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24.03.05 Kreiner, The Wandering Mind

24.03.05 Kreiner, The Wandering Mind

“Come now, poor creature, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. ... Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out” (Anselm, Proslogion, 1, trans. Charlesworth, modified).

In a timely new book, Jamie Kreiner traces how early Christian monks, in both East and West, concocted a variety of ingenious and synergistic practices to anticipate Anselm’s injunction. The Wandering Mind has been warmly praised by Peter Brown and Paul Freedman, and been reviewed in The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and the Wall Street Journal. What, then, is the use of another review, by a decidedly obscure early medievalist? It is enough to fill one with acedia, the “wearied or anxious heart” that so beset Kreiner’s monks (e.g., 11, 102-103), making them “slothful and immobile in the face of” (Cassian, Inst. 10.2.1, trans. Ramsey).

The book itself produces no such disenchantment, for not only is Kreiner “a wry and wonderful writer” (as Casey Cep condescended to praise her), she also presents a satisfyingly coherent outline of the monk’s arduous journey toward perfect concentration. Each chapter builds carefully upon the last, making for a sort of spiritual ascent that evokes Augustine or John Climacus. Ascetics first tried to renounce “the thrill and trauma and banality of everyday life” (23) to live alone or in groups, but found themselves drawn backwards as the world demanded their spiritual services. Isolation from the world was no panacea, of course, so monastic communities helped provide mutual support, correction, and cooperation toward attention to God. These same communities also helped monks to control their desire for baths, sleep, sex, and most importantly, food, all to “discipline their minds through their bodies, and their bodies through their minds” (74). To go further, they wrote books like Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos to talk back to their errant minds, or they read in a variety of intensive ways that helped to provide salutary grist for their ever-churning minds. Indeed, they tried to restock their memories using the practice of meditative reading, where monks slowly pick through a text and its many-sided associations. This chapter is probably the highlight of the book, as it unveils the beautifully “supple” (156) and subtle way ascetics probed the manifold meanings of their texts. Such practices evoke post-modernist reading. Even when armed with all these techniques, however, monks could still be led astray. So, the final chapter deals explicitly with a theme that runs throughout the book: metacognition, or thinking about thinking. This meant, most simply, trying to promote good thoughts over bad, “guarding one’s mind” as one monk put it (16). It could ultimately lead much higher, to “pure prayer,” where the “mind became so motionless that thinking itself came to a stop” (186), frozen with God in a kind of cognitive absolute zero.

The monks under discussion are not just male monastics in the traditional sense of the word, for Kreiner uses it for the many women in her account and, notably, for trans people as well (89-90). Here and elsewhere, she is very current. Throughout her book she makes helpful connexions with recent work similar to her own (e.g., Haines-Eitzen, Sonorous Desert, 2022) as well as with modern scientific literature. And contrary to some online complainers, the book offers plenty of novel mindfulness strategies for our times: alternation of tasks (55), reading lots of the right kinds of books (105-106), readying responses to irksome thoughts (106-107, 167), making mental checklists of our daily attention (166), externalising our thoughts to separate them from ourselves, a technique renewed today by Michael White (171), or, more crudely, alternately filling baskets with stones for each bad or good thought, and punishing yourself when the former outweighs the latter (165-166).

It is possible that this desire to appeal to a wider audience beguiled Kreiner into writing what is, essentially, an idiosyncratic history of monasticism, from the third to ninth centuries, with occasional forays into the twelfth. Many parts seem to wander into subjects that relate only tangentially to the theme of concentration, but serve to provide a well-rounded picture of ascetic life. Sections about the physical locations of monasteries (32-36), the role of abbots (60-63), mutual surveillance amongst monks (63-67), or bedding, sex segregation, and diets (83-97), are more valuable in giving context to a general reader than they are for the question of distraction. Even more questionable in this regard are the later sections on monastic book design (113-134), narrative (140-143), and visions (179-181). Not every refinement to make a book more accessible necessarily has to do with “holding attention,” just as road signage is primarily to convey information quickly and correctly, not to prevent distraction. As to hagiographic narratives, while “vivid action, minimal but memorable scenery and props, powerful speeches, comedy, conflict, gore” (141) do help to hold attention, they serve other purposes as well, and are hardly unique to monastic genres. And even if visions certainly have links with careful meditation, it is a stretch to see the Vision of Barontus described in this context (180): the protagonist was hardly a model monk who could be assumed to have mastered his mind, and he received his terrifying vision by near-death experience. [1] On this point and many others, Kreiner somewhat frustratingly casts (in)attention as the sole cause underlying many features of monastic life.

A contributing factor here, and behind the “wanderings” noted just above, may also be that Kreiner never quite defines what “distraction” means, allowing it to be linked rather capaciously to a slew of phenomena. The word distraction can refer to momentary mental inattention, or instead a longer-term deviation or drifting in one’s life, but no one would really argue that they are conceptually the same. Yet Kreiner seems to lump them together: frequently she is dealing with the former definition (as the book’s title and opening paragraphs imply) but then moves on to the problem of worldly entanglements (28-30), to monks leaving the monastery (45), or to talk about how performing chores (58) or even the liturgy (186) could count as broader distractions from the true goals of monastic life.

Kreiner’s version of monastic history is distinguished not just by its centre point in attention, but also by its wide geographical scope. In a way that impressed me (and presumably Peter Brown, too), we find examples from Dadisho (Mesopotamia) nimbly paired with those from Poitiers (68), Speculos (N.E. Syria) with Chelles (112), Hirbet al-Quneitira with Wearmouth-Jarrow (140), and Turfan (China) with Pontigny via Isaac of Nineveh (104)! Kreiner’s expansive perspective on Christian monasticism--as well as her more interior focus--comes across most clearly in a lexicometric comparison with a much more traditional account, namely C.H. Lawrence’s Medieval Monasticism (4th ed., 2015). [2]

The results (see note) speak volumes about the ecumenical and spiritual flavour of Kreiner’s book. Where Lawrence’s volume emphasised the institutional and hierarchical features of monasticism (with frequent use of “order,” “rule,” “community,” “abbot”), Kreiner’s is filled with mental and intellectual vocabulary like “mind,” “think,” “distraction,” “thought,” “read.” But as to Kreiner’s geographical scope, her list of names has a much more Eastern character: it is populated with figures like Evagrius, Isaac (usually of Nineveh), or Joseph (usually Ḥazzaya), where Lawrence’s list is resolutely Western, giving pride of place to Peter, Bernard, Francis, William, etc. [3]

Kreiner’s broad view is laudable and current, but it also courts various dangers. For instance, Kreiner seems to gloss over distinctions between Eastern (sometimes Nestorian) and Western monasticism, though we know there were many, even though she professes to be sensitive to “the tremendous differences among monks” (17). Is it always appropriate to put the monastery in Kharg alongside one in Hamage (34), or to see Isaac of Nineveh and Gregory the Great (164, etc.) as representatives of the same, implicitly unified tradition? We risk creating an anachronistic and unnatural amalgam without placing these traditions in their proper contexts. The danger is multiplied when we realise that Kreiner’s knowledge of the sources must be uneven. She can pull out a beautiful example of Hrabanus’ disquisition on pigs (a nod to her previous book) directly from the Latin (154-155), but her knowledge of Greek, Syriac, Sogdian, etc., sources is limited (to judge by the bibliography) by what has been translated. Is it possible to create an authentic, unified picture of Eastern and Western monasticism when one half of the source base is defined and restricted by the whims of various translators?

If anything, Kreiner sees the eastern Syriac ascetic tradition as the culmination of the Christian monastic project, with nearly everything in the monastic project leading figuratively toward the final chapter and its exposition of the Syrians’ “pure prayer” and its crystalline mind. All monks, we are told, “were part of a wider monastic culture that saw the mind as the ultimate site of discipline and reward” (189). But this makes monasticism all head and no heart, besides becoming too human by half.

Kreiner insists, for example, that ascetic renunciation was not the point, not an end in itself, but only a means toward what we find in the final chapter. Renouncing the world is only a “first step in their campaign to concentrate on God” (21), and “monasticism was not strictly a practice of self-deprivation” (163). Monks’ work in intercession and elsewhere was only (or primarily) valuable because of their focussed minds, not their self-abnegation (39-41,193-194). But many monastic sources tell us precisely the opposite: that monks’ suffering, in and of itself, madethem holy. The rules of the Master and Benedict talk of sharing “in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom,” [4] and Aelred of Rievaulx, amongst others, made clear that these sufferings were precisely those of ascetic renunciation. [5] Pachomius, Athanasius, Sulpicius Severus, Rufinus, Jerome, the Rule of the Master, Caesarius and Hilary of Arles all likened monks to martyrs, meaning that their sufferings would merit celestial reward. [6] For instance, Pachomius is said to have advised a would-be martyr to “endure the strife of the monks mightily and blamelessly, and make straight thy life in the way which will please Christ, and thou shalt have companionship with the martyrs in heaven.” [7]

So, the merit of monks came not just from their mental purity, but also fromtheir hardships. And these they suffered first for their love of God, and second out of their sense of guilt and imperfection. Kreiner’s monks are so coolly intellectual, however, that we almost never hear about these feelings (with a few exceptions [8]). This is hard to square with the constant refrains of both in, e.g., the Rule of Benedict and Smaragdus, or with classic images like the monk Hrabanus abased in supplication before the cross in BAV Reg. Lat. 125 (35v), begging forgiveness from the One he clearly loves.

In fact, Kreiner presents the monks as trusting so much in human ingenuity in their war for attention that they barely need God’s help at all. They worked “to develop an array of strategies to concentrate that were remarkably sophisticated” (8), or set up new practices, reordered their lives, stuck to regimens, experimented intellectually, “all to improve their attention and dedication to spiritual growth” (8). When I read Western monastic literature, however, what strikes me instead is not so much the need for human cleverness as for God’s grace. Take the sixth-century Rule of Paul and Stephen: “May the all powerful God, the source of peace, make us all fit to do his will, for he alone can make everyone dwell in a house with one mind and heart” (c. 42). [9] Or, later, we might point to Smaragdus: “at times [the human mind and the mind’s thoughts] swell with anger, or by God’s grace grow calm, or through hatred flow quite away with bitterness” (cribbed from Taio). [10] But citations that underline the importance of grace to achieve any real attention to God in monastic life are ubiquitous. [11] Indeed, take the same old monk cited by Kreiner, who reveals the secret of his self-control with a carefully arranged reply: “We hope for God’s grace, and we guard our minds” (16). [12] This is one of only three times the word grace appears in the text.

Grace seems essential, but there are lesser things that might have enriched the book. First, the so-called secular clergy have been rather artificially left out of the book, even though they interacted (and blurred) with monks, dealt with some of the very same problems, and competed over some of the same social roles. The artificiality of the exclusion becomes even more glaring when we see the decidedly unmonastic Eusebius of Caesarea underpinning major arguments in chapter 4: if he merits inclusion, why not others? Second, the chapter on books, their structure, their copying, and their annotations might have benefited from a discussion on scribal errors. Is not homoeoteleuton a classic case of inattention, for example? [13] Third, aside from passing modern reference (1), there is no discussion of substances used to enhance attention, nor is the question of “ego death” in meditation linked to the experience of psychedelics. Finally, the question of momentary inattention that is so carefully probed here is also a point in negligence law. [14] The Roman jurists in the Digest occasionally discussed fault arising from brief lapses of attention (e.g., Dig. 9.2.44; 19.5.23)--one wonders whether such thinking could have inspired these learned monks, who occasionally knew some law. Perhaps these questions will be explored in future, now that Kreiner has introduced us to this fascinating topic.

I enjoyed this eloquent and erudite book, even if it was clearly written not for me but for a wider and less pedantic audience, one more interested in how monks can teach mindfulness. This audience will nonetheless be greeted by a strange version of early Christian monasticism: one that amalgamates and isolates Eastern and Western traditions, one that chills and secularises a tradition that (to my mind) was filled with emotion and was humbled before God’s power, and one that strips nuance from monks’ motivations. If modern readers necessitated such a pared-down approach, if they were unwilling to engage with the past more on its own terms, should they benefit from its lessons?



1. Wilhelm Levison (ed.), Visio Baronti, MGH SS Rer. Merov. 5 (Hannover & Leipzig, 1910), 368-394.

2. A table summarising the results is available at DOI: 10.34847/nkl.54dfpw5l. Only the main texts are considered. Bold text marks words that are found on both top 15 lists, with arrows to indicate whether they gain or lose importance in Kreiner. Italics indicate words not shared in the top 15.

3. The first Easterner in Lawrence’s list of most frequent names is Pachomius at no. 18, followed by Antony at no. 26.

4. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, Minn: 1981), 166-167 (prol. 50).

5. Aelred of Rievaulx, Speculum charitatis, PL 195: 552B; The Mirror of Charity, trans. Elizabeth Connor and Charles Dumont, Cistercian Fathers Series 17 (Kalamazoo, MI: 1990), 173-174 (2.6.15).

6. For most of these references, see Edward Eugene Malone, “The Monk and the Martyr,” in Antonius Magnus, Eremita 356-1956, ed. Basilius Steidle, Studia Anselmiana (Rome, 1956), 201-228; The Monk and the Martyr: The Monk as the Successor of the Martyr (1950); Jerome’s Epitaph on Paula, ed. Andrew Cain (Oxford, 2013), 462-464.

7. Ernest Budge (trans.), The Book of Paradise, vol. 1 (London, 1904), 460.

8. Some exceptions: 147, 173, 175.

9. Harry Hagan, “The Rule of Paul and Stephen,” American Benedictine Review 58, no. 3 (2007): 342.

10. Smaragdus, The Crown of Monks, trans. David Barry (Collegeville, MN: 2013), 91 (c. 36). For grace’s importance in the work: The Crown of Monks, xxi.

11. A small selection: Caesarius, Regula ad uirgines 1.3, 48.3, 49.5; Caesaria, Epistola ad Richildam et Radegundem, 2-4, both in Œuvres monastiques, eds. & trans. Adalbert De Vogüé and Joël Courreau, Sources chrétiennes 345 (Paris, 1988), 170, 234, 476; RB 1980, 162 (prol. 29-32); La Régle du Maître, trans. Adalbert De Vogüé, Source chrétiennes 105 (Paris, 1964), 322 (THS 25-26); Fulgentius, Lettres ascétiques et morales, Sources chrétiennes 487 (Paris, 2004), 252 (Ep. 6.10); Hilary of Arles, Vie de Saint Honorat, ed. & tran. Marie-Denise Valentin, Sources chrétiennes 235 (Paris, 1977), 74 (3.2). Compare even the semi-Pelagian Cassian’s statement in Institutions cénobitiques, ed. & tran. Jean-Claude Guy, Sources chrétiennes 109 (Paris, 2001), 468 (12.14); cf. also Augustine on the question of grace versus some quasi-Pelagian monks:Letters 211-270, 1*-29*, ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. Roland J. Teske, The Works of Saint Augustine, 2.4 (Hyde Park, NY, 1990), letters 214, 215, 215a and 225-226.

12. “In gratia Dei speramus nos, et mentem nostram custodimus”: Apophthegmata partum, PL 73: 972C (§16.16).

13. The locus classicus on scribal error is Louis Havet, Manuel de critique verbale appliquée aux textes latins (Paris, 1911).

14. William Jones, An Essay on the Law of Bailments (Boston, 1796), 11: “there are infinite shades of default or neglect from the slightest inattention or momentary absence of mind to the most reprehensible supineness and stupidity” (my emphasis).