What happens when a friendly anthropologist conducts an ethnographic study of contemporary contemplative Christianity in America, looking at subjects both in monasteries and in secular life?
Paula Pryce does just this kind of work in her insightful book The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity. Spending several years of research with teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating, along with monasteries like the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts, Pryce offers a detailed exploration of how contemplative spirituality is making a profound transformation in our time. From previous days when such practice was almost exclusively found within cloistered walls, to the increasing (if still marginal) presence of contemplation in churches, centering prayer groups, online forums, and educational offerings such as the Center for Action & Contemplation’s Living School or Bourgeault’s own Wisdom School, contemplative practice is a vibrant subculture within Christianity — and Pryce, to our knowledge, is the first ethnographer to write about contemplative Christianity in a scholarly, yet accessible, fashion.
I always meditated before I wrote… I go back in my mind, meditate, and then enter in through memory to those places where I was doing research, and that allowed me to give language to these non-verbal situations. — Paula Pryce
What emerges from her research is a recognition that contemplation (and, by implication, the practice of silence) invites the practitioner into a new way of knowing, that is marked by qualities such as embodiment, community, humility, and ritual.
I’m always after trying to understand the beauty of humankind. We have lots of messages about how awful we are! And we can’t ignore that and I wouldn’t want to. But I honestly think we need to embrace how wonderful humans are. — Paula Pryce
In this conversation, Paula joins the Encountering Silence team to explore not only her own relationship with silence, but also how her research deepened her knowledge of contemplation as a transformational practice. She movingly speaks of her Anglo-Indian father as her silence hero, and draw connections between his lifelong meditation practice and his commitment to social action. She reflects on the paradox of writing about silence (expressing a non-verbal phenomena through the verbal medium of language), and on how ethnography, as a discipline, can help us to understand silence better.
One can use anything as a contemplative practice. That’s the main point of this book: people are trying to train themselves in everyday life as contemplatives, in every action and every way of being. — Paula Pryce
Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:
- Paula S. Pryce, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity
- Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
- Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments With Truth
- Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings
- The Beatles, Abbey Road
- Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play
- Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage
- Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice
- David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
- Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy
- Joseph Cassant, L’Attente Dans Le Silence
- Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: Translation with Commentary
- Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
- Hadewijch, The Complete Works
- Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poems
Episode 27: Silence, Bodily Knowing, and Ritual: A Conversation with Paula Pryce
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Paula Pryce
Date Recorded: May 29, 2018