The Monk's Cell

Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity

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Paula Pryce
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Paula Pryce’s study The Monk’s Cell sets out to give an insider view of contemplative Christianity in the United States. Based on several years of fieldwork and a wide body of literature, Pryce’s monograph considers the topic in directions and depths not previously explored in other studies. Though the book contains significant commentary on a variety of forms of contemplative Christianity, some of Pryce’s most concerted study was of the practices of the Episcopal Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), an Anglican religious order for men in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In itself, a close study of this group is useful for there is relatively little sustained literature on Protestant religious life in the United States or elsewhere. However, Pryce’s study of contemplatives confirms for her the “blurring between formerly disparate genres of American Christian denominations” (15) and especially the pluralism of those living outside of monasteries (17). Beyond religious blurring, a study of contemplative Christianity also shows that “American contemplative Christians unabashedly crossed the boundaries between the so-called religious and secular by combining diverse elements like ascetic practice, intellectual learnedness, material wealth, humanitarian service, esoteric thought, personal achievement, monastic enclosure, and globalization” (14). 

The method of the book is carefully explained, but also evidences the book’s limits. Pryce’s field is cultural anthropology and she uses “intersubjective ethnography” to gather data. She explains: “My approach was to fully take part in their world, to become one non-monastic student among many who closely followed teachers of contemplative Christianity” (26). A limit of the book, no doubt, is the choice of communities and groups in which Pryce took part. Although one might wonder whether the contemplative groups and individuals studied are a representative cross-section of American contemplatives in general, it is still a wide enough sample to sustain the analysis in the study. 

Using the metaphor of a seeker moving towards the inner chambers of the monastic enclosure, the chapters head from portico, antechapel, grille, gate, choir, sacristy, sanctuary, to cell. The chapters are designed to capture the movement of contemplative Christianity, that it is not a thing fixed in time, but something experienced, something lived. A key challenge of research on contemplative Christianity is that it seeks to describe the processes of things like interiority and receptivity that seem to defy description—to describe what is happening in silence. Much of Pryce’s narrative, therefore, is to put that silence into words. This is done using the words of those who have experienced contemplation but also a description of the experience by Pryce herself. 

Pryce explains that the contemplatives she studied wanted union with the divine. This was not a future-looking desire but immanence now. She writes, “many told me that their childhood experiences with religious institutions did not satisfy their deep hunger for intimacy with the divine” (10). Pryce traces how contemplatives understood their practices as leading to that goal.

As one example, she examines why communities seek to encourage flexibility in liturgical practice to encourage contemplation among non-monastics. Writing about the Tenebraeservice at SSJE, she notes that the service kept the appeal of historicity, suggesting immutability and permanence, but also was adapted in a flexible and creative manner for the benefit of the non-monastic community they served (114). “These liturgical examples show how the contemporary environment of American pluralism opened the gate to innovation and play in contemplative Christianity. Facilitated in part by the weakened authority of religious institutions, teachers relied on personal skills and education to encourage both new and experienced contemplatives to follow their way” (130).

A key concern throughout the work is to describe in an objective way what is happening subjectively. One of Pryce’s central proposals is a formula for the interplay of contemplative Christian varieties of knowledge, a formula to achieve unitive being (207). As she writes, the formula is not a “fixed structuralist representation,” but “as long as the ‘variables’ are taken seriously (in all their ambiguity), it offers a plausible depiction of the conceptual framework for varieties of contemplative Christian knowledge in dynamic, dialogical flow, and interaction” (207). This is not magic, she writes: “There are no predetermined outcomes to ritualized gesture or sound, yet attentiveness in ritualization encourages certain possibilities” (215).

The journey of her book ends in the cell. There again, it is not a static picture. In chapter 8, Pryce bases her analysis on the story of the illness and death of her contemplative friend Helen. This story helps Pryce understand that it requires courage to live in solitude, but also that the walls of a cell are porous, and the one within is in communion despite physical barriers. 

The scope and substance of Pryce’s book are a contribution to knowledge about contemplative Christianity. Her propositions about the necessary elements that move individuals toward unitive experience being should be studied. Scholars and practitioners interested in contemplative theory and exercise will no doubt find this book an important resource. It can also be read with profit by researchers in other fields who seek to know how blurring and boundary-crossing in contemporary American Christianity happens in practice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Zuidema is Executive Director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association and Editor of Understanding the Consecreated LIfe in Canada (WLUP, 2015).

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paula Pryce is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of Keeping the Lakes' Way: Reburial and the Re-creation of a Moral World among an Invisible People.


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