The road not taken: Rowan Williams on how he narrowly avoided becoming a monk

I always knew I should be a priest. But why not do the thing properly and be a monk?

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Two roads, really. I had settled in my early teens – thanks largely to a couple of brilliantly imaginative and humane clergy that I knew – on the idea that I should be a priest, but at some point the challenge seemed to be, “If a priest, why not do the thing properly and be a monk?” It was a challenge that stuck around for about a decade. I made several retreats in monasteries and set myself a fairly rigorous discipline of times for silence and meditation.

In retrospect, I think that what I was wrestling with was a set of confused feelings about commitment – knowing that at some level I found commitment terrifying, and seeing the monastic life as a radical solution to this: get it all over with, in one big act of self-denial. It had a complicated effect – as you might imagine – on other relationships. Fortunately, the people whose advice I most respected didn’t push or pressure at all; they helped me gradually to get all this in better perspective, to accept that whatever a good motivation for monastic life might be, it should include an acceptance of human need and fallibility. They gave me another challenge, which was to unbend a bit and look more sharply at the temptations of perfectionism. The rhythms of meditation stayed with me; the monastic urge receded.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the other vista opening up had to do with the exhilaration of literature and drama for me as a teenager. I frequently found myself wondering whether I should change my university course from theology to English; tried to find a voice as a writer – not at all successfully at the time; relished acting and singing in a variety of contexts. When I let my gaze shift from monastic or theological futures, I sometimes thought about teaching English as the obvious alternative “spiritual” calling. The legacy of Leavis’s messianism about English as a subject was still around at Cambridge in my time.

I suppose that these twin prospects have gone on shaping what I’ve wanted and tried to do: something to do with learning and holding the attentiveness to God and things and words that breaks through private dramas and obsessions. Being a priest and a writer and a teacher of sorts has always been, for me, grounded in those prospects not followed.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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