Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

The Archbishop's Lent Book 2012: Love Unknown

Friday 24th February 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has chosen 'Love Unknown' by Ruth Burrows as his Lent Book for 2012.

The Archbishop writes about Love Unknown:

Ruth Burrows has always been a very challenging writer on the life of prayer.  When I first encountered her work in the early seventies, I was deeply struck by what she had to say about two things.

The first was about living with the disconnect between what you ‘know’ is true and couldn’t live without and what you are actually feeling at any given moment.  As with the great Carmelite teachers of prayer, St Teresa and St John of the Cross, this isn’t about ignoring, fearing or despising your feelings: it’s about not letting them dictate your deepest commitments.  They are real, and they are powerful, they need to be recognized and accepted. But they are only part of the picture of how you make sense of yourself before God.  Sister Ruth’s own autobiographical book, Before the Living God, recently republished, spells this out with painful clarity.

The second main theme is what puts this first one into proper perspective.  On its own, the recognition of the need to live through unwelcome or disappointing feelings might sound simply ‘stoical’. But the underlying truth in all Christian prayer is that Christ is praying in us. We are being introduced into the life of God the Trinity through our Christian discipleship, and that means that we are here and now the ‘place’ where the Son is loving the Father in the communion of the Spirit.  Our job when we pray is quietly and persistently to try and clear away the clutter, so far as we can by God’s grace, to let this eternal prayer pervade who we are and what we do.

So Christian prayer isn’t just ‘letting go’ in a vacuum, any more than it’s a strenuous effort to climb to heaven.  We pray because we have been brought to a certain place, Jesus’ place in the presence of the Father.  We do what we can to settle in that place, so that what happens there surrounds us and holds us (as if we’d walked into the middle of a choir performing some massive work).  Because we trust that this just is going on around and in us, how we feel – cheerful, confident, depressed, anxious – doesn’t measure anything very important about our closeness to Jesus.  And so we are given strength to carry on with the work of opening up to him.

Sister Ruth sums all this up with complete and impressive simplicity in this small book.  Those who want to find out more about her approach will have several wonderful books ahead of them to read;  but this gives us the essence of what she is saying, against the background of a brief but very insightful summary of the biblical story of faith – a picture of trust, persistence, a confidence that has nothing to do with what we ‘achieve’ in our silence and waiting, and everything to do with the simple acknowledgement of what is eternally happening as God loves God in God.  The life and death and resurrection of Jesus are our gateway into this.  And the constantly astonishing thing is that we can celebrate this with joy beyond words even when we see little or nothing in ourselves to be cheerful about!  What matters is that God is, and that God is actively being who God is here and now, in me, in my fellow-Christians, in the entire world.  ‘Love unknown’, because it isn’t just another item in the world;  but love wholly trustworthy and in the long term wholly transfiguring.

Rowan Williams © 2012



Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite Nun from Quidenham in Norfolk. She is the author of a number of bestselling books including Guidelines for Mystical Prayer and Essence of Prayer.



Archbishops of Canterbury have commissioned an 'Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book' for decades, collaborating with a Christian publisher. The books concentrate on theological or devotional Christian themes relevant to Lent, in preparation for the celebration of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Holy Week and Easter.


Back · Back to top