TalkMonks, Monasteries and Monasticism

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Jul 24, 2007, 9:25am

I've been interested in monasteries since I was about seven or eight years old (that's around thirty-five years ago). An American student teacher came to our school (I live in the UK) and during one of her lessons taught us about monks.

In our large assembly hall she laid out an idealised plan of a monastery and assigned each of us a role - I was the cellarer (looking after the supplies). Based on our role we had to stand in the correct location in the monastery and interact with other members of the community. I vividly remember having to act out unlocking the door to my storage room and walking round the imaginary cloister to the refectory with other members of my school class.

That afternoon we were taken to the nearest monastic building to our school - Birkenhead Priory - where our earlier lesson was made concrete. Walking through the ruins, peering down darkened stairways fired my young imagination.

Since then I have visited as many monastic ruins in the UK as possible and read widely on the history and archaeology of monasticism.

Jul 24, 2007, 9:43am

I assume you didn't feel the calling as a vocation? Who is your favorite fictional monk or monkish novel? The Name of the Rose of course springs to mind. I've enjoyed the Brother Cadfael shows done by the BBC, but have yet to read Ellis Peters books.

Jul 24, 2007, 9:54am

You might be interested in Prodigious Thrust by William Everson ... I had never heard of Everson before, but he was a well-known (during the 1960s) poet/Beat/Dominican friar ... this is his autobiography, which focuses on his conversion to Catholicism and his thought on the monkish life ... I'm a complete unbeliever, but found this to be very interesting.

Jul 24, 2007, 10:11am

I assume you didn't feel the calling as a vocation?

No. I'm actually a confirmed atheist. I think it's more their lives and buildings that interests me.

Who is your favorite fictional monk or monkish novel?

You've hit on both of my favourites: Name of the Rose and the Cadfael books, although there are still a number of the latter that I need to read. Another favourite, not monkish but covering the religious upheaval in 16th Century Europe, is "Q" (sorry can't touchstone it) by the Italian collective known by the name of Luther Blissett.

Jul 24, 2007, 5:04pm

Your school adventure and monastery visit sound so wonderful. How creative of your teacher. As to books, there is the great classic, "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton, an autobiography of his becoming a Trappist monk.

Jul 24, 2007, 6:58pm


I've just joined you. The spirituality induced in a cloistered person attracts me to the subject.

I am currently reading among other things The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. A book I found useful a long time ago that I would like to get back to is Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics by Marsha Sinetar. Related to these is I book I own with great happy expectation, Mont St. Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams.


Jul 25, 2007, 4:54am


You've just reminded me that I've got The Cloister Walk hiding on my shelves somewhere waiting to be read (still in the process of cataloguing my collection) - I'll add it now.

Like you I'm also interested in the spirituality and devotion of those who those who became/become monks and nuns. Having visited two or three working monasteries in the UK and chatted to one or two of the monks, I'm impressed by their calmness and worldliness.


Jul 25, 2007, 8:58am

Even though I routinely hang out with the Happy Heathens and Unitarian groups I decided to join you because I've always had an interest in monks, monastaries,especially pilgrimage and the contemplative life. I had a graduate school course on medieval mystics which just compounded it.

Jul 25, 2007, 9:42am

Don't worry, I'm a very happy heathen as well - although not a member of the group :)

Jul 27, 2007, 5:16pm

I am an Episcopalian, which has a revived monastic traditon in the last two centuries.

When I lived in Detroit and then Indianapolis, I visited St. Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan, on several occasions. It is Benedictine, which stresses worship. I did convene a men's spirituality group (Trinity Epis Ch, Indpls) and we visited there thrice in 1995-96. As a men's group, we were able to eat in the refectory, as well as attending all the daily office services as the monastery, locatd 30-40 miles south of Kalamazoo.

On Long Island, my wife and I have gone to several things at Little Portion Friary in Mt. Sinai (not a mountain). We live about 70 minutes away. They are Franciscan and stress more service. They do have a monthly potluck dinner, labyrinth walk, and Taize evening service, which we both find refreshing. Our parish from New York city has had parish retreats several times there. My wivfe and I also did a partial Holy Week retreat there that included the whole Easter Triduum.

Jul 27, 2007, 6:34pm

Oh, what an interesting group! I sort of thought I was the only one with an odd interest in monks, nuns, convents, etc. Has anybody read Karen Armstrong (the touchstone isn't working)? I'm referring specifically to Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase (touchstone not working). They're very interesting memoirs of her decision to become a nun, her emotional struggles in the convent and her decision to leave her order.

I'm so fascinated by how much monasteries/convents varied from place to place and through time. Often they weren't at all how we think of them.

Jul 27, 2007, 8:51pm

A very good novel of monastic life, All We Know of Heaven written by Remy Rougeau, describes Cistercian life in Manitoba starting in the 1960's. One can feel that it might be semi-autobiographical. It is written in an underplayed way, but I found it very absorbing. Came out 2001.

Jul 28, 2007, 2:10am

I keep meaning to buy the Karen Armstrong memoirs having read her excellent religious-historical works. I think you may have twisted my arm to do so. Unfortunately, as I've also got The Cloister Walk amongst others yet to read I may be some time in completing them.

Jul 28, 2007, 11:34am

Likewise, batdog, I guess I will have to read The Cloister Walk, now that it's gotten so many recommendations here. It goes on my TBR list.

Aug 5, 2007, 1:45pm

I have a book titled The Abbey Explorer's Guide by Frank Bottomley, it is a Glossary which covers all aspects of abbeys and a Gazetteer listing all notable religious buildings in England, Scotland and Wales.
Makes for very interesting reading if you are interested in Abbeys.


Aug 8, 2007, 2:18pm

I've spotted Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness on Bookmooch. Seems interesting. Is it worth going after?

Edited: Aug 8, 2007, 9:57pm

I've read both of Karen Armstrong's autobiographical books on her time in the convent and immediately thereafter: "Through the Narrow Gate" and "The Spiral Staircase." They are both fascinating looks at convent life before Vatican II changed everything. They remind me very much of the motion picture starring Audrey Hepburn, "The Nun's Story" (also, excellent if you can find a copy.) Back in my altar boy days, I felt extremely privileged to get to serve Mass in the convent chapel of my parish and thereby get a small glimpse into the cloister. During that period, while "seminary shopping," I also spent a weekend retreat inside a Passionist monastery. I loved it, yet never really felt the tug to spend a lifetime living a cloistered life. But the concept still intrigues me.

Edited: Dec 7, 2007, 1:44pm

I'm starting a great books class that happens to be at a small catholic school attached to a monastery. Their bookstore does market a bit of cuteness. Which hopefully you can see here.

Edited: Aug 17, 2007, 11:34am


I'm interested in spiritual ways of life and spiritual retreats -- not just Christian, but I suppose that and Buddhist outlooks are what I have been most taken by. Sounds like a load of great reading suggestions so far, though despite my interest in this I can be very slow at following up on it! (never been on a retreat either despite my interest).

One book I wondered if people would be interested in is A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor -- its an account of his visits to places including St Wandrille de Fontanelle, Solesmes, La Grande Trappe and the Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia. I've only read about St Wandrille so far, but he captured his experience of retreat well I thought and, of course for such an excellent travel writer, gave a very good description of the place and its history. Its not a big book, I'm just very slow getting through the rest!

batdog - that teacher sounds great.


Aug 25, 2007, 6:58pm

Hello, everyone! I just found this group and joined. I'm a United Methodist pastor who has negligible contact with monks or monasticism (except through books). I did have a spiritual director at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA, for a few years. Gotta love those Trappists!! And am a big fan of Thomas Merton as you can see by my library. But it sounds like I'm gonna have to read The Cloister Walk.

Aug 25, 2007, 8:39pm

#20 - roydknight

Looking back at my previous posting (#12), I mentioned a novel about Cistercian life, which is the more formal name for Trappists. The author himself Remy Rougeau, I believe, is a midwestern U.S. Trappist.

Kathleen Norris' book, The Cloister Walk is set in a Benedictine abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, a well-known Catholic institution with an extensive publishing arm (Liturgical Press).

Aug 25, 2007, 8:49pm

I tried to use LT's tagmash to see if there is any other monastic order with fiction. So I tried the tags, augustinian and fiction. The closest I could come was The praise of folly by Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus is hardly known for his monastic life, although he apparently wa ordained at some point as an Augustinian canon. Actually, I don't think of Austin Canons as being monastic in the sense that most people know it.

Edited: Aug 25, 2007, 10:26pm

I've pulled a few things from the shelf. The first is The Genesee Diary by Henri J.M. Nouwen. In June 1974, Nouwen went to the Abbey of the Genessee in upstate New York for seven months, and he kept a journal during that time. He wrote, "Being in a monastery like this helps me to see how the anger is really mine. In other situations there are often enough 'good reasons' for being angry, for thinking that others are insensitive, egocentric, or harsh, and in those circumstances my mind easily finds anchor points for its hostility. But here! People couldn't be nicer, more gentle, more considerate. They really are very kind, compassionate people. That leaves little room for projection. In fact, none. I am the source of my own anger and no one else. I am here because I want to be here, and no one forces me to do anything I do not want to do. If I am angry and morose, I now have a perfect chance to look at its source, its deepest roots."

In Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics author Marsha Sinetar says, "My bias is this: ordinary, everyday people can and do become whole. They can and do live in ways that express their highest and most cherished values - values which also happen to be those most prized universally and collectively throughout human history. People who become whole are the ones who find completeness by consciously integrating inner and outer realities."

It seems that I own Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco. It also seems that I've never even opened it till tonight. I'll have to get back to you on this one. If you know more about it, now's the time to chime in.

Thomas Keating is a Cistercian priest and monk. He is the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement, and of Contemplative Outreach. He has written a number of books, all of them good. I highly recommend Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. This, for me, was a life changer.


Sep 8, 2007, 10:53pm

After my last post, I began thinking about a book I read when I was in high school during the late fifties. It is A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis. The book was long gone from my personal collection and I was surprised when it popped right up on amazon. So, of course, I ordered it and now I have the new edition.

Mother Mary Francis is a Poor Clare nun. She writes about the life of a small cloistered community of Poor Clares in Roswell, New Mexico. The original text was published in 1956. She wrote a post-Vatican II preface in 1973, and an addendum in 2000. I remember that I read the 1956 edition several times. I was intrigued with the way of life and drawn to the spirituality. I hasten to add that I was not especially tempted to try it for myself, despite the fact that I grew up in an intensely Roman Catholic pre-Vatican II family, and had four aunts who were nuns.

We seem to be a rather quiet group. Are we emulating monastic silence?
Please, somebody else say something!

Sep 9, 2007, 9:02pm

I have been using The divine Hours: prayers for summertime of Phyllis Tickle. These are based on the Dail Office of monastics. I am also reading Praying with the church by Scot McKnight which deals deals with the same subject, but is not a user's manual as the tickle book is.

Oct 7, 2007, 6:01pm

A wonderful monastic novel is called The Stones of the Abbey (Les Pierres Sauvages in the original French) by Fernand Pouillon. It's historical fiction set during the building of the Cistercian abbey of Le Thoronet in Provence. Very evocative.

A more contemporary novel is In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, set in an English Benedictine house of women on the cusp of Vatican II.

For those who love monasteries, I recommend the Zodaique series of books on Romanesque architecture, especially L'esprit de Citeaux. Even if you can't read French, the black and white photographs are well worth the price of the book!

Oct 7, 2007, 6:56pm

Thanks, naprous.
I've just put In This House of Brede in my amazon cart. I read the reviews on amazon, and now I'm wondering why I didn't find this book long ago.

Oct 11, 2007, 8:25pm

ETA: that would be ZODIAQUE.... sorry!

Edited: Oct 12, 2007, 1:25am

Another shout out for In This House of Brede and you might also check Godden's Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, which while a different story, centers upon a women who chooses the religious life.

Though I'm an x-RC, I am not an angry one and the contemplative orders have always spoken to me. I recently re-read Brede (which was OOP for many years which is likely why you didn't find it) and found it as powerful as I had years ago. Speaking as someone raised steeped in that faith I would say Godden really got it right. Not sentimental, not romanticized, not condescending. And really beautiful and quiet real.

Other related fiction: do not recommend Lying Awake by Mark Saltzman. I do not feel like he knows the monastic tradition; not a bad novel per se. A contemporary novel which has a male character who has recently left a community and I think gets it right is The Monk Upstairs by Tim Farrington--it's a light, sweet read.

Edited: Jan 4, 2008, 10:36am

I'm just finishing Nancy Klein Maguire's An Infinity of Little Hours which deals with the lives of five young men who enter one of the most austere monastic orders in the west, the Carthusain Order. This one is Parkminster in Great Britain. It is based on the lives of five young men who enter the Order in early sixties. Only one remains so it can also double as a "mystery". You have to read to the end to find out who stays!
But it is a great "inside" look at the daily life of Carthusians which have apparently remained much as they were since their founding in the eleventh century by Bruno of Cologne.
I still have to read Norris' The Cloister Walk!

Jan 4, 2008, 10:56am

Wow, there is so much for me to read here! Oddly enough, I am in the midst of writing an original fiction story that takes place in a monastery, and needless to say the main characters are monks. I've seen The Name of the Rose and done some online research, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to read a few of these books to really get a sense of authenticity. I'd hate to finish a story and have people who read it call it inaccurate.
Thanks, guys!
God Bless!

Jan 4, 2008, 11:45am

Hello, I joined this group recently and thought it was time to say Hi.

I have quite a few books tagged monasticism. Most of mine are about Buddhist monasticism and monastics, though, = mainly nuns! However I have a few Christian works too, e.g. The Nun's Story, The Name of the Rose, and Signs for Silence: The Sign Language of the Monks of Ely in the Middle Ages.

(Diligently adding touchstones in a gesture of faith, although they don't seem to be working today...)

Jan 12, 2008, 9:34am

Anyone interested in Carthusians should see the recent film Into Great Silence (by Philip Gröning), which was filmed at La Grande Chartreuse. I found it respectful, insightful and very, very beautiful.

Nov 17, 2009, 4:14am

Well, no one has written for a long time, but I'm a newbie, so I want to share.

I love the movie, The Name of the Rose,
though I've never read the book.
I watch the movie over and over again.

As far as monasteries go,
I have the experiences,
but haven't read the books:
I lived in a monastery,
in Thailand, during a silent retreat, in 1984.
It was wonderful.
We would meditate (sitting) beside the ocean from 4 a.m. until 6 a.m. every morning.
Every afternoon was devoted
to different kinds of meditation.

Catholic orphanages in Indonesia tended
to be connected to monasteries.
I visited those as well and attended one mass
at 4 a.m., in a cave.
I felt transported to another lifetime
with that experience.

Now I live in and tend to a monastery,
with a population of two.
In Canada.
It has no name, no recognized affiliation.
It is filled with books and plants . . . and love.

From our monastery,
here is a FREE collection of SOME of the writings by my eternal teacher and best friend:

The Structures and The Dynamics of Oneness
(by Zee Charnoe)

Thank you creating this group,
thank you for your attention,
and I look forward to much exchange.

Jennifer Gray Charnoe

Edited: Mar 15, 2012, 7:45am

Hello. Just wanted to connect and say I'm a fan of the Cadfael novels / BBC series, books about St. Francis, and the works of Thomas Merton. Anyways, I'm in the process of becoming a third order Franciscan and was just curious if any one else is a third order or oblate of a religious order.

Feb 26, 2012, 12:34am

I thought about becoming a 3rd order Franciscan in the 1970's, and not too long ago I came across a partially composed letter to someone looking into this idea and explaining something of myself. I don't think I thought of my self as having a truly Franciscan character -- maybe I'm a bit more Benedictine.

This Saturday I attended with a dozen others an event on Long Island named "Lenten Themes from Lenten Hymns" presented by a first order Franciscan at the Little Portion Friary.

Aug 17, 2013, 9:08am

Well, I've just read all the posts in this intersting site and am sorry that it is dormant but will revive it.

I was surprised no one mentioned:

394. I Leap Over the Wall: Contrasts and Impressions After Twenty-Eight Years in a Convent, by Monica Baldwin (read 19 Nov 1951)
4525. The Called and the Chosen The Diary of Sister Ursula Auberon Enclosed Nun at the Abbaye De La Sainte Croix, Framleghen, by Monica Baldwin (read 12 Jan 2009)

And these books I found of much interest:

2647. Beyond the Glass, by Antonia White (read 11 Sep 1994)
2651. Frost in May, by Antonia White (read 29 Sep 1994)
2661. The Lost Traveller A Novel by Antonia White (read 9 Oct 1994)

In my "reviews" of these books I comment on my reaction to them.

Aug 19, 2013, 4:39am

A couple of excellent books by David Chadwick about Zen monks, Thank You and OK!, and Crooked Cucumber. Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain has been mentioned above, but his The Sign of Jonas has not. It is a selection from his diaries in his early years in the monastery and very illuminating about monastic life. He also wrote a history of the Cistercian monks, called The Waters of Siloe. He also has a little book called The Wisdom of the Desert, a selection of stories about the original Desert Fathers, a nice edition by New Directions. Another one on very early male and female monastics is Journeying into God by Tim Vivian. There are also many books about Mount Athos, the Greek mountain covered with Orthodox Christian monasteries dating from the early middle ages. I have read two or three of these but their titles are so similar I can't remember which ones. Get one with lots of pictures, the architecture and settings are spectacular.

Jul 7, 2014, 3:28am


I have just joined and found you in a search. I am interested in the mystical side of my faith, so I have been reading a few of the less fictional works. At the moment, I am reading The Interior Castle and found it very good so far.

Jul 7, 2014, 8:34am

You can't go wrong with Teresa of Ávila! Whom else are you exploring?

Jul 18, 2014, 10:12pm

I have also just finished Sister Wendy Beckket, (the Carmelite Nun who does the show on art). It is not as deep as St Teresa, but it is pretty interesting. What about you? Anything interesting you are reading at the moment?

Jul 19, 2014, 6:39am

I've only just come across this group. I'm a Catholic and have visited quite a few monasteries, often for spiritual retreats, in Europe, north America and Africa. I'm glad someone mentioned Taize, a very modern embodiment of the monastic tradition, but I also love the ambience of ancient monasteries.

I see nobody has yet mentioned The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture by Jean Leclercq.

Jul 19, 2014, 9:01am

The Interior Castle is such a beautiful book! If any of you would like to contribute to the list of books featuring monks and nuns (not necessarily in the Catholic tradition) I started a couple of years ago, that would be lovely :-)