Looking for resources about monastic life
November 25, 2012 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Books / resources about monastic life? I am thinking of writing a story set in a completely fictional setting, and I'd like to research more ideas of what life is like in a monastery or abbey.

The story I want to write is going to be based in a totally fictional kind of monastery and abbey, so I would like to learn more about any kind of monastic tradition. I know just a little about Christian and Buddhist monasteries from my reading in the past, and movies and such, but I'd like to know your favorites that really give a good flavor of what life is like in a monastery.

I do not plan on picking a specific sort of monastery / abbey to write about, but rather I'd like to do some sort of amalgam of the traits of the various ones I research.

I am not really a writer - this is the first big story I want to write. The idea just came to me one day pretty forcefully and I'd like to put it to paper.

So what are your favorite bits of media about monasteries and abbeys?

Thanks in advance for any help.
posted by marble to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
There's a documentary/reality series called "The Abbey" where several "normal" women go live in an abbey as novices for a month. I'm pretty sure it's on Netflix (it's also at my local library). Interesting to see "inside" and also how it effects the women. Also interview a number of real novices and nuns - was very interesting to hear from several very young (20's & 30's) novices. Good luck!
posted by jrobin276 at 1:35 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Cloister Walk is a nonfiction book about a Catholic monastery, written from the point of view of someone who is not Catholic herself but who spends a year with the community.
posted by corey flood at 1:36 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a particular source suggestion, but FYI I understood from a friend who eventually went into an abbey that most of the religious orders in the U.S. are sort of desperate for new members and will be very, very responsive to any inquiries. For people considering the contemplative life there are meeting groups and a variety of ways to spend a weekend or longer living in a community to see what it's like.

I would imagine that it's also in their interest for the life to be accurately portrayed in popular culture so if you wanted to take advantage of those already-established resources it might be welcomed.

There's evidently an inverted demographic pyramid these days and my friend, who was a medical professional in "civilian" life, was very cautious to avoid joining an order and ending up spending the whole time nursing the elderly members of the community.
posted by XMLicious at 1:38 PM on November 25, 2012

Brother Cadfael is delightful and quick, if you like mysteries and are interested in the medieval period. The first book, while delightful, actually doesn't take place in the monastery, so I'd pick a different one if you were only going to read one.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:39 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came in to the thread to also recommend "The Cloister Walk"
posted by rmd1023 at 2:00 PM on November 25, 2012

You're in luck - this is a perfect excuse for a Patrick Leigh Fermor-fest, namely A Time to Keep Silence
posted by runincircles at 2:01 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thomas Merton's memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain and the sequel once he enters the monastery, The Sign of Jonas. His more complete look at the history of Cistercian monastic life, not in the memoir genre is The Waters of Siloe.

The movies Into Great Silence, No Greater Love, and Of Gods and Men.

Walter Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz, while set in the "future" portrays many elements of Benedictine monastery life accurately.

In This House of Brede

Mariette in Ecstacy
posted by Jahaza at 2:07 PM on November 25, 2012

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics is a book about Mendel's time in the monastery and gives a lot of details about his general life there as well as his scientific experiments.
posted by jessamyn at 2:12 PM on November 25, 2012

Fire Monks is the story of how the Tassajara Zen Monastary dealt with being completely surrounded by a huge wildfire. Not exactly about day to day life, but it does explore some of that in the first few chapters.
posted by mollymayhem at 2:12 PM on November 25, 2012

The zen monastic experience.

On a different note, Anathem.
posted by advil at 2:39 PM on November 25, 2012

Seconding Into Great Silence.
The Spiral Staircase.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:00 PM on November 25, 2012

I'm a bit surprised that The Name of the Rose has not been brought up. Both the book and the film are monastery-centric and depict monastery life in the medieval period.
posted by graymouser at 3:08 PM on November 25, 2012

Graymouser beat me too it!
posted by lungtaworld at 3:15 PM on November 25, 2012

Lying Awake is a lovely short book about modern day nuns in an abbey. The premise is about a nun who has recently had a religious epiphany, and then learns she has a brain tumor. However, it delves deep into the daily routine and internal relationship nuns have to that type type of ascetic living.
posted by kimdog at 3:22 PM on November 25, 2012

If you're going medieval, you might want to look into the Plan of Saint Gall, a schematic of an ideal medieval monastary created in the early ninth century.
posted by PussKillian at 3:28 PM on November 25, 2012

Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence is a really interesting book about women's experiences of convent life. It's lots of different first person narratives - you may not be particularly interested in the sexuality aspect but even so it's good on detail of institutional life.

There were two reality television programmes in the UK a few years ago, The Monastery and The Convent. There was apparently also one called The Retreat about a Muslim school of prayer. More info, more info.
posted by paduasoy at 4:04 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tony O'Brien's Light in the Desert: Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a beautiful piece of photojournalism.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:16 PM on November 25, 2012

Seconding XMLicious. Depending on where you are, you may be able to find a monastery that functions as a retreat. I know a few people who have spent weekends or whole seasons at one of these. Room and board are customary, of course, but there is typically no overt pressure to join up as you might expect.
posted by dhartung at 9:10 PM on November 25, 2012

Into Great Silence, mentioned above, is a great movie. There is a book called An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order, about what it's like to join the Carthusian order. (Hint: It's hard.) The book is not difficult, though, it's great.
posted by OmieWise at 6:25 AM on November 26, 2012

There's a chapter in Norah Vincent's memoir Self-Made Man where she enters a monastery under the guise of being a man. There were some decent details about what modern-day monastic life is like.
posted by jabes at 10:51 AM on November 26, 2012

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