What follows is a series of ideas and meditations based on the writings of the ancient desert monastics, and a book by Rowan Williams called ‘Silence and Honey Cakes – The wisdom of the desert’. There are six – one for each week in Lent. The text in italics is a translation from the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. The plain text is excerpts from Williams’ book followed by questions for reflection.
‘Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we win our sister/brother we win God. If we cause our sister/brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.’
The actual substance of our relationship with eternal truth and love is bound up with how we manage the proximity of our human neighbours…The neighbour is our life; to bring connectedness with God to the neighbour is bound up with our own connection with God. The neighbour 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 are our achievements.
What if the real criteria for a properly functioning common life, for social existence in its fullness, had to do with this business of connecting each other with life-giving reality, with the possibility of reconciliation or wholeness?
…One of the most frequent things that gets in the way here, is inattention, the failure to see what is truly there in front of us – because our own vision is clouded by self-obsession or self-satisfaction….If we don’t really know how to attend to the reality that is our own inner turmoil, we shall fail in responding to the needs of someone else.
As I read these ideas, do any particular people, memories or situations come particularly to mind?
Is there anything I need to confess to myself, to God, to another, about my relationship with my neighbours?
This week, how might I be the means by which Christ’s love for another person becomes real and transforming for them?
We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-critique*, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.
The original text uses the term 'self-accusation'. I have changed it to avoid the potentially unhealthy connotations of that term.
Self-justification is the heavy burden, because there is no end to carrying it; there will always be some new situation where we need to establish our position, dig the trench for the ego to defend. But how on earth can we say that self-critique is a light burden? We have to remember the fundamental principle of letting go of our fear. Self-critique, honesty about our failings, is a light burden because whatever we have to face in ourselves, however painful is the recognition, however hard it is to feel at times that we have to start all over again, we know that the burden is already known and accepted by God’s mercy.
To see – to feel – the cross as a light load is the impossible possibility of faith: letting our best-loved pictures of ourselves and our achievements die, trying to live without the protections we are used to, feels like hell, most of the time. But the real hell is never to be able to rest from the labours of self-defence.
How honest do I feel I can be with myself, with God, about myself – my thoughts, dreams, longings, griefs, anger, fear and sin?
In what situations am I the most tempted to take up the burden of self-justification. Why?
What do I need in order to feel able to engage in honest self-critique?
There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault. So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest sent someone to say to him, ‘They’re all waiting for you.’ So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgement on the mistakes of somebody else.’ When they heard this, they called off the meeting.
[The desert fathers and mothers] take for granted that the only way in which you know the seriousness of separation from God is in your own experience of yourself…and…that for us to receive God’s forgiveness in such a way that our lives will be changed is a lifetime’s work.
If we trivialize the depth of our human need for God, we shall never be instruments to others of reconciliation. If we are unaware in ourselves of this need, because we have no disciplines for recognising who and what we are, the church becomes ineffective.
One of the chief sources of the anxiety from which the gospel delivers us is the need to protect my picture of myself as right and good. So one of the most obvious characteristics of the church ought to be a willingness to abandon anything like competitive virtue (or competitive suffering or competitive victimage, competitive tolerance or competitive intolerance or whatever).
The plain acknowledgement of your solidarity [with another] in need and failure opens a door: it shows that it is possible to live in the truth and to go forward in hope. It is in such a moment that God gives himself through you, and you become by God’s gift a means of connecting another with God.
How often do I have the chance to share with others the true extent of my struggles and delights in following Jesus?
Are there ways that I could build these opportunities into my life? (e.g. through a small group, a prayer partnership, a mentor or spiritual director?)
Two large boats floating on the river were shown to [a monk who wondered about the differences in monastic style between two of his brothers]. In one of them sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit of God in complete silence. And in the other boat was Abba Moses, with the angels of God: they were all eating honey cakes.
We live in a society that is at once deeply individualist and deeply conformist; the desert fathers and mothers manage to be neither, and they suggest to us that the church’s calling likewise is to avoid both these pitfalls.
We need to distinguish between the individual and the person: the person is what is utterly unique, irreducible to a formula, made what it is by the unique intersection of the relationships in which it’s involved (not an instance of a type, determined by consumer-driven ‘choices’).
The church is meant to be supremely a community of persons... It is a place for distinctive vocations to be discovered in such a way that they are a source of mutual enrichment and delight, not threat. It is a place where real human difference is nourished.
What has to be remembered…is that this is more than ‘letting a thousand flowers bloom’. A church that is simply recognizing different preferences is stuck at the level of individualism; the real work has not yet been done, the work which is the discovery of God’s call beyond the simplistic ‘listening to the heart’ that we all too readily settle for. This is a work that takes protracted, committed time.
To what extent am I a ‘person’, developing in the uniqueness of God’s call for me? (conversely…to what extent do I define myself by the consumer choices that I make…the car I drive, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the food I eat…)
What processes do I have in place for discovering my distinctive vocation (knowing that this is a life-long work)?
One day, as Abba Macarius was dismissing the gathering, he said to the brothers at Scetis, ‘Flee, brethren!’ One of the old men asked him, ‘Where could we flee to that is further away than this desert?’ Macarius put his finger to his lips and said ‘Flee that.’ And off he went to his cell, shut the door and sat down.
However physically remote we may be from the more obvious temptations, there is always the damage that can be done by speech, by the giving and receiving of doubtfully truthful perspectives, the half-hidden power-games of our talking – including our talking (and writing) about spiritual matters. Speech that is not centred upon the…painful confrontation of inner confusion, the painstaking making space for each other before God – is part of that system which, in another of Macarius’s sayings, makes us do stupid things…
What if we could recognise people of faith by how they spoke? By an absence of cliché, or of dehumanising mockery or glib consolations…if the commonwealth of God were a place where speech is restored, in praise, in patience, in attentive speaking (which is bound up with attentive listening?
If God has made all things by the Word, then each person and thing exists because God is speaking to it and in it. If we are to respond adequately, truthfully, we must listen for the word God speaks to and through each element of the creation; hence the importance of listening in expectant silence…When we rightly respond to anyone or anything, it is as if we have found the note to sing that is in harmony with the creating Word.
How much of my speech acknowledges the creative word of God present in myself and in other people?
How might I begin to learn to hesitate before reacting to others glibly, thoughtlessly, or aggressively?
How might I build more attentive silence into my daily practice and relating to others?
If a trial comes to you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you.
Go. Sit in your cell and give your body in pledge to the walls.
Conflict is to be met everywhere, not least in facing myself. So to stay in the cell is most fundamentally to stay in touch with the reality of who I am as a limited creature, as someone who is not in control of everything whether inner or outer, as an unfinished being in the hands of the maker…
We could say that Jesus above all is literally ‘a body pledged to the walls’, to the limits of this world. In his body, the church, Jesus works with all the limitations, the fragility and the folly of the human beings he summons to be with him…
The church needs to see itself as essentially a place where ‘pledging’ is visible…It exists in an environment in which this talk of pledging the body will sound very eccentric indeed. We are, most of us in the Western world, more physically mobile than ever; we expect change and variety in our work; we have less and less interest or commitment as a society in the idea of sexual faithfulness; we are entertained by deliberately hectic and rapid images…we need to remind ourselves and each other why the ‘pledged’ body is such an essential notion for human growing…
How easy do I find it to commit to being in one place, with one group of people, for any length of time?
What strategies do I have for managing boredom, restlessness, frustration in my ordinary life?
Is there something I need to make a commitment to…for a matter of weeks/months/years, in order to gain some benefit?