When I was a child, I sometimes stole out into the garden at dawn before my older siblings or parents woke. That garden was alive; it drew me, like the arms of a welcoming grandmother. With sharp, cool dew against my bare soles, I would stand beneath the witch hazel tree and orient myself towards the hum. The universe vibrated around me and I could feel arcs of power passing between me and other creatures. The touch of the witch hazel’s bark was the touch of all those who came before and all those who would come afterward, sentient and non-sentient. Life flowed from the towering cliffs of my remote mountain valley, to the surging, foaming river, to little me on a garden path. Today I might call this energetic connectedness “The Communion of Saints”; at three years old, I simply lived into it.
When you ask how long I have been involved in Wisdom work, I think of that witch hazel, that rocky mountain cliff, and the roar of whitewater rapids. They taught me to listen with all my senses to the great interconnected web in which we dwell. But I also learned from my social context. I grew up in an inter-religious household of contemplatives with an Anglo-Indian father and a Jewish-turned-Anglican mother, and I was initiated into a Hindu form of meditation at age four. Even in a family with four children, we practiced a considerable amount of silence. From an early age, I loved sitting in the weekly meditation and chant circles of my parents’ adult friends. In these ways, you could say that Wisdom work surrounded me from the beginning.
While much of my childhood was filled with beauty, difficult life-altering experiences at the hands of both religious institutions and alternative spiritual seekers taught me the essential need for a little critical (though not negative) distance. I learned to keep the broader picture in perspective and tried always to remember myself in the context of the larger space-time continuum.
A solace was the immense power I felt from sensing and invoking the divine in the world – of attending to the delightful warmth of dishwater or moving with intention through a field of grass – what I now call the ritualization of everyday life. Because traditional sources of ritual then seemed to me too bound up with sociopolitical power, I turned to other experiments as a teenager and young adult. Theatre became my primary venue for ritual engagement, but I had trouble finding like-minded theatre people. (How I wish I’d then known I could have studied with Peter Brook!) I felt that I did not have the intellectual resources to develop my vision alone, so alongside my sojourns designing and writing for the theatre, I returned to school to study the anthropology of ritual, performance, mythology, and social justice. It became clear that my hard-won life lessons on the wisdom of detachment made cultural anthropology an easy place for me. Anthropology allowed me to engage fully yet also keep a little distance to see the human journey for what it is: we are gorgeous and brilliant, yet also a bit self-obsessed about our own time, place, and cultural manifestations. Intimacy with a little detachment seemed to me the perfect balance.
When I first met Cynthia Bourgeault in 2004 at the Vancouver School of Theology, I realized that I had come across a teacher who understood deep intimacy with the divine. It was a relief to me. I was truly delighted to discover the Wisdom Community with its serious commitment to a Christianity that has a powerful relational resonance with other contemplative religious expressions. A few years later, when I sought to do anthropological research on contemplative Christians for my doctoral work, Cynthia took a chance on me and allowed me to follow her. Learning from a teacher who could relay both the philosophical and practical aspects of contemplation has transformed me. With time, I have learned to steady the sometimes overwhelming power of divine flow and keep my feet to the path.
I have spent many years writing, researching, and living as a cultural anthropologist among Indigenous North Americans, Christian monastics, and inter-religious non-monastic contemplatives. I am currently working on research at Christian-Hindu ashrams in South India and am writing a new book for a general audience on the transformative potential of ritual. At the university, I try to teach my anthropology students contemplative skills alongside intellectual skills, especially ways of listening to others with the whole self.
The witch hazel’s allure that I felt as a young child was a clear call to me. That call persists, though its directives have sometimes been shifty and obscure. And I have been far from perfect in my response. Yet, what do we imperfect humans ever have to offer but our own selves? Now, I find myself turning more fully into the contemplative path; my deep attraction to ritual forms is compelling me to become a more active servant of formal liturgy and ritualized living. My attention is beginning to turn away from the academy toward cultivating ritual forms in our ordinary, messy, complex world of yearning people.
More About Paula Pryce
Paula Pryce has a PhD in Anthropology, specializing in ritual, performance, and contemplative traditions. She teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband and daughters. Paula is working on a new website, and may be contacted via email here.
Along with scholarly writing and teaching, she gives lectures and workshops in public venues like churches, libraries, and seminaries, and also writes blogs and magazine articles for a public audience. You may read Paula’s latest post, Living Waters and Covid-19 here on Breaking Ground, as well No Question: A Pilgrimage to India with Rev Matthew Wright… here on the Northeast Wisdom Home Page blog.
Paula’s book on the Centering Prayer network, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity, was published by Oxford University Press in 2018. Chronicling the work of monastic and non-monastic contemplatives, including the Wisdom Community of Cynthia Bourgeault, the book seeks to translate the Wisdom ethos for those who do not understand this world, while also delving into philosophical questions about the nature of personhood, unitive being, practice, and the phenomenology of divine-human relationships. If you would like to learn more or order a copy of The Monk’s Cell, click HERE, using the code AAFLYG6 for a 30% off promotional discount.
Paula has several podcasts available that feature her work:
“Living in Musical Space-Time.” Transforming Sounds/Altered Selves podcast series. Episode 2. Podcast produced by Green College, Early Music Vancouver, and Serene Qiu.
“Paula Pryce: Silence, Bodily Knowing, and Ritual.” Encountering Silence. Episode 28. Podcast series produced by Carl McColman.
Audio link to “COVID-19 and Living Water” sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver (audio begins ~ 45 seconds in). Paula’s post by the same name is revised for print, here on Breaking Ground and linked above.