Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Truce of God

From chapter 3 of The Truce of God, by Rowan Williams, first published 1983; this edition 2005, and published by Eerdmans.

People go to stay in the guest-houses of monasteries and convents (in surprisingly large numbers) to absorb an atmosphere of ‘peace’: it is a break from conflict and tension, a move into another world from which strain is supposedly absent. The world of the cloister is one in which some new level of awareness has been attained, and its inhabitants breathe a different air. And we, less fortunate (or less committed), are briefly admitted into it, for our nourishment and refreshment.

We all, in fact, badly need images of achieved repose, of a state in which the process of ‘becoming’ is in effect over; and we are increasingly fascinated by the contrast between ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and more and more inclined to think that at a great deal of our civilisation has been badly wrong about the balance between the two, overstressing acting, making, imposing change. It is true, too, that a lot of the central images of Christianity are not reposeful: however much the cross of Jesus is softened and formalised, however much the naked figure is clothed as priest or king, it remains an image that speaks of incompleteness, of a world of unreconciled conflicts, because it is inescapably the image of a man being tortured to death.

We need something for daily consumption that is a bit less ‘unfinished’, and so, understandably, we turn to images of the sacred that are more still, more rounded or more balanced. Certainly the popularity of the image of Mary has something to do with this – the innocence of virginity and the ‘finished achievement’ of motherhood hauntingly combined in a symbol of purity which also manages, uniquely, to be a symbol of nurture and inclusion, not simply of remoteness.

That means that Christians living a monastic life have laid upon them an enormous load of expectation. They are called (not by God but by the Church) to make their lives, individually and communally, images of ‘peace’. And thus people often feel very deeply hurt and betrayed when such images are broken; when someone leaves a community, re-enters ‘our’ world, as if to say that there is no decisive release from struggle, that the wheel can still turn. The world of the cloister is not so ‘finished’ after all, not invulnerable to strain, frustration, unhappiness and the heavy responsibility of choice.
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