Rowan William’s book ‘Where God Happens’ is an exploration of Christian community using the wisdom of the Desert Fathers. The Deseret Fathers were the first generation of Christian Monks who fled from civilisation into the Egyptian desert to pursue what they considered the ideal Christian life. These communities of hermits thrived for over a hundred years beginning in the second half of the second century. The most famous Desert Father was St Anthony the Great who died in the year 356.
The stories of the Desert Fathers are rather Zen-like in character in that they teach by example rather than by preaching. These communities emphasised lives of humility, silence, mutual love and simplicity. In time these ideals would form the basis of the Rule of St Benedict and as such the foundation of Western Monasticism. These men and, to a lesser extent, women felt that the church in their day was becoming secularised and losing the focus of the Gospel and they wanted to experiment to find out what the church could really be like.
Archbishop Williams explores the themes of fleeing and staying in the last two chapters of the book. Fleeing is often a misunderstood idea. The Fathers were not fleeing from creation but from ‘the world’
“For this battle the Apostle arms us, saying, "We are not contending against flesh and blood," that is, not against human beings whom we see, "but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world." So that you may not think that demons are the rulers of heaven and earth, he says, "of the darkness of this world." He says, "of the world," meaning the lovers of the world— of the "world," meaning the ungodly and wicked— the "world" of which the Gospel says. "And the world knew him not."
A Reading from the Treatise of Saint Augustine on the Psalms. [Vulgate Psalm 54. Prayer Book Psalm 55]
They were trying to flee from false images of themselves and others. They believed the individual was different from the person. The person was the unique created child of God that exists behind all self definitions whilst the individual is just those definitions of self with which we perceive and define ourselves . I am ‘this’ and am not ‘that’. Thus through deep introspection and silence and humility they identified with humanity as a whole and not just their own experience of it.
A brother sinned and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church. But Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying “I too am a sinner”.
They fled from anything that might possibly emphasise their individuality at the cost of the nurturing of their person and its relationship with its creator.
“And the call to flee from privilege, safety, speech, (and Bishops), is a call to put some distance between yourself and the less than personal pressures of the soul, temptations that stunt your growth, which the Greek Christian tradition calls pathe, “passions” – or pressures on the soul to pull it out of its centeredness in God.” Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg. 91
I believe that it is in this light that we can start to understand that strange saying of Soren Kierkegaard about the self satisfied clergy of his day:
“The punishment I should like the clergy to have is a tenfold increase in salary. I am afraid that neither the world not the clergy would understand this punishment.”
The other side of the coin of fleeing is the importance of staying. Staying is the hardest of the spiritual disciplines. Benedictines take a vow of stability and poverty and celibacy do not even come close to vying with the first vow in difficulty. Staying is a radical commitment to look beyond self dramatisation and fantasy. Without the distractions of the world to keep us occupied the discipline of staying in the moment is soon met with the harshest of the spiritual attacks – boredom. The Greeks called this akedia. St John Cassian identified it as one of the eight great temptations on the soul. Akedia
“has to do with frustration, helplessness, lack of motivation, the displacement of stresses and difficulties from the inner to the outer world." Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg. 96
It is the temptation that comes when the ego is cut off from its nourishment and it begins to whine and complain and panic. With akedia we believe that “we can’t start from here!” that we could do better somewhere else with different people.
“We are easily persuaded that the problems of growing up in the life of the spirit can be located outside of ourselves. Somewhere else I could be nicer, holier, more balanced, more detached about criticism, more disciplined, able to sing in tune, and probably thinner as well. Somewhere there is a saintly person who really understands me (and so won’t make life difficult for me).” Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg. 99
Staying takes it as faith that God can be found anywhere and that if one is patient and perseveres then in time one’s whole personal life will become pervaded with an awareness of God’s presence. Holiness is simply maturity in the life of staying committed.
Another important element is the discipline of staying is that one must always “start from where you are”. Do not look ahead to the future too much or you will get discouraged.
“If I did not suffer minute by minute, it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I see only the present moment, I forget the past and take good care not to anticipate the future. If we grow disheartened, if we sometimes despair, it is because we have been dwelling on the past or the future.” St Teresa of Lisieux
The final defeat of akedia is found not in how to not be bored but about how to face the fear of boredom without fleeing and to continue with perseverance and not stop the journey.
“A brother fell when he was tempted, and in his distress he stopped practicing his monastic rule. He really longed to take it up again, but his own misery prevented him. He would say to himself, “When shall I be able to be holy in the way I used to be before?” He went to see one of the old men and told him all about himself. And when the old man learned of his distress, he said: :There was a man who had a plot of land, but it got neglected and turned into waste ground, full of weeds and brambles. So he said to his son, ‘Go and weed the ground.’ The son went off to weed it, saw all the brambles, and despaired. He said to himself, ‘How long will it take before I have uprooted and reclaimed all of that?’ So he lay down and went to sleep for several days. His father came to see how he was getting on and found he had done nothing at all. ‘Why have you done nothing?’ he said. The son replied, ‘Father, when I started to look at this and saw how many weeds and brambles there were, I was so depressed that I could do nothing but lie down on the ground.’ His father said, ‘Child, just go over the surface of the plot every day and you will make some progress.’ So he did, and before long the whole plot was weeded. The same is true for you brother: work just a little bit without getting discouraged, and God by his grace will re-establish you."
The church already recognises the importance of this fidelity in the way it celebrates the lifelong commitment found in marriage, ordination, and the taking of religious vows. Many people relate strongly to the presence of Christ in the Sacrament reserved in many churches as a pledge of His promise to be with us “Even to the end of the Age.” She enshrines the strategy against akedia trough the discipline of regular meditation and the daily recitation of the offices and the weekly gathering of the Christian community around the Altar. These habits are our lifeblood.
“The desert community tells the church, then and now, that its job is to be a fearless community, and it shows us some of the habits we need to develop in order to become fearless, habits of self-awareness and attention to each other, grounded in the pervasive awareness of God that comes from constant exposure to God in Bible reading and prayer." Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg 28
Once she also celebrated this spiritual practice through the tradition of long incumbencies for parish priests. The work of the Alban Institute has once again emphasised this approach by showing through its research that it takes many years to integrate into a community and that the incarnational presence of the priest only filters through after living in the community for a long period. They suggest that incumbencies of shorter durations are seriously hampered in their effectiveness.
I might also suggest that the spirit of akedia may be one of the chief diseases of the modern clergy (as it has been many, many times in our history) as well as one of the main reasons for the dramatic and disastrous drop in vocations to the religious life. The Anglican Church of Canada is even more seriously effected in this regard. In the Directory of Anglican Religious Communities (Anglican Religious Life 2008-2009) it lists only 45 people in religious vows in Canada: 2 Holy Cross Fathers , 31 Sisters of St John the Divine, 7 Sisters of the Church and 5 Oratorians.
Archbishop William’s reflections on fleeing and staying are only briefly outlined here and I would strongly recommend this small book to you for deeper reflection. In the end he reminds us that the end of all of our journeying in the life of religious discipline is to discover who we have really been all along: beloved, transfigured and holy children of God
“Lot went to Abba Joseph and said, “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer and meditation, and quiet, and as far as I can, I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, “If you will, you can become all flame.”