Candles in the Dark, Rowan Williams. London: SPCK, 2020.
Summary: Weekly meditations by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, written for his parish church from March to September 2020, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We all remember when life as we knew it ended as lockdowns and stay at home orders were issued to curb rising COVID infections. For many of us it was around mid-March 2020. On March 26, the day of the Feast of the Annunciation (remembering the appearance of Gabriel to Mary announcing she would bear the Christ child), former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote the first of a series of meditations addressing what it means to live in faith, hope, and love during the pandemic. On that day, he wrote:
“And as we contemplate the coming months, not knowing when we can breathe again, it’s worth thinking about how already the foundations have been laid for whatever new opportunities God has for us on the far side of this crisis. The small actions we take to protect one another, to keep open the channels of love and gift, volunteering, if we’re able, to support someone less mobile or less safe, finding new ways of communicating, even simply meditating on how our society might become more just and secure–all this can be the hidden beginning of something fuller and more honest for us all in the future.”Rowan Williams, pp. 2-3.
Over the coming months, ending September 17, 2020, Williams wrote weekly meditations for his parish church, collected in this compact book. Each are two to four pages in length. He reflects on our anxiety when our usual outlets for productive activity are gone, of treasuring relationships because of the experience of aloneness, the giving of the Holy Spirit that reminds us we are not God, and of seeking justice for those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
One of my favorites, on the Feast of St. Matthias (May 14) celebrates this apostle whose greatest accomplishment lies in taking the place of Judas Iscariot. Williams emphasizes the hidden heroism he represents of those who faithfully show up. Another, written on August 6 was especially meaningful. Williams notes that this is both the day the first atom bomb was detonated with deadly results over Hiroshima, and the day of the church’s celebration of the transfiguration. In the first we see the dark face of humanity. In the second we see the radiant face of “infinite love of beauty,” the face of God in human flesh and know there is yet hope for us. I was born on August 6 and I feel this contrast, so beautifully articulated by Williams, has framed my life.
His posts do not all address pandemic-specific realities. Many, like the examples noted above, are connected to the church calendar. Others simply address contemporary realities like the reduction of our individuality and dignity before God to algorithms. Another is simply on meditative walking–something some of us have had time for. He writes with a measure of caution about the current trend of tearing down statues, which merely reflect what is true of all of us–people who got much wrong and a few things right. It may be right to remove a statue, but there is no room for smug superiority in doing so.
This is a sparkling collection of writing that reflects not only the pandemic but many of our contemporary concerns. I found myself wondering what Williams would have written during the horrendous wave of infection that came after the close of the book. What would his reflection have been about stubborn variants and vaccines? I hope he has continued writing. The book ends only part way through the journey, offering helpful direction for how we might live as people of faith both in this and more ordinary times. He recognizes this in his epilogue and recalls his opening reflection. He asks if we have grown through the solidarity forced by our common plight.
It is a question worth considering if we believe that the call to trust and follow Christ is to grow in Christ-likeness until the day we see him. We may feel with vaccines and the rescinding of health orders (at least for a time) that this is “over” and we can move on. If we simply want to forget, does it reveal something about the kind of people we have been through this time, with which we are uncomfortable? It is not too late to reflect on how the pandemic has shaped our life of faith, hope, and love, and make course corrections where needed. If we do not consider William’s question, we may find ourselves on a course that takes us away from Christ, and from solidarity with the human community. Williams’ book reminds us there are candles in the dark for those looking for light.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.