Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Book Review: Where God Happens, by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams. Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another and Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers. New Seeds, 2005.
God's world needs, as [Rowan Williams] points out so convincingly, a Church renewed in contemplation. It is good to know that the desert mothers and fathers said we all can be contemplatives and that we can have our deserts in the crowded places where we live and work.
Desmond Tutu, from the foreword.

Desmond Tutu is certainly right when he points us to the central theme of this book: where God happens is not in isolation, but in the crowded places. But what makes this little book so special is that Rowan Williams is finding this particular insight in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers.
The desert fathers and mothers were not all that prone to community living, preferring to live as hermits far from each other and the bustle of the city. But Williams finds in these hermits a concern for the neighbor, especially the neighbor convicted of sin. This concern for the neighbor is what led these men and women to the desert to fight their own temptations. Their own sense of sin and personal temptation cultivated humility, and this humility led to this solidarity with others. "The neighbor is our life; to bring connectedness with God to the neighbor is bound up with our own connection with God. The neighbor is our death, communicating to us the death sentence on our attempts to settle who we are in our own terms and to cling to what we reckon as our achievements" (p 34). Williams finds for us a way to set aside our own personal agendae in pursuit of a deeper desire for fellowship with our neighbors.
Williams also finds some wisdom in this literature about difference in community. The desert was filled with very different people, from the converted Ethiopian highwayman Moses the Black to John the Dwarf, and vastly different styles of devotion, like the hospitality of Abba Moses and the silence of Abba Arsenius. This is not so different from what we now encounter in the church – and Williams does not find a problem in this kind of diversity, but rather a vocation. The church's vocation is to long and protracted listening, rather than to the overlooking of the personal preferences of others in order to preserve our own personal preferences. This kind of overlooking is not, according to Williams, what it means to be a community of reconciliation. Through reconciliation the church can seek to overcome the "subtle pressures of consumerism or the open tyranny of totalitarianism" (p. 67), becoming communities that recognize genuine personhood without sacrificing unity.
Other themes that Williams pursues are the meaning of "fleeing" and "staying" in the desert monastic tradition. With his own particular adeptness Williams finds, in the seemingly distant monasticism of the desert, a reflective application to our own lives of business and routine that challenges us to become more than isolated "spiritual" people. Williams challenges us to become contemplatives grounded in community.
If you are looking for a place to start with either the spiritual writings of Rowan Williams, or the literature of the desert fathers and mothers, you won't do much better than this small volume. Williams shines in his own particular way, reconciling seemingly disparate ideas and then communicating them in a way that finds traction and application in our own world, all made accessible to a general audience.

Further Reading on the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

Benedicta Ward, ed. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.

Benedicta Ward, ed. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks.

John Chryssavgis. In the Heart of the Desert : The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

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