When I was ordained, I vowed that I would only ever say what was true for me personally. In this I am following the example of Anglican theologian and monk Harry Williams. I never met him, but to read his writings is to get some idea of the man. You can glimpse his inner turmoil, his difficulties in finding God (his autobiography has the inspired title Some day I’ll find you), and his struggles with society, religion, and the church. He wrote that after a difficult time in a London parish he vowed he would never say anything that was not wrought from his own experience. I admired that when I first read it, I admire it still, and I vow to stick to it.
It’s in struggling that we get down to the real you and me. Not by hiding the difficulties, but by acknowledging them, like so-called doubting Thomas. You can’t cure an abscess by ignoring it. The problem with hiding our problems is that we then put on a false front. We pretend that things are better than they are. Propaganda. Spin. This is very familiar to us as we read and listen to the news.
Why do we give into this temptation to ‘spin’? At its root is seeking the approval of others. Evagrios (AD 345-399) wrote that the demons that most sap away our strength are gluttony, avarice, and the need to seek the esteem of others. Interpret gluttony wider than just gluttony for food, and interpret avarice broadly as wanting what is not yours— itself the root of pride.
Now, look at the world; look at the mess we’re in. The advertising industry is built upon our inability to resist gluttony and avarice for possessions. We are avaricious for perfection. This is in part a noble longing: we ache for things to be better.
The trouble is that we forget that what is perfection for us is likely to mean making things worse for someone else. Our latest fashions come at the price of people in sweatshops elsewhere. Our quest for the perfect body, or the perfect anything, can lead us to neglect or harm our families and friends, and ourselves. And I write this bearing Harry Williams’s advice in mind: this is first hand experience from my past. We are surrounded by the three things that Evagrios warns us against. This is the sin of the world.
What do we do about it?
Of course, things will never be just as we want them, and we have to live with this imperfection. But we also need to speak out and bring it into the open. This is prophecy, and the Hebrew root of the word prophecy is ‘to make things bear fruit’. It is revolutionary.
Jesus was both spiritual and revolutionary—two sides of the same coin. Prophets ask real, often painful and upsetting questions to show what the true situation really is. Children are prophets by their openness and honesty: The Emperor’s New Clothes. People who speak against governments are rarely thanked. Whistleblowers are often prosecuted. But healthy society needs dissent. We need look no further back than the twentieth century to see what happens when prophets are silenced. When something is wrong, we need people to say so, and we can’t do this if we want the approval of the majority.
As a minister of religion, I have only one message really, and it’s that we all have Christ within—the divine core. We begin to get glimpses of the Divine only when we start to know ourselves through self- examination. This involves distressing internal turmoil as Harry Williams well knew. It involves soul-searching, discarding images from the past, discarding expectations of others and the need to seek approval from them.
My experience is that however far down into myself I go, I never seem to reach the bottom of the barrel: there’s always yet more muck hiding in a corner. I trust it’s worth it. Letting the divine core within take over our whole selves makes us all divine. That’s what the two recent festivals of the church are all about. The Ascension (21 May) is taking our human-ness into the realms of the divine, and Whitsuntide (31 May: Pentecost if you must) is about the divine accessible to everyone, everywhere. That’s something to look forward to as we struggle with the daily irritations and frustrations that life brings.
My Ascension resolution is to try and stop seeking the approval of others. This is very difficult. If we work for someone else, our job often demands that we do things for the boss’s approval, whether or not we’d like to. But let’s try anyway: seek divine will, not human will. If you doubt what it’s all for—and who doesn’t—you might recall Churchill’s words during the Second World War: suffering, blood, sweat and tears, but then glory.
Harry Williams on God
The joy which a man finds in his work and which transforms the tears and sweat of it into happiness and delight – that joy is God. The wonder and curiosity which welcomes what is new and regards it not as threatening but enriching life … the confidence which leads us to abandon the shelter of our disguises and to open up the doors of our personality so that others may enter there, and both we and they be richer for the contact … the compelling conviction that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all the suffering we may have to witness or to undergo, the universe is on our side, and works not for our destruction but for our fulfilment – [all this] is God.