What is it about books about monks and the idea of monastic life that fascinates us? From Umberto Eco’s historical fiction The Name of the Rose to the dystopian world faced by the monk in A Canticle for Leibowitz and the recent Monk and Robot series started in A Psalm for the Wild-Built, monk characters provide a variety of ways to look at faith, solitude, and how to live a meaningful life. Monasticism, with its emphasis on simplicity and looking inward, can exert a strong pull on readers living in a chaotic and uncertain world.
In addition to fiction books about monks, real-life practitioners of the monastic life have offered up their nonfiction insights on everything from living in a cloistered (i.e. closed off) monastery to engaging in social justice work. Many of these writers have used their own experiences to advise those living outside a monastic community how to apply the principles of routine, meditation or prayer, and the embrace of suffering to live a more mindful life in the modern world. Others are looking back on their time in a monastery and sharing how the lessons they’ve learned have shaped them.
Whether you’re looking for Zen meditations or memoirs of faith, these books about monks can help introduce you to a world of contemplation and peace.
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
One of the most well-known figures of modern monastic life is Nobel Peace Prize Laureate His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In honor of his 80th birthday, fellow religious leader and peace seeker Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home to discuss one question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? This intimate and uplifting book tracks their conversations over the course of a week as two spiritual leaders wrestle with the meaning of suffering and joy in human life.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Kathleen Norris, Protestant, married, female, and often in doubt about her own faith, was surprised to find herself taking up extended residences at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota with a group of Benedictine monks. During her time there, she explored how the cloistered life of the monastery can give meaning to our own lives in the outside world, and how the ancient rituals and liturgies of the abbey helped her connect with her own beliefs.
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
As a young man, Thomas Merton left behind life in big cities to convert to Roman Catholicism and join the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Through the strictures of monastic life, Merton found meaning in his cloistered environment. He eventually became a voice for the civil rights movement in America and an outspoken advocate on issues of race and peace and went on to meet with religious leaders from a variety of faiths as well as publish several books on the nature of contemplative thought.
The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now by Thich Nhat Hanh
How do we face living and dying with curiosity, rather than fear? Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh uses this book to lead the reader through seven meditations based on the Buddha’s teachings and designed to help us live in and embrace the present.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
Often when we face painful experiences or thoughts, our first instinct is avoidance. However, Pema Chödrön argues, true freedom can come from walking toward our pain, rather than hiding from it. Drawing on her years as a monk at the first Tibetan monastery in North America, Chödrön encourages the reader to embrace suffering in order to open their hearts to joy.
Om Swami was an MBA graduate and successful leader of a tech company before leaving it all behind to become a monk in the remote Himalayan foothills. Here, he talks the readers through what he’s learned about the ability of Zen practices to quiet the mind on a day-to-day basis. As Swami shares episodes from his own life, he shows how this wisdom can help readers achieve a more mindful approach to the regular habits of their daily lives.
Together We Are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connection by Thich Nhat Hanh
Many books about monks focus on the solitary nature of their path, but as Thich Nhat Hanh shows us here, the community is also at the center of monastic life. In this book, he takes lessons from leading retreats for people of color and shares them with us all to talk about how we can create a more just world. By applying what he’s learned as a monk to the issues of interconnection and social justice, Thich Nhat Hanh shares compassionate paths for reflection and creating a better world.
Haven by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue uses fiction to explore faith, adventure, and survival in this story of two monks and a priest in 7th century Ireland. Seeking refuge from the sins of the world, scholar and priest Artt sets off with two monks, Trian and Cormac, in search of an isolated spot to build a monastery. When their boat drifts to a deserted island in the Atlantic, the three men will have to figure out what God and survival mean in such a barren place.
If you’re interested in learning more about monastic life, check out these beautiful monastic libraries. We also have more book suggestions to help you learn about Buddhism and books about nuns and priests.