This book is written by a scholar of ancient and early medieval history, without academic jargon. It is a work that opens up the ways of early Christian monastics on topics of spiritual retreat, solitude, singlemindedness, meditation, and boredom.

The lessons of these vowed religious – both women and men are profiled and quoted – demonstrate that the distraction so many of us feel today, in the twenty-first century, is not as unique as we may think. People have been fighting against themselves and their culture to pay attention to the present moment, always and in every era.

Kreiner introduces readers to women and men who 1,700 years ago were going to great lengths to protect themselves from too many distractions in pursuit of divine light and wisdom. Her grasp of the sources is extraordinary, and her ability to write for non-specialists, excellent. She paints interesting portraits of figures in medieval Europe ranging from Ireland to southern Italy, throughout the Levant, in north Africa, and even ancient China.

We appreciated Kreiner’s skill in pulling out the best nuggets from those ancient writings, often in summaries of metaphors, such as this one:

“One sign that concentration mattered so much to Christian monks in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages is the proliferation of metaphors that they used to praise it. On a very good day, a monk’s mind was stretchy, fiery, clear. It constructed buildings that brushed up against the heavens. It spent time with what it loved. It was a fish swimming in the depths to avoid getting caught, a helmsman steering a ship through a tempest, a potter working on his pot, a cat holding on to a mouse, a hen carefully incubating her eggs.”

Chapters, then, distill these early and medieval monastic ways of paying attention, being present, and practicing reverence in the world (ch. 1), community (ch. 2), living in human bodies (ch. 3), with the help of books (ch. 4), utilizing skills of memory (ch. 5), and focusing the mind (ch. 6).

In all these activities, and ceasing from activity, the goal is to be “proactive rather than passive” with one’s intentions. See the excerpt accompanying this review for an example on the subject of memory.