Discovering Christ in One Another and
Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers
by Rowan Williams
Shambhala Publications, 2005
did I realize when I first picked up this book what a significant
impact it would have on me. Although author Rowan Williams—who
also happens to be the Archbishop of Canterbury—modestly describes
his “little book” as “a modest contribution to
the discovery of a church renewed in contemplation, across the cultural
frontiers of our world,” I’ll be bold where he wasn’t
and declare it to be one of the most significant “little books”
of our era.
This may seem a lofty title to assign to something that is essentially
an introduction to and brief commentary on the so-called “desert
fathers (and mothers)” who withdrew to monastic communities
in the sands of Egypt starting about 1,600 years ago. Far from being
a romantic paean to a calcified form of religious existence, however,
Williams illustrates that what these pioneers of experiential spirituality
discovered in the desert may just be the solution for our hyper-individualistic,
success-driven, anxious, insecure, and fear-obsessed times. What
exactly did they discover out there amongst the howling winds, thorny
trees, and sun-baked rocks that was so valuable? Nothing less than
the path toward a life-transforming experience of God.
Williams begins by looking at the strong connection the desert fathers
made between the spiritual life and community. For them, spirituality
and community were inseparable. Echoing the link Christ drew between
the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37–39), Williams
with eternal truth and love simply doesn’t happen without
mending our relations with Tom, Dick and Harriet. The actual
substance of our relationship with eternal truth and love is
bound up with how we manage the proximity of these human neighbors.
This emphasis on community may sound strange coming from a group
of people who withdrew from community to find God. But in actuality,
the monks and nuns were not fleeing community itself, only what
they perceived to be an unhealthy manifestation of Christian community
in their day. As Williams says, “they wanted to find out what
the church really was—which is another way of saying that
they wanted to find out what humanity really was when it was in
touch with God through Jesus Christ.”
Thus, even as the monks and
nuns were fleeing one community, they were already forming another,
one that would be less about controlling access to God and more
about opening doors to healing and the fullness
of life that Christ makes possible (John 10:10). In short, they
believed that, “Insofar as you open such doors for another,
you gain God, in the sense that you become a place where God happens
for somebody else,” thus the title of this book.
Having rooted the quest for spiritual experience firmly in the dirt,
sweat, tears, and joys of community life, Williams moves on to describe
a little more about what the desert fathers and mothers actually
meant by that term. For them, community was not “a place where
egos are jostling for advantage, competing for much the same goods,
held together by a reluctantly accepted set of rules that minimize
the damage.” Nor was it a group of people “educated
in complete conformity so all its members want what they are told
to want and march in step.” It was a unity of persons—people
who had heard the mysterious and unique echo of God’s Word
in their inner depths and allowed that word to give birth to a particular
vocation or path to holiness that God had reserved for them alone.
Williams goes to great lengths to emphasize the diversity and equality
of vocations, noting that there is no standardized form of holiness
or aestheticism. But he also
notes that if there is one virtue almost universally recommended
in the desert, it is silence. Silence, he writes,
reaches to the root of our human problem….Words help to
strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect, and
comfort ourselves; without silence, we will not get any closer
to knowing who we are before God.
we can begin to understand the monks’ and nuns’ emphasis
on meditation and contemplation as the ultimate path to holiness.
Although this form of God-directed self-discovery was crucial to
these desert dwellers, Williams also echoes their warning that one
must be wary of letting it devolve into a self-centered search for
Now that the monks’ and nuns’ concept of community,
silence, and the discovery of vocation are firmly established, the
concept of “fleeing” begins to make a bit more sense.
Even so, in the next section Williams explains that fleeing is about
far more than mere physical separation from society. In essence,
it means running away from anything or anyone that inhibits the
process of self-examination, anything that blunts “the sharp
edges of responsibility” and fools us into thinking we are
really okay without God.
thing that certainly can do that is language. Williams argues that
most of the time we don’t take language seriously enough.
Instead, we use it to prop up our false images of the self, to make
us feel smug and in control. This is exactly the sort of speech
from which we must flee. If
we ever hope for “real speech” to emerge, we must wait
in expectant silence for the words God gives us.
As Williams writes,
God has made all things by the Word, then each person and thing
exists because God is speaking to it and in it. If we are to
respond adequately, truthfully, we must listen for the word
God speaks to and through each element of the creation—hence
the importance of listening in expectant silence.
developing the concept of “fleeing,” Williams concludes
with a meditation on its equal and opposite virtue, “staying.”
Learning to stay where you are is one of the hardest lessons of
the desert, says Williams. Few of us want to start the spiritual
journey from where we are. “Not in this place,” we argue,
“and definitely not with these people.” But the fact
is, as Williams points out, if you aren’t satisfied pursuing
God where you are, you won’t be satisfied pursuing him anywhere.
to our disappointment, the journey toward holiness is far more prosaic
than we had hoped it would be. And yet this is the path Williams
says we must walk if we hope to encounter God, the path that we
must walk alongside Tom, Dick, and Harriet, and the path they must
walk alongside us.
©2005 Kevin Miller
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