Almost two millennia separates the earliest monks from modern secular Westerners today – and yet the two groups have more in common than you might think. Source: ABC News.
For one thing, monks had plenty of experience of distraction and inattention – even though, unlike us, they couldn’t blame their unquiet habits of mind on their social media addiction, or tendency to binge-watch TV shows on streaming services.
As it turns out, it wasn’t uncommon for monks to try and find preoccupations instead of their spiritual calling, even though they’d knowingly signed up to a life of contemplation, prayer and service to God.
That’s the contention, at least, of Matthew John Paul Tan, a Catholic author, blogger and adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
Dr Tan says the monk-ish tendency to distraction is what unites the ascetics of old with people today, regardless of how they feel about God.
“We live in a culture right now where distraction is the norm rather than the exception,” he asserts.
He points to our handheld devices, social media posts and always-online lifestyles as examples of our widespread “economy of distraction”.
Anyone who has ever lost an afternoon on YouTube would find it hard to disagree.
But it wasn’t until Dr Tan started digging into the writings of the early Church fathers – religious ascetics living in Egypt around the third and fourth centuries – that he found an acute diagnosis of the chronic inattention that afflicts the average 21st century individual.
He points to Evagrius Ponticus from the fourth century, whose handbook to monastic life, the Praktikos, identified the ways that monks would restlessly fidget and seek out pleasant distractions to occupy themselves. Far from our impression of religious types permanently transfixed in otherworldly ecstasy, apparently even professional “holy” people would procrastinate.
“When I see the whole economy of distraction through devices, I see an institutionalisation of the very thing that was identified by the Church fathers,” says Dr Tan.
“Even though they lived when there weren’t any of these devices, they nonetheless were able to pick out these basic orientations towards God and the world.”