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.

The Many Hats of Rowan Williams: The Beret

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 Rowan Williams’ poem, ‘Yellow Star’, first published in ‘The Other Mountain’ (Carcanet, 2014, pages 44-45). Here is the poem, followed by the reading.

ellow Star

for Mother Maria Skobtsova

If we were true Christians, we would all wear the star.
                                                                                    Mother Maria

Take down the star from the treetop:
after these two millennia, it is jaundiced,
scorched, its points still sharp enough, though,
to draw blood. When it first shone,
it lit the way to killing fields. It has not
lost its skill.

Pin the star with its glass spikes
over today’s selected carriers
of the infections clouding the future’s
blood. The star has made the rivers bitter,
bitter, the scorched neighbours cry out
with burnt tongues.

Pay for the star with forged certificates
of baptism, papers of citizenship securing
the right to emigrate from Christendom’s
collapsing planet; hold up your hand
where the points have caught and drawn
polluting blood.

Step out, star child, into the queues
of neighbours lit by the lethal sign;
take bitter food and drink from the hand
of neighbours who pay the long price for being
there, always, under the light when we need
guilty strangers.

Hold up your hand; the star-drawn blood
binds you into the stranger’s place.
While the light lasts, think how it is
that the dust of burned stars, the immeasurable
dust travels darkly over light years to reassemble,
alive and moist.

Mother Maria Skobtsova is a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church who fought in the French resistance and died in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in March 1945. The star she refers to in the epigraph is the yellow star Jews were enforced to wear during the Nazi persecutions. Her intent is unambiguous: anyone who follows Christ must be prepared to identify with the victims of persecution. They must call out injustice when and as they see it. Furthermore, they must identify with their own indebtedness to Judaism, with the Gospel’s profound Jewish sources.

Maria Skobtsova was herself a poet. In July 1942, when the order requiring Jews to wear the yellow star was issued, she wrote a poem entitled "Israel":

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

Rowan Williams takes this a step further by connecting the yellow star with that most renowned emblem of Christian story, the Star of Bethlehem, the one we place each year on top of our Christmas trees.

Take down the star from the treetop:
after these two millennia, it is jaundiced,
scorched, its points still sharp enough, though,
to draw blood. When it first shone,
it lit the way to killing fields. It has not
lost its skill.

No Yuletide sentiment here, only then Rowan re-imagines the purpose of that star in new ways. He gives us a series of (almost episcopal) imperatives. We must pin the star as a sign of recognition of our collective desecration of the created world. We must live with the cost of belonging to Christ through baptism. We must identify with the strangers who live in our midst, and we must go out and meet those strangers. We must accept our own finiteness in this our one world, ready for whatever it may bring next. We must make ourselves accountable.

I have never met a poet who wears a beret, yet it remains a curious and palpable symbol of the poet in our culture, a kind of adopted halo. When Rowan puts on the beret he does so with deliberate intentions. He is not one playing just for the sake of play, not a believer in art for art’s sake. This is a person who speaks three languages fluently and reads at least nine languages with ease. Russian and French are on the list.

I have written before about his gift. “He engages with the life of words, their meanings, ambiguities, colours, their playfulness, invention, sounds. We find this in those writings of his that deliberately don’t touch both sides of the page, but also in his sermons, meditations, exegeses, his essays, disquisitions, lectures. His poetry is a way of finding expression for things that he could not say as effectively by any of his other writerly means. And, at least for me, his poetry is a distinctive and distinctively different voice, mode, vehicle to his other forms of writing.”

In his recent book ‘The Edge of Words’ Rowan says of words in poems, “… they act none the less as warning signs that this discourse will be something distinct from the usual exchanges of a culture: it will invite us to set aside for this listening period our assumptions about identity, about the solidity or closure of our perceptions.” (EW, 132) Words and phrases are forced into action in this poetry, used to vary and double in meaning, taken from their basic etymology and improved by memory’s definitions. As he says elsewhere, “This is indeed language under pressure deployed as a means of exploration, invoking associations which may be random in one way, yet generate a steady level of unsettling alternative or supplementary meanings in the margin of the simple lexical sense,” (EW, 133) ‘Yellow Star’ is just one straightforward example of how Rowan employs “warning signs”, both in the sense of it being a distinctive poem at work in the world and the star symbol in the poem itself being a warning. The poem inhabits its own space, offers its own way of thinking about existence, sets itself firmly in a very recognisable time and place, and uses a shared symbolic language to overturn and re-think that symbolism. At one level, the poem speaks for itself, says it all in one go. It’s like there’s nothing more to say. At another level, every line opens up chances for multiple meanings and fruitful interpretation.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Reveries of libraries, the twentieth: BORROWER CARDS AND PASSPORTS

“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy and ignorance.”

The library card took us to the hardest part of the Grimm’s forest, a place where the house tasted sweet and the oven was for us; to the oddest corners of Lear’s Gladstone bag, where meaningless words turned themselves into complete sense; to the softest landing in Sendak’s dream city, where arguments are resolved by music and you actually meet yourself.

The library card is the smallest page in our wallet and gives access to pages of practicality held together by spiral plastic, American-cut pages of confident prose balanced by unspoken margins, shiny pages of eye-pleasing belief from the history of worldly art, convoluted arrow pages of fix-it manuals folding out into tables of repair, pages of maps all coastline and alps.

The library card is a ticket to the idea we reached for earlier, the philosophy we thought must exist but couldn’t see now, the logic that isn’t like steps in a rational puzzle but leaps from emotion to meaning and back again, the conclusions we know are more than destinations more like the terminus for our next direction, the poetry to be found in the ordinary inarticulate.

The library card is a creased rectangle to the great globe of our and everything’s strivings, a brutal barcode to the transparent beauties transported in simulacra, our overfamiliar name and same old address searching out anyone anywhere anytime anyhow, a string of numbers that is not us say the loans we take and never will be us whatever a computer might think, say the loans.

The library card slips under the radar of cyberspace, cannot be tracked by known or unknown security agencies, could be someone else borrowing the same material, is interchangeable when interfacing with technology, floats in the top pocket untraceable by satellite or drone, suits itself what is listed under its unique status, serves as a bookmark and DVD chisel.

The library card is the strangely exact compact with everything written no longer in a bookshop, everything written by strangers down the street, hours of music the radio forgot, festivals of film the television only dreams about, kinds of talking you don’t hear down the shops, somewhere you would rather be, someone you would rather be with just for now.

 The original quote is by Libba Bray, via Talitha Fraser.