Anselm Grün, a contemporary Benedictine monk based in Germany, presents a slender but sturdy guide to the professional life, drawing wisdom not only from the Rule of St. Benedict but also his own role as cellarer (basically, the head of operations at a Benedictine monastery).
Based on the requirements laid out in the Rule, Grün explores the necessary qualities of a leader. These include some obvious traits, such as humility and maturity. But others, such as calm, might cause a double take. The leader, says Grün,
should not be “inclined to cause trouble.” The original Latin word is turbulentus, meaning unquiet, stormy, full of confusion, confusing. . . . A person who is turbulentus, troublesome, is a person who cannot find calm because they are constantly being controlled by the noise of their own thoughts, being buffeted by the many different emotions inside them. . . . Some people confuse the noise of their thoughts with hecticness and haste, which they spread around them and demand from their employees. But if a manager is constantly heckling his employees for haste, he does not lead them forward.
I recognize that boss. I’ve been that boss. I sometimes find it challenging not to be that boss. And that’s one of the benefits of Grün’s book; he displays an uncanny ability to diagnose what’s driving problems. It helps to have seen humans at their best—and worst—for a half dozen decades or so.
A custodial mindset, risk tolerance, a realistic view of human frailty, and genuine positivity help round out the picture of what leadership requires. That perspective then shoots straight to the heart of inspiring teammates, igniting creativity, empowering delegation, and motivating disengaged employees. Yes, quiet quitting happens even in monasteries; Grün has thoughts—good and provocative ones.
“I hear many complaints in monasteries about overwork,” he says. “I rarely have sympathy for those complaining, because in most cases I see that as yet another expression of lack of imagination, here disguised as unwillingness to organize the existing works in a new or different way.”
The employee bears responsibility here, but so does the leader.
Many sisters are “kept small” rather than challenged by receiving true responsibility. When a 45-year-old nun must ask her superior what to do rather than make her own free decisions about how to organize her work, her creativity is stifled, and her motivation will decrease.
The upshot is that we fail to gain the full benefit of our teams when we don’t intentionally develop and deploy it by allowing them the dignity of actively contributing to that process.
“Culture,” says Full Focus founder Michael Hyatt, “is the unseen force that drives operating results.” Lead Like a Monk is a terrific tool for shaping that culture, starting with leaders themselves and then flowering through an entire organization.
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Life Requires Intentionality
People buzzing Barsanuphius and John for answers to life’s difficulties received ad hoc advice particular to their queries. But as Grün’s application of the Rule of St. Benedict shows, some monastic advice is codified in set regulations that apply in many settings. Danièle Cybulskie’s How to Live Like a Monk secularizes Benedict’s Rule and other monastic guidelines and practices for application beyond the cloister.
She begins by exploring monasticism itself, its historical basis and patterns of life. How and why did people become monks? Cybulskie answers these and other basics while encouraging readers to approach this peculiar and foreign lifestyle with respect. The peculiar fun of Cybulskie’s book, however, is to familiarize the foreign by connecting medieval monastic practices with the modern secular world.
A few examples might strike some readers as trite. Do I really need monastic encouragement to “Embrace Minimalism”? But there are genuinely meaningful applications here as well. “Taking lessons in mindfulness from a medieval monk is a good way to reconnect with ourselves as individuals and as interconnected beings,” says Cybulskie, mentioning such methods as:
Meditation: fixing one’s attention on an object, event, or quality worthy of emulation, adulation, or gratitude.
Reading: filling one’s mind with beneficial and useful ideas while extending and developing those concepts.
Keeping the faith: fighting despair by reframing difficulties. “Temptation itself is not a failure,” she says; “it is a challenge to overcome.”
Along with looking inward, monks also focused outward and Cybulskie points to several ways we can follow their example: helping people in need, creating uplifting art, and pushing conceptual and technological boundaries. Innovation, as explored in Seb Falk’s The Light Ages (review here), is part part of the medieval mindset. “The fact that monks embraced innovation should come as no surprise to us,” says Cybulskie, adding:
Like us, monks were invested in anything that would make life simpler and easier, streamlining daily tasks so that they could focus on the devotional practices to which they had dedicated their lives.
Modern technology is meant to serve the same purpose: saving us time and effort in order to help our lives run smoothly and simply enough that we can focus on the things that are important to us. . . . When we share our “life hacks” with the rest of the world, we’re following in the footsteps of our monastic brethren by embracing innovation for the sake of a better world for ourselves and for others.
It’s worth pairing Grün’s point about reimagining soul-killing work with this innovative mindset; there are always ways to reconceive bedeviling tasks.
Along with offering practical advice and encouragement, How to Live Like a Monk also offers visual delights on most every page. It’s a beautifully designed book with carefully chosen color illustrations throughout.
Life Is Short, but Love Is Long
Grün and Cybulskie’s treatments are both highly practical. At first glance Kim Haines-Eitzen’s Sonorous Desert might strike us as far less so. Ostensibly about the soundscapes of monastic life, Haines-Eitzen’s subject nonetheless proves every bit as applicable as those above; it just requires a little more reflective effort.
Haines-Eitzen is a scholar of early Christian monasticism. As a hobby, she records soundscapes of various environments. In Sonorous Desert she brings these pursuits together following the realization that the acoustical setting of monasticism had—and has—profound effects on the experience of monks. For this project, she recorded the sounds of places where monks live, contemplates those sounds in light of what she knows of monastic and secular life, and then shares her insights.
In the audiobook these clips are integrated into the listening experience; the physical book comes with QR codes that take the reader to Sound Cloud to listen on their phone or another device. Here’s one example from the monastery of St. George of Choziba with its cliff-bound buildings along the walls of Wadi Qilt in the Judean Desert; this recording features not only morning birdsong but the dull clang of a wooden semantron calling monks to prayer, followed by the sound of their chanting.
You can listen to the full playlist of Haines-Eitzen‘s recordings here. Haines-Eitzen pairs these environmental explorations with textual examinations, scouring monastic literature for references to sounds and their absence. She encounters both hissing and roaring, crashing and thundering, howling and hesychia (a spiritual state of quietude). She writes,
Behind many of the sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers about the sounds of the desert lies a repertoire of biblical passages that speak to howling and destructive winds, God’s voice that thunders or that sounds like waters, the melodious song of birds, or sheer silence in the heavens. One of the most important biblical books for monks was the Book of Psalms, which speaks poetically and expressively about seas roaring, trees of the forest singing, mountains breaking forth with joy, and fields exulting—all in praise to the divine. These psalms were in the minds of monks in late antiquity who memorized and meditated on them, copied and recited them.
How might this acoustical obsession apply to daily living? Ultimately, I think it has to do with love and the brevity of life. Monks are famous for meditating on the inevitability death—memento mori. This grim reflection forces a kind of regular existential reckoning meant to encourage mindful, loving engagement with the world.
Haines-Eitzen’s curious project reminds us that sitting and listening to one’s environment can have the same strange, meditative sort of power. Going on a short hike without talking or just forcing ourselves to sit still on a park bench for ten minutes can bring ourselves so squarely into the present it’s impossible to escape our own conscious awareness.
Life is surprisingly short and made all the shorter by our fleeting attentions and distractibility. To sit still and mind the present, allowing our awareness to expand into the nooks and crannies of the moment, can conjure deep appreciation, gratitude, and love we can then bring to bear beyond the moment.
Of course, it’s impossible to do so for more than a moment. Even then I tend to fail more than anything. Thank God, that’s alright. And thank Grün, Cybulskie, and Haines-Eitzen for presenting monastic advice with enriching, rather than rigid, application in mind. I bet Barsanuphius and John would heartily approve.
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