Simone Weil’s Experience of God

Last night I gave a presentation on Simone Weil, as part of a teaching series on mystics offered by the Episcopal House of Prayer.

During her lifetime, Weil was known to relatively narrow circles.  It was in the first decade after her death that she rapidly became famous, attracting attention throughout the West.  Yet, Pope Paul VI regarded her as one of the greatest influences on his intellectual development.  Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”, and he meditated in her Paris room before leaving for Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize.  And Andre Gide called her “the most spiritual writer of this century.”

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

I must say that never at any moment in my life have I “sought for God.”  For this reason, which is probably too subjective, I do not like this expression and it strikes me as false.  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.  Nonetheless, Weil records in her Spiritual Autobiography that she always had a Christian outlook, taking to heart from her earliest childhood the idea of loving one’s neighbor.  Indeed, she saw no other outlook as possible.

Weil became an agnostic because she could not intellectually address the idea of God.  What changed her from her agnosticism 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.   I have often expresses the conviction that conversion is an experience of the heart not the head, by which I mean to convey precisely this: what transforms us is not intellectual knowledge but heart-felt experience of God.  And Weil is a wonderful example of that.

Weil, by the way, had a very simple understanding of prayer.  “Prayer,” she wrote in one essay, “is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”  And “attention”, she wrote, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.”

She wrote in Waiting for God

Prayer consists of attention…Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer.

Given Weil’s definition of prayer as attentiveness to God, turning toward God, I like the way she talks about sin.  She wrote that, “Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction.”

Makes it all pretty simple: Gaze in the right direction.


God’s Plans for Saul – and All of Us

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.

If we met Saul today, we might be tempted to think he was beyond redemption.  Saul was a Christian killer.  He took an active part in the martyrdom of Stephen.  At one point he confessed that “beyond measure” (his words) he persecuted the Church.  This is not a person harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler.  But a murderous persecutor of Christians.

Yet, God is not through with this Saul.  Instead, he has great plans for him.  This murderer will become one of the principal persons to proclaim the Gospel.

Today’s first Mass reading gives us one of the accounts of how God accomplished this.  When Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”

If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” (Alternatively: “it is too late for that person.  God can’t possibly have any use for them.”) The story of the conversion of St. Paul is a vivid demonstration of the fallacy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.

Conversion is always possible – for everyone.

Finding the Good in All

Today we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader in the American civil rights movement until his assassination in 1968.

King took to heart Jesus command to love our enemies.  He believed that a key to our ability to do so is to discover the element of good in them, the starting point for which is recognizing that none of us is either all good or all bad.  In a sermon he gave in 1957, he said

I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”

So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Neither the command to love our neighbor nor King’s call for us to find the good in all people is always easy. But we see from the state of the world in which we live the consequences of our failure to do so.  I do not beleive King  guilty of hyperbole when he said that if we are to survive we must learn to do this.  The words he uttered so many years ago are ones we still need to hear today.

The Most Extraordinary Compliment

In the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes of Jesus that :though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.:

In this, the theologian Michael Himes finds the most remarkable statement about the Incarnation: that Christ chose “to be one with us rather than remaining in the form of God, calling it “the most extraordinary compliment ever paid to being human.”  Here is Himes restatement of the incredible claim made in the Letter to the Philippians:

The great mystery hidden from all generations and revealed in the Incarnation is God’s secret ambition.  From all eternity God has wanted to be exactly like you and me.  This is the ultimate statement of the goodness of being human, the rightness of humanity.  The immense dignity of the human person is at the heart of the Christian tradition because it flows directly from the doctrine of the Incarnation itself.  Indeed, the Incarnation is the highest compliment ever paid to being human.  It is also the divine response to our original sin.  If the originating sin, the origin of evil, is the rejection of the goodness of being a human being, the Incarnation is the unsurpassable revelation of that goodness.

 As we get ready to celebrate Christmas Day tomorrow, reflect on the enormity of the Incarnation and what it says about our dignity as human person.  How does this understanding affect your life?


Interpreting the Story

In his book A Coming Christ in Advent, Raymond Brown offer an interesting perspective on what it might mean for us to prepare ourselves as a dwelling place of Christ. Talking about Mary and the Magnificat, he writes:

The first Christian disciple exemplifies the essential task of discipleship. After hearing the word of God and accepting it, we must share it with others, not by simply repeating it but by interpreting it so that they can see it truly as good news. As we look forward in Advent to the coming of Christ, let us ask ourselves how this year we are going to interpret for others what we believe happens at Christmas, so that they will be able to appreciate what the angel announced at the first Christmas (Luke 2:10-11). “I announce to you good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day is born in the city of David a savior who is Messiah and Lord.”

Brown talks about the Magnificat as Mary’s interpretation of the Word – the way she shares the Gospel word with others. Mary has heard from Gabriel the identity of Jesus and now, Brown says, she “gives voice interpreting what she has heard.”
In these final days during which we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts is a good time to consider the question Brown asks:

How this year are we going to interpret for others what we believe happens at Christmas?

How will we help them appreciate what the angel will announce on Christmas morning?

What Do You Mean When You Say God?

I have been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, which had been recommended to me by several people, and which I have now been recommending with others.

There is a lot worth chewing on in the book, which recounts Brown’s experience teaching Religions of the World to undergraduates in a small liberal arts college in the south, as well as her own journey in exploring other faith traditions.

One of the questions she asks her students is “What do you mean when you say God?”  The question takes them aback, she writes, because their initial assumption is that they all mean the same thing by God.  “God is God, right?”  But their consideration of the question helps them see that our answers to that question – even when the “our” is composed predominantly of Christians – can be wildly different.

It is good to remind ourselves that we tend “to use the word [God] as if it were made of steel girders instead of silk netting, but when we compare what we have caught with it, the divine array confounds – even in a class of twenty-five undergraduates.”

When I meet new people who come to me for spiritual direction, one of the first questions I explore with them is what their image of God is.  Perhaps a better first question is: What do you mean when you say God, even if an honest answer to that question is not a solid one.

It is a good question to ask yourself.

In The Beginning the Word Was

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians, and also one of Spain’s greatest lyrical poets.

One of John’s shorter poems is titled, Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity. It is a wonderful poem to reflect on in the Advent season.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.