Holy Living Rowan Williams

On a visit to the local monastery for spiritual direction I was struck by the number of monks reading this book and raised humorously the question ‘how are you getting on with Holy Living’? My own reading had preceded theirs and this review provides my answer! That so many involved in religious life and spiritual direction look to Rowan Williams as an authority is a tribute to the breadth and depth of his engagement with the Christian tradition even if the density of his thought can be overpowering.

Though dense he is challenging, full of spiritual wisdom and can make one sentence summaries of immense realms. I liked these sentences on church controversy, globalisation, Sunday trading and sex: ‘We have little incentive to be open with each other if we live in an ecclesial environment where political conflict and various kinds of grievance are the dominant currency… Structures and landscapes that proclaim the powerlessness of individuals and of small-scale societies to exercise any creative role in moulding the environment not mapped or shaped with human beings in mind… The weekend may be a lost cause in many communities, thanks to that triumph of functional and acquisitive philosophy that was the legitimising of Sunday trading… Sex is not everything, and there are imperatives more urgent where the Kingdom of God is concerned; but sex is capable of revealing God in the deliberate weakness of a love that entrusts itself to another with no pre-negotiated limits of time and availability. That, says Scripture, is what sexual intimacy can be for humans. As so often with the New Testament, the question is thrown back to us: now what are you going to do about making such a possibility real?’

Williams’ capacity to open up a subject for his reader and then throw out the challenge to make what’s possible real is evident to those who stick with him as an exponent of Christian spirituality. This book selects his thinking on the Rule of St Benedict, the Bible, Icons, contemplation, St Teresa of Avila and self knowledge placing them incongruously side by side with no linkage save they’re all in Christian tradition. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these this book will remedy your ignorance and give more than a taster of their spiritual meaning and power. I was particularly impressed by what was shared about self-knowledge, Teresa and the eucharist and how contemplation makes the church more fully the church.

On self-knowledge: ‘If we were to ask, ‘How might we “test” for self-knowledge in ourselves or others?’ it looks as if the answer might lie in trying to deal with questions like, ‘Is there a pattern of behaviour here suggesting an unwillingness to learn or to be enlarged?’ or ‘Is there an obsessive quality to acts of self-presentation (in speech especially) that would indicate a fixed and defended image of needs that must be met for this self to sustain its position or power?’ or ‘Is there a refusal to deal verbally or imaginatively with the limits of power – ultimately with mortality?’

On Teresa and the eucharist: ‘Christ’s presence in the Mass is the tangible token of God’s unchanging willingness to be with us in Christ… Teresa pictures receiving Communion as a moment when Christ comes to the Father who dwells in the depths of the soul, waiting for him – a singularly haunting, unusual and beautiful image… The heart of her Eucharistic thought is that our prayer is effective because and only because of Christ’s decision to be perpetually with us, and that the unbroken continuity of Eucharistic practice in the Church as well as the continuity of the material presence of the consecrated elements bear witness to this in the simplest and most concrete way imaginable.

On contemplation: ‘The essence of the contemplative life… is the realisation of the apostolic calling to be with Jesus as selflessly as possible – in the knowledge that the degree to which we stay in his company is the degree to which we make the right kind of difference in the world… Contemplative life is central to… the Church, simply because it is the primary way in which we let ourselves as a Christian community make space for God to be God; and nothing could be more evidently good news for our world than the truth that God is God. The contemplative calling in the Church, making the Church other to its habitual, routinised self, recalls the basic otherness of the Church to fallen creation (especially status-ridden society).

The author is a follower of Thomas Merton’s spiritual ecumenism that sees the Christian discipline of contemplation as linked to awakening humanity and bringing it into its right mind. Being faithful especially in ‘our contemplative appropriation of the gift received in the Eucharist, which is the realisation in us of the active relation between Father and Son in the Trinity, …(we) become more transparent to the divine act of saving self-emptying, for the sake of the world’. Reflecting his own use of icons in prayer Bishop Rowan writes similarly: ‘the person who stands in front of the icon is not the only one doing the looking. Such a person is being seen, being acted upon, in this framework. The icon, therefore, is not a passive bit of decoration but an active presence. And the liturgical use and presence of icons is part of an entire understanding of the life of prayer, the baptised life, as being brought into a presence so as oneself to become a kind of presence’.

‘Holy Living’ is implicitly critical of quick-fix when it comes to gaining holiness, speaking of ‘a journey that entails an ‘excavation’ of the passions and a disciplining of them… nothing to do with some sort of exclusion or denial of the emotions, but about the rational inhabiting and understanding of the instinctual life in such a way that it doesn’t take over and dictate your relations with God or with one another. The holy person is the one ‘free from passion’ because he or she is the person free from having their relations totally dictated by instinct, self- defence - reactivity, as we might say these days’. Such a paragraph might take a life-time to implement!

It is impressive how this book lacks ‘agenda’. Though Rowan Williams is perceived as victim and counter to narrow streams of Anglicanism the most he says critical of such thinking is on use of the Bible: ‘To claim that we receive revelation is not… to assert that we are in possession of answers not provided to others, but to say that we have been impelled by the act of God into (an) unfolding process of reflection and growth’. What he hands on from Teresa of Avila about right sharing of the eucharist similarly implies ongoing readiness to empty yourself as Christ does into bread and wine as counter to ‘high church superficiality’ about the eucharist.

‘Holy Living’ is a challenging read in its language and uneven structure but all the more for those who press on with it and into it as a resource for gaining ‘the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14b). I end with a quotation to that end which is a suitable last word on an intriguing and challenging book. ‘All contemplating of God presupposes God’s own absorbed and joyful knowing of himself and gazing upon himself in the trinitarian life’.

Canon John Twisleton  14 May 2018

Holy Living  Rowan Williams
The Christian Tradition for Today
Bloomsbury Continuum 2017 £12.99 ISBN 9781472946089 240pp


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