Saturday, May 10, 2014

It is desire which saves

Lately, I have found myself, as many of you know, deeply intrigued by the figure of Simone Weil.  Her thought is at times breathtaking in its beauty yet deeply agitating as she relentlessly seeks He who for her was the "absent" God.  When I read her writing it is almost as if I am within the emotional and intellectual narrative being fashioned in her mind.  At times, it is nothing short of dizzying.  Reflecting on her complex spiritual journey one begins to examine one's own spiritual path; and sometimes it is rather discomfiting.  Unwieldy questions begin to surface: "Where do I find paradox or contradiction in the things I believe and do?  In what ways do I look to religious practice as a means of avoiding God?  Does redemptive suffering have a place in my life? If so, where? How do acts of solidarity with the sick, the poor, and the friendless make a difference in the world?  How does God use my weaknesses and shortcomings as a means of grace in the world?"  One admirer writes:

"An unlikely candidate for sainthood by anyone’s standards, Simone Weil was paradox embodied: she considered herself a Christian—a Catholic, to be more precise—yet she came from a secular Jewish home and was never baptized; she was a pacifist but fought in the Spanish Civil War; she was a brilliant intellectual known for her anti-intellectualism, a member of the bourgeoisie who worked on a French assembly line for a year, a person who loved life and yet in her deep compassion for the starving of Europe refused the necessary sustenance when recuperating from tuberculosis perhaps hastening her death.

What may be most admirable—and challenging—about Simone Weil is the ability she had to forego many of the assurances most of us demand. Content to live without certainty, she sought God in the darkness of faith, claiming nothing for herself. To Weil, what mattered was not finding or even seeking God, but simply waiting with open eyes, “looking” into the void." (Susan Hanson)

If you are willing to read to the following thoughts of Simone be prepared to be enter into that darkness of faith with her and have your beliefs be lifted up and cast down.  The journey is not for the faint of heart.

“The . . . Eucharist . . . is indispensable for man; the presence of perfect purity is indispensable for him. For man can only fix his full attention on something tangible, and he needs sometimes to fix his attention upon perfect purity. Only this act can make it possible for him, by a process of transference, to destroy a part of the evil that is in him. That is why the host is really the Lamb of God which takes away sin.

We are all conscious of evil within ourselves, we all have a horror of it and want to get rid of it. Outside ourselves we see evil under two distinct forms, suffering and sin. But in our feelings about our own nature the distinction no longer appears, except abstractly or through reflection. We feel in ourselves something which is neither suffering nor sin, which is the two of them at once, the root common to both, defilement and pain at the same time. This is the presence of evil in us. It is the ugliness in us. The more we feel it, the more it fills us with horror. The soul rejects it in the same way as we vomit. By a process of transference we pass it on to the things which surround us. These things, however, thus becoming blemished and ugly in our eyes, send us back the evil that we had put into them. They send it back after adding to it. In this exchange the evil in us increases. It seems to us then that the very places where we are living and the things that surround us imprison us in evil, and that it becomes daily worse. This is a terrible anguish. When the soul, worn out with this anguish, ceases to feel it any more, there is little hope of its salvation.  It is thus that an invalid conceives hatred and disgust for his room and surroundings, a prisoner for his cell, and only too often a worker for his factory.

It is useless to provide people in this state with beautiful things, for there is nothing which does not eventually become spoilt and sullied by this process of transference, until it ends up as an object of horror.

Perfect purity alone cannot be defiled. If at the moment when the soul is invaded by evil the attention can be turned towards a thing of perfect purity, so that a part of the evil is transferred to it, this thing will be in no way tarnished by it, nor will it send it back. Thus each minute of such attention really destroys a part of the evil.

What the Hebrews tried to accomplish . . . in their rite of the scapegoat, can only be carried out here on earth by perfect purity. The true scapegoat is the Lamb.

The day when a perfect being was to be found here below in human form, the greatest possible amount of evil scattered around him was automatically concentrated upon him in the form of suffering. At that time, throughout the Roman Empire, the greatest misfortune and the greatest crime among men was slavery. That is why he suffered the death which was the extremity of affliction possible for a slave. In a mysterious manner this transference constitutes the Redemption.

It is the same when a human being turns his eyes and his attention towards the Lamb of God present in the consecrated bread, a part of the evil which he bears within him is directed towards perfect purity, and there suffers destruction.  It is a transmutation rather than a destruction. The contact with perfect purity dissociates the suffering and sin which had been mixed together so indissolubly. The part of evil in the soul is burnt by the fire of this contact and becomes only suffering, and the suffering is impregnated with love.

In the same way when all the evil diffused throughout the Roman Empire was concentrated on Christ it became only suffering to him.  If there were not perfect and infinite purity here below, if there were only finite purity, which contact with evil eventually exhausts, we could never be saved.

When we have learnt to look at perfect purity, the shortness of human life is the only thing to prevent us from being sure that unless we play false we can attain perfection even here on earth. For we are finite beings and the evil which is within us is finite too. The purity which is offered to our eyes is infinite. However little evil we were to destroy at each look, we could be certain, if our time were unlimited that by looking often enough, one day we should destroy it all. 

One of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth which goes almost unrecognised today, is that the looking is what saves us. The bronze serpent was lifted up so that those who lay maimed in the depths of degradation should be saved by looking upon it.  It is at those moments when we are, as we say, in a bad mood, when we feel incapable of the elevation of soul which befits holy things, it is then that it is most effectual to turn our eye towards perfect purity. For it is then that evil, or rather mediocrity, comes to the surface of the soul and is in the best position for being burnt by contact with the fire.

It is however then that the act of looking is almost impossible. All the mediocre part of the soul, fearing death with a more violent fear than that caused by the approach of the death of the body, revolts and suggests lies to protect itself.

The effort not to listen to these lies, although we cannot prevent ourselves from believing them, the effort to look upon purity at such times, has to be something very violent; yet it is absolutely different from all that is generally known as effort, such as doing violence to one’s feelings or an act of will. Other words are needed to express it, but language cannot provide them.

The effort which brings a soul to salvation is like the effort of looking or of listening; it is the kind of effort by which a fiancée accepts her lover. It is an act of attention and consent; whereas what language designates as will is something suggestive of muscular effort. The will is on the level of the natural part of the soul. The right use of the will is a condition of salvation, necessary no doubt but remote, inferior, very subordinate and purely negative. The weeds are pulled up by the muscular effort of the peasant, but only sun and water can make the corn grow. The will cannot produce any good in the soul.

Efforts of the will are only in their right place for carrying out definite obligations. Wherever there is no strict obligation we must follow either our natural inclination or our vocation, that is to say God’s command. Actions prompted by our inclination clearly do not involve an effort of will. In our acts of obedience to God we are passive; whatever difficulties we have to surmount, however great our activity may appear to be, there is nothing analogous to muscular effort; there is only waiting, attention, silence, immobility, constant through suffering and joy.  The crucifixion of Christ is the model of all acts of obedience.

That we have to strive after goodness with an effort of our will is one of the lies invented by the mediocre part of ourselves in its fear of being destroyed. Such an effort does not threaten it in any way, it does not even disturb its comfort—not even when it entails a great deal of fatigue and suffering. For the mediocre part of ourselves is not afraid of fatigue and suffering, it is afraid of being killed.

There are people who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back but will go right up to the sky. Thus occupied he cannot look at the sky. We cannot take a single step towards heaven.  It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenwards for a long time, God comes and takes us up. He raises us easily. As Aeschylus says: ‘There is no effort in what is divine.’ There is an easiness in salvation which is more difficult for us than all our efforts.

In one of Grimm’s stories there is a competition between a giant and a little tailor to see which is the stronger. The giant throws a stone so high that it takes a very long time before it comes down again. The little tailor lets a bird fly and it does not come down at all. Anything without wings always comes down again in the end.  It is because the will has no power to bring about salvation that the idea of secular morality is an absurdity. What is called morality only depends on the will in what is, so to speak, its most muscular aspect. Religion on the contrary corresponds to desire, and it is desire which saves.”

Excerpt From: Weil, Simone. “Waiting on God"