Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Many Hats of Rowan Williams: The Beanie

On the 21st of February Philip Harvey conducted the first Spiritual Reading Group for 2017 on the writings of Rowan Williams. One of the passages was from his book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, ‘Silence and Honey Cakes : the Wisdom of the Desert’ (Lion, 2003,  pages 45-46). Here is the passage followed by a reading.

Arsenius was famous not for physical self-denial but for silence; and if there is one virtue pretty universally recommended in the desert, it is this. Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem, it seems. You can lead a life of heroic labour and self-denial at the external level, refusing the comforts of food and sleep; but if you have not silence – to paraphrase St Paul, it will profit you nothing. There is a saying around in the literature describing Satan or the devils in general as the greatest of ascetics: the devil does not sleep or eat – but this does not make him holy. He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil. And our normal habits of speech so readily reinforce that imprisonment. Again and again, the desert teachers point out where speech can lead us astray. One of the rare occasions when something positive is said about the great but controversial monastic theologian Evagrius in the ‘sayings of the Desert Fathers’ is when he is depicted (not without some satisfaction) as accepting humbly the rebuke of another monk and keeping silence in a debate. Abba Pambo is represented as refusing to speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ says the old man, unanswerably; archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature. Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.

So once again, we have to be careful about the risk of modernizing the desert tradition in a shallow way. It sounds wonderful when we are told that the path of asceticism is all about self-discovery, because most of us are deeply in love with the idea of self-expression – and discovering the ‘true self’ so as to express it more fully is the burden of hundreds of self-help books – but for the desert monks and nuns, the quest for truth can be frightening, and they know how many strategies we devise to keep ourselves away from the real thing. As we have already seen, they are familiar with the idea that to discover ourselves all we really need is for other people to go away – or at least to fall into the parts we have written for them and not try to change us or interfere with our plans: and the essentially corporate character of monastic self-discovery is something we have seen to be fundamental to the therapy they exercise. Our life is with the neighbour. And if everybody else were indeed taken away, we would not actually have a clue about who we ‘really’ were. The sense in which we also need to be independent of the judgments of others is of course equally significant.


The Desert Fathers and Mothers, as we call them today, were people who chose to go and live outside the urban areas of Egypt and Syria in the 3rd century Empire. They chose to live a life based on the Gospel revelation of Jesus Christ and their writings are about the earliest examples of monastic spirituality. They were, to all intents and purposes, hermits, but hermits whose holiness of life made them teachers and spiritual directors who finished up attracting constant attention from other people, the very cloud of witnesses hermits had chosen to keep at some distance.

This particular passage states some of the concerns of this life: physical self-denial, silence and speech, holiness, the rejection of evil, social power, social illusions, corporate self-discovery, and the self. It’s quite a list, all things that brought these people to be hermits, things that we ourselves deal with every day.

Rowan Williams identifies at least two essentials here. The first is where, after quoting one of the monks, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ Rowan then states “Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.” In other words, silence is the place where we may learn of God, silence is where we come out of and where we will return. Silence, he is saying, also teaches us about how we use words, that it is in silence that we learn to use the right words and come to know when our words are necessary, and when not. The monk knows that his silence speaks as eloquently and deeply as any of his words. And the monk is not saying this to make any claim for himself. He is saying this in order that we, individually, may learn to be more like this in our own living with silence.

The other essential teaching that I see in this passage is where Rowan concludes that “Our life is with the neighbour.” Jesus, in all his work, confronts us with “Who is my neighbour?” and here it is hermits who show us how to relate and understand one another. It is through living with others, even when apart in a place of reflection (which is what we do a good deal of the time anyway), that we learn more about ourselves, and them. Not that this is always easy, it isn’t, but once we know this is our choice and place, then our spiritual life will grow, together with our neighbours’.

Rowan Williams is an archbishop, which is why we read with rueful amusement his report of the Desert Monastics’ attitudes towards people like him. The father-monk refuses to even speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria and Rowan notes “archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature.” That an archbishop would think suspicion of an archbishop “healthy” tells us a lot about his own self-awareness, self-deprecation and sense of the awkwardness that exists between church authority and true holiness. The question of how a truly holy person can at the same time exercise influence and control as a leader is one we encounter again and again in his writing. It must be observed that Rowan’s own amusement at the variety of human life, and acceptance of those differences, is itself one of the messages. People are not going to change just by us telling them to change, nor will they learn if we are not first the example of someone whose holiness is worth learning from. As the stories tell us in the ‘sayings of the Desert Fathers’, the roles apportioned to us in life are never the whole story, nor do they come close to explaining who we really are. Certainly not before God, where any kind of illusion is useless.

The other concern I would draw attention to here is where he says of the devil being “the greatest of ascetics”, but that “He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil.” Evil, why it happens and how we handle it, is another preoccupation of this thinker. And Rowan attends to evil in this passage in regard to language, how language can “imprison” us and how speech can “lead us astray.” As a regular user of language, indeed a philosopher of language, Rowan’s truth is a challenge. All the words we use, in daily speech and in every kind of communication, have the potential both to harm and to, as he puts it,  “strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves.” We know how this works and how easy it is to maintain these illusions, how well we can explain away or justify everything in words. Yet we are being told here that these can be the barrier between ourselves, and God. They perpetuate our human illusions about ourselves and others.

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