Rowan Williams on Waiting, Quiet Reflection, and a Baby that Changed Everything

Nativity of JesusArchbishop Rowan Williams describes Advent as a “time of waiting.” He then unpacks what that means for the Christian and how our Western culture generally speaking (Christians included), have real difficulties with waiting.  We want immediate gratification; we don’t want to wait—if a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load, we complain, throw a fit, curse, or try to figure out a way to purchase a newer, faster, sleeker computer.  Waiting is a concept for twenty-first century globalized folks thoroughly infused with negativity.  We just don’t “do it” well.  Even so, as Williams explains, as Christians we are called to

“remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and [to] remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.

During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophesies of Isaiah, metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.”[1]

The four weeks before Christmas have blown by and now our waiting, our counting and marking the days on the calendar before opening the gifts is nearly over.  But what about this other Gift, a far grander Gift, this baby born in a manger so long ago? What difference does His birth, His life, His Incarnation make?

“When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made? But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

So again for Christians, Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.”

Here’s another word we’re not particularly found of, nor very skilled at cultivating (myself included)—quiet, reflective periods of quietness in which we can ask ourselves “[w]hat would it be for the good news really to change me’ […]for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away, all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis, all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom – a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time where we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.”

With John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, both of whom learned to wait and to wonder at this Christ who would turn the world upside down, we too are challenged to “see what the reality of God is like,” which of course is not an easy task.   Truth be told,  “[i]t may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgment, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that even with the pain and the risk. Or God forbid we say no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’ During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth –the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.”


[1] The full transcript may be accessed via the Archbishop’s webpage:

Rowan Williams on the Complexities of the Church’s History and Identity

Rowan Williams’ little book on the church, Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the historical and theological complexities of the continuity and discontinuity of the Church.  As usual, Williams does not offer overly facile solutions, nor does he tell a triumphalist story in which the Church marches forward untainted, having never soiled herself along the way.   Rather, Williams admits the various failures of the Church—from the early fathers Rowan Williamsmisogynistic tales to historic Protestantism’s “embarrassing record of collusion with uncritical nationalism” (73) to the Church’s overall failure on the issue of slavery.   Nonetheless, Williams does not leave one in despair.  He emphasizes throughout that the Church is founded and sustained by divine action, particularly one divine action which is both “a set of historical events and an eternal act, the self-giving of the Son to the Father in the Trinity” (96).  If the survival and resilience of the Church depended solely on humans, the story would have ended some time ago.  Thankfully, it doesn’t; yet, Christians must be active and continue to put themselves, the Church and the world into question.  We must study our past, our tradition, our Scriptures, (and, as St. Thomas taught us, truth wherever it is found) bringing to light our failures and learning how to translate what is true, good and beautiful into our present contexts.  Williams, attentive to the interplay between historical contingencies and the ways in which history “makes” us on the one hand, and the reality of transcultural (yet contextually-applied) truths on the other, denies that we are stuck in a hermetically-sealed present or unable to break into a hermetically-sealed past.  As he explains,

To engage with the Church’s past is to see something of the Church’s future.  If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth.  If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun.  And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours.  That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible.  T.S. Elliot, faced with the glib modern claim that ‘we know so much more than our ancestors’, riposted, ‘Yes; and they are what we know.’ As was said in the first chapter, we must become aware of our hidden debts for who we now are (94-95).

If only Williams’ critics would actually read his works with care.

Rowan Williams on the Continuity-in-Discontinuity of Theological History (Re)writing

Rowan Williams“By the time the first texts in the New Testament were being written, Christians were aware of tensions over whether they still shared the same identity as Jews; there were no short answers (there still aren’t in some important respects).  There was, they believed, fulfillment; there was also redefinition.  And while these texts were being written and developed and responded to, the dramatic events which marked the end of Jewish political independence (the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) added a further element in Christian interpretation, with some long and unhappy consequences.

Thus what we read in the New Testament is not a simple record of what happened, but also a hugely creative and innovative attempt to make one story out of a set of memories that covers events of great disruptive force.  Jesus brings the earlier history to a climax, yet in such a way that the history is seen quite differently; what mattes in the earlier story will be different depending on the point of view of the telling, and passages and incidents that did not necessarily occupy the foreground now take on fresh significance.  This, incidentally, is why Jewish-Christian dialogue can be very complicated:  the Christian will read Hebrew Scripture looking for answers to questions that the Jewish reader isn’t asking.  But the point is that the New Testament writers know quite well that they have to present a story that is both coherent in essential ways and yet does justice to the novelty of what happens in the life and death of Jesus.  They cannot unequivocally say either yes or no to the history of God’s people as the Hebrew Scripture they were reading sets it out.

In this, they are doing nothing that is not already happening in the Old Testament itself, which goes on rewriting its own history.  Look, for example, at Hosea 1:4, where the massacre of Jezreel, implicitly celebrated elsewhere as the triumph of orthodox faith over idolatry, is roundly condemned.  Because God works in a long and varied historical process, the perspective within the Hebrew Scriptures is necessarily one that is constantly developing and moving; if Jesus is the culmination of that process, his life and death will provoke an unprecedentedly far-reaching shift of perspective, and thus a major essay in historical revision” (Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, (pp. 6-7).

Williams on Liturgy and Giving Our Words Over to God

As Rowan Williams explains, Scripture is narrative, but it is a particularly interesting kind of narrative, since it “weaves together history and liturgy” (On Christian Theology, 7).  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not only talked about, but he is spoken to.  He is praised; He is worshipped in song and poetry; He is addressed in prayer.  Not only in Scripture and the liturgy, but also in works like Augustine’s Confessions we find this interplay of speaking about God and speaking to God; yet, in each of these instances the discourse involved is open to the other and willing to be attentive to and challenged by what the other has to say.On Christian Doctrine by R. Williams

The language of worship ascribes supreme value, supreme resource or power, to something other than the worshipper, so that liturgy attempts to be a “giving over” of our words to God (as opposed to speaking in a way that seeks to retain distance or control over what’s being spoken of:  it is in this sense that good liturgy does what good poetry does).  This is not to say that the language of worship itself cannot be starkly and effectively ideological; but where we find a developing and imaginative liturgical idiom operating in a community that is itself constantly re-imagining itself and its past, we may recognize that worship is at some level doing its job.   That is what the overall canonical structure of Jewish Scripture puts before the reader; and insofar as the New Testament portrays the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as something which opens up an unprecedentedly direct and undistorted language for prayer, praise, “sacrifice”, and so on it is to be read as reinforcing the same point.  The integrity of a community’s language about God, the degree to which it escapes its own pressures to power and closure, is tied to the integrity it directs to God (7).

Our words about God are not final, not comprehensive, but ought to remain open-ended and receptive of new meanings (not just any meanings of course), just as we remain open to what the Word has to say to us.  The words we hear in Scripture and in the liturgy may require us to amend, alter, or give up not only certain ways of being but also certain ways of speaking (about God, others and our world).  Thus, the theologian must resist, to borrow a Nietzschean metaphor, a tendency to allow his/her theological discourse to become a columbarium, and hence, a language of death, rather than words of life.  Or as Williams puts it from a slightly different but related angle: “Language about God is kept honest in the degree to which it turns on itself in the name of God, and so surrenders itself to God” (8).

Part II: Williams on Two Eccentric Female Philosophers, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum

The second eccentric “outsider” Williams discusses is Etty Hillesum, who, like Simone Weil, was also of Jewish origins.  Hillesum grew up in Holland and during the German invasions was arrested and eventually died at Auschwitz.   Like Simone Weil, her family was secular; yet unlike Weil, she had a wild youth, which she describes in detail in her wonderful diaries.  Williams, having read some of her diary entries, describes her as “full-blooded.”  Increasingly, however, she felt unsettled by a certain lack in her intellectual and emotional life.  As has sometimes happened with other famous figures who have endured grave suffering, during the most severe period of Gestapo activity in Amsterdam, Hillesum begins to discover God.  She already had an interest in religion, and reads, for example, Augustine and Dostoevsky.  However, she comes to realize that simply reading about them and nothing more is not sufficient.

In Hillesum’s case something more, something that she didn’t quite understand was happening to her, and she describes in her diary a new desire to kneel.  This is significant for her own story, because she describes herself as having been one who would never kneel.  But now she felt that the most appropriate response to whatever it was that happening to her was to kneel.  She wasn’t sure to whom she was kneeling, yet it was something she was compelled to do.  As Williams explains, “she sensed that there was something that had such a claim on her that she had to express with her whole body what that claim is. Actually, the fact that she had been a very sexually active young woman and had thought a great deal about the body, she felt that she had to use her body to express her faith.”

Hillesum reads from her own Jewish tradition and from the Christian tradition, and she senses increasingly that something or someone has a claim on her life.  After her arrest and while waiting to be deported, she writes that she has come to realize that in this world someone has to take responsibility for God.  “That is, someone in the middle of the horrors of the Gestapo destruction in Holland-somebody has to live as thought the Gestapo was not controlling the universe.  Somebody has to live as though things are just different, and she says that someone unfortunately seems to be me” (rough quote of Williams’ commentary).  So Hillesum becomes burdened with the idea of taking responsibility for God-that is, living in such a way that God becomes credible.  And that is precisely how she lived in the deportation camp and at Auschwitz.   In some of her last diary pages which were crumpled up and thrown out of the train, she writes, “and we left the camp singing.”  Williams’ then highlights the notion of “making oneself a sign of God in a godless world.”  Then he adds, “you can see that that is about your body, not just about what you say but putting your whole self on the line, as when you kneel down you are expressing a wholeness in response to God.” Thus, even in the midst of something as horrible as Auschwitz, one can by becoming a sign of God “make God real.”  This recalls what Williams said in his first lecture about Nyssa and prayer and reconciliation.  It also sits well with the 17th century idea of “landing where you are” (discussed in his second lecture).  Williams sees Etty Hillesum as “a powerful and unconventional 20th century version” of just such a landing.  Sadly, she died at the very young age of 27 at Auschwitz.  Like Weil, Hillesum was never baptized and no one is quite sure where she stood at the end of her life with regard to the Christian faith.    Nonetheless, in the last years of her life, she lived the Gospel in a way that would perhaps put most modern, Western Christians to shame.  Interestingly, among the people whom she met at Westerbork, which was the holding camp which people were sent before being shipped to Auschwitz, were two Jewish, Carmelite nuns both members of St. Theresa’s reformed Carmelite order.  One of these nuns was the great Edith Stein, who was of course one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century.  Stein also died in Auschwitz because she refused to separate herself as a Catholic from her Jewish brothers and sisters.

These are Williams’ “outsiders,” all of which, as he says, are “challenging, quirky, strange figures.”  Before transitioning to discuss the monks, Williams ends with a great line and an image that has made me smile for several days:  “I sometimes fantasize about that particular corner in heaven where 20th century, Jewish, women philosophers get together.  Simone Weil, Etty Hillesum, Edith Stein, Gillian Rose, Rosa Luxemburg, and Hannah Arendt.  And my goodness that would be a hard place to eavesdrop.”

Part I: Williams on Two Eccentric Female Philosophers, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent Holy Week lectures focused on the subject of prayer.  He began by discussing insights of three early Church figures:  Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian.  In his second lecture, he discussed several Protestant and Catholic Reformers, highlighting their common emphases on God’s free action, God’s majesty and God’s mystery.  (Williams, by the way, gave a very positive presentation of John Calvin’s views on prayer, referring to one of Calvin’s sermons on Abraham and Isaac.  Hermeneutically speaking, it is interesting to note that Calvin’s exposition of the text is anything but a strict grammatico-historical reading.  I applaud Williams for avoiding the herd mentality about Calvin and engaging in a bit of 21st century ad fontes activity). In this post, I draw our attention to the Archbishop’s third lecture, viz., those who have written on prayer in the 20th century.  More specifically, I focus on the two eccentric female “outsiders” (that is, outsiders to Christian orthodoxy), Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum.

The question of prayer and how to pray, as Williams’ points out, was still quite pressing in the 20th century.  That is, the events of the war, the Nazi invasions and the resultant crimes against humanity, all played a role in pushing people to seek God.  First, Williams’ discusses Simone Weil, a Jewish philosopher, who died in 1943 at the young age of 34.  Because of Jewish identity, her historical situation, and her own desire to connect with the plight of the poor, Weil was intimately acquainted with suffering.  For example, when the Nazis took over France, Simone was uprooted and forced to flee.  In the final months of her life, she decided to eat no more food than was available to the poorest in France in her day. This decision had deleterious consequences on her health and contributed to her death.  Weil’s family was a secular Jewish family and also a very intellectual family.  At an early age, Simone evinced intellectual gifts and a proclivity for philosophy and languages.  In addition to teaching at a high school, Weil also worked in a factory, as she wanted to relate with the working class and their struggles.  Weil’s life was one of intensity, and that intensity comes through in her writings.

As Williams explains, although she was an intellectual, Simone had a life-changing mystical experience in her twenties while on a retreat at a Benedictine Abbey.  As she read George Herbert’s poem, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” she had what she describes as an encounter with Christ-as she puts it, “Christ came down and took possession of me.”  She, however, was eccentric and struggled with Catholic theology.  For example, she refused to be baptized.  Why?  She believed that most of the human race was not baptized and out in the cold and felt that her call was to stay out in the cold with most of the human race.  Had she lived longer, perhaps her views on baptism would have changed; nonetheless, one can respect her desire to existentially connect with the alienated and downtrodden.  Weil did, in spite of her differences with traditional theology, spend much time reflecting on the Eucharist and the Trinity.  In addition, she spoke out against the impersonal and technological totalitarianism of her day-that is, against the kind of life she had seen and experienced in the factory.

Weil’s best known book is entitled, Waiting for God. As Williams’ explains, for Simone, the essence of prayer begins in attention, in waiting attention.  This kind of posture involves self-denial, a kind of selflessness.  That is, (quoting Williams) “you put your thoughts and anxieties on the backburner, [you] let your self be there and let your mind be shaped by what is in front of you.  In learning a language, you submit your mind and your feelings to the structure of something that is there, and as you do that you enter into a kind of freedom.”  In other words, by de-centering the self and one’s own concerns and preoccupations, you allow what is there to shape you.  You allow the Other a voice, a potentially transforming voice.   In fact, Weil sees the de-centering necessary for prayer as that which is required in many “ordinary” activities.  As Williams’ puts it, “the selflessness of learning a language or a craft-all of that is a preparation for the deep attention of waiting in which you turn toward God.  That is her most central idea.  It connects experiences that we all share in some way with the experience of connecting with God.”  Thus, whether learning to ride a bicycle (or in my daughter’s case, a tricycle), learning a craft, or learning a foreign language, we are de-centering ourselves and being shaped by an “other.”

Weil’s philosophical ideas are quite complex.  (Interestingly, they remind me of some of Balthasar’s teachings).  For example, “Simone sees this selfless giving as the ground of God, because God himself is always giving himself so selflessly that you can almost say that he cancels himself out, so that the world can exist, can come to light.  That gift, in which you cancel yourself as the giver, she translates into the idea that somehow in our own relationship to God, we, in response to God’s stepping out of sight, cancel ourselves and our absorbed into God.”  Weil speaks of this as “de-creating” ourselves. Of course, that moves a bit outside of Christian orthodoxy; yet, her point about self-less giving is very much at the heart of Christianity.    Williams ends by saying, “the power and density of her writing is addictive. She covers such a range of thinking and feeling, and though she herself found it very hard to accept love, she never lost sight of that experience where Christ came down and ‘took possession of me’ when she was contemplating George Herbert’s poem,

‘LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.'”

In part II, I shall summarize Williams’ lecture on Etty Hillesum.