One of the books I’m currently reading is Where God Happens, by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. I have no basis on which to evaluate Williams as a prelate, but I always benefit from his writing. In this book, he brings forth the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, focusing on the relevance of their teaching to our lives today.
One of the things Williams talks about in the book is the need for us to be “strenuous yet relaxed.” He observes that we know how to talk about being strenuous, that is, to “portray Christian life as a struggle, a drama, in which we’re called to heroic achievement and endurance.” We also, he says, know how to talk about being relaxed, that is our need to rely on God’s mercy. However, he observes, it is less easy for us to understand how to hold those two together.
The desert fathers help us understand how to do that. They had an enormous awareness of, and deep sorrow for, their own sinfulness. But they also knew that God heals and accepts us no matter what. Williams writes that the desert fathers
are not, in their tears and penances, trying to make up their debt to God. They know as well as any Christian that this is paid once and for all by the mercy that arrives in advance of all our repentance. They simply want to be sure that this assurance of mercy does not make them deceive themselves about why mercy is needed, by themselves and others. If they continue with this awareness of the sinful and needy self, it is so that they will understand the tears and self-hatred of others and know how to bring them to Christ by their unqualified acceptance and gentleness.
Thus, explains Williams, we need to be both strenuous in our “effort to keep before our eyes the truth of our condition,” yet relaxed “in the knowledge of a mercy that cannot ever be exhausted.”
Williams goes on to say that we can only fully understand what it means to be strenuous, yet relaxed in the context of community, for it is in community that we learn the nature of God’s mercy.