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Archbishop's Study Morning, University of Warwick

Saturday 26th May 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, addressed an audience of clergy and readers from the Diocese of Coventry at Warwick University during his visit to the diocese. The Archbishop spoke on the theme 'Staying spiritually healthy - maintaining a healthy spiritual life under pressure'.

A transcript of the Archbishop's address follows, or listen to an audio recording [25Mb, 27 mins]

Study Morning, Diocese of Coventry

'Staying spiritually healthy - maintaining a healthy spiritual life under pressure'

University of Warwick, 26 May 2012

Brother bishops, brothers and sisters:

It is a huge delight to be with you for this very special weekend.  Yesterday was a wonderfully joyful occasion and I’m looking forward to more nourishment of that kind as the weekend unfolds in all its richness.  Thank you very much for giving up a Saturday morning to this meeting.  And I must say, to begin with, how very moved and touched I am to be here alongside our guests from abroad.  Sayeedna [Archbishop Mor Severios], we’ve met more than once in the Middle East and I know, from friendships with yourself and with many others in your church, something of the extraordinary pressure under which you live.  We pray daily for you.  Josiah [Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Bishop of Kaduna], I think you know how deeply I value your friendship and your counsel over the years.  I’m truly delighted that we can be here together, again holding you in prayer at this time when your witness is so vital and so very, very costly.  I’m almost tempted to say I should sit down and just let you think about them.

But I’m not going to.  I’m going to begin by being a bit rude about the word ‘spirituality’.  It is a helpful shorthand to talk about spirituality and spiritual life, but we ought to be aware of just what an odd turn of phrase that is.  Spirituality is really quite a modern word.  If you’d talked to somebody in the 15th or 16th century and said, “Tell me about your spirituality”, they wouldn’t have had a clue what you meant.  ‘Spirituality’ is shorthand, for a Christian, for ‘life in the spirit’, for staying alive in Christ, as the Bishop has quite rightly put it.  So I’m going to begin with a word of caution about supposing there is an area of our activity called ‘spiritual life’ or ‘spirituality’, and I want to try and direct attention to the whole idea of what it means to be, and to remain, alive in the spirit.

Because when Saint Paul talks about ‘life in the spirit’ – as, of course, famously in Galatians 5 – what he talks about is not a set of spiritual activities, but a series of very direct and simple challenges about the kind of humanity that we are living out.  The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  And whenever we’re tempted to think that spirituality is something a bit remote and specialised, or something rather exotic and exciting in the corner of our lives, we ought just to say to ourselves in a mantra-like way: love, joy, peace, patience… bog-standard human goodness.

A Buddhist friend of mine who died, sadly, last year, published a wonderful little book of his own meditations on his own particular discipline, and he spoke there of going to talk to his teacher about various problems in the spiritual life.  And he said that he had poured out his soul on a number of subjects and asked a lot of highly technical questions.  The Zen master he was talking to looked at him soundly for a few minutes and then said, “Tell me, John, when were you last kind?”  That particular challenge is one which, when we’re thinking about spirituality and the spiritual life, is probably one that we ought to have etched in granite on our desks and on our walls.

So what are we talking about in terms of ‘life in the spirit’, coming alive in Jesus Christ?  I’m going to look very briefly at four dimensions of this and, without trying to offer you a map of spiritual maturity, at least perhaps to trail some issues that you might like to follow up in questions and discussions – and, indeed, which you might like to ask our guests about as well, who know so much more about coming alive in Christ under pressure than I do.

Before getting to my four topics, just one underlining of what I have just said.  This is about the sort of humanity we are living out.  And I think that for all those involved in any sort of ministry in the church, one of the most basic and important questions is: how do you stay human?  I find very often when I’m interviewing candidates for ministry, and indeed new bishops for that matter, a question that I want to ask is, “What keeps you human”? 

What keeps you human?  What connects you with other people?  What are the things that give you basic joy?  What are the things that unwind you?  What are the things that remind you that you are both profoundly special, and not special at all in another sense?  What reminds you that you are (forgive the language again) a bog‑standard human being at the end of the day?  Because the two great temptations, or two of the great temptations (there are rather a lot of them in life as a minister of any sort) are to buy into other people’s projections about you – to live inside other people’s fantasies and dreams and expectations about you so that you never really have much clear sense of who you are.  And on the other hand, of course, to get so preoccupied with fulfilling what you think are expectations of efficiency and effectiveness that you have no space whatever for God’s agenda to intervene.  So, colluding with other people’s projections, and obsessional activity – those are two of the greatest enemies to being human.

The first question that I think we ought to be asking ourselves is always that: what’s keeping me human in my discipleship and my ministry?  And that leads on, instantly, to the first of my four subjects: self-knowledge

To sustain yourself spiritually requires some disciplines of self awareness.  Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do your job, let alone be a disciple, without intense self-analysis all the time.  I’m not talking about self-analysis – it’s usually only in rather critical situations that we have to turn to that.  But, routinely, am I capable of looking at how I’m thinking and how I’m feeling with a little bit of distance, a little bit of coolness?  Am I capable of taking my intense feelings, positive and negative, just out of the depths of my guts for a moment, and putting them where I can look at them and where Christ can look at them?

It’s what the ancient spiritual traditions meant by ‘dispassion’.  It’s a terrible word, that.  And it’s not much better in Greek, because ‘apathia’ sounds remarkably like ‘apathy’ which, indeed, is the source of our word.  But dispassion, ‘apathia’, in the spiritual understanding of the early Christians was exactly that capacity just to step back a little bit from how I’m feeling, and what I think I’m wanting, and what I think other people are wanting.  Saying, just a moment – can I make some space around these feelings, these instincts, these emotions, these desires?  Can I make a bit of space around them and not allow my reactions, instantly, to be dictated by that?  And that applies equally to feelings of enormous ecstasy and enthusiasm as it does to feelings of resentment or misery.  Stand back a little, give those feelings room to breathe, and give yourself room to breathe.  Look them in the eye and say, “Now come on, how real are you, what’s this about?”

Self-awareness, and this rather alarming word ‘dispassion’, perhaps understood in terms of self-awareness.  Because it is really very important to have some sense of our freedom from the projections, the expectations, the busyness – some sense of our freedom.  And we only really get that, I think, when, in our prayer and our life generally, we make enough space to hear our name spoken by God.  And I think that’s one of the images I most want to focus on in terms of what prayer means.  Not just my talking to God, obviously, but my being still enough to hear God speaking my name.  I come to prayer saying to God, “Tell me who I am, really”. 

And that extraordinary resurrection story of Mary recognising the risen Jesus, simply when he says her name, tells us a great deal about our prayer and our growth into mature discipleship.  “Tell me who I am”, I say to God.  And sustaining ‘life in the spirit’ under pressure, I think has rather a lot to do with retaining the ability to say to God, “Tell me who I am”.  Because I’m not going to settle with what everybody else is telling me – I’m not even going to settle with what I’m telling me.  I’d like to hear from you.  I’d like to hear you say “Mary” or “Christian”, “Rowan”, “Josiah” – I’d like to hear you saying my name.  Because that tells me that I exist, I live, I flourish, because God has spoken my name.  “I have called you by name, you are mine”. (Isaiah 43:1)  And on that speaking of our name rests our whole being.  Something in our prayer is, I think, about quarrying down to that level where we can hear that God is creating me and you, now in this minute – breathing our name into the world, making us alive.

Self-awareness, then – which, as I’ve tried to spell out a bit, isn’t just about digging around in my motivations all the time, but rather finding that freedom from the immediate noise of expectations and projections and demands.  Finding that freedom to hear my name from God.  And, of course, that instantly leads into a second area, which is stillness.

Self-awareness and stillness.  To hear what God is saying we need a degree of stillness – stillness of body as well as of mind or heart.  ‘Be still and know’, says the psalm (Psalm 46:10).  Be still and know – because I begin to know who God is, who I am, what the world is, when what one poet called ‘the storms of self’ have calmed down a little bit.  And I would stress that stillness of body is a part of this.  I’ve often quoted – boringly often, I suspect – some advice given by Saint Francis de Sales to a lady who was asking him for spiritual direction back in the 17th century.  Saint Francis said, “I’ll start giving you spiritual direction when you have begun to walk more slowly, talk more slowly and eat more slowly”.  Our stillness has a great deal to do with just watching ourselves in those respects as well.  Am I giving out the impression all the time of being utterly driven, utterly compelled in everything, in such a way that I cannot stop and listen?

Silence, it is said, is the sacrament of the age to come.  It was one of the great Syrian saints who said that, Isaac of Nineveh – “Silence is the sacrament of the age to come”.  And if, in our prayer and our Christian life generally, we are trying to live the life of the future, the life of the kingdom, stillness is part of that.  Silence of word, stillness of body.

And silence of word, of course, doesn’t just mean not saying anything (although that’s always quite a good idea!) but it can mean finding ways of saying, ways of speaking, that settle and still you.  You all know something of this in your own prayer, I am sure.  The usefulness of the small phrase, repeated, which doesn’t break the silence.  Like waves on the beach on a calm day.  Just the beat of a heart.  Small words, small phrases that keep us steady, that hold us when everything else is pushing us around.  For many of us, of course, that is the prayer of Jesus as it’s developed in the Eastern tradition, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy”, just repeated quietly.  For some it can be the words of a familiar hymn, a verse of a psalm, a saying of Christ from the gospels.  Something that we can say to anchor ourselves, where we are, in stillness, in the same place.

I can’t remember who first said it, but it comes back to me again and again when I try to pray: the real problem in prayer, the real difficulties arise, not with the absence of God but with the absence of me.  It’s not that God isn’t there; it’s nine times out of ten that I’m not.  I’m all over the place.  And God is, so to speak, sitting there very patiently, perhaps occasionally raising His eyes heavenwards, if God can do that, and saying to me, “So when are you actually going to arrive? When are you going to sit and listen, when are you going to stop roaming and arrive?”

Self-awareness and stillness.  The one connected very much with the other, because as we still ourselves we become that little bit more able to hear God speaking our name.  That mysterious moment when we connect with the act and word of God that has brought us into being and, much more important, is bringing us into being, moment by moment.

Do you ever get involved in debates about creation?  I bet you do.  I think one thing that surprises people sometimes is when you say, “Creation is happening now”.  Because God is eternally uttering the word, the name, that is making me real, now.  And if God stopped uttering that word, that name, you and I, the whole universe and Alpha Centauri and all the things at the end of millions of light years, would just stop being there.  God is creating now.  Creation is not something that happened a long time ago, it’s something that happens today.  And somehow, in our stillness, we are seeking to connect with that eternal reality of God speaking, God giving, God calling us into life.

So, third: God calling us into life – calling, of course, which suggests that there’s always something ahead.  So my third word is growth.  Am I expecting to grow?

It’s a very sad reflection on any Christian if they come to the point of thinking, “Well, I’ve done my spiritual growing.  I’ve got to a plateau, this suits me.  I think I’ve found a style that I’m comfortable with”.  We know what that means, and it can be given a slightly less malign interpretation than I’m about to give it.  It’s important to find a way of being, praying, speaking, singing, worshiping that you can live with, with honesty and adherence – just be very careful of confusing that with thinking, “This isn’t going to stretch me”.

Do I come to prayer, and do I try to sustain my discipleship, in the expectation of being stretched?  Do I expect there to be a bit more of me at the end of a period of prayer or worship than there was at the beginning?  Because that’s really what it’s about – is there going to be a bit more of me there?  Or, to change the metaphor, will God have cleared away a little bit more of the clutter, in that period?  Is there a little bit more space there?

It’s so difficult to measure, isn’t it?  Because we can’t take ourselves at the beginning of a period of prayer or an act of worship and say, “This is what I am”, and then at the end of it look and say, “Ooh, good, there’s a little bit more”.  We have to go on in the sometimes rather demanding trust that we are being pushed out, pulled out, enlarged, in that process, bit by bit.  And approach our praying and our discipleship with the expectation that we will be, gently, and sometimes not so gently, urged towards that bit more.  Again, back to the early Christian era, Paul’s language in Philippians about ‘stretching forward to that which is before’ (Philippians 3:13) was a very important image for Christians in the early centuries.  Straining forward, epectus, is being pulled out towards what is before.  But straining forward is the wrong language because it suggests that it’s all about me making an effort rather than God drawing me out.  To expect to grow, to approach our prayer and our acts of worship with that quiet assumption that at the end of such an exercise there’ll be a bit more of me than there was at the start, that’s what I think we’re called to do in sustaining ‘life in the spirit’, Christ coming alive.

And that, in turn, opens up the fourth and last of my areas of reflection, and the one which is both the easiest and the hardest to talk about.  And that’s joy.  To be opened up in this way is to discover joy – not happiness, not a transient feeling of euphoria, not feeling it’s basically okay in a kind of shoulder-shrugging way.  But joy.  The sense that I’ve been connected with something so real that it will break all the boundaries and the containers I try to put it in, a sense of something overflowing, something pushing outwards.  “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” says Jesus in the Gospel of John (John 7:38) about the person who receives the spirit – and what a very disturbing image that is if we start thinking about it!

But overflow – I think that’s what this joy is about.  That what is happening in the life of discipleship – focused as it is in the life of prayer and the life of public worship – what’s happening is boundary-breaking, something uncontainable.  Joy is one of the names we give to this, because when we look at it and compare it with some other experiences we know about, that’s what it is most like.

You won’t be surprised to hear me say that one of the worst things that we as Christians can do and have done to the gospels, is somehow to convey the impression that joy is the very last thing on our minds, or in our hearts, in our worship or in our relation with one another.  It’s as if, when the overwhelming, excessive aspect of God begins to impinge on us, there’s always somebody around from the church to say, “You can’t do that here”.  Whether it’s the exuberance of the renewal movement and charismatic experience; whether it’s the overwhelming things that, literally, leave us flat on our face in adoration; whether it’s the moment of extreme and focused simplicity and stripped bareness that can, so to speak, in a whitewashed room with a plain cross on the table, make us feel this is all there is and all that matters.  Well, God help us if our impulse is to say, “You can’t do that here”.  To say, “Let’s get it back into the channels”.  The message we give, again and again, to the world around is nervousness about God, rather than joy.  And, of course, nervousness about one another that goes with that, which is another story.  We could spend a long time on that one, so let’s get back to the main subject.

So, self-awareness and stillness, growth, and joy.  I want to suggest that those are the building blocks of a life in the spirit that can stand up to all the things around us, in the church and the world, and in ourselves, that are trying to muffle or stifle the glorious liberty of the children of God.  And while that’s not a recipe of any kind, it may at least offer a set of questions to put to ourselves about what we’re doing and what we can do, as I said earlier, to keep our humanity in place.  To sense ourselves as truly and really beloved creatures of God, who are, miraculously, being transformed into beloved children of God by the gift of the spirit; who are being drawn into our own real identities.  As if we all of us begin not quite being who we really are and God is leading us, bit by bit, to be who we really are, whispering our names again and again so that we keep growing into that.  And I believe with all my heart that if we are able, somehow, to go on asking ourselves those questions, we have no guaranteed recipe for success, but we are at least offering to God our very best efforts in avoiding avoidable failure. 

So, what keeps us human?  What helps us be still?  How much of ourselves are we ready to know?  Are we prepared to be quietly and positively willing to move on?  And are we ready for the overflow, the excess that can come with that?  If we can cope with those questions we can perhaps be that little bit more open to the spirit’s mission—not ours, but the spirit’s mission – that mission which seeks to flood the world with Christ’s liberty and Christ’s promise.  And it’s a very good weekend for thinking about that, so thank you for bearing with me.

© Rowan Williams 2012

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