Essay / Theology

Tantalus and the Pelican

I just finished reading Nicholas Buxton’s Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today. It is definitely a very interesting book. A mix between theology, biography and history, the book is mostly dedicated to an examination of themes from early Christian (and occasionally Buddhist) monasticism applied by the author to his own reflections on the monastic life in general. Buxton, a participant in the BBC’s successful 2005 “reality” TV program The Monastery, has an earned PhD from Cambridge and was studying for the Anglican priesthood when he wrote the book. I found his analyses of early Christian monastic themes adept and concise, especially enjoying his chapters dedicated to the “eight principal thoughts” and silence.

I also found the biographical portions of the book interesting in as much as it gave context to Buxton’s own journey from his early struggles with alcoholism, to his time at an ashram in India, to his stint at a Thai Buddhist monastery in New Zealand, to his return back to England. What I found less enjoyable was the pervasive need of Buxton to promote his liberal, perhaps post-Christian theological opinions: “… the cultivation of a deeper relationship with God. Or Truth, or Reality – if you prefer those words.” For a man with a strong commitment to the study of Christian monasticism, he is certainly unsettled as to the actual theological orthodoxy of the Christian church. Perhaps Buxton has adopted this tone simply to make his work more accessible to those outside the Christian tradition but my suspicion is that Buxton holds most of these non-negotiables rather lightly. Of course, this just makes him a “normal” priest in the Church of England today. Setting aside that minor annoyance, I really liked the book and would recommend it as a good introduction to basic themes in Christian monasticism, if that’s something you find interesting!

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