Tonight was the penultimate gathering of the monthly series I’ve been co-presenting with Christine Luna Munger at St. Catherine’s University on Deepening Our Prayer Experience with Christian Mystics. In past sessions we’ve considered Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avala, Teresa of Liseaux, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Our subject this evening was Simone Weil.
For a long time, Weil viewed herself as an agnostic, having concluded that nothing could be known about the existence of God. In the letter that is called her Spiritual Autobiography, she wrote “As soon as I reached adolescence I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone.” Hence her agnosticism.
What changed her was her encounter with God. She wrote, “In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never really believed in them.” The experience changed everything.
One of Weil’s deep religious experience was occasioned by her reading of George Herbert’s poem, Love.
Weil was introduced by a young English Catholic to the metaphysical English poets of the seventeenth century, one of whom was George Herbert. She discovered Herbert’s poem, Love, which she learned by heart. She began to use it as a way to deal with the pain of her headaches (from a young age she suffered excruciating migraines), saying it over and over again at the culminating point of a violent headache, concentrating all of her attention on it and clinging to the tenderness in it. She wrote of that experience:
I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it, the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me….Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.
Getting in touch so deeply with God’s loving presence has consequences for Weil. She realized not only God’s love for her, but that “every existing thing is equally upheld in its existence by God’s creative love.” Thus she wrote “The friends of God should love him to the point of merging their love into his with regard to all things here below.” I find her description of the consequence of apprehension of God’s love to be beautiful:
When a soul has attained a love filling the whole universe indiscriminately, this love becomes the bird with golden wings that pierces an opening in the egg of the world. After that, such a soul loves the universe, not from within but from without; from the dwelling place of the Wisdom of God, our first-born brother. Such a love does not love beings and things in God, but from the abode of God. Being close to God it views all beings and things from there, and its gaze is merged in the gaze of God.
As is true of all of those who have had a deep experience of God, this is not “love your neighbor” as an externally imposed rule we must force ourselves to obey. Rather it is love that springs from a union with God, from seeing as God sees.
We end this year’s Deepening series on May 23, when Christine will present on Thomas Merton.