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12 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:00am

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

By Rowan Williams

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

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