Silence and Honey Cakes
By Rowan Williams
Early on in the Christian religion, after the books of the New Testament had been written and the message spread abroad, some people wanted to explore their relationship with God in detail. These were the monks and nuns who set up communities in the Egyptian desert, from about 350 AD. We still base lots of our theology on what they decided (so, you might think that you learned about ‘original sin’ from someone in your church, based on the Bible, but that was one idea which was introduced by one such monk).
The monks/nuns lived in communities, and their ‘spiritual life’ was connected to their ‘physical life.’ Although they removed themselves physically from contemporary society, they lived amongst other monks and nuns, and were dependent on each other. They considered their spiritual welfare to be closely entwined with other people. For example, one monk stated that he tried to focus entirely on his own sin, because then he would never be tempted to judge anyone else—how could he complain that dinner was burnt if he always had in mind that he had broken a plate yesterday? (Seems like a good rule.) They also talked about ‘putting the neighbour in touch with God’ which to be honest I don’t really understand. How can they claim to focus on this when they seemed to live in such remote places? I assume their ‘neighbour’ was restricted to other monks, which is rather limited. Though some monks were visited by people seeking advice, so maybe those were the ‘neighbours.’
They do seem to have been a very tolerant bunch, very accepting of differences. They spoke about people following different vocations, and that a life spent praying was no better or worse than a life spent mending shoes, if that was what you had been called to do. The book is named after the practices of two monks, one who worshipped God with silence, and another who worshipped by eating honey cakes with his visitors. (I know which one I would like to be.)
They also had great names! The book describes ‘Moses the Black’ who was from Ethiopia and before he was a monk, he was a highwayman. Another was ‘John the Dwarf’.
I think I might suggest we devise similar names at college for our fellow-students. I shall be ‘Anne the Old,’ as most people (including the lecturers) are younger than me.
In addition to giving each other names, the monks were also answerable to a mentor. This seems like a slightly dodgy idea to me. I can understand why they believed having a human to confess to, someone to be completely open with and to take advice from, might make people more accountable (because let’s be honest, although we say that we confess directly to God, how many of us do, diligently, every single day?) However, I think the risk of abuse, of the mentor taking wrongful control, or representing their own view rather than God’s, is too great. I know some modern churches have a similar idea, but it’s not something I would want to be part of. I don’t think I trust another human with those things.
They spent time considering some of the knotty problems of Christian theology. For example, when Jesus was in Gethsemane (praying in the garden the night he was arrested) did he have the option to change his mind and escape crucifixion? If he did then he cannot have known the limitations of humanity, and being trapped in a situation of temptation. If he didn’t then how could he be fully God, who is unrestricted? It might sound a bit silly, a bit convoluted, to us today. But it was the tackling of such issues, and the finding of sensible answers, that provides the basis of much of our theology.
(In answer to the above question, they decided that the ‘will’ cannot be separated from the person as a whole. Therefore, Jesus would always ‘choose’ what was right. In the same way as a mother feels intensely protective towards her child, and if a gunman was to burst into the room, in theory she could choose to hide, but in reality, she would throw herself in front of her child to protect them, because that is her nature. Choosing to abandon her baby would be impossible.)
The book discusses what is ‘personal’ as opposed to what is ‘individual.’ It gives examples of people who lived lives in tune with their own personalities, without necessarily striving to be different. ‘Self’ was not something to be flaunted, ‘different’ was something natural, not something militant. I think they were not trying to ‘find themselves’ but rather trying to find who God had created them to be. Sometimes what I read sounded like navel-gazing, a bit too much looking inside and not enough looking to God, but it’s hard to understand a lifestyle from a book written centuries later. Certainly they were on a quest to find truth—the kind of truth I wrote about a few weeks ago. ( https://anneethompson.com/2023/02/06/should-politicians-tell-lies/ )
The book considers several more ideas that arose from the desert monks/nuns. It’s a little book, but it took a while to read because I needed to keep pausing, pondering the ideas presented, deciding whether I understood them and whether I agreed with them. It’s worth the time spent; if you see a copy, I suggest you read it.
Thanks for reading. I hope you have something as sweet as honey cakes in your day. Take care.
Love, Anne x