Saturday, 4 April 2015

‘The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language’ by Rowan Williams

This review by Philip Harvey first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican, April 2015

Language is one of the attributes of being human. The spoken, heard and written word singles us out within creation. But how we use language, and what we mean by our words, varies extravagantly and is not uniform. While language’s purpose would seem to be to make common sense, our own ways of using it are subtle, complex and artful. Also, we are the inheritors of the Tower of Babel.

Undeterred, Rowan Williams has written this set of Gifford lectures to help identify the many different ways we use words, and in particular that most vital of words, that in English is ‘God’. He quotes Michael Leunig admiringly: “The word ‘God’ cannot be grasped scientifically, rationally, or even theologically without it exploding. It can only be held lightly and poetically.” Williams then asserts that his book is a “phenomenology of explosions.”

Everyone with a vocabulary has a word for God. In our society, whether we are orthodox believers, fundamentalist ideologues, atheist ranters, secular humanists, or just like going surfing, we know what we mean by God. Whether we mean the same thing is another matter, which may be one of the reasons for Williams’ deeper interest in language use at this stage in his intellectual career.

The Archbishop has steeped himself in philosophy of language and neuroscience, so that we have here a handbook of all the important contemporary theories. His intention though is to find how they help us with our God-talk, starting with the brilliant, back-to-front question ‘does the way we talk as human beings tell us anything about God?’

Rather than launching into yet another round of proofs for God, Williams is interested in how the challenge of speaking about God is the challenge of “referring appropriately to what is not an object among others or a definable substance that can be ‘isolated’ and examined.” There is a register to how we speak about God that is not routine in the way we speak about much else: it is disruptive, even eccentric. Speaking about God has this disruptive effect and in so doing challenges our understanding of finite being itself, i.e. the subject of all our discourse.

Can we say what we like? George Steiner speaks of the “protean stability” of our speech and Williams picks this up when talking about truth and falsehood, the fact that relatively little of what we say is descriptive, that we make things up, and even lie as means to an end. He puts forward the Augustinian reminder that it is only through grace that we recognise we are liars and can only cease to be so when we let go of the ‘ownership’ of our speech and “surrender to the language of confession, testimony to the beauty of God.”

We are used to metaphor, error, fiction, and untruth, and cannot imagine language free of these factors. By so doing we recognise that the world itself is not a fixed object but a series of invitations, that things are open to reworking and change. Whatever language we use it is time-related: “speech refuses to work with deadlines for final representation.” At every step Williams hints at the similarities between language and our ways of explaining God, at how the limits of our language search out for the “imagination of a universal consistency.” 

Elsewhere he talks of Meister Eckhart’s paradox that God is both the end of all naming as well as being that which is incapable of being named.

Rowan Williams wryly describes the argument of one of his sources as “prohibitively difficult” and his own style here is at the heavy-duty end of his writing manner, but the book rewards those with application and a love of language and its propensities. It grows with re-reading. Each case for language is lucidly explained in its own terms, then examined in highly creative ways for how it forwards our quest for ultimate meaning. At every turn he offers new ways of thinking about God.

One achievement of the lectures is its proposals for new ways of doing natural theology. Yet I look forward to other literary manifestations of these ideas in his meditations and poetry. One of my favourite sections is called ‘Excessive Speech’. Ambiguity, absence and other kinds of awareness in the world require us to reach for paradox, poetry and parable, in other words to be innovative with language outside of what might be thought normal forms of communication and expression. The pressures placed on language by poetic rules (rhyme, assonance, stress &c.) force meanings into the open and cause us to see things in a new way. (Williams’ explanation of the classical Welsh cynghanedd form here is a treat for the buff.) Language, he is telling us, is not just a leisure activity or a way of cataloguing objects, but is something “shaped by the fact of the body’s participation in the ‘action’ of the world.” This links in usefully with the habits of liturgical language and our need to speak from an understood location in time and space.

The parables of Jesus show us that language about God can be “carefully calculated shocks”. Williams points out that they are intended to embarrass us, even confessing it is hard to know how to give a sermon based on the Unjust Judge. Parables confront us with ourselves, challenging us anew to learn how to continue on the way. They are not final definitions but means to knowing more about God wherever we find ourselves. He goes further and says that the life of Jesus is a parable, one that we play out in narrative form in ritual and the church’s year.

His concluding chapter looks at silence, whether as the frame around language, the meaning that exists between the words, the place we find ourselves in when faced with suffering or wonder. This book is filled with sensitive considerations of the many-sidedness of language, only a few of which are mentioned in this review, but some of the most exact expressions of spiritual depth are found in this chapter. When he says we reach for something beyond the “chatter and buzz of egotistical self-reflection” we sense he is talking not just about God the Unsayable in silence, but about our constant world of language in the here and now.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Saint Teresa of Ávila: The Our Father

Words on the Lord’s Prayer from ‘The Way of Perfection’ by Saint Teresa of Ávila

“As we repeat the Our Father so many times … let us delight in it.” -- Saint Teresa of Ávila


What son is there in the world who would not try to learn who his father was if he had one as good and of as great majesty and dominion, as ours?

Were God not all this, it would not surprise me if we had no desire to be known as His children; for the world is such that, if the father is of lower rank than his son, the son feels no honour in recognizing him as his father.

Being our Father, God must bear with us however great our offences. If we return to Him He must pardon us, must comfort us in our trials, and must sustain us, as such a Father is bound to do, for He must needs be better than any earthly father.

We must talk to Him very humbly as we should to our father, ask Him for things as we should ask a father, tell Him our troubles, beg Him to put them right, and yet realize that we are not worthy to be called His children.


Do you suppose it matters little what Heaven is and where you must seek your most holy Father?

Wherever God is, there is Heaven … and GOD IS WITHIN US. Remember how important it is to understand this truth – that the Lord is within us. I assure you that for minds which wander it is of great importance not only to have a right belief about this but to try to learn it by experience … I knew perfectly well that I had a soul, but I did not understand then, as I do now, how this great King really dwells within this little palace of my soul, I should not have left Him alone so often. 

How wonderful it is that He whose greatness could fill a thousand worlds, and very much more, should confine Himself within so small a space, just as He was pleased to dwell within the womb of His most holy Mother.


Realize that you are doing much more by occasionally repeating a single petition of the Our Father than by repeating the whole of it many times in a hurry and not thinking what you are saying. He to Whom you are praying is very near you and will not fail to hear you; and you may be sure that you are truly praising Him and hallowing His name …


Let us understand this thing that we are asking for, and how important it is that we should pray for it without ceasing and do all we can to please Him Who will give it to us.

We, exiles, are making a sea-voyage and are still on the journey. But there are times when we are wearied with travelling and the Lord grants our faculties tranquillity and our soul quiet. The body experiences the greatest delight and the soul is conscious of a deep satisfaction. Persons in this state will spend a whole hour on a single repetition of Our Father … They are close to God … They are in the palace, near to the King, and they see that He is already beginning to give them His Kingdom on earth.

It looks as though I were saying that we must be angels to make this petition – ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ This would indeed be our Divine master’s wish, since He bids us make so sublime a petition. You must be quite sure that he never tells us to ask for impossibilities, so it must be possible, with God’s help, for a soul living in this state of exile to reach such a point …


Thy Will be done – Do people say this because everyone else says it and not because they want it to be done? That would not be right. The more we show Him by our actions that the words we use to Him are not word of mere politeness, the more and more does Our Lord draw us to Himself and raise us above all petty earthly things.

They Will be done  - that is, may the Lord fulfil His Will in me, in every way and manner which Thou, my Lord, desirest. If Thou wilt do this by means of trials, give me strength and let them come … The Lord knows what each of us can bear … When He sees a soul who loves Him greatly, He knows that soul can suffer much for Him …

Dispose of me as of that which is Thine own, in accordance with Thy Will – What power this prayer has. If it be made with due resolution, it cannot fail to draw the Almighty to become one with our lowliness …

(Holy Communion)

For the love of God let us realize the meaning of our good Master’s petition.

We know that until the accidents of bread have been consumed by our natural heat, the good Jesus is with us. If, while He went about in the world, the sick were healed by merely touching His clothes, how can we doubt that He will work miracles when he is within us, if we have faith? Or how can we doubt that he will give us what we ask of Him since He is in our house? His Majesty is not wont to offer us too little payment for His lodging if we treat Him well.


Notice that Our Lord does not say: “as we shall forgive.” The good Jesus might have said: “Forgive us, Lord, because we are doing a great deal of penance, or because we are praying often, and fasting.” But He has never said any of these other things He might have said. He simply says: “Because we forgive.”

It is such a serious and important matter that God should pardon us our sins, which have merited eternal fire, that we must pardon all …


Let us always beseech God that temptation may not be strong enough for us to offend Him.

From any sin, however small, committed with full knowledge, may God deliver us, especially since we are sinning against so great a Sovereign and realizing that He is watching us! Take this advice, which comes, not from me, but from your Master – Strive to walk with love and fear, and I guarantee your safety. Love will make you quicken your steps. Fear will make you look where you are setting your feet so that you may not fall.

It will be a great thing at the hour of death, when we are going we know not whither, to realize that we shall be judged by One Whom we have loved above all things. Remember the greatness of the gain which comes from this love, and of our loss if we do not possess it, for in that case we shall be delivered into the hands of the tempter … What will become of the poor soul when it falls into these hands after emerging from all the pains and trials of death? How it will be torn as it goes down to hell! A pampered person (and most of those who go to hell are that) can hardly bear to spend a single night in a bad inn. What, then, will be the feeling of that wretched soul when it is condemned to such an inn as this and has to spend eternity there?

What, then, Eternal Father, can we do but flee to Thee and beg Thee not to allow these enemies of ours to lead us into temptation?


If we try to banish bodily ills and trials is it not right that we should ask to be delivered from sin?

O my God and Lord, deliver me from all evil and be pleased to lead me to that place where all good things are to be found.

God’s will is for us to desire truth, whereas we desire falsehood; His will is for us to desire the eternal, whereas we prefer that which passes away; His will is for us to desire great and sublime things, whereas we desire the base things of earth; He would have us desire only what is certain, whereas here on earth we love what is doubtful.

What a mockery it all is, unless we beseech God to deliver us from all these perils forever and to keep us from evil!


By the word “Amen”, as it comes at the end of every prayer, I understand that the Lord is begging that we may be delivered from all evil for ever.

[Copied from a pamphlet published by the Carmelite Monastery, Newry, Co. Down, N. Ireland]

Monday, 2 March 2015

I spend weekends leafing the sea inside Gaudí

Philip Harvey

Balcony iron twisted black kelp.
Forests of porphyry their palm canopies bursting.
The sure foundation a stone quarry from stone ages.
Streets thereabouts away and towards the source.
Surf city of the west end pitched to glory.
New scaffolding stacks to ceilings of marble stars.
Tremulous leaves of tiles take to the light,
Thunder handled as it approaches.
Computed entrances have witnesses guessing.
Ribs of the crucified downward unbroken.
All in his head, he never left a sketch.

I spend weekends leafing the sea inside Gaudí,
The sun inside, which colour to choose, size and shape.
He believed, and then someone believed in him.
If he was a savant guard how I judge
His singular exertions combining geometries,
A life best understood after completion.
His hours of hope with the transforms of life
Could be the hour of his death, alone.
For it’s never completed, his one client God,
Where every day is the practice of load-bearing
Be it beatific temple or beaten-up cross.

A poem about Antoni Gaudí written after attending Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 27th of February