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Thursday, 3 March 2016

Silence & Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert

The 4th and 5th century Desert Fathers and Mothers offer a message of profound simplicity and depth. At St Martin-in-the-Fields we are journeying together into their desert of wisdom this Lent to rediscover some of the most vital truths about our lives and faith.

Each Wednesday in Lent there is the invitation to join us for our Bread for the World informal Eucharist where we take the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers as the theme for reflection. This is followed by a simple Lenten supper before we divide into groups to share thoughts and our own responses to this desert wisdom.

We are using former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' book Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert as our guide. With him we are exploring the extraordinary wisdom that comes with this desert spirituality, much of which resonates so strongly with aspects of our own modern spiritual search.

  • How can we discover the truth about ourselves?
  • How can we live in relationship with others?
  • What does the desert say about recognising our priorities?
  • How do we learn to pray?
  • How can we create a fearless community?

Yesterday, I led our reflections with the following thoughts:

“… two large boats floating on the river were shown to him. 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.”

So we come to the story which gives this book its title. A man visits the desert fathers and experiences two approaches to spirituality. One involves abstinence, particularly from speech (silence), while the other involves an open welcome, enjoyment of company and the eating of honey cakes. The man expresses a preference for the latter, which leads another to question how such different paths to God can exist. He then receives a vision in which God accepts both.

Rowan Williams explores this story in terms of our different vocations. I would like to talk about it in terms of the two different ways to God that the story juxtaposes.

In one we find God in the world around of us - the people, places, creatures and creations. In addition we use these things as visual or lingual images which reveal aspects of God to us. This is an affirmative way based on the understanding that God's creation is good and that something of the creator can be seen in the creation. This is a way of abundance and of the Arts, where multiple images and experiences build up a composite picture of God. This is the way of Abba Moses in the boat together with honey cakes and the angels of God.

The other way is visualised by Abba Arsenius who is silent in his boat with the Holy Spirit of God. This is the way of abstinence which recognises the inadequacy of every image and word and creature and creation to show or tell us about God. God is always more than any way of describing or imaging him and, therefore, the best way to experience God as is, is to dispense with words and images altogether and go by way of silence and darkness. As a result, this way of experiencing God is known as the negative way or also, sometimes, as the dark night of the soul.

Both ways lead to God, but, as they are polar opposites, they approach God by different routes and therefore we may, at times, have to choose between them and, if we were to follow either to their conclusion, we would have to make an ultimate choice, as Abba's Arsenius and Moses seem in the story to have done. However, it is also possible to combine aspects of both approaches or to follow one way rather than the other at different seasons in our lives.

My thinking about these two ways to God has been informed by the thinking of the poet, dramatist and novelist Charles Williams. His views on these two ways have been summarised as follows:

"The Way of Affirmation consists in recognizing the immanence of God in all things, and says that appreciation of whom and what God has made may lead us to appreciation of Himself. The Way of Rejection concentrates on the transcendence of God, the recognition that God is never fully contained in His creation; it says that we must renounce all lesser images if we would apprehend His. These two Ways have been expressed by the paradox "This also is Thou; neither is this Thou," and tend generally to illustrate, respectively, Catholic or Protestant thought in their attitudes toward the use of images.

While Williams insists that a complement of both these Ways is necessary to the life of every Christian, and that none of us can walk the Kingdom's narrow road by only affirming or only rejecting ... yet he contends that Christians are usually called primarily to one Way or the other.

While both these ways are ways to God, they are also ways to understanding ourselves; in itself a necessary part of our journey towards God. The greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Rowan Williams connects these things when he writes that the reason why “the desert monks and nuns valued self-awareness” was that to “be a real agent for God to connect with [our] neighbour … each of us needs to know the specific truth about himself or herself.”

These two different ways to God that we have been considering provide, as you would expect, different ways in which to encounter and understand ourselves. On the Affirmative Way, the pre-eminent metaphor may be that of light. Light enables us to see all that is around us. As a result, we can then also perceive ourselves. When we look around us and see other people, creatures and objects, we can undertake an exercise in comparing and contrasting; thinking to ourselves I’m similar to this and I’m different from that. This can take us right back to one of the creation stories in Genesis; that of Adam naming the animals. Names in ancient culture were symbols of the essence of the thing named; so, Adam looks at each creature before him sees its essence and names that characteristic. As he does so, he is himself looking for a helpmate. When he has named all the animals he has still not found his helpmate. The animals are too different to him to fulfil that role but, having encountered difference, he is then immediately able to recognise his similarity to Eve and realise that they are intended to be helpmates for each other.

These thoughts connect with the South African word ‘Ubuntu’, which essentially means ‘I am because you are’, and the phrase ‘I-Thou’ explored by the philosopher Martin Buber, who wrote about “the I-Thou relationship, where our human relationships can only be truly authentic when we open ourselves fully to the other and encounter them as whole and unique persons.” Jean Vanier, creator of the L’Arche communities, also speaks about dependency being at the heart of community and our belonging to one another. “We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness,” he says, “in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging.” Similarly, St Anthony the Great said ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour’ and, as a result Rowan Williams states that “only in the relations we have with one another can the love and mercy of God appear and become effective.”

On the Negative Way, the pre-eminent metaphor for knowing ourselves may be that of silence. In silence, we hear the working of our own minds, we hear our self-justification and unmask our need to defend our territory, establish our position, and defend our ego. As Rowan Williams states, “Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.” Our “sense of the authentically human, depends and can only depend on the quality of our silence – the need to let go of words in certain ways, that willingness to occupy a space before God which is not a defended territory, defended against God or against anyone else. And because we occupy a space that isn’t a defended territory, it is space both for God and for each other. We are moving beyond our fascination, our hypnosis by the ideas of choice and individuality as conceived in the modern world, moving towards the possibility of a human life characterised by consistent instinctive responsiveness to the truth, acquiring an instinctive taste for truth. A taste for truth, that’s to say an appetite for what is real, so strong that it allows us constantly to keep ourselves in question, under scrutiny, not in an obsessional way but just going on asking, ‘Who is being served here? The ego or the truth?’”

Which boat are we sitting in? In which would we wish to sit? Are our personalities fundamentally compatible with sharing silence or honey cakes? Have we found ways to combine the affirmative and the negative ways or to move between the two at different times and seasons of our lives?


Morten Lauridsen - O Magnum Mysterium.

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