The Quest for Quies Mentis

“Acquiring a still or restful mind lay at the core of the medieval Christian monastic tradition and, according to St. Anselm, the great theologian of the eleventh century, it was the goal towards which every monk ought to be oriented. In a letter written in the early 1070s, Anselm advised Lanzo, a novice monk at Cluny, to avoid ‘a restless mind (“mentis inquietudine”)… [and] devote your whole strength to attaining a “quieti mentis”’.

Like most medieval epistles, Anselm’s letter reached a much larger audience than just Lanzo: not only read aloud to the entire Cluny community, it was also copied and circulated throughout the Benedictine order and even incorporated by his hagiographer into his saint’s life. The subject of restless minds ranked high on the medieval monastic agenda….

The word ‘rest’ derives from the Old English ræst (noun) or ræstan (verb) and is Germanic in origin, relating to a break in activity. In Latin, the closest equivalent is requies, ‘rest from labour’, which has its root in quies.

Quies defies a straightforward translation since it was used as both a measure of stillness and silence. It encompassed ideas of ‘rest, quiet, repose, the cessation of labour, the leading of a quiet life and keeping still’. Rather than supposing the word possessed a definite meaning, we might be better off envisaging it as a concept. This is certainly how the fourth- and fifth-century Christian monks living in the Egyptian desert interpreted it. A collection of sayings codifying the wisdom of the early Desert Fathers devoted an entire chapter to the subject of quies.

It was a celebrated and attractive characteristic of desert dwelling; an early visitor wrote of the desert’s ‘huge silence and great quiet’ (‘silentium ingens, quies magna’). Yet quies was also a quality or emotional state to attain, as testified by Anselm’s enjoinder that a ‘quieti mentis’ was something to which one should devote one’s whole strength. Withdrawal to the desert/monastery – the foundational principle of monasticism, known as anchoresis – provided the quies for the practice of a ‘quieti mentis’….

If one’s thoughts had to wander, the answer lay in letting them stray on to spiritual matters. This was the advice John Cassian received from Abba Nesteros: let readings and meditations upon spiritual writings replace the fables and narratives of youth, store this knowledge deep in the recesses of your mind so that ‘not only every aim and meditation of your heart but also every wandering and digressive thought of yours will become a holy and continuous reflection on the divine law (14.XIII.7). In a celebrated passage Cassian compared the human heart and mind to millstones: which the swift rush of the waters turns with a violent revolving motion.


As long as the waters’ force keeps them spinning they are utterly incapable of stopping their work, but it is in the power of the one who supervises to decide whether to grind wheat or barley or darnel.

In the same way the mind cannot be free from agitating thoughts during the trials of the present life, since it is spinning around in the torrents of the trials that overwhelm it from all sides. But whether these will be either refused or admitted into itself will be the result of its own zeal and diligence. For if we constantly return to meditating on Holy Scripture, to the desire for perfection and hope of future blessedness, it is inevitable that the mind [will] dwell on the things that we have been meditating on. But if we are overcome by laziness and negligence and get involved in worldly concerns and unnecessary preoccupations, the result will be as if a kind of weed has sprung up, which will impose harmful labour on our heart. (1.XVIII.1–2)

In the Christian monastic tradition, attaining a quiet mind or mental rest, a state in which the mind was no longer troubled by distracting thoughts, was a ceaseless endeavour, which required an unstinting attentiveness to the contents of consciousness. It was also unrealizable. In this respect, there is overlap with contemporary cognitive science to the extent that wandering thoughts are considered an inescapable feature of human experience: the mind is always working and whirring around. Yet where the medieval and the modern do part company is in the way rest is defined in the context of mental tasks. In the domain of the neuroscientific experiment, the ‘resting state’ is conceptualized as being ‘off task’. Participants in neuroimaging studies of the DMN are intentionally not directed to perform mental tasks. Mental rest – the ‘resting state’ – is thus defined by the absence of a task. In the world of the Egyptian desert or medieval cloister, however, we find the entirely opposite view: mental rest was not only a task but one requiring sustained effort.”

From Hilary Powell “The Quest for quies mentis” in Felicity Callard, Kimberley Staines, and James Wilkes (eds.) The Restless Compendium. Interdisciplinary Investigations of Rest and Its Opposites Palgrave Macmillan, 2016: 19-26


The book contains 22 essays on rest and restlessness, silence and noise, relaxation and work. It draws together approaches from artists, literary scholars, psychologists, historians, geographers, sociologists and activists, who challenge assumptions about how rest operates across minds, bodies, and practices.

This book is open access under a CC BY license and can be downloaded free of charge via a link at:

Full text of the chapter available on-line at:*~hmac=8b0a83339e396ac44c1ce0dff5b93f51b7113f12c7ab5802461c8ea2cc9925a4




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