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Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way, by Rowan Williams

13 September 2019

David Wilbourne reads a former archbishop’s choice of ‘luminaries’

IN LUMINARIES, Lord Williams marks 20 “beacons of illumination I have been invited to celebrate over the years. . . Some I should have liked to spend time with, others frankly not.” Forming a stream in which mice can paddle and elephants can swim, Williams elegantly paints arresting mini-portraits of familiar friends, besides whetting our appetite for more.

Like Jesus at Emmaus, each luminary drives us to “rise from our meditation different from what we were when we sat down to it”. Trapped in our own Groundhog Day, we are freed by their “theological lives” into a different story coloured by Easter’s perspective. Williams’s passionate St Paul, “who didn’t know he was writing the Bible”, evoked his hearers’ pity with perpetually pus-filled eyes, softening them up for a message that turned worlds upside down. St Alban, whose sacrificial care for the fugitive embraced his doctrine unto death, should have been our inspiring national saint. Instead. God “with his well-known sense of irony”, gave us a Palestinian Arab, his company proving a little more unsettling than those who fly the flag of St George with such enthusiasm could imagine.

Although no luminary is Welsh, St Augustine of Hippo proves an alter R. S. Thomas, locating God himself in the heart’s very longing. Williams finds another St Augustine endearingly nervous. “One can almost hear Pope Gregory sighing or counting to twenty” after yet another anxious letter from Bede’s Augustine. An awkward and shy Italian, marooned in Canterbury’s foreign land and culture, Augustine’s simple monastic narrative ultimately proved converting.

Williams defends, almost convincingly, his predecessor St Anselm’s unpalatable doctrine of substitutionary atonement. God himself is forced to inhabit a narrative to spring a humanity trapped in untruthfulness. Cranmer’s recanting of his recanting seems typical of a man whose liturgical prose necessarily hovered over meaning, but was healthily uncertain about homing in for the kill. At the other extreme, Charles Dickens’s “exuberant villains” reflect the inflated myths that we weave around ourselves. When these inevitably implode, tragedy can still be trumped by mercy — Sir Lester Deadlock, despite his wife’s perfidy, “revokes no dispositions I have made in her favour”.

St Teresa of Ávila fuses Martha and Mary’s narrative, sanctifying both action and contemplation, inspiring William Wilberforce to forge wistful Enlightenment theory into political action. Like Wilberforce, St Óscar Romero shares the agony of Christ’s body crucified today, opposing any state that opposes God’s purpose for a humanity into which God injects his very self.

Nine luminaries are martyrs, three simply having the misfortune to be Jewish in 20th-century Europe. Edith Stein (St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) “died because she was a Jew and would not conceal or compromise that fact”. Nor would she compromise Christ’s Lordship over all, replying Laudetur Jesus Christus to her S.S. interrogator’s “Heil Hitler.” She and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are “beatitude people, liberated from all the fictions that keep us locked in our anxieties and ambitions”.

The cutting-edge philosopher Simone Weil is liberated from teaching, working in a Renault factory, and fighting in Franco’s army, invalided out after scalding her foot with a chip pan. But then she learnt Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” by heart, and “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” She died on a starvation diet, empathising with the poor in war-torn Europe.

Faced by Auschwitz, the highly erotic Etty Hillesum concludes that pain is not the site of our longing, but of our certainty, compelled to kneel, “completely undone”, a gesture embedded in her body. “You cannot help us, we must help You to help ourselves, safeguarding that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.” A little piece springing all our narratives into Williams’s marvellous eternity.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.


Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way
Rowan Williams
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