Review of, “Where God Happens”

Tony SigI have found in conversation, that many who are the most frustrated with the Archbishop of Canterbury are people who have not read his sermons, speeches, lectures and books. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Why doesn’t Rowan DO or SAY something?” What is most exasperating for me is that I know that Rowan has said things. It seems that not many are listening closely.

Where then should one start to get a feel for how ++Williams is acting and speaking? What is his “strategy?” Is he merely a sadly inept leader? Is he a master manipulator? Is he straddling the fence, trying to please everyone? At times, perhaps ++Williams has not been as charismatic as may have been needed. It is not my intention to claim he is perfect and beyond reproach; but I feel nonetheless that what is lacking is a careful reading of what he has been saying.

Among other things, at the most recent Primates Meeting he urged prayer and contemplation. Just a few months ago he urged taking wisdom from the monastics and the desert fathers/mothers. Where might we begin to get a feel for how he believes this might work out in practice?

I recommend his book which just came out in 2005: “Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another” It is a series of lectures that he gave to the World Community of Christian Meditation on the desert fathers and mothers. At a piddly 121 pages (174 including some desert sayings and index) it is a quick read, but not a light one.

In the first chapter – “Life, Death and Neighbor” Rowan walks us through a particularly unique read of the way in which the desert monastics saw that discipleship and holiness only occurs in community. Yet the case in convincing, especially since only in rare instances were any monastics completely alone. They usually resided in communities and even those who were more separated were visited often by people seeking wisdom. He quotes Anthony the Great:

“Our life and death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ”

In similar fashion he looks at this quote of John the Dwarf:

“You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.”
They said, “What does this mean?”
He said, “The foundation is our neighbor whom we must win. The neighbor is where we start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this”

Using quotes like this Rowan begins to show how “death” is connected to the conversion of the neighbor. All this is to say that we are putting our neighbor in touch with God, and our interaction with them is also this saving grace. The famous monk Moses says “If you are occupied with your own faults, you have no time to see those of your neighbors” and “The monk must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatever”

In quick and simple prose (which if you have read his “theology” proper, is not a thing you imagine him doing much of…simple anything!) he breezes us through how the monk sees his relationship to other people. It is by the relentless self-examination and refusal to self-justify and judge others that the monk is able to grow into the holy person God is calling them to be.

In the second chapter “Silence and Honeycakes” Rowan recalls a tale of two very different monks. A person seeking out the wisdom of the fathers is sent to one, who doesn’t speak at all. In frustration he turns to yet another great monk, who greets him heartily, prepares food and extends hospitality. In the end, the point is not that the one is a bad monk and the other good, but that there is that part of each of us that God has made utterly unique, that nobody else can be and do, and part of this “dying to the neighbor” “not judging” and “self-examination” is not becoming austere in some abstract sense, but growing more and more into the person who God is calling one to be.

We can of course see this in scripture. Take Ephesians for example, and the listing of those special gifts which the God gives for the training and building of his body. He asks:

“What would the Church be like if it were indeed a community not only where each saw his or her vocation as primarily to put the neighbor in touch with God but where it was possible to engage each other in this kind of quest for the truth of oneself, without fear, without expectation of being despised or condemned for not having a standard or acceptable spiritual life”

All this is not to say that he gives into some blurry “liberal” idea of “who we are” is affirmed completely. Absolutely not he says. Often those parts of us that seem to be an integral part of “who we are” are really in need of reforming. Nobody is affirmed as they are, but accepted in Christ. Part of discovering these parts of us that need pruning and turning is having the space where we are “free” to grow and admit that we fall short.

He finishes the chapter with reflections on the Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky and his differentiation between the “individual” and the “personal,” and how it relates to God as Trinity.

In the third chapter, “Fleeing,” ++Williams examines just what the fathers said we should “flee” from. We should flee from “thoughts” (a rather technical term in monastic lit. for the chains of obsessional fantasy that can take over our inner life p71), from status, dignity and speech. This too is not fleeing from ones neighbor, but is involved in winning them. When we are concerned with speaking our enlightened (biblical?) perspectives, our insights into others spiritual lives – which tend to elevate our own spiritual prowess in the mind of some – even if we spoke the “truth” we often cut off the struggle for that person, the struggle out of which comes a new depth and sense of truth.

And finally in the fourth section of the book: “Staying” Rowan shows us how the desert fathers felt that it was weak monks who, when they were running up against a wall, would leave and try their hand at monasticism in another place – perhaps a place more congenial to how they are now. By “staying” the monks were confronted by the drudgery, boredom, frustration and anger of life as it is. The running away is a refusal to live in Christian patience and charity, to confront their demons and live in reconciliation with God, themselves, and their neighbors.

There is so much more to this solid “little” book, I wanted only to give a shell of the themes in it. I highly recommend it to all in the Anglican Communion. Especially those who feel that Rowan is not stepping up as a “leader.” Of course everyone will be enriched by this book, it need not only be for Anglicans.

For further study of his “leadership style” I would say look at “Christ On Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment”, “Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel” and “Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the NT to St. John of the Cross



  1. “Nobody is affirmed as they are, but accepted in Christ. Part of discovering these parts of us that need pruning and turning is having the space where we are “free” to grow and admit that we fall short.”

    Amen! I REALLY like treasure hunts!


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