Monastic memoir recommendations
April 19, 2020 1:45 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for recommendations of books, memoirs especially, of people who have either gone to live in monasteries (Catholic, Zen etc) as long-term visitors and/or people who have adapted a monastic discipline in their own lives without necessarily living in an actual monastery.

Twenty-some years ago I used to read books like this a lot along the lines of the westerner, usually American, who just knocks on the door of a Zen monastery and ends up staying for several years. Many moves and many culled books later, I have nothing.
Under the current circumstances I find the more disciplined I make my life the better I feel so I’m eager to read up on other people’s experiences again.
posted by shibori to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
There's van de Wetering's The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, though you probably read it already.
posted by vacapinta at 1:52 AM on April 19, 2020

Thomas Merton was a lifelong Trappist monastic, writer, and social activist who carved a niche for himself within the confines of Gethsemane Monastery.

Seven Story Mountain is his memoir of how he came to be a monastic.

His seven volumes of journals make for excellent reading as well if you want to get more detailed.

As to his writings, New Seeds of Contemplation is my favorite of his.
posted by kokaku at 3:02 AM on April 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

Would you accept convents? And Then There Were Nuns. There were some other convent and monastery recommendations (though mostly fiction) in this recent question: Books in monasteries, boarding schools, and other confined locations. You might like A Time to Keep Silence, recommended there (I have read it but can't remember much about it).
posted by paduasoy at 4:09 AM on April 19, 2020

Response by poster: I will absolutely accept convents! I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear. Love the suggestions so far. Thank you.
posted by shibori at 4:11 AM on April 19, 2020

You might be interested in A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It’s not as long-term as you’d perhaps like, but he’s generally classified as a travel writer, and it’s a collection of autobiographical dories of his visits to a few monasteries.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:28 AM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

You may have also already read Thank You and O.K! by David Chadwick?
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:06 AM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I haven’t read it yet, but you’ve inspired me to take The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris off my book shelf.

Seconding Thomas Merton.
posted by FencingGal at 5:17 AM on April 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

You might enjoy Nicholas Buxton's Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today (2009). Buxton was one of the participants in the BBC reality TV series The Monastery, and the book reflects his experiences.

Not quite what you're asking for, but related: I'd also recommend Erik Varden's The Shattering of Loneliness (2018). The author is a Trappist monk (or was; he's just been appointed Bishop of Trondheim in Norway), and the book is a modern spiritual classic.
posted by verstegan at 5:21 AM on April 19, 2020

Zen at Work is the memoir of an IBM design engineer who maintained both a corporate job and a monastic lifestyle at Kannon Do for 30 years before retiring and becoming the abbot. It's a bit different than the 'westerner knocks on the door of the zendo' but wow, its really fascinating and well written!
posted by ananci at 6:15 AM on April 19, 2020

I read Diary of a Zen Nun some years ago. It might be hard to find, but I remember really enjoying it.

I second the recommendation for Thank You and OK! .

On the Christian side, if you don't mind fiction, In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden is one of the more seminal works about women's religious life. The protagonist is a successful British civil servant in mid-life who joins a Benedictine monastery. The author wrote several other books about nuns, including Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. The nuns in those orders are more "active," (i.e. out in the world), but there's a lot about their formation process in that book you might enjoy.
posted by dancing_angel at 8:01 AM on April 19, 2020

You might like Jennifer Worth’s books, on which the series Call the Midwife is based, as she does live in a convent while working as a midwife in London, though the focus is more on her work (at least in the first book - I haven’t read the others). There is quite a bit about what the nuns are like. The first book has the same title: Call the Midwife.
posted by FencingGal at 8:34 AM on April 19, 2020

Brother Orchid is classic noir from 1940 with Edward G. Robinson.
posted by Rash at 9:23 AM on April 19, 2020

Here to suggest Thank You and OK! as well. I also enjoyed Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns which is more of a reportage of what the lives of nuns are like. You might also like my uncle's book The Rainman's Third Cure about his pretty quirky path to becoming a Zen monk.
posted by jessamyn at 9:33 AM on April 19, 2020

You might be interested in the Episcopal solitaries. Here's a NY Mag article about one.
posted by praemunire at 1:00 PM on April 19, 2020

Kathleen Norris's Dakota: A Spiritual Geography touches on her time living with Benedictine monks, among other things in her spiritual life. (I haven't read The Cloister Walk, but that book of hers focuses solely on that experience, I think.)
posted by nuannarpoq at 9:15 PM on April 19, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks for these, they are all excellent suggestions. A couple of them (David Chadwick’s book and Kathleen Norris’s works) I’ve read before but had forgotten about. I’m delighted to be reminded of them.
posted by shibori at 6:07 AM on April 20, 2020

Penguin Classics has a collected edition of Tsurezuregusa and Hōjōki in one volume, which are literary classics written by Buddhist monks. Hōjōki does give an impression of the mindset of a monk who believed to live in the age of mappō.

From Spain you have the works of Teresa de Ávila and Juan de la Cruz, for example.
posted by sukeban at 10:39 AM on April 20, 2020

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