A Review of
Cave, Refectory, Road: Monastic Rhythms for Contemporary Living
Reviewed by Danny Wright.
In Cave, Refectory, Road, Ian Adams, an Anglican priest and intentional community member and leader from England, explains why he believes that the monastic rhythms of the past are essential for contemporary Kingdom living. He uses the three distinct areas of monastic life mentioned in the title to describe a well-balanced life of “seeking God in seclusion and praying the life of God out into the world.”
The first quote in the book is from Brother Roger of Taize, who says, “Who will give the best of their creative gifts so that suffering throughout the world may be alleviated?” Adams is convinced that people in regular (note the presence of the emphasis of the regula or rule even in that word) life need the devotion of the monastic life combined with the idea of the importance of how that personal devotion is played out and practiced in community because it will have an impact on the greater society. He goes on to point out that Brother Roger encourages Christians to live a parable of community that will “spark a festival of stories, a conversation that will release a flood of conversations, a picture that will inspire a gallery of pictures…bringing hope, carrying good, re-making the world—as taught and lived by the teacher Jesus.”
A life well-lived begins in the cave, a place of withdrawal, stillness, simplicity, study and prayer. In that place of introspection and reflection, the façade falls away and we meet the real self. In seclusion, we realize that the table is set for more than one and move to the refectory where we decide to offer stability, presence and hospitality to the greater community. In the stillness, we examine our attachments and are given the opportunity to come home to ourselves. Our personal piety should reveal itself in an earthy practice of the Jewish concept found in the phrase, “Tikkun Olam” (‘repairing the world’). The repairing of the world is revealed in offering communities of hospitality, reconciliation and energy that serve to create holy space as a hub to positively impact the needs of the immediate community. We are then to take what we have learned in the cave and the refectory everywhere we go. He specifically mentions the lives of the friars who took their faith into people’s lives. He mentions that we become the presence of Jesus to be encountered, missed and recognized by those we meet. It is necessary for the good news to meet people where they are and live alongside them. As we are forced to surrender control over all of the elements of our lives, “strangers, friends and friends of friends join the lived story as it happens.”
As the author moves into a discussion of the importance of rhythm , he quotes Meister Eckhart, who said, “let him get the center in the right place and keep it so and the circumference will be good.” Adams believes that the monastic life teaches us to daily draw a circle and helps us define the life that we should live. He mentions a British frozen food company that uses the slogan, “because life’s too short to peel carrots,” and encourages the reader to understand that the religious life helps us to realize that life and freedom can actually be found in the peeling of carrots. The monastic life frames existence with priorities and does not allow the individual to escape via the easy way out. Our preferences are restructured and we begin to see time as a gift and each individual task as important in and of itself.
Adams points out that the Rule of Benedict provided for a monk to accompany a novice not for the express purpose of direction, but accompaniment. The companion was to walk alongside and listen to and with the novice, and we should find people who can serve as “wise company and sensitive presence.” With respect to the vow of poverty, he believes we should learn to live more simplistic lives where all our ‘this’—what we have, and where and who we are, is enough, and learn to desire more depth, stillness and reflection. With respect to the vow of chastity, he believes that we should be passionate people who are in love with God, neighbor and the gift of life itself. This devotion will cause us to see ourselves for what and who we are and to care for our fellow-wounded. We can do this because we understand the messy business of being together and realize the importance of humility found in the vow of obedience. We must always remember the need for everyone, especially leaders to “orientate the community at all times to Christ.” In all of this, we need to be mindful of where we are, with respect to the vow of stability, because “places open themselves up slowly.” As we are attentive to the small, the local and the quiet we can find ourselves in places where the “gap we usually sense between earth and Mystery, between us and Other, between now and Always is diminished,” and we are able to experience thin places where resurrection is possible. Ian Adams concludes his book encouraging his readers to know and understand their specific charism, what they are called to be and do. He believes that if we practice our charism that we will be a breath-full reminder that keeps the rumor of God’s existence and Kingdom alive.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com