Retreats | Sabbaticals | Silence | Solitude | Ireland

Silence and Honeycakes

The Wisdom of the Desert by Rowan Williams

How could the desert mothers and fathers have anything to say to modern life?  Williams convinces us that their wisdom is pertinent. In our society we are either too conformist or too individualistic. How can we become more authentic? How escape the imprisonment of the ego or false self?  Silence tells the truth. Today we pride ourselves on listening to our hearts. But is the heart really honest?

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. The desert means a stepping back from the great system of collusive fantasy in which I try to decide who I am, sometimes to persuade you to tell me who I am, (in accord of course with my preferences), sometimes to use God as a reinforcement for my picture of myself” (p. 49). Williams goes on to quote Henri de Lubac, that it is not sincerity which frees us; it is truth. This truth permeates desert spirituality. Only God can tell me who I am. If I can trust him enough to be honest before him I will begin by manifesting my thoughts to an elder, not for an answer, but as a way of saying I desire the truth.

They went out to the desert, he claims, to find out what the Church should look like.  Today when we feel dissatisfied with the institution, perhaps it’s time to ask again, what the Church should look like. The desert provides a laboratory for testing virtue. Although solitude is the predominant mode for the monks, they live together closely enough to test out their attitudes toward one another. Very quickly they need to learn not to judge anyone but themselves, to control their rash thoughts and words, to deal with anger in a healthy way, and most of all to forgive over and over. What these hermits learned so long ago still forms the basis of our own spiritual lives, which is the foundation for who we are in the Church.  Richard Rohr would like to close down all the Church organizations for a time, except one—the school of prayer.  And it is this school that flourishes in the desert.

In 2001 Williams gave the talks at the World Community of Christian Meditation Seminar in Sydney, Australia speaking on themes from the desert fathers and mothers. This book enlarges on those talks. Rowan Williams brilliantly synthesizes themes such as staying and fleeing. He distinguishes between renunciation and rejection of the world where renunciation is a deliberate limiting of choices. He demonstrates how the monks had a healthy readiness to live with a variety of perspectives, endlessly intriguing and stretching.  We convert one another, they believed, by our truthful awareness of our own frailty, by identifying with the weakness of others, not cutting them off.

Of silence we hear “Silence is letting what there is be what it is”. We need “expectant quiet before the dawn, when we don’t want to say anything too quickly for fear of spoiling what’s uncovered for us as the light comes”.

In this classic primer Williams reflects on such questions as:
How can we discover the truth about ourselves?
How do we live in relationship with others?
What does the desert say about our priorities?
How can we create a fearless community?

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Reviewed by Sr Patricia McGowan