On Being the Occasion of Joy in Rowan Williams’ …

Thursday, February 13, 2020

This is about “the doomed task of getting it right.” And by “it,” I mean sexuality. And by “I,” I mean Rowan Williams.

Doomed, he says, because “[n]othing will stop sex being tragic and comic. It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety … And it is also where the awful incongruity of our situation can break through as comedy, even farce.”

This view of things is deflating, but it’s also graciously realistic. Nor it is the final word, of course. But the hope he comes to is only through the ambivalence.

Williams took the name of his essay, originally a lecture, from a sentence in a series of novels I’d never heard of—Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, an epic series of novels set in the last years of British India. What’s essential here is a single turn of phrase that occurs after one character, Sarah Layton, is lovelessly seduced. Her circumstances are grim: her powerless recognition of the systemic pain around her, her joyless inability to fit in as a foreigner. But strangely, after the hook up, “she looks in the mirror and sees that ‘she had entered her body’s grace.’”

It’s an odd claim, that in that situation Sarah would be able to value her body in a new and beautiful way, especially since the rest of the books (according to Williams) are still more agonizing. As he continues:

Yet nothing in this drainingly painful novel suggests that the moment of the “body’s grace” for Sarah was a deceit. Somehow she has been aware of what it was and was not: a frontier has been passed, and that has been and remains grace; a being present, even though this can mean knowing that the graced body is now more than ever a source of vulnerability. But it is still grace, a filling of the void, an entry into some different kind of identity. There may have been little love, even little generosity, in Sarah’s lovemaking, but she has discovered that her body can be the cause of happiness to her and to another. It is this discovery which most clearly shows why we might want to talk about grace here. Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.

The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us so to order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.

. . . [T]he body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; this in turn depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned, or are learning, about being the object of the causeless, loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identity of God’s Child.

Image credit: Brian.