Love, Death and the Neighbour

There are several things that frighten me about radical atheism.  One of them is the danger of throwing out vital insights on how to live that are contained in religious teachings along with the offending dictates.

One set of such teachings was given by the “desert fathers”, Christian monks who in the 4th century went into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts and set up monasteries.  Their teaching were discussed in a speech by Rowan Williams, the former Archibishop of Canterbury, when visiting Australia in 2001 and broadcast again by ABC radio in 2008.  Dr Williams titles the speech after the chief discovery made by the monks that:

our life and death remain with our neighbour.


It’s important to get that Dr Williams is using interchangeably the word “God” and the words “reconciliation” or “wholeness.”  So if you’re not a Christian, even if you’re a radical atheist, you can read the speech and have it work the way it was intended and call on you the way it was intended.

It’s also important to get that you can read his speech and replace the words “sinner” or “sin” with “one who has failed” or “failure”, and again, the meaning will be intact and pertinent.

Dr Williams draws two lessons from the writings of the desert fathers:

  • healing (or reconciliation, wholeness) only occurs through solidarity or identification, not condemnation
  • our own wholeness depends on another’s wholeness, and thus we are called on to assist the other regain their wholeness.


It seems the desert fathers went in search of isolation and discovered only the inescapability of community. They discovered a monk, which is to say, everyone of us, must “die to his neighbour.”

What this means is that we must put aside our love of superiority over another, our moral high ground, our lust for winning, our inattention to the reality of the other.  Instead we must stand side by side with our neighbour – the inferior one, the “sinner” – identify with them, “die” to them.


What this looks like in action is sweetly illustrated by Dr Williams in the tale of Macarius the Great, one of the monks particularly remembered for “being hard on harshness”.  Macarius was visiting another brother called Theopemptus.

And when he was alone with him, the old man asked “How are you doing?”  Theopemptus replied, “Thanks to your prayers, fine.”

The old man asked, “Do not your fantasies war against you?”  He replied, “No, up to now, it’s all right,” for he was afraid to admit anything.

The old man, Macarius said to him, “Many years I’ve lived as an ascetic and everybody praises me, but though I’m an old man I still have a lot of trouble with sexual fantasy.”  Theopemptus said, “Well, actually Father, it’s the same with me.”

The old man went on admitting one after another that other thoughts warred against him until he had brought Theopemptus to admit all of them himself.

There’s poor Theopemptus quivering in his sandals, knowing himself to be unwhole and finding himself before the old monk.  He’s hiding, defensive, dishonest, obsequious – “Thanks to your prayers, fine.”  He’s expecting harshness and punitiveness for the unwholeness he feels must be written on his face.

Instead, he encounters a fellow, a kindred spirit (it strikes me now the relations of the word “kind”), one who stands next to him not over him.  And in that kindredness, the path to restoring his wholeness is opened.  It’s as if the old monk, Macarius, in his willingness to die unto the anxious man, provides a channel or clearing in which the man can be healed.

As Dr Williams says,

Harshness often comes from and goes with claims of superiority … the gift of the spiritual director, the father … here, in gaining the neighbour, is a gift which has to do with identification.  You can’t say anything, you can’t get anywhere unless … the senior … has put himself or herself on the level of the person asking the question.


He gives another example, one involving a Father Moses who was invited to attend a meeting about a monk who had committed a fault.  At first Father Moses refuses to go, and then he relents.

He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried 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 can’t see them, and here I am coming to judge the errors of somebody else.”  When they heard that, they cancelled the meeting.

This “curious equation with the sinner,” Dr Williams says, that can be seen over and over again in the writings of the desert fathers, is

not a way of minimising the seriousness of failure, but recognising that failure it only healed by humility and solidarity, and not by condemnation.


The second idea Dr Williams introduces in the speech is the possibility that our “success” in life may consist in precisely what Macarius did for the other monk in “dying” to him: ie, smoothing the path for another to be restored to wholeness.

He asks

What if the real criteria for vital common life had to do with our failure or success in connecting another person with the possibility of reconciliation or of wholeness?

To put it another way, what if our own wholeness (and thereby, our joy, peace of mind, vitality, contentment) turns on enabling another to be restored to their wholeness?

To summarise, there are two moves to Dr Williams’s thesis based on the teachings of the desert fathers:

  1. we gain “God” (ie, wholeness) through “gaining” our neighbour
  2. we gain our neighbour through “our own willingness, our own freedom to face our weakness and our faults.”


Is this not magnificent and profound?  And does it not speak to all of us as human beings, Christian and atheist?  It inspires and moves me.

To read a full transcript of Dr Williams’s speech, click here.



6 thoughts on “Love, Death and the Neighbour

  1. A wonderful posting.

    In the quite recent film, “Doubt”, and in the play on which it is based, a priest, in a sermon, says that it’s not our successes which connect us all, but our failures insecurities and doubts. No doubt (sic) because, while only relatively few of us are “successful”, we, all of us, have insecurities doubts fears and other unmentionables, which we feel no-one else has, so there’s no-one we can talk about all this with. It ties in with what Rowan Williams spoke of.

    What Rowan Williams said about judgement and empathy is simple common sense, for we all wish to feel understood. If we just put ourselves in the shoes of another we’ll easily sense what he’s feeling, and we’ll accordingly treat him in a way we would wish to be treated ourselves.

    This also ties in to our conversations with others, in which, all too often, we talk past the others without listening to them. We indulge in the monologue rather than the dialogue. We turn away from each other, rather than towards.


    • Thanks, Phil. And for the thoughtful comment. I hadn’t remembered that line from the movie (a great film; Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman … just, wow). It very much goes to what Dr Williams is illustrating. Glad you picked up on the tie to our conversations with others and “talking past” them. His speech is particularly good on this, on how often we are “not attending” to “what a particular person can hear, or what a particular person can bear at any one point.”


  2. Your approach — ie, to turn the content of religious stories into metaphor, its concepts interchangeable with contemporary ones — works.

    This, in fact, is the healthiest direction for religions to evolve. And yes, it is the way for atheists and believers to find common ground again, around the campfire with the old stories and their transcendent meaning.


    • Yes, there is a way for atheists and believers to find common ground, and in any event, the common ground (human being) is there whether we like it or not. Not sure I get your first point about turning religious stories into metaphor.


      • Well, you/Williams have taken a story from a religious context and declared certain terms in it (sin, eg) “swappable” or “replaceable” with modern concepts (failure, eg).

        Metaphor may be the wrong word. Analogy. In any case, you’re moving the canon of religion BEYOND its literal interpretation.

        That’s what I was endorsing.


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