From Baggy Clothes to Bad Haircuts: 5 Things Monks Can Teach Us about Sheltering-in-Place

Wouldn’t it be nice if history left us a guide on how to thrive during a quarantine? Better yet, what if entire communities spent centuries building their lives around solitude and learning to accomplish great things together even though they had to keep away from one another?

Well, it turns out those odd monks, with their rough hair shirts and rougher hair cuts, have long been on to something. Great strength can be found in quietness and time spent alone. Contemplation is often the womb of inspiration while daily routines are often the key to accomplishment. And, what do you know, most of us suddnly have plenty of time for both. 

Not only that, but monastic practices kept the monks in strong mental and physical health. They tended to have longer life spans that their neighbors and often found happiness in their simple lives, even if it was difficult for them at first.

So let’s learn from the experts. How did the monks turn solitude into strength?

1 – Routine

I realize it’s boring to start a list with a word like “routine.” Not exactly the flashiest opening, but stay with me. 

The monks of old built their days around a strong schedule, with no time wasted. It opened and closed with prayer. Work was done. Books were read. Books were written. Books were translated. Songs were sung and manuscripts were illuminated.

It’s probably useful to point out that very few monks actually lived alone. They were usually part of larger groups made up of their fellow monks, all part of one busy community. Like an ant hill. (This is called cenobitic monsticism, if you’re looking for extra credit, which is different than just being a weird hermit.) 

In your day-to-day quarantined life, you’ll find that the day is more pleasant when you have things to look forward to. Even something as dull as assigning a different chore to each day will give your week some structure and give you something to do. Speaking of chores, the next thing monks did all day was…

2 – Work

Yes, yes. I realize between “routine” and “work” I’m helping you envision an approach to being quarantined that’s making you wonder if you would have more fun joining the army.

It’s okay if you’re not interested in re-grouting the entryway tile or scraping popcorn off the ceiling, even though, judging by the Super Bowl-sized crowds at Home Depot, that seems to be what everyone’s up to. You probably know someone who’s working day and night turning their track home into Monticello. Good for them. But there’s no need for you to feel like you have to do the same. It’s not about building something great, but putting your hands to a task. Why? Because it’s satisfying.

In his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence describes the depression that overcame him when he entered the monastery for the first time and got assigned the ignoble task of peeling potatoes. He hated it (for obvious reasons). 

This daily task turned him very glum at first, but he eventually learned to take pride in his peeling. By the time he was an old man, Lawrence had learned to adore the corner where he sat to do his work. The simple task had become fulfilling, and one imagines no one ever peeled a potato so well as Brother Lawrence. I like to imagine he’s in Heaven today showing off a perfectly smooth peeled potato while frustrated onlookers fail to replicate his technique.

I recently swept my apartment’s tiny balcony. It’s a simple job I’ve been putting off for, oh…a few years, because it’s no fun. I hate doing it. But once I got started I found that my mind enjoyed the task and that I really wanted to succeed at it. (I’ve never been very ambitious.) 

But this isn’t the army. Monks were well-trained in the mind, which means you’ll need to establish…

3 – Reading Time

This one is probably something you’ve meant to do. But have you really read more during the quarantine?

To be a monk is to be literate. Anyone who joined a monastery had their illiteracy corrected as soon as possible, which was very convenient since part of each day was set aside for reading.

If reading doesn’t come naturally to you, try making a schedule out of it. I know. Schedules are lame. But it’s just the training wheels until your natural curiosity has you reading books into the night.

I once decided to read fifty pages a day, and I suddenly found myself making time for it each morning. During the quarantine, so far I’ve read a single chapter of a certain (very large) book at a time, almost once a day, and it’s become a wonderfully bright spot in each afternoon.

But these activities, reading and working, are getting lonely. What monks really needed was…

A painting of four monks by Claudio Rinaldi (1852-1909 CE)
4 – Community

I’ve already told you that monks lived in communities, such as monasteries, but they also lived in a community. Let me explain. Most of the time, a monastery was connected to society at large, and they were usually well-connected to local cities. Monks were the only people you saw working in European hospitals in the middle ages, and if you learned how to read it was usually because a monk taught you. 

I’ve heard many people criticize monks by saying it’s silly to shut one’s self up in a little room instead of being part of the world. Those people, I politely explain, know as much about monks as they do about mating seahorses.

Those of you who live as free-wheeling bohemians are getting tired of me using this word, but, once again, the key to this is routine. I have a certain night of the week I play board games online with friends. Every two weeks my writing group meets on Google Hangouts. On Wednesdays we host a Netflix Party with a few others. I look forward to each of these events, and so do they.

If you’re not doing anything like this, get started. Everyone you invite needs the help, too. See? It’s not all schedules and jobs. Life needs to be worth living, so be sure to…

5 – Eat the Cake!

I’ll never forget reading the complex Pachomian guidelines on dessert. Partly because I hadn’t expected monks to get dessert (I must have assumed these buildings were run by mean headmasters from a cheap movie) and partly because I was amused by the fact that a short list of rules mentioned dessert so many times.

Apparently the monks were taking some of their dessert back to their rooms after dinner instead of eating all of it at the table (or at least one of them did), and for reasons we can only speculate on, this was eventually banned in those monasteries. When I can’t sleep, I often lay awake and wonder what on earth a monk did to result in getting taking desert to their room banned for every single monk. Did they lure flies into their barred windows? Attract rats? Fall asleep while eating and get honey glaze in their hair? I honestly can’t think of anything.

I have some ice cream in the freezer. I eat it after sunset in a chair on my freshly swept balcony. Sure, I could eat the ice cream for breakfast. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I enjoy a calm moment in the quiet night, eating ice cream while playing jazz through my little radio. Just as monks didn’t get dessert at every meal and only had it at a certain time, I enjoy my dessert after my day’s reading and work is all done.

It’s not Scary

Hopefully I’ve made the point that the schedules and routines of a monastic life are not so dreadful as they appear. Of course, I would never recommend turning these ideas into a straightjacket of legalistic quarantine rules. That’s not a good habit. But preparing daily expectations that include working and reading and eating something nice will make the quarantine easier to bear. It could even become a time of peace.

(While practical advice like this can help many, for some the quarantine will be a much more difficult challenge. If you find yourself struggling with dark thoughts, don’t hesitate to call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can even chat with them here. This resource is available all day, every day.)