Book Fox (vulpes libris): a small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard. They tend to hunt alone but gather in packs to discuss their prey.
Contrary to what may be supposed, monasticism does not represent an escape from the world so much as a deeper engagement with the reality of being human. In this book, Nicholas Buxton explores the principles and paradoxes of the spiritual life, combining a lively and informative discussion of the Christian monastic tradition with the remarkable story of his own personal journey.
I was delighted to pick up this book as part of my spiritual reading matter as I’d been glued to the television when The Monastery, an excellent series about Worth Abbey, was screened a few years back. Nicholas Buxton was one of the lay participants in the series, all of whom experienced fascinating spiritual journeys, portrayed with honesty and dignity, as well as considerable ups and downs. The latter of which will come as no surprise to anyone even remotely connected to a life of faith. And doubt.
The book is essentially a thought-provoking account of Buxton’s journey to the priesthood (some of which touches on his experiences at Worth Abbey), and it was also interesting to see how he responds to God’s strange calling in a variety of ways, including a life-changing sojourn in India. In addition it looks at the vital input into Christian thought of the Desert Fathers, but in an engaging and accessible manner. Indeed the very first sentence of the Introduction had me saying a surprised and hearty yes, as I had exactly the same memory of my first retreat:
The first time I stayed in a monastery I thought it was one of the most exciting things I had ever done.
To that I would have added the word, liberating, also, but I think I was hooked on this book at that point. Buxton sets out a brief background of Christian monasticism and looks at some of the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers. We are also given a valuable and charming insight into his own journey of faith. We follow him through his growing hostility to Christianity as a young man, his experiences of Buddhism and his time in an Indian ashram. I particularly warmed to his description of religion as a story that is vital for our meaning. Religion is:
… our story about who we are, why we are here, and what we ought to do about it … telling stories in order to create a meaningful world is simply something that human beings automatically do, and the word most commonly used to signify this activity is religion … Story-telling is what we do because we are human: it is what makes us human, and it is how we express, signify, and comprehend what it means to be human.
In 1994, Buxton spent six months in a Buddhist monastery in New Zealand (he’d only intended to stay a couple of days), and his experiences there gave him a sense both of freedom and equilibrium – a valuable foundation surely for any kind of life, whether monastic or not. It also provided him with the opportunity to be himself and to be real:
What I believe the monastic life shows us, therefore, is what being normal should look like. To try to be normal in this sense is to stop living through the fantasies and projections that we imagine to be normal: it is to wake up from the daydream, and be ourselves instead.
He goes on to say:
Monasticism represents a radical alternative to the unfettered egotism and subsequent alienation that seems so characteristic of contemporary society. Indeed the monastic life is as radically counter-cultural today as it ever was, for it demands the complete inversion of everything we take for granted, requiring us – in the words of the Gospel – to lose our life in order to find it.
This I found fascinating, particularly as it’s always puzzled me why people of all religions and none tend to assume monasticism is the easy option, taking a step as it seems to away from what we call life. In my view, it must be one of the most difficult and most exciting decisions anyone can make – that is to make the commitment fully to know oneself, to relate to others in the community, and to know God.
The author is also interesting in his discussion on the prevailing spirit of our age, which he calls acedia – which can partially (and only partially) be translated as sloth, or a carelessness with regards to God. He describes it as ‘the tendency to imagine that things were better in the past, or that if only one were to change one’s circumstances, then everything would be fine.’ Certainly, a dissatisfaction with how things are does seem to hover over most of us most of the time these days.
In his personal journey, it is when Buxton returns to the UK that he comes to realise that he isn’t a Buddhist, and begins once more to explore the Christianity he rejected in his youth. He slowly finds his feet through the quieter Anglican services and through meditation, a realisation with which I can fully comply. Eventually he becomes an oblate in the Benedictine order, that is, someone who abides by a rule of life whilst not living in a religious community. Buxton’s experience of his first actual church attendances made me laugh and groan at the same time:
My first experience of attending church in Britain as an adult appalled me, and I was very tempted to quit straight away. I am not sure why the Church of England is so spiritually lacklustre; but whatever the reason, rather like decaf coffee, there is just something not quite right about it.
Frankly, I tend to feel the same way about the church most of the time. Sometimes it seems that the concept of a deepening and realistic spiritual encounter with God is nothing to do with the church at all. Ah well.
Naturally, we also explore Buxton’s time with the monks of Worth Abbey and the filming of The Monastery. It is astonishing to remember how much and how positively the public responded to the series – a tribute, I think, to the subtle honesty and humanity of the programme. I remember thinking that it felt more in tune with God, and open to the possibility that He might actually be able to do something, than a hundred church services could be. Part of this attraction might be, Buxton suggests, the more limited lifestyle viewers were exposed to, and the way that apparent limitation can actually be an agent for freedom:
Too much choice makes us feel helpless and inadequate, afraid of missing out on other alternatives … the limitation of choice opens up the possibility of a much more expansive freedom.
On the more negative side of the experience of The Monastery, Buxton deals with the issues of changing one’s experience in order to take account of the camera’s intrusion, and the way editing can affect the outcome. He also lays out the charges that the programme packaged the series as ‘spirituality’, which is more acceptable to an individualistic society than are the community aspects of religion. In terms of ‘camera performance’ issues, I entirely agree with his surprisingly positive conclusion that we do in fact perform our many selves as a matter of course, depending on our circumstances, feelings and whom we are with. He concludes this argument in a very powerful fashion:
We only really come to know ourselves through others; not as we imagine we are, but by becoming aware of ourselves as others see us. Learning this simple but profound truth has, quite literally, brought me out of myself and into a fuller and more dynamic engagement with who I am and what I ought to be doing about it.
This book also focuses on the valuable disciplines of stillness and silence, two important concepts in a noisy and busy world. He quotes a Carthusian monk’s comment on time spent with a Zen Buddhist master; we could understand each other in the silence. That sounds strange to a literate world – as surely words are the means by which we communicate with each other? However, on a personal level, I can vouch for this. My first experience of a weekend spiritual retreat was a silent one. We were allowed to talk at Friday supper, and then had to remain silent until Sunday tea. All of us were rather twitchy on Friday, wondering how we’d cope with nearly two days of quietness. But it was revelatory how quickly that glorious silence flowed in and filled the jagged gaps so often caused by speech and striving to be understood. It was like being held in something far greater than our own small worlds. Indeed it felt as if in the silence we knew each other better and were more aware of each other’s needs and simple right to be. When Sunday tea came round, and we were allowed to speak once more, none of us really wanted to, as we’d shared something more overwhelming and liberating than mere words could convey. I am therefore very pleased to note that the BBC intends to broadcast a further reality TV series on silence in the spring of this year. I for one will certainly be watching it.
I was also happy to see in the book that Buxton deals, albeit briefly, with the importance of posture when engaged in meditation or prayer, as I think it’s a little understood factor. Yes, one can pray anywhere, but if we are serious about either listening to what another person is saying or having a conversation with them, then we show that through the positions we take up. I think we should have the same kind of engagement with God, if only out of politeness:
The claim made by practitioners of yoga that stillness of body leads to stillness of mind is not the exclusive preserve of Indian traditions … to sit still is to be present, and fully attentive to what is.
Tantalus and the Pelican is not afraid to deal with the issues of faith and doubt either. Buxton says:
The important questions to ask when talking about religion are not necessarily ‘is it true?’ but rather ‘what does it mean?’ and ‘what would be the effect of living life as if it were true?’ … An oft-repeated mistake, common to both religious and non-religious people alike, is to think that faith implies a closed book, that to be religious is to be someone who insists they have all the answers, whereas in fact, it is to be someone who is asking the questions. Faith is the journey, not the destination; a series of open questions rather than a set of fixed answers. This is why faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent: they co-exist.
Well said indeed. It is only when the doubts are allowed houseroom and we can consider them honestly that God can do anything with us at all. Sometimes I think it’s the certainties that drive God out, not the questions. Buxton ends his narrative with a reminder that we are all part of a story, both our own and those of others:
To be human is to live by a story. It is my conviction that the monastic life embodies one of the most explicit and coherent demonstrations of this fact … There is a monk within us all, and in the monastic life there is an example we can all follow, in some way or other.
The final two pages describe, very simply and poignantly, Buxton’s acceptance into the priesthood (he is now a Minor Canon at Ripon Cathedral), a step he ultimately takes as an acceptance of who and what he is and where he should be. This deep acceptance of self and role, whatever that might entail, is something perhaps we could all more fully consider.
In conclusion, I would direct you back to the blurb noted at the beginning of this review, which says it all. I found this book to be a deeply satisfying read. It deals intelligently, clearly and humanely with a number of important spiritual issues, and it made me think. About faith, about doubt, and – dare I say it – even about God. I highly recommend it.
Tantalus and the Pelican by Nicholas Buxton, Continuum Books 2009, ISBN: 978 1 84706 111 9
[Anne very much enjoys spiritual books that don’t make her feel like a second-class Christian, and is delighted to add this one to that small number. You can find her online prayer novel here.]