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Book review: Holy living (Rowan Williams)

Review of Holy Living, by Rowan Williams (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Paperback RRP: £12.99, ISBN 978-1-4729-4608-9


I was living in Toronto and happened to be present when Dr Williams gave the Larkin-Stuart Lecture at Trinity College in 2007. Now published as Chapter 3 of the current volume, its subject is holy scripture, Williams issuing an invitation to, and guidelines for, a more prayerful and considered practice of reading the canon. But for the past eleven years I have carried around my own powerful impression of that lecture, and in my mind it was (and I’m relieved to see still is) a lecture about listening.

A ‘lecture about listening’ flirts with paradox, but enthusiasts for Fr Rowan’s work will recognize the man in that description. This admittedly eclectic volume is unified by an interest in attention, what has been called ‘the natural prayer of the soul’. So, we learn how living in community can teach us to be self-forgetful and other-centred (ch 1 and, with lessons from St Benedict, ch 3); how our urban environments might become places where people are acknowledged and cared for, defying the indifference of the profiteers who build and manipulate them (ch 5); how fixating on sex and its ethics may be distracting us from more pressing and proper objects of Christian attention (ch 6, with lessons from St Paul). Holiness is a practical matter, and chapters dedicated to the discipline of prayer are no less practical in tone. The treatment of icons (ch 8) would make a fine, clear introduction for the curious or sceptical.

Holy living is ordered towards human growth, the possibility of spiritual and personal maturity. This fullness of life is sketched memorably in chapters on contemplation and mission (7) and health and healing (2, with a thoughtful image of Christ’s healing miracles as acts of ‘(re-)populating’ creation). ‘Know thyself: what kind of an injunction?’ (ch 13) considers maturity and truth as portrayed in modern philosophy and psychotherapy. This is the language we all use now, Christian and non-Christian alike. Fr Rowan engages it both in its own terms and in the light of the gospel, and much more successfully than in the rather problematic first two chapters of his (even) more recent Being Human (SPCK 2018).

Williams’s characteristic generosity leads us now and then into unlikely territory. I am unpersuaded that in the eucharistic theology of a counter-reformation mystic we find fertile ground for lessons in ecumenism (ch 11, on St Teresa of Avila). On the other hand, his handling of Teresa on scripture (ch 10) sets before us a picture of her Carmel as a place of radical attention, powerfully subverting the stratified and divisive world beyond. Here really is a challenge to (amongst others) our sexist and sectarian quibbles, as well as a portrait of a Teresa we will want to know better. His close-reading of Julian of Norwich on the atonement (ch 12) is similarly enticing, and one of the gems of the collection. Williams’ writing is nowhere better than when he is engaged in the very attention he enjoins. (A similarly attentive editor could have improved some of the prose in this volume, which doesn’t always make the move from oral to written form with perfect smoothness.)

There is a tendency in today’s Church (of England, but not only there) to be rather shouty. Fr Rowan here as elsewhere shows us that our confusions are to be overcome not by what one says, but by how one says it - or rather, by not-saying, by that attentive silence which treats seriously the other perspective, and is the only attitude from which either side can grow. In a Church and world very convinced of its own way, Williams’ careful voice reminds us that the Christian tradition bequeathes us two thousands years of suffering and glory in which Christ’s call to gentle and humble listening is present. This is the only place where true humanity is to be found.

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