Silence and Honey Cakes

Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert Paperback
by Rowan Williams [Lion Books, 2004]
silence and honey cakes
“Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2001 [gave] 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 2
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.
Thomas Merton
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.”

For The World Community for Christian Meditation, see The Community was founded in 1991 to foster the teachings of John Main OSB (1926-1982): see further and
john main
“John Main effectively put the desert tradition of prayer to work in our own day. The roots of his distinctive spirituality lie deep in the fourth and fifth centuries, especially in the works of that great expositor of the desert world, John Cassian. The World Community for Christian Meditation which continues his mission is for me, as for many throughout the world, a taste of what a commitedly contemplative church might look and feel like.”
Rowan Williams at

Rowan Williams is also the author of “Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another and Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers” [Shambhala Publications, 2005; New Seeds, 2007]
“The place “where God happens,” according to Rowan Williams’s striking new reading of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, is between each other. It’s a truth that we of the twenty-first century most urgently need to learn in order to heal the experience of alienation that has become endemic to our age, and these odd and appealing ancient figures, surprisingly, hold keys to this healing.

The fourth-century Christian hermits of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine understood the truth of Christian community profoundly, and their lives demonstrate it vividly—even though they often lived in solitude and isolation. The author breaks through our preconceived ideas of the Desert Fathers to reveal them in a new light: as true and worthy role models—even for us in our modern lives—who have much to teach us about dealing with the anxieties, uncertainties, and sense of isolation that have become hallmarks of modern life. They especially embody valuable insights about community, about how to live together in an intimate and meaningful way. Williams makes these radical figures, who clearly have a special place in his heart, come to life in a new way for everyone.

The book includes an appendix of selections from the teachings of the Desert Fathers.”
“This may seem a lofty title to assign to something that is essentially an introduction to and brief commentary on the so-called “desert fathers (and mothers)” who withdrew to monastic communities in the sands of Egypt starting about 1,600 years ago. Far from being a romantic paean to a calcified form of religious existence, however, Williams illustrates that what these pioneers of experiential spirituality discovered in the desert may just be the solution for our hyper-individualistic, success-driven, anxious, insecure, and fear-obsessed times. What exactly did they discover out there amongst the howling winds, thorny trees, and sun-baked rocks that was so valuable? Nothing less than the path toward a life-transforming experience of God.

Williams begins by looking at the strong connection the desert fathers made between the spiritual life and community. For them, spirituality and community were inseparable. Echoing the link Christ drew between the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37–39), Williams writes,

relation with eternal truth and love simply doesn’t happen without mending our relations with Tom, Dick and Harriet. The actual substance of our relationship with eternal truth and love is bound up with how we manage the proximity of these human neighbors.

This emphasis on community may sound strange coming from a group of people who withdrew from community to find God. But in actuality, the monks and nuns were not fleeing community itself, only what they perceived to be an unhealthy manifestation of Christian community in their day. As Williams says, “they wanted to find out what the church really was—which is another way of saying that they wanted to find out what humanity really was when it was in touch with God through Jesus Christ.”

Thus, even as the monks and nuns were fleeing one community, they were already forming another, one that would be less about controlling access to God and more about opening doors to healing and the fullness of life that Christ makes possible (John 10:10). In short, they believed that, “Insofar as you open such doors for another, you gain God, in the sense that you become a place where God happens for somebody else,” thus the title of this book.

Having rooted the quest for spiritual experience firmly in the dirt, sweat, tears, and joys of community life, Williams moves on to describe a little more about what the desert fathers and mothers actually meant by that term. For them, community was not “a place where egos are jostling for advantage, competing for much the same goods, held together by a reluctantly accepted set of rules that minimize the damage.” Nor was it a group of people “educated in complete conformity so all its members want what they are told to want and march in step.” It was a unity of persons—people who had heard the mysterious and unique echo of God’s Word in their inner depths and allowed that word to give birth to a particular vocation or path to holiness that God had reserved for them alone.

Williams goes to great lengths to emphasize the diversity and equality of vocations, noting that there is no standardized form of holiness or aestheticism. But he also notes that if there is one virtue almost universally recommended in the desert, it is silence. Silence, he writes,

somehow reaches to the root of our human problem….Words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect, and comfort ourselves; without silence, we will not get any closer to knowing who we are before God.

Now we can begin to understand the monks’ and nuns’ emphasis on meditation and contemplation as the ultimate path to holiness. Although this form of God-directed self-discovery was crucial to these desert dwellers, Williams also echoes their warning that one must be wary of letting it devolve into a self-centered search for justification.”
Rowan Williams - portrait
Rowan Douglas Williams was born in Swansea, south Wales on 14 June 1950, into a Welsh-speaking family, and was educated at Dynevor School in Swansea and Christ’s College Cambridge where he studied theology. He studied for his doctorate – in the theology of Vladimir Lossky, a leading figure in Russian twentieth-century religious thought – at Wadham College Oxford, taking his DPhil in 1975. After two years as a lecturer at the College of the Resurrection, near Leeds, he was ordained deacon in Ely Cathedral before returning to Cambridge.

From 1977, he spent nine years in academic and parish work in Cambridge: first at Westcott House, being ordained priest in 1978, and from 1980 as curate at St George’s, Chesterton. In 1983 he was appointed as a lecturer in Divinity in the university, and the following year became dean and chaplain of Clare College. 1986 saw a return to Oxford now as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church; he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1989, and became a fellow of the British Academy in 1990. He is also an accomplished poet and translator.

In 1991 Professor Williams accepted election and consecration as bishop of Monmouth, a diocese on the Welsh borders, and in 1999 on the retirement of Archbishop Alwyn Rice Jones he was elected Archbishop of Wales, one of the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion. Thus it was that, in July 2002, with eleven years experience as a diocesan bishop and three as a leading primate in the Communion, Archbishop Williams was confirmed on 2 December 2002 as the 104th bishop of the See of Canterbury: the first Welsh successor to St Augustine of Canterbury and the first since the mid-thirteenth century to be appointed from beyond the English Church.
Dr Williams is acknowledged internationally as an outstanding theological writer, scholar and teacher. He has been involved in many theological, ecumenical and educational commissions. He has written extensively across a very wide range of related fields of professional study – philosophy, theology (especially early and patristic Christianity), spirituality and religious aesthetics – as evidenced by his bibliography. He has also written throughout his career on moral, ethical and social topics and, since becoming archbishop, has turned his attention increasingly on contemporary cultural and interfaith issues.


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