The following post, written in 2010, scared me when I posted it. It was the first time I had dared use the word God and I put it in another’s mouth to make it safer. Now I can see my understanding has deepened and grown in wholeness …
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.
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 teachings 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.
“God” = wholeness
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.
It’s also important to get 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) occurs through solidarity or identification, not condemnation
- our own wholeness depends on another’s wholeness; thus we are called to assist the other regain their wholeness.
Discovering the inescapability of community
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, all of us, must “die to his neighbour.”
Dying to our neighbour means putting aside our love of superiority over another, our moral high ground, our lust for winning, our inattention to the reality of the other. It means standing side by side with our neighbour – the inferior one, the “sinner” – identifying with them, “dying” to them.
The authenticity of Macarius
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 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.
Everyone sees what we think we’re hiding
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.
Our “success” in life
The second idea Dr Williams introduces in the speech is the possibility that our “success” in life may consist in doing what Macarius did for the other monk in “dying” to him: ie, smoothing the path for another to be restored to wholeness.
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 he takes from the teachings of the desert fathers.
- We gain “God” (ie, wholeness) through “gaining” our neighbour
- 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.