Last year, while in a bookstore, I picked up a book conspicuously titled, “How to Live Like a Monk,” by author Daniele Cybulskie, which came out in 2021. The title was conspicuous to me because, I thought, “Who would want to live like a medieval monk?” The idea conjures up drab clothing, bad and limited dietary choices, and hours of silence. But after reading Cybulskie’s work, I have to admit that I would like to live like a monk.
To begin with some basic facts, Cybulskie makes clear that when we are talking about the Middle Ages, we are generally referring to the roughly thousand-year time period between 500 CE and 1500 CE. Moreover, Cybulskie writes: “Within their enclosed communities, monks and nuns followed a set of rules that dictated everything from when to pray to when to eat . . .” The author continues: “Usually, [monks] followed three basic principles: poverty, chastity, and obedience.”
Whether or not you agree with the three specific and basic principles that Cybulskie mentions, the idea of living one’s life in accordance with a set of rules – or personal principles, say – is appealing and can be applied to many aspects of modern life. Take exercise, for instance. Many people in the United States (or in most post-industrial countries, generally speaking) complain that they do not get enough exercise. Additionally, other evidence such as the obesity rate and lifestyle-related diseases such as specific cancers and heart disease have been top killers in the US for the past several decades, suggesting that – yes – perhaps Americans need to exercise more. In order to achieve those goals, following a strict regimen is often required. It may not be chastity or obedience, per se, but setting up rules for oneself about when to eat, how to eat, what to eat, and when to exercise might not be such a bad idea.
Another surprising good idea that comes from medieval monks involves sustainability with the environment. More specifically: spending time in a green space outdoors.
“For the medieval monk, green space represented peace, serenity, and a return to humanity’s origins,” Cybulskie writes. “It also represented healing and nourishment, not only for the soul but also for the body.”
In recent years, concepts such as “forest bathing” – the idea and practice of spending more time outside in green spaces to improve mental health has become popular in western countries (although this idea and practice originates in Japan). Additionally, a body of research literature in this area has also confirmed that when people spend more time outside their cortisol levels, anxiety, and stress appear to decrease. Spending time outdoors in green spaces also may lower a person’s blood pressure, allowing them to relax.
Finally, although it’s not perfectly analogous, living like a medieval monk – in other words, applying some simple routines and rules to one’s life, remains an attractive idea.
Cybulskie, D. (2021). How to Live Like a Monk: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Life. Abbeville Press. London, UK.