Theology as Ascetic Practice: Rowan Williams as Lenten Theologian

“For Williams, therefore, the point of theology is not solve our puzzles or answer all our questions. Nor is it the hubristic enterprise of creating unassailable systems of thought. Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism. It is the cultivation of patient, attentive adoration of the mystery of God. Theology and spirituality meet in contemplation, where we are no longer describing God from a distance, but participating in a mystery that penetrates the whole world of human experience. We ‘are questioned, stripped naked and left speechless’ by a reality we cannot control.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, quoting from Rowan Willams, The Wound of Knowledge

These words from Ben Myers excellent treatment of Rowan Williams’s theology, Christ the Stranger, not only speak to a core theme in Williams’s thought and spiritual practice, but also to an idea that I have blogged about frequently, namely the interplay of theology and spirituality and the abiding and unfathomable reality of mystery.

If the sentence, “Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism”, were tattooed on the forehead of every would be theologian, (I include myself here), we might end up with less theology in the world, but the theology we did have would, I dare say, be the richer for it.

It must be said, that linking prayer with theology, or saying that theology begins in prayer is not uncontroversial, but again I would say as someone situated in the church, who has to stand up and speak about God, I have to hear these words. I have to be driven to my knees. If not, how else would I dare to ever say anything? Balthasar famously said that theology begins on its knees, and as a churchman this is intuitively the case, and to forget it is to risk more than I am willing to venture.

Beginning in wonder and nourished by contemplative receptivity, for Balthasar, there is no real theology that is not marked by both adoration and obedience. If this is true, how then does William’s own spiritual practice, his own asceticism shape his theology? Myers speaks convincingly of the austerity of Williams’ theology, an austerity that he says comes from Williams formation in Russian Orthodox theology and, more importantly, contemplative prayer.

Williams’ thought is not just rooted in ascetic practice, but also in an ascetic frame of mind, for Myers also describes Williams’s approach as a Lenten theology. He helpfully adds that though such theology might be a necessary corrective to overblown and overly optimistic accounts of the faith, “A theology of Lent is a great thing: but one cannot live by ash alone.” This is so nicely put and so apt, I had to quote it, but I also wanted to say that as we move into Lent in 2020, perhaps Williams might be an able guide, and perhaps he can lead us first into the silence of the wilderness, where we can wait, where we can prayer, and where we might hear anew.

From my Commonplace Book: Vocation, Silence, and Knowing

One of my English professors in college had us keep a commonplace book where we wrote down important quotations, interesting images, central ideas, etc. from the things we were reading. It’s a practice I’ve more or less maintained since college, and when I taught high school English, I had my students keep a commonplace book as well.

A commonplace book is like a travelogue of the mind or a kind of map for the ideas and images that have served as landmarks. Mapping the world in this way is not an attempt at mastery but a desire for orientation, the desire to see what can be seen, to know what can be known in a lifetime, while recognizing the limitations of a single person to map the world in any comprehensive way. Loren Eisley reminds us of this with his striking image of the human journey in time and the desire for knowledge as a kind of caravan:

“We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but cannot in a lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all we hunger to know.” Loren Eisley, The Immense Journey

Here is a picture of one of the pages from notebook. Good luck reading it.

I recently filled up a notebook, so I thought I would collect some of my commonplace quotations here that dealt with similar themes. One benefit of keeping a commonplace book is the ability to review the themes and preoccupations that emerge over a period of time. As a preacher and teacher of scripture and as a student of theology, one perennial theme for me is the need for intellectual modesty and humility. Every intellectual pursuit has temptations and presumptions, but presuming to speak for and about God might be the biggest presumption of all. And yet as Pope Benedict XVI notes, it is the vocation of the theologian to speak, but before speaking one must listen:

“Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian: in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora words, to make the essential words hear. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.“

The theologian speaks the word of God, but the theologian must first hear the Word and then speak. Theology then begins in contemplation, with closed lips and open ears. But the theologian does not stay silent. There are words to speak precisely because there is a Word who has spoken. There is a Word that has made and that even now upholds all things. There is a Logos that makes the -ology of theology not only possible but vital.

Such an approach to theology, one that begins in silence and then speaks, guards against two dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger of hubris, the delusion that in saying true things about God that we have said everything about God. On the other hand, there is the danger of paralyzing agnosticism. It is a kind of fear to say anything about God since it is impossible to say everything about God. Though this fear might masquerade as humility, real humility and silence in the face of mystery do not result in an agnostic throwing up of the hands or in a despairing resignation, but in a desire to more deeply indwell the mystery and then to speak truly of it.

Naming and knowing can be forms of appreciation and can be real knowledge, even if they are not comprehension and mastery. As Robert McFarlane says, “I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing.” Robert McFarlane, Landmarks

And mastery itself is the wrong goal. As Balthasar reminds us, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Moreover, the God we speak of is love, and so we know him truly by loving him. “The person who prays begins to see: praying and seeing go together because—as Richard of St. Victor says—‘Love is the faculty of seeing’…All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and its faculty of beholding. “ Joseph Ratzinger, Beholding the Pierced One

In sum, what begins in silence ends in praise. Praise and thanksgiving are the fruit of true theological reflection.

The Lord’s Prayer as a Beggar’s Prayer

I want to start collecting ideas that deal with the classic three topics of Christian catechesis, namely the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the first post in what I hope to be a whole series of intermittent posts.

In his reflections on Jesus’s poverty in The Glory of the Lord, vol. 7, Hans Urs von Balthasar makes the point that the Lord’s Prayer is a beggar’s prayer. He begins by saying that Jesus’ prayer is rooted in his own poverty, his own absolute dependence on the Father and the Spirit. He goes on to describe prayer itself as “essentially…the attitude of the beggar.”

In expositing the Lord’s Prayer itself, Balthasar says,

“The prayer which Jesus gave as a model of prayer, the Our Father, is a beggar’s prayer from start to finish. It demands God’s coming, placing at its beginning the address of intimacy, ‘Abba’, which was reserved for Jesus alone; it demands that his name will be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as in heaven—three petitions which express the same thing in different ways, the prayer that God’s power prevail where men are powerless. Then the prayer begs for bread that is necessary for life, not for a store to be laid up, but from day to day; then it begs for the forgiveness of sins, displaying its own poverty as far as righteousness is concerned (for the one who forgives his debtor waives justice); and finally, the prayer begs to be borne through temptation, for only God’s power permits us to stand fast in temptation. Total dependance on God means that the one who knocks is sure of being heard.”

One can certainly see the connection between prayer and poverty, and a strand Balthasar doesn’t emphasize here is the theme of forgiven debts in the Lord’s Prayer from the gospel of Luke. Wealth and poverty are one of the great leitmotifs of Luke’s gospel. While the themes of poverty and begging are present in all the gospels, Luke’s gospel foregrounds issues of wealth and poverty more than the other three. From Mary’s great prayer to Jesus’ own declaration of the year of Jubilee in Luke 4 to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, not to mention the story of the Good Samaritan, the material unique to Luke declares from start to finish that the good news is good news for the poor.

So the Lukan variation on the Lord’s Prayer which emphasis the forgiveness of debts rather than transgressions highlights this theme of poverty in special way. But can we take the next step with Balthasar and see the emphasis on poverty itself as a picture of Jesus’ own poverty, his own dependence on God? This is Balthasar’s suggestion, and it is worth pondering.

As the gospel of Luke makes clear, what we call the Lord’s Prayer flows directly out of Jesus’ own prayer to the Father. And to extend the point in Luke 11, as he illustrates the nature of such prayer, gives us a pictures of need and dependence—first the friend in need of provision and second the child in need of sustenance. In prayer we are like this friend and this child, and as Jesus goes on to teach in Luke 18, in prayer we are like the persistent widow pleading for justice. Each of these asks for that which they cannot give themselves. They are beggars. They are in absolute dependence.

But can we say definitely that Jesus gives us a model of prayer that is rooted in his own poverty, his own dependence on the Father? Maybe this is easier to say if we can take Balthasar’s next statement, which is “Another word for poverty is faith.”

All quotes taken from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Theology, the New Covenant, vol. 7