Think Screens Stole Our Attention? Medieval Monks Were Distracted Too

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

Among the resources that have been plundered by modern technology, the ruins of our attention have commanded a lot of attention. We can’t focus anymore. Getting any “deep work” done requires formidable willpower or a broken modem. Reading has degenerated into skimming and scrolling. The only real way out is to adopt a meditation practice and cultivate a monkish existence. But in actual historical fact, a life of prayer and seclusion has never meant a life without distraction. As Jamie Kreiner puts it in her new book, “The Wandering Mind,” the monks of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages (around A.D. 300 to 900) struggled mightily with attention. Connecting one’s mind to God was no easy task. The goal was “clearsighted calm above the chaos,” Kreiner writes. John of Dalyatha, an eighth-century monk who lived in what is now northern Iraq, lamented in a letter to his brother, “All I do is eat, sleep, drink and be negligent.”

Kreiner, a historian at the University of Georgia, organizes the book around the various sources of distraction that a Christian monk had to face, from “the world” to the smaller “community,” all the way down to “memory” and the “mind.” Abandoning the familiar and profane was only the first step in what would turn out to be an unrelenting process — though as Kreiner explains, many monks continued to reside at home, committing themselves to lives of renunciation and prayer. For the monks who did leave, there were any number of possibilities beyond the confines of a monastery, which could pose its own distractions. Caves and deserts were obvious alternatives. Macedonius “the Pit” was partial to holes in the ground. Frange dwelled in a pharaoh’s tomb. Simeon, a “stylite,” lived on top of a pillar.

More here.