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Where God Happens:
Discovering Christ in One Another and
Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers

by Rowan Williams
Shambhala Publications, 2005

review by Kevin Miller

Little 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 writes,

relation 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,

somehow 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.

Now 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 justification.

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.

One 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,

If 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.

After 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.

Much 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.

Copyright ©2005 Kevin Miller

Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another and Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers

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