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No cloistered cell required

01 February 2011

Jennie Hogan looks at the trend to borrow from monasticism


Living the Hours: Monastic spirituality in everyday life
Anthony Grimley and Jonathan M. Wooding
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

Cave, Refectory, Road: Monastic rhythms for contemporary living
Ian Adams

Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Cave, Refectory, Road: Monastic rhythms for contemporary living
Ian Adams

Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

IT IS an interesting paradox that as monastic communities dwindle and close, more and more are in­trigued by and interested in monas­tic ways of being. Two books here explore monastic traditions, thought, and insights, and attempt to adapt them to everyday life, as one puts it, and contemporary living, the other.

There is no doubt that Grimley and Wooding, authors of Living the Hours, have sound experience and knowledge of monastic living. The former spent seven years as a mem­ber of the Northumbrian Com­munity and is currently developing a new Christian community called the Little Community of John and Mary; the latter is senior lecturer in church history at the University of Wales, and his main interests focus on medieval monasticism.

The inviting photograph on its cover shows a peaceful modern cloister whose far window looks out on to a colourful but speedy and distorted city street. There is, how­ever, little comfort and peace to be found in most of its contents.

Most chapters are tedious, with an overwhelmingly historical focus; ideas are repeated, and, while there is clarity in parts, in others the prose is as laboured as a committee-drafted document, and obscured by inverted commas. I counted seven in one paragraph alone. While there is an obvious attempt to engage both the general and the informed reader, at times rather abstruse terms (such as deontology) are bare­ly explained and may easily lose, not to say bore, some. By page 9, we are told, “By now your head may be spinning — understand­ably. You are, however, grappling with the point of monasticism.” Is the way of simplicity that complex?

While the authors — perhaps quite rightly — criticise populist books about monasticism, they seem to have tried too hard to be all things to all people. Thankfully, questions for reflection are offered at the end of each chapter, as are suggested further-reading lists, which could engage, even console, the reader more fully.

There is no doubt that the themes explored here are not only fascina­ting but also timely. “Why monas­ticism?” in the first chapter is clearly a good place to start; another chap­ter, “Monastic Pillars: Elements of Life”, exploring silence, work, and study, is unquestionably necessary in a book on monasticism. But why should themes of such value be so dull?

The two appendices (surely a misnomer) come as a shock, as they are anecdotal, honest, original, and even practical. Small cartoons illu­minate the experience of creating new monastic communities and liturgies. What a shame that this is shunted to the end. Such a volte-face suggests that separate books might have been better. Sadly, neither approach gets close to en­couraging the reader to try to place monastic spirituality into everyday life, as the book’s pretty cover promises.

The three elements, cave, refec­tory, and road, in the title of the writer, artist, and priest Ian Adams’s slim book are three metaphors for sub­jects that underpin his explora­tion of monasticism’s notions of with­drawal, hospitality, and journey. The poetic vision continues in its 12 compact chap­ters: each begins with poems from the author and a quotation from writers from Laurie Lee to John D. Caputo, whose book On Religion is quoted in the chapter on devotion and chastity: “Religion is for lovers.”

Adams marries experience with theology with ease. He embraces a wide variety of monastic traditions such as Taizé, the Community of the Resurrection, Bose in Italy, and MayBe, of which he was co-founder, and proves that, while there may be many different ap­proaches to mon­as­tic living, none of it needs to be bewildering. Indeed, key monastic tenets are considered with the atten­tive eye of a poet; perhaps this explains why little is compromised.

This is certainly not to say that this is New Monasticism For Dum­mies. It would, however, easily suit those who know nothing of the subject, even the Christian faith. Moreover, Adams uses neologisms such as John the Baptiser and Christ-followers — which may helpfully initiate the beginner and refresh the experienced. That said, some may find these irritating.

Equally, suggestions for incor­p­ora­­ting the practices of the Reli­gious into the everyday are mostly innovative and helpful, even Meister Eckhart’s circle, where the reader is encouraged to draw a circle on the ground and pray in it to incorporate prayer wherever he or she is. Lying “face pressed to the belly of the world” as an exercise in humility may not be for everyone. One, in particular, will not be attempted — not by me, at least: in the chapter “The Way of Simplicity”, it is suggested that we decide to wear only one colour and give the rest away: a step too far, thank you. A varied list of further-reading suggestions and websites is helpful, though.

Adams’s honest insights and lyrical sensitivity may well manage to encourage the world-weary, calm down frantic clerics, and even engage those who presume that spirituality signifies scented candles and sounds of whale cries.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Chelsea and Camberwell Colleges of Art and Goodenough College.

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