I was in my 20s in the 1970s and eager to know, in a more meaningful way, what theology as wisdom, as insight, as a transformative journey was all about. I had studied a great deal of biblical, historic, systematic and confessional theology in England and Switzerland in my spiritual quest, but I realized that such an approach left much missing at a deeper and more significant level. I wondered whether I was the problem or whether the church had taken some questionable turns in the path in her recent history. I could, of course, stayed on the trail I was on, but I could see both a cliff’s edge and cul-de-sac not far ahead.
I had turned by the late 1970s to the writings of Thomas Merton as guide and mentor, and Merton pointed the way to the wisdom and time tried depth of the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 3rd-5th centuries. I began, also, an MA in English Literature in the Spring of 1979 at University of British Columbia (UBC). I took a course on James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (which included an examination of the broader stream of consciousness /impressionistic movements in literary and artistic life in the early decades of the 20th century). I realized, as I lived through the course, that there was a definite lack of centre in the modern psyche. I read a great deal of Tolstoy at the time to keep me more grounded in the more demanding ethical issues. There was, in short, an aspect of avant garde literary life that did not point the way to depth or an inner wisdom. Merton and Tolstoy, at the time, definitely pointed the way to fuller possibilities and finer heights worthy of the trek.
I left UBC, after taking the course, and enrolled at Regent College (on the campus of UBC). I was committed to following the leads Merton had offered, and my interest in spirituality and contemplative theology waxed with each course taken. I was fortunate to take a variety of courses with Dr. James Houston (who was nudging the evangelical clan to read the older spiritual classics of the Christian Tradition) and be his Teaching Assistant from 1980-81. James Houston’s spirituality, as a young man, had been deepened and broadened by his encounters with C. S. Lewis (a truly catholic Anglican) and Nicholas Zernov (Russian Orthodox lay historian and theologian with whom Houston lived for a few years). Most of my time at Regent College was focussed in two areas: Merton and Merton’s grounding in the Patristic era of Church history. I wrote about 15 papers when at Regent on Merton, and my thesis was on John Cassian (Merton’s teacher in many ways and a wise bearer and conveyor of the Desert tradition in the 3rd- 5th centuries). My overriding interest was on the relevance and relationship of theology to spirituality, and the relationship of both to the church and the world. I thought then (as I still do) that the insights of the Desert Mothers and Fathers have much to speak to us if we have but the ears to hear and hearts to heed. I left Regent College in 1981 and did another MA in Patristic contemplative theology at UBC. My thesis was on Origen and Anthony, and I spent much of the summer of 1982 translating Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses---quite a challenge yet most rewarding.
You might wonder what this lengthy preamble has to do with Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. I finished my thesis on Cassian in the Spring of 1981, and in the final chapter I mentioned how John Main had tapped into the work of John Cassian. John Main was one of the founders of the Christian meditative/contemplative movement, and he dipped his bucket deeply in the well of Cassian’s
Conferences. Laurence Freeman took over the work of Main after he died, and Main’s vision has now blossomed into ‘The World Community for Christian Meditation’. Needless to say, such an approach to my inner journey was missing in my early ways of doing theology and the stream of consciousness and impressionistic approach to knowing. It was Laurence Freeman who invited Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2001 to give four lectures to members of ‘The World Community for Christian Meditation’ on ‘the wisdom of the desert’. Williams gave the lectures, and the lectures and question/answer session were published in 2003 as Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. There are many who find Williams writings and theological probes demanding and tough slogging, and there is some truth in this.
Williams does ask the reader to come with a mature and eager mind that is willing to work. Silence and Honey Cakes, though, is a much simpler and more accessible book. The turn to the desert is also a turn with a difference. The Desert Mothers and Fathers were primarily concerned with the relevance of theology to personal insight, wisdom and transformation. We all know those who have been well educated, in either a formal or informal way, in philosophy or theology, but all their knowledge and information does not translate into a more significant understanding, sensitivity or wisdom about themselves and others. The Desert Tradition was very much about creating a bridge between spirituality and theology, knowledge about God and a transformative life in God. Theology can be just another diversion and distraction if the truth gleaned about God does not pass through the portals of the soul into the depths of our expectant new being in God. How do we know the differences, in both subtle and crude ways, about our false self (old Adam/Eve -deceptions of the ego) and our true self (new Adam/Eve)? It was these sorts of transformative and discerning questions that preoccupied the Abbas and Ammas of the desert from the 3rd-5th centuries. It was a homecoming of sorts to read Silence and Honey Cakes.
Silence and Honey Cakes is, therefore, a historic and practical journey into the desert and a retrieval of the relevance of these sages for our time. Freeman wrote the ‘Introduction’ to the missive, and the book is divided into five sections: 1) Life, Death and Neighbours, 2) Silence and Honey Cakes, 3) Fleeing, 4) Staying and 5) Questions and Answers.
‘Life, Death and Neighbours’ make it abundantly clear that if our understanding of spirituality is not intimately connected with a love of neighbour, then our understanding of spirituality is a decoy duck. Williams has a tender ear that is held close to the aphoristic and poignant parables of the Desert Mothers and Fathers and why they linked life to neighbour. The many tales Williams draws forth from the bounty of the Desert way (and how it renewed the church), and their insights for our day makes lecture 1 a real keeper. ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ yet again draws forth more tales from the wisdom way of the Desert. There were those in the Desert that held high silence and solitude as the authentic way, but much hinges on what is meant by such ways and vocations. The deeper meaning of silence and solitude, as understood by the elders of the Desert, was more about an attitude of hearing the inner differences between that which is false and true within—this requires some distance from both the clatter and chatter of external and internal voices. There were other Desert leaders of a more affable and extrovert nature. They delighted in the company of those who were committed, in an imperfect way, to the quest, and the metaphorical and literal reality of honey cakes spoke of the nourishment and sweetness of being with others. There is always the temptation, when mistreatment or opposition, misunderstandings or caricatures, conflict or tensions arise within a community to flee from the fray.
‘Fleeing’ is examined and explored in a probing and surgical way in lecture #3. This is a must read chapter in the book that is replete with the best of Desert wisdom and analysis. Those who have learned to stare down and say No to the fleeing impulse must then discern what it means to stay within an imperfect and often frustrating community. I found ‘Staying’ the high point of the book. Many in our time flit like butterflies from one retreat, guru, church, conference or book to another, and there is no sense that staying in one place with one community might just be the means of facing ourselves at a deeper, more demanding and transformative level. The commitment to stability and staying is a needful corrective to those that use the language of spirituality to serve their ego rather than allowing the meaning of spiritualty to transform their ego into their new being (personhood) within community and both in God. The final chapter on ‘Questions and Answers’ has some pithy insights that is well worth the read.
Rowan Williams is, in many ways, carrying the torch of Thomas Merton, and just as Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert (1960) did much to unearth the motherlode of a forgotten yet needful way of understanding the faith journey, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (2003) is a more mature reflection on the gold found in such a wisdom tradition. It is significant that Archbishop Rowan Williams has completed a book on Thomas Merton, and the union of two contemplative theologians now exists with much fruit on both trees. Indeed, the wisdom of the Fathers/Mothers of the Patristic era ever lives, and can still speak to those in the West who live lives that move at a pace that is neither human or humane. There is much ado about nothing these days, and the wisdom of Merton and Williams (gleaned from the Desert) can illuminate why this is so and what can be done about it. Do take the time to meditatively read through Silence and Honey Cakes---it is an excellent hiking companion for the journey.