Archive for June, 2010


Reasonable Damnation, Unreasonable Love: Herbert’s The Temple

June 29, 2010

George Herbert

Anthony Esolen shares a reading of George Herbert’s poem “Love”, the final poem of Herbert’s volume, the Temple. In both biographies of Simone Weil (here and here) you will see the poem noted as one of her “anthem poems,” by which I mean it was a poem she lived her life by.

One of the problems of poetry is that it requires a certain discipline to read. Unless you spend time with a poem, constantly returning and re-reading, or getting a chance to listen to a poet perform the piece, the meaning may elude you. In this case we have a professional scholar sharing his interpretation of the poem. More than an interpreter, Esolen is a true blessing.


LET US BEGIN WITH the final poem of Herbert’s volume The Temple, as it will show us most clearly the love for which we have been made. In “Love (III) the soul is the “reasonable” party, and Love — Christ — is the gentle but firm ironist. The poem is a dramatic dialogue between the mere man, who is right about everything, and Christ, who makes everything right. Here is the poem in its entirety. (Here and throughout, I have modernized Herbert’s orthography,

Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
     If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
     Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling made reply,
     “Who made the eyes, but I?”

“Truth, lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
     “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down;’ says Love, “and taste my meat.”
     So I did sit and eat.

“Love bade me welcome,” says the speaker, and we should not be too hasty to personify this love. Christ bids him welcome, but as an act of love because there is no reason why the soul should be welcome. In truth, he is not well come,” and he knows it: “Yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin.” That soul may be timid, but its timidity is rational. It fears the center, as a poorly dressed man would fear the spotlight. It is afraid to be loved, and knows it should not be loved. How much more fitting it would be if the soul could slink away to the justice it deserves.

Fitting indeed, for this soul flatly cites Scripture to its own damnation: it is “guilty of dust and sin.” Into this one strange phrase (how is one guilty of “dust”?), Herbert compacts a theology of justice. He alludes to Christ’s parable comparing the kingdom of God to a wedding feast that a king gave for his son. When one of the guests arrived unsuitably dressed for the occasion, the king ordered him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness, where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22 11-13).

 To be “guilty of dust” is to be mortal, to suffer death, the wages of sin. The “dust” lies on the clothing of the arriving soul — but it is also what the body is made of, and what the body must return to is a consequence of sin. No sin, no offending dust; but there is sin, and so there is death, and so there is also the dust of a deeper  mortality that soils the garments we bring when we meet our Maker. We cannot fit ourselves for the wedding feast, just as we cannot bring ourselves to life. We are all that poor man in the parable.

The soul in Herbert’s poem would courteously spare the king the trouble. It sees itself in that shameful light, and is eager to fall away from Love and embrace the darkness. The love of God is more terrifying than his justice for in love his essence shines forth more radiantly. That love exalts dust. It raises the tattered mortality we are robed with, and it forgives sin when there is no reason in our natures or in the world why it should do either.

The trans-logic of God’s forgiveness is celebrated by Herbert’s daring reversal of the parable from Scripture. The soul flings Christ’s own words back at him, to prove why he should not show mercy. But, in seeming to violate his own just law, Love fulfills his just mercy, giving us what we cannot have expected, and thus, from Love, what is above all to be hoped.

Love is “quick-eyed” — as a solicitous bridegroom orchestrating the celebration, careful to observe any hesitation or discomfort among his guests. The lord of the universe, who spies the secrets of man’s inmost heart, is here a cheerful, tactful young man, the prime servant for the feast held in his honor. That homely reduction is part of the message of the Incarnation and the Atonement: who would have thought that God could or would become man?

The rational soul resists the invitation. No surprise our rational souls, in action, are but bundles of pride laced up with a thread or two of logic. We do not deserve the invitation, we say, when secretly we feel that the invitation offends high sense of our tragic insignificance. But if the soul will not move to the center, the center will move to it. So the young groom, the host of the feast, Creator of life and light, asks the stunningly understated question “Do you lack anything?”

How can such a question be answered? Love asks it, as if he were asking the newly arrived guest whether he needed a trifle, like a place to leave his coat, or a drink, or a chair. Yet, as with the phrase “guilty of dust and sin,” the question implies a theology. In the presence of its redeemer the soul lacks everything. Christ’s question is both invitation and gentle accusation. The speaker understands it so. What does he lack? Knowing that he falls infinitely short of the glory of God, and infinitely short of the love he owes to the Lord who has loved him, he fashions a reply which he thinks leaves no room for exception. “A guest… worthy to be here.”

The lack is not in what the speaker has, but in what he is. That lack is total. He himself, what God meant him to be, is lacking, is absent, all that remains is for the sinner he has become to make himself absent too. The speaker knows he lacks the slightest quality to merit the host’s attention.  But this host is called Love, and that literally makes a difference “Love said, ‘You shall be He.”

The sentence is not to be construed rhetorically. The soul will not simply be considered or named a worthy guest, but will actually be one, by the creative fiat of Love. What in an earthly host would be a polite pretense (“You are worthy after all.”) or a jocular exercise of authority (“You are worthy, because it is my day, and I say you are”) is here a command and an act. Love supplies the lack by making the speaker a worthy guest, drawing good not only out of evil but out of nothingness.

Still the soul holds to its view of the fitness of things: “I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.” Why should it be loved? It is not natural, for the soul has been unkind,” a perversion of its “kind” or “nature,” a frustration of its innate purpose. It is not just, for the soul has scorned or misused the free gifts of God, ungratefully returning evil for good. The last thing ingratitude merits is another free gift, another grace, the last thing kindness can arouse is the warmth of natural affection.

Yet the soul, overcome with shame and love, utters its truest and least calculated phrase: ‘“Ah my dear.” In this phrase the speaker acknowledges the transcendent worth of Christ he is ‘dear’ or “priceless,” the one whose precious blood redeemed or bought us back from the bondage of sin.  He also confesses that he longs for Christ as the only object of his deepest and truest love. Yet he uses the phrase as a way of excusing himself from love!

One endearing irony of Christian love is that it should be at once so modest and so bold, the bride in the Song of Songs who, drunk with love, dares to ask her Creator and Redeemer for a kiss. With the exclamation ah my dear the soul wavers in its small rationality. It moves uncertainly between the shy bravery of true love and  the proud diffidence of rejection. The soul is that of a sinner, caught between desire and disdain; wanting much to be loved, and wanting much not to be loved. On its own it can do nothing. All is up to Love, who takes the speaker’s hand. The gesture is firmly paternal and gently respectful of the poor sinner’s dignity. Then Love fixes the speaker’s gaze with a smile, and, not scorning to use the lowly pun as an instrument of grace, asserts his sovereignty over all things material and spiritual “Who made the eyes but I?”

At this, the speaker’s last hold upon his paltry dignity slips away. A note of desperation enters his abrupt reply “‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.” Herbert touches upon a psychological profundity that only the strongest believers or the strongest resisters perceive: most sou1s would find it more comfortable not to be saved. The speaker does not plead justice, though that is the logical content of his plea. He begs for mercy, the mercy of mere justice! He argues for justice as a strange form of compassion. “Look at how filthy I am;” says the embarrassed beloved. “Please, please let me leave this place I deserve no better” But the soul leans upon a straw, in calling the name of justice for mercy’s sake, and instead is reminded that the claims of justice have already been mercifully fulfilled “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

Of course the soul knows, to its anguish. Beaten from his last ward, the speaker capitulates, but upon condition: “My dear, then I will serve.” I will agree to my salvation, so long as I retain the appropriate judgment attendant upon my sin. Since I do not deserve to be here, if I must be here, let me be saved only somewhat. Let me, in a dainty reserve that looks like humility, serve the others, and thus not be so searing a focus of Love. Yet even that will not do. For Love is jealous, and will have all. “You must sit down; says Love, and taste my meat.” You must submit to your exaltation. Emptying yourself of all self-centered judgments of worthiness or unworthiness, you must allow yourself to be the center of Love’s attention. You, Simon Peter, must have your feet washed. You must be served by Love.

It is fitting that Herbert should recall that moment at the Last Supper. In “Love” we have the servant, Christ, present at his wedding feast, at which he himself, the Paschal sacrifice, is served. As Love by his own power supplies the :worthy guest, so Love himself is the feast he serves. Christ’s giving of himself is not figurative. When Love insists that the soul taste “his meat,” he means not the food that belongs to him, but the food he is: “For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55).

Love invites the soul to taste of Love, to be nourished by it, to be refreshed and re-created by it. So it is both true and misleading to say that the salvation of an individual soul is the center of Herbert’s Christian universe. The soul attains that honored rank, or rank is granted that honored rank, by emptying itself, rejecting the decisiveness its sin, and accepting Christ, who is center and circumference both. The human is subsumed in Incarnation: in sharing this great communion, it is not the man who assimilates the food to himself, but the food that assimilates the man to itself. Of all the mysteries of Gods love for his people, this is the improbable. There is nothing left to say. The poem and Herbert’s volume end on a note of submission and sublime simplicity “So I did sit and eat.”

Why should God so love the human soul? I do not know. If I thought I knew, I would not be Christian.


The Importance Of Prayer – Ralph Martin

June 28, 2010

Praying With Others

A chapter from The Fulfillment of Desire by Ralph Martin…

JOHN OF THE CROSS MAKES THE POINT that sensual attractions are so strong and so rooted in our nature that efforts of renunciation by themselves will not be totally successful. A greater attraction, a greater love has to inflame us in order to enable us to let go of lesser, disordered loves.

A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul’s Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites. The love of its Bridegroom is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with urgent longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other, more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them…How easy, sweet, and delightful these longings for their Bridegroom make all the trials and dangers of this night seem.
John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I Chap 14

Bernard of Clairvaux makes the same point. He speaks of a depth of prayer that can properly be called a sleep or death — not a death to life, but a death to what holds us back from true life and union.

How I long often to he the victim of this death that I may escape the snares of death, that I may not feel the deadening blandishments of a sensual life, that I may be steeled against evil desire, against the surge of cupidity, against the goads of anger and impatience, against the anguish of worry and the miseries of care. . . . How good the death that does not take away life but makes it better; good in that the body does not perish but the soul is exalted.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol III, Sermon 52

Bernard calls this deeper prayer of “sleep” or “death” contemplation.

This kind of ecstasy, in my opinion, is alone or principally called contemplation. Not to be gripped during life by material desires is a mark of human virtue; but to gaze without the use of bodily likenesses is the sign of angelic purity. Each, however, is a divine gift, each is a going out of oneself, each a transcending of self, but in one one goes much farther than in the other.

One of the main ways we open ourselves for this greater love to possess us is through prayer. We need to remember though that the spiritual life is not primarily about certain practices of piety and techniques of prayer, but about a relationship. It’s about responding to the One who has created and redeemed us, and who loves us with a love stronger than death, a love that desires to raise us from the dead. Much that is true of human relationships is also true of our relationship with God. Human relationships of friendship or marriage need time, attention, and care for them to continue and to grow. The same is true of our relationship with God. We have been called to union but we need to respond. As we turn to God in conversion or in a deeper awakening, besides turning away from deliberate sin—which deforms the soul, blocks the relationship and offends the Person who has sacrificed His life for us—-we need to positively build the relationship by paying attention to the One who loves us. Prayer is at root simply paying attention to God. All the saints speak of its importance.

Thérèse speaks of the power and simplicity of prayer.

How great is the power of Prayer! . . . I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me.

For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.
Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter XI, p242

Teresa of Avila tells us that the entrance into the mansions (or stages) of the spiritual journey begins with prayer. Francis de Sales tells us that while the struggle against sin is crucial, even more so is prayer.

Since prayer places our intellect in the brilliance of God’s light and exposes our will to the warmth of his heavenly love, nothing else so effectively purifies our intellect of ignorance and our will of depraved affections. . . . I especially counsel you to practice mental prayer, the prayer of the heart, and particularly that which centers on the life and passion of our Lord. By often turning your eyes on him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with him. You will learn his ways and form your actions after the pattern of his.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II Chapter 1

Bernard concurs:

But I must insist that we can only dare to undertake either of these things [turning from sin, turning to God] by grace, not by nature, nor even by effort. It is wisdom which overcomes malice, not effort or nature. There is no difficulty in finding grounds for hope: the soul must turn to the Word.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol III, Sermon 82

In Teresa’s and also in Francis’s time there was a great deal of discussion about vocal versus mental prayer, in a way that is not of as great interest today Vocal prayer — prayer said out loud — was usually understood to be a matter of reciting the memorized prayers such as the “Our Father” or the “Hail Mary.” Mental prayer was generally understood to be prayer that was said with the attention of the mind, the words formed interiorly and not spoken out loud. Mental prayer also could be understood as contemplative prayer — prayer that consists in being aware of the presence of the Lord, understanding truths, or inflaming the will with love. Yet because of a concern that people could get into spiritual trouble and possibly be deceived if they practiced mental prayer, the spiritual advice commonly given at the time was that most people should stick with vocal prayer. Teresa, Francis, and many of the saints had to fight against this overly cautious approach in order to free people to respond to the way the Holy Spirit works in our lives by a communication of His presence apart from (or along with) words.

Teresa of Avila makes the point that it isn’t whether the prayers are memorized or not or said out loud or not that determines their value, but whether we pay attention to what we’re saying and to whom we’re speaking.

Bernard addresses his brothers in a similar vein, exhorting them to pay attention to what they are saying when they chant the Psalms.

So, dearest brothers, I exhort you to participate always in the divine praises correctly and vigorously: vigorously, that you may stand before God with as much zest as reverence, not sluggish, not drowsy, not yawning, not sparing your voices, not leaving words half-said or skipping them, not wheezing through the nose with an effeminate stammering, in a weak and broken tone, but pronouncing the word.s of the Holy Spirit with becoming manliness and resonance and affection; and correctly, that while you chant you ponder on nothing but what you chant.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol III, Sermon 47

Methods of Prayer
Many spiritual writers, including some of the saints, offer suggestions concerning methods in prayer. Francis de Sales, very much influenced by his own experience of Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, offers some suggested structures and formats for the practice of meditation and prayer. He suggests six steps as a guide to moving through a time of prayer.

1.  Place yourself in the presence of God. Remember that God is near, not far away. He is in the very depth of your heart, your spirit. “Begin all your prayers, whether mental or vocal, in the presence of God. Keep to this rule without any exception and you will quickly see how helpful it will be.”

2.  Ask the Lord to help you pay attention to Him, to open yourself up to His Word and presence.

3.  Pick out a passage from Scripture, a scene from the Gospel, a mystery of the Faith, or a passage from some spiritual reading. If the subject matter you have chosen lends itself to it, picture yourself in the same place as the action or event that is happening. Use your imagination to place yourself in the midst of the scene near Jesus, with the disciples.

4.  Think about what you’ve chosen to meditate on in such a way as to increase your love for the Lord or for virtue. The purpose is not primarily to study or know more, but to increase your love for God and the life of discipleship. 5  If good affections should rise up — gratitude for God’s mercy, awe at His majesty, sorrow for sin, desire to be more faithful, for example — yield to them.

6.  Come to some practical resolutions concerning changes you would like to make as a response to these affections. For example, resolve to be more faithful in prayer, or more ready to forgive, or more eager to share the faith with others, or more determined to resist sin, in as practical and concrete a way as you can determine.

Most of all, after you rise from meditation you must remember the resolutions and decisions you have made and carefully put them into effect on that very day. This is the great fruit of meditation and without it meditation is often not only useless but even harmful. Virtues meditated on but not practiced sometimes inflate our minds and courage and we think that we are really such as we have thought and resolved to be.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Chap. 1

Francis recommends that we end the time of meditation-prayer with expressions of gratitude to God for the light and, affections He has given us in our time of prayer; then, an offering of ourselves to the Lord in union with the offering of Jesus; and thirdly, a time of intercession for our self and others.

At the same time, Francis doesn’t intend that the structure or method he proposes be followed mechanically if the Holy Spirit draws us to something different.

It may sometimes happen that immediately after the preparation you will feel that your affections are drawn wholly towards God. In this case, you must give them free rein and not follow the method I have shown you. Ordinarily, consideration must precede affections and resolutions. However, when the Holy Spirit gives you the affections before the consideration, you must not look for the consideration since it is used only to arouse the affections. In a word, whenever affections present themselves you must accept them and make room for them whether they come before or after the considerations.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Chap. 1

While Francis acknowledges the usefulness of praying the Rosary, various litanies, and fixed, written prayers, he advises us to always give the priority to mental prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

However, if you have the gift of mental prayer, you should always give ir first place. Afterwards if you cannot say your vocal prayers because of your many duties or for some other reason don’t be disturbed on that account. . . . During vocal prayer if you find your heart drawn and invited to interior or mental prayer, don’t refuse to take it up. Let your mind turn very gently in that direction and don’t be concerned at not finishing the vocal prayers you intended to say. The mental prayer you substitute for them is more pleasing to God and more profitable for your soul.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Chap. 1

Francis makes an exception in his general advice regarding flexibility in prayer, as does Catherine of Siena: those in Holy Orders or by virtue of a rule of religious life are obligated to pray the Divine Office must keep their commitment.

The Simplicity of Prayer
Teresa of Avila points out on more than one occasion how some very simple nuns in her own convent had reached the highest state of union by reciting devoutly the “Our Father” with attention and openness to the Spirit’s presence. She tells us that the same can happen to us.

It is very possible that while you are reciting the Our Father or some other vocal prayer, the Lord may raise you to perfect contemplation.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 25

Francis gives similar advice about how to say the common memorized prayers.

They must be said with strict attention of mind and with affections aroused by the meaning of the words. Do not hurry along and say many things but try to speak from your heart. A single Our Father said with feeling has greater value than many said quickly and hurriedly.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Chap. 1

Teresa of Avila likewise has much helpful advice on prayer. She acknowledges how important meditation and prayer are to growth in the spiritual life, but also acknowledges how difficult it can be to concentrate. In her own case, she couldn’t meditate without the help of a book for more than fourteen years.

For meditation is the basis for acquiring all the virtues, and to undertake it is a matter of life and death for all Christians… I spent 14 years never being able to practice meditation without reading. There will be many persons of this sort, and others who will be unable to meditate even with the reading but able only to pray vocally, and in this vocal prayer they will spend most of their time. There are minds so active they cannot dwell on one thing but are always restless, and to such an extreme that if they want to pause to think of God, a thousand absurdities, scruples, and doubts come to mind. . . There are some souls and minds so scattered they are like wild horses no one can stop… This restlessness is either caused by the soul’s nature or permitted by God.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 16

Teresa’s comments resonate with the traditional method of prayer called lectio divina (sacred reading), a method of alternating prayer and reading that is common in the monastic life but has been found useful by many lay people as well. It’s simply a matter of taking up the Scriptures or some spiritual book, reading until our mind and heart are lifted to the Lord, and then prayerfully reflecting on what we’ve read, speaking to the Lord about it, or simply being in His presence.

Once our mind starts to wander again, we then return to the reading until we’re once again recollected, and then put the book down and turn to the Lord in any of a number of ways, from meditation to contemplation Bernard warns us not to underestimate the degree to which God is at work in what may appear to us to be simply our own “good thoughts” as a result of our meditation, prayer, or reflection

For our meditations on the Word who is the Bridegroom, on his glory, his elegance, power and majesty, become in a sense his way of speaking to us. And not only that, but when with eager minds we examine his rulings, the decrees from his own mouth (Psalms 118:13); when we meditate on his law day and night (Psalms 1:2), let us be assured that the Bridegroom is present, and that he speaks his message of happiness to us lest our trials should prove more than we can bear… Without grace man’s heart is incapable of thinking good thoughts, that its capacity to do so comes from God (2 Corinthians. 3:5): the good thought is God’s inspiration, not the heart’s offspring.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 16

At the same time Bernard notes that wicked thoughts either come from us or from the devil. Neither Teresa nor Francis wants to unduly complicate the approach to prayer, and so they offer their suggestions as helps, not as rigid rules. Teresa in particular keeps reminding us that in prayer we’re primarily involved in a relationship, not an exercise of technique or the following of a method. Keeping in mind that it’s a relationship that we’re trying to respond to and nurture can oftentimes be guidance enough.

For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.
Teresa of Avila, Her Life, Chap. 8

Speak with him as a father, or a brother, or a lord, or as with a spouse; sometimes in one way, at other times in another, . . The intellect is recollected much more quickly with this kind of prayer even though it may be vocal; it is a prayer that brings with it many blessings. This prayer is called “recollection,” because the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with its God. And its divine Master comes more quickly to teach it and give it the prayer of quiet than He would through any other method it might use)
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 28

Teresa places a great emphasis on remembering the personal nature of what we are doing in prayer and the value of simply being aware of whom we’re speaking to, namely, praying with attention. Teresa’s sharp wit and sly humor are frequently manifested in the advice she gives.

The nature of mental prayer isn’t determined by whether or not the mouth is closed. If while speaking I thoroughly understand and know that I am speaking with God and I have greater awareness of this than I do of the words I’m saying, mental and vocal prayer are joined. If, however, others tell you that you are speaking with God while you are reciting the Our Father and at the same time in fact thinking of the world, then I have nothing to say But if you are to be speaking, as is right, with so great a Lord it is good that you consider whom you are speaking with as well as who you are, at least if you want to be polite. .

Refuse to be satisfied with merely pronouncing the words..

It is even an obligation that we strive to pray with attention. Please God that with these remedies we shall recite the Our Father well and not end up in some other irrelevant thing. I have experienced this sometimes, and the best remedy I find is to strive to center the mind upon the One to whom the words are addressed. . .

We should see and be present to the One with whom we speak without turning our backs on Him, for I don’t think speaking with God while thinking of a thousand other vanities would amount to anything else but turning our backs on Him. All the harm comes from not truly understanding that He is near, but in imagining Him as far away . . even in the midst of occupations.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 28

Much of what Teresa says resonates with the strong exhortation that Pope John Paul II gave to the whole Church as we began the journey of the third millennium: to contemplate the face of Christ.

All harm comes to us from not keeping our eyes fixed on You; if we were to look at nothing else but the way, we would soon arrive.

Remember Jesus, close to your side. . . Get used to this practice! Get used to it! I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 28

Teresa, knowing our — and her own — humanity, encourages us to a truly human prayer to a God who is fully human as well as fully divine!

The soul can place itself in the presence of Christ and grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for His sacred humanity. It can keep Him ever present and speak with Him, asking for its needs and complaining of its labors, being glad with Him in its enjoyments and not forgetting Him because of them, trying to speak to Him, not through written prayers but with words that conform to its desires and needs. This is an excellent way of making progress, and in a very short time. I consider that soul advanced who strives to remain in this precious company and to profit very much by it, and who truly comes to love this Lord to whom we owe so much.
Teresa of Avila, Her Life, Chap. 12

As much as Teresa makes it clear that we must try our best to pay attention to the One to whom we are speaking~ she realizes that there are times and circumstances when that is very hard to do. Her advice on making progress in the spiritual life is completely informed by a good knowledge of human weakness, and is very realistic.

There can be exceptions at times either because of bad humors—especially if the person is melancholic—or because of faint feelings in the head so that all efforts become useless. Or it can happen that God will permit days of severe temptation in his servants for their greater good. And though in their affliction they are striving to be quiet, they cannot even be attentive to what they are saying, no matter how hard they try; nor will the intellect settle down in anything, but by the disordered way it goes about, it will seem to be in a frenzy.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 24

Teresa has advice for how to handle situations like these:

‘Whoever experiences the affliction these distractions cause will see that they are not his fault; he should not grow anxious, which makes things worse, or tire him-self trying to put order into something that at the time doesn’t have any, that is, his mind. He should just pray as best he can; or even not pray but like a sick person strive to bring some relief to his soul; let him occupy himself in other works of virtue. This advice now is for persons who are careful and who have understood that they must not speak simultaneously to both God and the world.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chap 24

Teresa is concerned that her advice not be misconstrued as toleration for laxity She makes clear that she intends this advice for people who have not brought their distracted state upon themselves through carelessness in prayer or in dallying with temptarion. In other places Teresa makes clear that among the “other works of virtue” besides prayer are acts of charity or helpfulness to others. It sounds like what my mom used to say: “Get out of yourself. Stop moping around. Stop thinking about yourself. Stop complaining. Do something good for someone else!”

It’s entirely appropriate, for many reasons, that the Carmelites refer to Teresa of Avila as “holy mother.”

Time and Place
What advice do the saints have regarding how much time we should spend in prayer? The goal, as Scripture indicates, is to pray always!

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

To be in such a state of union with God that even in the midst of activities there is a current of thanks, praise, adoration, and intercession rising from our hearts is indeed our call. But the saints also indicate that to reach such a state of prayerfulness in our life definite times of prayer are necessary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, incorporating as it does the wisdom of the saints and Doctors in its beautiful sections on prayer, echoes this advice of Teresa.

But we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 2697)

Teresa, at various points, indicates that unless one spends sufficient time in prayer, progress will definitely be slowed. A sufficient amount of time needs to be devoted to prayer just to withdraw from the busyness of life. In Teresa’s reformed Carmelite convents, the nuns participated in the Liturgy of the Hours and in Mass, and had an hoar of meditation and prayer in the morning and another hour before the evening meal.

But what about the overwhelming majority of the Church that doesn’t live in cloistered monasteries? Francis de Sales has very specific advice for people involved in the world of work and family — advice that may surprise us.

Set aside an hour every day before the mid-day meal, if possible early in the morning, when your mind is less distracted and fresher after the night’s rest. Don’t extend it for more than an hour unless your spiritual director expressly tells you to do so.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Chap. 1

Francis is writing for business people, laborers, soldiers, government administrators, housewives people with the whole range of worldly responsibilities. ‘What are we to make of his advice?

I think it’s good advice, and, like him, I think it’s possible for virtually all of us. How? If we’re not used to praying an hour a day we should perhaps begin with a shorter period of time. Like Teresa, we ~shou1d probably utilize an approach that alternates prayerful spiritual reading and times of prayer, drawing on the suggestions about how to structure a time of meditation and prayer Just as with physical exercise in the beginning it may be hard and we’re not capable of much — with practice our capacity increases and it becomes easier; so too with prayer.

Francis advises not to pray longer than an hour a day (in addition to Mass) without the advice of a spiritual director, as a safeguard against the possible neglect of the responsibilities of our state in life and the possible danger of spiritual deception, pride, or imbalance in our life There are perhaps many people who at some point in their spiritual Journey will be called to longer or more frequent times of prayer At these points seeking wise spiritual counsel would be a very good idea.

Determining how much rime we should be spending in a time of personal prayer each day is an important decision, but so also is the decision about when and where. Francis recommends taking the time of personal prayer as early in the day as possible, before the busyness of life begins to fill our consciousness and the inevitable distractions, interruptions, and demands begin to accelerate. For some this may mean immediately upon arising. For some it might mean after breakfast. Each of us knows our own situation best!.

Also, as our situation changes, we may need to change the time we dedicate to personal prayer. Some people have found it practicable to pray during the lunch break in a nearby park or church Some people have found it workable to pray right before the evening meal. Bernard recommends the advantages of praying in the silence of the night when others are asleep, when we can pour out our heart freely24

For example, now that we have no small children at home and ‘a school carpools, my wife and I try to attend the 7 00 a m Mass in a local parish church each weekday and spend time in the church afterwards taking a time of prayer. We also look for an opportunity to return to prayer at some point later in the day. This works very well right now, but in earlier years we couldn’t have done it this way.

I must say, from my own experience, that the longer in the day I put off having the initial prayer time, the more likely it is for it not to happen at all or to happen in a very ragged way

Francis recommends praying in a church, as this may be the best place to avoid interruptions and have the atmosphere most conducive to prayer. On the other hand, a church may not be convenient to our home or work; or if it is, it may not be open for prayer during times that we can pray, or there may be activities happening in the church after Mass that make praying difficult. If there is a church in the area that has an adoration chapel, this can be a wonderful place to pray.

Prayerfulness throughout the Day
Francis is very clear about the need to take a personal prayer time each day, but he also communicates a vision of prayerfulness throughout the day and offers some suggestions about how this can happen. He actually proposes a pattern for our day which will help us to “remember” the Lord at various points. Here are his suggestions.

  • As soon as we wake up turn to the Lord, thank Him for another day, dedicate it to Him and ask His help for living it in a way pleasing to Him.
  • Take a substantial time for personal prayer (including spiritual reading) as early in the morning as feasible.
  • Attend daily Mass as often as possible.
  • As far as circumstances permit, pray the Liturgy of the Hours.25
  • Withdraw into the cell of our souls periodically during the day to remember the Lord, to be aware of His presence and speak to Him. We can do this even in the midst of activities.
  • Always remember to retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others.

Bernard also has tremendous insight into how solitude is possible in the midst of the world.

Therefore you must withdraw, mentally rather than physically, in your intention, in your devotion, in your spirit. For Christ the Lord is a spirit before your face (Lamentations 4:20), and he demands solitude of the spirit more than of the body, although physical withdrawal can be of benefit when the opportunity offers, especially in time of prayer… Apart from that the only solitude prescribed for you is that of the mind and spirit You enjoy this solitude if you refuse to share in the common gossip if you shun involvement in the problems of the hour and set store by the fancies that attract the masses; if you reject what everybody covets, avoid disputes, make light of losses, and pay no heed to injuries.

Otherwise you are not alone even when alone. Do you not see that you can be alone when in company and in company when alone? However great the crowds that surround you, you can enjoy the benefits of solitude if you refrain from curiosity about other people’s conduct and shun rash judgment. Even if you should see your neighbor doing what is wrong, refuse to pass judgment on him, excuse him instead. Excuse his intention even if you cannot excuse his act which may be the fruit of ignorance or surprise or chance.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol II, Sermon 40

Shortly before the evening meal, draw aside for a few minutes of prayer and an examination of conscience. Thank God for the blessings of the day, for any faults or sins ask His forgiveness, and renew your dedication to live for Him

Looking at the list of all the spiritual practices that Francis recommends can be overwhelming. Francis anticipates this objection. In reply he points out that very busy men, like King David and Saint Louis, king of France, by putting the Lord and devotion to Him before all else, were able to accomplish a great deal. Francis I assures that the same will be true for us.

Perform these exercises confidently, as I have marked them out for you, and God will give you sufficient leisure and strength to perform all your other duties.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, Chap. 1

Little by little, we can make our daily life more and more prayerful, as we are able, over time, to incorporate those suggestions that work with our schedule and that we are ready for spiritually. There is a particular spiritual practice that Francis highly recommends that is possible for all of us: even on those impossible days when we are perhaps unable to undertake our normal spiritual practices, we can stay rooted in prayer by constantly addressing brief prayers to the Lord. These can be acts of love, of adoration, of faith, of hope, of petition, or simply of saying the name of Jesus — throughout the course of the day. Francis places a very high value on these simple utterances, traditionally called ejaculatory prayers or aspirations. Since the great work of devotion consists in such use of spiritual recollection and ejaculatory prayers, it can supply the lack of all other prayers, but its loss can hardly be repaired by other means. Without this exercise we cannot properly lead the contemplative life, and we can but poorly lead the active life. Without it rest is mere idleness, and labor is drudgery. Hence I exhort you to take up this practice with all your heart and never give it up.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part V, Chap. 17

The short prayer that Bernard most strongly recommends is simply saying the name of Jesus. He writes in a very moving away about the power of the name of Jesus in our prayer.

The name of Jesus is more than light; it is also food. Do you not feel increase of strength as often as you remember it? What other name can so enrich the man who meditates? What can equal its power to refresh the harassed senses, to buttress the virtues, to add vigor to good and upright habits, to foster chaste affections? . . . Write what you will, I shall not relish it unless it tells of Jesus. Talk or argue about what you will, I shall not relish it if you exclude the name of Jesus. Jesus to me is honey in the mouth, music in the ear, a song in the heart.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol I, Sermon 15

Prayer is essential for the spiritual journey.


An Introduction to the Life and Writings of Simone Weil – Leslie Fielder

June 25, 2010

Simone Weil

I was surprised to find that Simone Weil’s Waiting for God came with a lengthy intro to her life and writings by Leslie Fielder, one of the premier literary and cultural critics of the last century (He passed in 2003 at age 85). Written in 1951, in addition to testifying to Weil’s initial impact in the world it seeks to introduce Weil to an American audience. I found it quite detailed –it mentions everything I have ever found out about her and adds some penetrating observations.

SINCE HER DEATH, Simone Weil has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time — the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint. In eight scant years, this young Frenchwoman, whom scarcely anyone had heard of before her sacrificial death in exile at the age of has come to possess the imagination of many in the Western world. Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew, agnostic and devout, we have all turned to her with the profound conviction that the meaning of her experience is our meaning, that she is really ours.

Few of us, to be sure, would find nothing to dissent from in her religious thought; fewer still would be capable of emulating the terrible purity of her life; none could measure himself, without shame, against the absolute ethos toward which she aspired. And yet she does not seem strange to us, as other mystics and witnesses of God have seemed strange; for though on one side her life touches the remote mysteries of the Divine Encounter, on the other it is rooted in a world with which we are familiar.

She speaks of the problems of belief in the vocabulary of the unbeliever, of the doctrines of the Church in the words of the un-churched. The askesis, the “dark night of the soul,” through which she passed to certitude, is the modern intellectual’s familiar pattern of attraction toward and disillusionment with Marxism, the discipline of contemporary politics. The day-to-day struggles of trade unionism, unemployment, the Civil War in Spain, the role of the Soviet Union, anarchism, and pacifism — these are the determinants of her ideas, the unforeseen roads that led her to sanctity. Though she passed finally beyond politics, her thought bears to the end the mark of her early interests, as the teaching of St. Paul is influenced by his rabbinical schooling, or that of St. Augustine by his training in rhetoric.

Before her death, scarcely any of Simone Weil’s religious writings had been published. To those in France who thought of her still, in terms of her early political essays, as a somewhat unorthodox Marxist moving toward anarchism, the posthumous Christian books must have come as a shock. Surely, no “friend of God” in all history, had moved more unwillingly toward the mystic encounter. There is in her earlier work no sense of a groping toward the divine, no promise of holiness, no pursuit of a purity beyond this world — only a conventionally left-wing concern with the problems of industrialization, rendered in a tone at once extraordinarily inflexible and wonderfully sensitive.

The particular note of conviction in Simone Weil’s testimony arises from the feeling that her role as a mystic was so unintended, one for which she had not in any sense prepared. An undertone of incredulity persists beneath her astonishing honesty: quite suddenly God had taken her, radical, agnostic, contemptuous of religious life and practice as she had observed it! She clung always to her sense of being an Outsider among the religious, to a feeling that her improbable approach had given her a special vocation, as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” planted at “the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.” She refused to become, in the typical compensatory excess of the convert, more of the Church than those born into it; she would not even be baptized, and it is her unique position, at once in and out of institutionalized Catholicism, that determines her special role and meaning.

To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, she teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than the kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego. Like Kierkegaard, she preached the paradox of its being easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian, than for a “Christian” to become one.

To those who believe in a single Revelation, and enjoy the warm sensation of being saved in a cozy circle of friends, she expounded the doctrine of a gospel spread in many “languages,” of a divine Word shared among rival myths, in each of which certain important truths, implicit elsewhere, are made explicit. For those to whom religion means comfort and peace of mind, she brings the terrible reminder that Christ promised not peace but the sword, and that his own last words were a cry of absolute despair, the “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) which is the true glory of Christianity.

But she always considered that her chief mission was to those still “submerged in materialism,” that is, to most of us in a chaotic and disenchanted world. To the unbeliever who has rather smugly despised the churchgoer for seeking an easy consolation, she reveals the secret of his own cowardice, suggesting that his agnosticism may itself be only an opiate, a dodge to avoid facing the terror of God’s reality and the awful burden of his love.

She refused to cut herself off from anyone, by refusing to identify herself completely with anyone or any cause. She rejected the temptation to withdraw into a congenial group, once associated with which, she could be disowned by all outside of it. She rather took upon herself the task of sustaining all possible beliefs in their infinite contradictions and on their endless levels of relevance; the smugness of the false elect, the materialism of the shallowly rebellious, self-deceit and hypocrisy, parochialism and atheism — from each she extracted its partial truth, and endured the larger portion of error. She chose to submit to a kind of perpetual invisible crucifixion; her final relationship to all those she would not disown became that of the crucified to the cross.

The French editors of Simone Weil’s works, Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian who was also her friend, and Father Perrin, the nearest thing to a confessor she ever had, have both spoken of Simone Weil’s refusal to be baptized as a mere stage in her development, a nonessential flaw in her thinking, which, had she only lived longer, would probably have been remedied. M. Thibon and Father Perrin are, of course, Catholics, and speak as they must out of their great love for Mlle Weil, and their understandable conviction that such holiness could not permanently have stayed outside of the Church; but from Simone Weil’s own point of view, her outsideness was the very essence of her position. This is made especially clear in the present volume.

“I feel,” she wrote once, “that it is necessary to me, prescribed for me, to be alone, an outsider and alienated from every human context whatsoever.” And on another occasion, she jotted in her journal the self-reminder, “Preserve your solitude!” What motivated her was no selfish desire to withdraw from the ordinary concourse of men, but precisely the opposite impulse. She knew that one remains alienated from a particular allegiance, not by vainly attempting to deny all beliefs, but precisely by sharing them all.

To have become rooted in the context of a particular religion, Simone Weil felt, would on the one hand, have exposed her to what she calls “the patriotism of the Church,” with a consequent blindness to the faults of her own group and the virtues of others, and would, on the other hand, have separated her from the common condition here below, which finds us all “outsiders, uprooted, in exile.” The most terrible of crimes is to collaborate in the uprooting of others in an already alienated world; but the greatest of virtues is to uproot oneself for the sake of one’s neighbors and of God. “It is necessary to uproot oneself. Cut down the tree and make a cross and carry it forever after.”

Especially at the moment when the majority of mankind is “submerged in materialism,” Simone Weil felt she could not detach herself from them by undergoing baptism. To be able to love them as they were, in all their blindness, she would have to know them as they were; and to know them, she would have to go among them disguised in the garments of their own disbelief. In so far as Christianity had become an exclusive sect, it would have to be remade into a “total Incarnation of faith,” have to become truly “catholic,” catholic enough to include the myths of the dark-skinned peoples from a world untouched by the Churches of the West, as well as the insights of post-Enlightenment liberals, who could see in organized religion only oppression and bitterness and pride.

“[I]n our present situation,” she wrote, “universality has to be fully explicit.” And that explicit universality, she felt, must find a mouthpiece in a new kind of saint, for “today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.” The new kind of saint must possess a special “genius,” capable of blending Christianity and Stoicism, the love of God and “filial piety for the city of the world”; a passive sort of “genius” that would enable him to act as a “neutral medium,” like water, “indifferent to all ideas without exception, even atheism and materialism .

Simone Weil felt that she could be only the forerunner and foreteller of such a saint; for her, humility forbade her thinking of herself as one capable of a “new revelation of the universe and human destiny… the unveiling of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto hidden…” Yet she is precisely the saint she prophesied.

Despite her modesty, she spoke sometimes as if she were aware that there was manifest in the circumstances of her birth (she had been born into an agnostic family of Jewish descent) a special providence, a clue to a special mission. While it was true, she argued in her letters to Catholic friends, that the earlier Saints had all loved the Church and had been baptized into it, on the other hand, they had all been born and brought up in the Church, as she had not. “I should betray the truth,” she protested, “that is to say, the aspect of the truth that I see, if I left the point, where I have been since my birth, at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

It must not be thought that she was even troubled by the question of formally becoming a Christian; it vexed her devout Catholic friends and for their sakes she returned again and again to the problem; but, as for herself, she was at peace. Toward the end of her life, the mystic vision came to her almost daily, and she did not have to wonder (in such matters, she liked to say, one does not believe or disbelieve; one knows or does not know) if there were salvation outside an organized sect; she was a living witness that the visible Church and the invisible congregation of the saints are never one. “I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church. . . . I never doubted…. I believe that now it can be concluded that God does not want me in the Church.”

It is because she was capable of remaining on the threshold of organized religion, “without moving, quite still… indefinitely . . .“ that Simone Weil speaks to all of us with special authority, an Outsider to outsiders, our kind of saint, whom we have needed (whether we have known it or not) “as a plague-stricken town needs doctors.”

To what then does she bear witness? To the uses of exile and suffering, to the glory of annihilation and absurdity, to the unforeseen miracle of love. Her life and work form a single document, a document which we can still not read clearly, though clearly enough, perhaps, for our needs. On the one hand, the story of Simone Weil’s life is still guarded by reticence; and on the other hand, her thought comes to us in fragmentary form. She completed no large-scale work; she published in her lifetime no intimate testimony to the secret religious life that made of her last few years a series of experiences perhaps unequaled since St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross. If she has left any detailed account of those experiences we have not yet seen it.

Since her death, four volumes of her work have been published in France. La Pesanteur et La Grace (Gravity and Grace), is a selection from her diaries, chosen and topically rearranged by Gustave Thibon; the effect is that of a modem Pensées — no whole vision, but a related, loosely linked body of aphorisms, always illuminating and direct, sometimes extraordinarily acute. We do not know, of course, what M. Thibon has chosen to omit; and he has not even told us how large a proportion of the notebooks he has included in his selection.

L’Enracinernent (The Need for Roots) is the longest single piece left by Simone Weil. Begun at the request of the Free French Government in exile, it takes off from a consideration of the religious and social principles upon which a truly Christian French nation might be built and touches upon such subjects as the humanizing of factory work, the need for freedom of purely speculative thought, and the necessity for expunging from our books a false notion of the heroic which makes us all guilty of the rise of Hitler. It is a fascinating though uneven book, in parts ridiculous, in parts profound, but motivated throughout by the pity and love Simone Weil felt in contemplating a society that had made of the apparatus of government an oppressive machine by separating the secular and religious.

The third book, of which the present volume is a translation, is in many ways the most representative and appealing of the three. It is not, of course, a whole, but a chance collection, entrusted to Father Perrin during the time just before Simone Weil’s departure for America. It includes some material, originally written as early as 1937, though recast in the final years of her life; but in the main it represents the typical concerns of the end of Simone Weil’s life, after she had reached a haven of certainty. Among the documents (which survived a confiscation by the Gestapo) are six letters, all but one written to Father Perrin, of which letter IV, the “Spiritual Autobiography,” is of special importance. Among the essays, the meditation on the Pater Noster possesses great interest, for this was the single prayer by which Simone Weil attained almost daily the Divine Vision of God; and the second section of the study called “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” I find the most moving and beautiful piece of writing Simone Well ever did.

Another volume of her collected essays and meditations, under the title La Connaissance Surnaturelle (Supernatural Knowledge) has recently appeared in France, and several other volumes made up of extracts from her notebooks are to be published soon. Simone Weil apparently left behind her a large body of fragments, drafts, and unrevised sketches, which a world that finds in her most casual words insights and illuminations will not be content to leave in manuscript.

Several of her poems and prose pieces, not included in any of these volumes, have been published in various French magazines (notably in Cahiers de Sud) and three or four of her political essays have appeared in this country in Politics. But the only really consequential study, aside from those in the three books, is her splendid, though absurdly and deliberately partial, interpretation of the Iliad, which, has been excellently translated into English by Mary McCarthy and published in pamphlet form under the title of The Iliad: or, the Poem of Force.

These are the chief sources of her thought; and the introductions to the volumes edited by M. Thibon and Father Perrin provide, along with briefer personal tributes printed at the time of her death, the basic information we have about her life. In a profound sense, her life is her chief work, and without some notion of her biography it is impossible to know her total meaning. On the other hand, her books are extensions of her life; they are not literature, not even in the sense that the writings of a theologically oriented author like Kierkegaard are literature. They are confessions and testimonies — sometimes agonized cries or dazzled exclamations — motivated by the desire to say just how it was with her, regardless of all questions of form or beauty- of style. They have, however, a charm of directness, an appealing purity of tone that makes it possible to read them (Simone Weil would have hated to acknowledge it!) for the sheer pleasure of watching a subtle mind capture in words the most elusive of paradoxes, or of contemplating an absolute love striving to communicate itself in spite of the clumsiness of language.

Her Life

We do not know, as yet, a great deal about the actual facts of Simone Well’s life. Any attempt at biographical reconstruction runs up against the reticence and reserve of her parents, who are still living, and even more critically, it encounters her own desire to be anonymous—to deny precisely those elements in her experience, which to the biographer are most interesting. She was born in 1909, into a family apparently socially secure (her father was a doctor) and “completely agnostic.” Though her ancestors had been Jewish, the faith had quite disappeared in her immediate family, and where it flourished still among remoter relatives, it had become something cold, oppressive, and meaninglessly legalistic to a degree that made Simone Weil all of her life incapable of judging fairly the merits of Judaism. She appeared to have no sense of alienation from the general community connected with her Jewishness (though in appearance she seems to have fitted exactly a popular stereotype of the Jewish face), but grew up with a feeling of belonging quite firmly to a world whose values were simply “French,” that is to say, a combination of Greek and secularized Christian elements.

Even as a child, she seems to have troubled her parents, to whom being comfortable was an end of life, and who refused to or could not understand her mission. They frustrated again and again, with the greatest of warmth and good will, her attempts to immolate herself for the love of God. Her father and mother came to represent, in an almost archetypal struggle with her, the whole solid bourgeois world, to whom a hair shirt is a scandal, and suffering only a blight to be elirninated by science and proper familial care. Yet she loved her parents as dearly as they loved her, though she was from childhood quite incapable of overt demonstrations of affection.

At the age of five, she refused to eat sugar, as long as the soldiers at the front were not able to get it. The war had brought the sense of human misery into her protected milieu for the first time, and her typical pattern of response was already set: to deny herself what the most unfortunate were unable to enjoy. There is in her reaction, of course, something of the hopeless guilt of one born into a favored position in a society with sharp class distinctions. Throughout her career, there was to be a touch of the absurd in her effort to identify herself utterly with the most exploited groups in society (whose own major desire was to rise up into the class from which she was trying to abdicate), and being continually “rescued” from the suffering she sought by parents and friends. A little later in her childhood, she declared that she would no longer wear socks, while the children of workers had to go without them. This particular gesture, she was later to admit in a typically scrupulous bit of self-analysis, might have been prompted as much by an urge to tease her mother as by an unselfish desire to share the lot of the poor.

At fourteen, she passed through the darkest spiritual crisis of her life, feeling herself pushed to the very verge of suicide by an acute sense of her absolute unworthiness, and by the onslaught of migraine headaches of an unbearable intensity. The headaches never left her afterward, not even in her moments of extremest joy; her very experiences of Divine Love would come to her strained through that omnipresent pain which attacked her, as she liked to say, “at the intersection of body and soul.” She came later to think of that torment, intensified by the physical hardships to which she compulsively exposed herself, as a special gift; but in early adolescence, it was to her only a visible and outward sign of her inner misery at her own total lack of talent.

The root of her troubles seems to have been her relation-ship with her brother, a mathematical prodigy, beside whose brilliance she felt herself stumbling and stupid. Her later academic successes and the almost universal respect accorded her real intelligence seem never to have convinced her that she had any intellectual talent. The chance phrase of a visitor to her mother, overheard when she was quite young, had brought the whole problem to a head. Sirnone Weil never forgot the words. “One is genius itself,” the woman had said, pointing to the boy; and then, indicating Simone, “the other beauty!” It is hard to say whether she was more profoundly disturbed by the imputation of a beauty she did not possess, or by the implicit denial of genius.

Certainly, forever afterward, she did her best to destroy what in her was “beautiful” and superficially charming, to turn herself into the anti-mask of the appealing young girl. The face in her photographs is absolute in its refusal to be charming, an exaggeration, almost a caricature of the intellectual Jewess. In a sentence or two, Father Perrin recreates her for us in her typical costume; the oversize brown, beret, the shapeless cape, the large, floppy shoes, and emerging from this disguise, the clumsy, imperious gestures. ‘We hear, too, the unmusical voice that completes the ensemble, monotonous, almost merciless in its insistence. Only in her writing, is Simone Weil betrayed into charm; in her life, she made a principle of avoiding it. “A beautiful woman,” she writes, “looking at her image in “the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.”

But though her very appearance declares her physical humility, we are likely to be misled about Simone Weil’s attitude toward her own intelligence. Father Perrin tells us that he never saw her yield a point in an argument with anybody, but on the other hand, he is aware, as we should be, too, of her immense humbleness in the realm of ideas. Never was she able to believe that she truly possessed the quality she saw so spectacularly in her own brother, the kind of “genius” that was honestly to be envied in so far as it promised not merely “exterior success” but also access to the very “kingdom of truth.”

She did not commit suicide, but she passed beyond the temptation without abandoning her abysmal sense of her own stupidity. Instead, she learned painfully the uses of stupidity. To look at a mathematical problem one has inexcusably missed, she writes, is to learn the true discipline of humility. In the contemplation of our crimes or our sins, even of our essential proneness to evil, there are temptations to pride, but in the contemplation of the failures of our intelligence, there is only degradation and the sense of shame. To know that one is mediocre is “to be on. the true way.”

Besides, when one has no flair for geometry (it is interesting that her examples come always from the field of her brother’s special competence) the working of a problem becomes not the really irrelevant pursuit of an “answer,” but a training in “attention,” which is the essence of prayer. And this in turn opens to us the source of a higher kind of genius, which has nothing to do with natural talent and everything to do with Grace. “Only a kind of perversity can force the friends of God to deprive themselves of genius, because it is enough for them to demand it of their Father in the name of Christ, to have a su1erabundance of genius. . .“ Yet even this final consideration never brought her absolute peace. She wrote toward the end of her life that she could never read the parable of the “barren fig tree” without a shudder, seeing in the figure always a possible portrait of herself, naturally impotent, and yet somehow, in the inscrutable plan of God, cursed for that impotence.

However she may have failed her own absolute standards, she always seems to have pleased her teachers. At the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where she studied from 1928 to 1931, finally attaining her agregée de philosophic at the age of 22, she was a student of the philosopher Alain, who simply would not believe the report of her early death years afterward. “She will come back surely,” he kept repeating. “It isn’t true!” It was, perhaps, under his instruction that the love of Plato, so important in her thought, was confirmed in her once and for all.

But at that point of her career she had been influenced by Marx as well as the Greek philosophers; and it was as an earnest and committed radical, though one who had never joined a particular political party, that she took up her first teaching job at Le Puy. It was a time for radicals — those utterly bleak years at the pit of a world-wide depression. She seems, in a way not untypical of the left-wing intellectual in a small town, to have horrified the good citizens of Le Puy by joining the workers in their sports, marching with them in their picket lines, taking part with the unemployed in their pick and shovel work, and refusing to eat more than the rations of those on relief, distributing her surplus food to the needy. The bourgeois mind seems to have found it as absurd for this awkward girl to be playing ball with workers, as to be half-starving herself because of principles hard to understand. As for crying for a Revolution!

A superintendent of instruction was called in to threaten Simone Weil with revocation of her teacher’s license, at which she declared proudly that she would consider such a revocation “the crown of her career!” There is a note of false bravado in the response, betraying a desire to become a “cause,” to attain a spectacular martyrdom. It is a common flaw in the revolutionary activity of the young; but fortunately for Simone Weil, this kind of denouement, of which she would have been ashamed later, was denied her. She was only a young girl, harmless, and her license was not revoked. Irked at the implied slur, perhaps, and certainly dissatisfied in general with halfway participation in the class struggle of a teacher-sympathizer, she decided to become a worker once and for all, by taking a job at the Renault auto plant.

It is hard to know how to judge the venture. Undoubtedly, there is in it something a little ridiculous: the resolve of the Vassar girl of all lands to “share the experience” of the working class; and the inevitable refusal behind that resolve to face up to the fact that the freedom to choose a worker’s life, and the consciousness of that choice, which can never be sloughed off, make the dreamed-of total identification impossible. And yet for the sake of that absurd vision, Simone Weil suffered under conditions exacerbated by her sensibility and physical weakness beyond anything the ordinary worker had to bear; the job “entered into her body,” and the ennui and misery of working-class life entered into her soul, making of her a “slave,” in a sense she could only understand fully later, when her religious illumination had come.

She was always willing to take the step beyond the trivially silly; and the ridiculous pushed far enough, absurdity compounded, becomes something else–the Absurd as a religious category, the madness of the Holy fool beside which the wisdom of this world is revealed as folly. This point Simone Weil came to understand quite clearly. Of the implicit forms of the love of God, she said, “[I]n a sense they are absurd, they are mad,” and this she knew to be their special claim. Even unhappiness, she learned, in order to be pure must be a little absurd. The very superiority of Christ over all the martyrs is that he is not anything so solemn as a martyr at all, but a “slave,” a criminal among criminals, “only a little more ridiculous. For unhappiness is ridiculous.”

An attack of pleurisy finally brought Simone Weil’s factory experience to an end (there were always her parents waiting to rescue her), but having rested for a while, just long enough to regain some slight measure of strength, she set off for Spain to support the Loyalists, vowing all the while that she would not ever learn to use the gun they gave her. She talked about Spain with the greatest reluctance in later years, despite the fact, or perhaps because it was undoubtedly for her, as for many in her generation, a critical experience: the efflorescence and the destruction of the revolutionary dream. From within and without the Marxist hope was defeated in a kind of model demonstration, a paradigm for believers. Simone Weil was fond of quoting the Homeric phrase about “justice, that fugitive from the camp of the victors” but in those years it was absent from the camp of victor and vanquished alike. Not even defeat could purify the revolution!

While the struggle in Spain sputtered toward its close, Simone Weil endured a personal catastrophe even more anticlimactic; she was wounded — by accident! The fate that preserved her throughout her life for the antiheroic heroism of her actual death, brought this episode, too, to a bathetic conclusion. Concerned with the possibilities of combining participation and nonviolence, pondering the eternal, she forgot the “real” world of missteps and boiling oil, and ineptly burned herself, a victim of that clumsiness which seems to have been an essential aspect of her denial of the physical self. Badly hurt and poorly cared for, she was rescued from a field hospital by her parents—once more coming between her and her desired agony!

The Spanish adventure was her last purely political gesture; afterward, during the Second World War, she was to work up some utterly impractical plan for being parachuted into France to carry spiritual solace to the fighters in the underground resistance; and she was even to consider at one point going to the Soviet Union, where she could doubtless not have lived in freedom for a month. Among the Communists in France she had been known as a Trotskyite, and had once been threatened with physical violence for delivering an anti-Stalinist report at a trade union convention. But at a moment when the Russians were retreating before the German attack, she felt obliged to “add a counterweight,” in order to restore that equilibrium which could alone make life here below bearable. One can barely imagine her in the field with the Red Army, this quixotic, suffering “friend of God,” flanked by the self-assured killers of “Fascist Beasts,” and carrying in her hand the gun that would doubtless have blown off her fingers had she tried to fire it.

These later projects were, as their very “impossibility” attests, different in kind from her early practical ventures: the picketing with the unemployed, the participation in Spain. She had passed into the realm of the politics of the absurd, of meta-politics, having decided that “the revolution is the opiate of the people,” and that the social considered in itself is “a trap of traps…an ersatz divinity…irremediably the domain of the devil.” The lure of the social she believed to be her special temptation.

Against the love of self she was armored by her very temperament. “No one loves himself,” she wrote in her journal. “Man wants to be an egoist and cannot.” But a nostalgia for collective action seemed ever on the point of overwhelming her defenses. Simply to join together with others in any group whatsoever would have been for her “delicious.” “I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus,” she once said, “a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi…. “Yet, the “we” can lead away from God, she knew, as dangerously as the “I.” “It is wrong to be an ‘I,’ but it is worse to be a ‘we,’” she warned herself. “The city gives us the feeling of being at home. Cultivate the feeling of being at home in exiled”

Yet charity took her continually back into the world of social action. “Misery must be eliminated in so far as possible from life in society, for misery is useful only in respect to grace, and society ‘is not a society of the elect. There will always be enough misery for the elect.” If there is a certain inconsistency in her position, it is easy to forgive. Even the “wrong” politics of her revolutionary youth she would not write off as wholly mistaken; she never repented her early radicalism, understanding it as a providential discipline, through which she had been unconsciously learning how to emancipate her imagination from its embroilment with the social. “Meditation on the social mechanism is a purification of the first importance in this regard. To contemplate the social is as good a means of purification as retiring from the world. That is why I was not wrong in staying with politics for so long.”

It was after her Spanish experience that Simone Weil reached the critical point of conversion; but the decisive event in her spiritual education had been, she always felt, her work in the factory. She had not known what she was seeking at the machine, but she had found it nonetheless; branded with the red mark of the slave, she had become incapable of resisting “the religion of slaves.” In one sense, Simone Weil insisted afterward, she had not needed to be converted; she had always been implicitly, in “secret” even from her lower self, a Christian; but she had never knelt, she had never prayed, she had never entered a Church, she had never even posed to herself the question of God’s existence. “I may say that never in my life have I ‘sought for God,’” she said toward the end of her life; but she had been all the time waiting, without daring to define what she awaited.

Taken off by her parents to Portugal to recuperate from her bums and her chagrin, she made her way to Solesmes, where, listening to a Gregorian chant at the moment when her migraine was at its worst, she experienced the joy and bitterness of Christ’s passion as a real event, though still so abstractly that she did not attach to it any name. And there, too, she had met.a young English Catholic, who introduced her to the work of the British metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and so gave her a key to the beyond, in the place of conventional prayer to which she had not yet been able to turn.

Like no saint before her, Simone Weil distrusted the conventional apparatus of piety and grace; and it is typical of her role that it was through forms of art acceptable to the most skeptical anti-Christian (Gregorian chant and metaphysical poetry — two of the special rediscoveries of our irreligious time) that she approached her encounter with God.

“In a moment of intense physical suffering,” she tells us, “when I was forcing myself to feel love, but without desiring to give a name to that love, I felt, without being in any way prepared for it (for I had never read the mystical writers) a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being, though inaccessible to the senses and the imagination…” She had been repeating to herself a piece by George Herbert, when the presence came. “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem,” she writes, “but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.” It is worth quoting the poem as a whole, for its imagery is vital, as we shall see later, to an understanding of Simone Weil’s essential thought.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of lust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Even after such an experience, this astonishingly stubborn friend of God could not for more than five years bring herself conventionally to pray (though she tells us that in 1937 she knelt for the first time, at the shrine in Assisi), finally persuading herself to say the Patter Nosier daily with so special a concentration that apparently at each repetition, Christ himself “descended and took her.” It is her remarkable freedom from, her actual shamefastness before the normal procedures of Christian worship that lend a special authority to Simone Weil’s testimony. Nothing comes to her as a convention or a platitude; it is as if she is driven to reinvent everything from the beginning. Of her first mystical experience she writes, “God had mercifully prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it would be clear to me that I had not fabricated an absolutely unexpected encounter.” Surely, no mystic has ever been so scrupulously his own skeptical examiner.

Afterward, Simone Weil found in St. John of the Cross and the Bhagavad-Gita accounts of encounters similar to her own; and she even decided upon rereading her old master Plato in the light of her new experience that he, too, must have achieved the mystical union. Before her own encounter, she had thought that all such alleged experiences could be only a turning of the natural orientation of the sexual desire toward an imaginary object labeled God — a degrading self-indulgence, “lower than a debauch.” To distinguish her own secret life from such ersatz mysticism became one of the main objects of her thought.

After her first mystical union, the inner existence of Simone Weil becomes much more important than anything that superficially happens to her. Even the War itself, the grossest fact of our recent history, shrinks in the new perspective. Nonetheless, Simone Weil continued to immerse herself in the misery of daily life. Driven by her constant desire not to separate herself from the misfortune of others, she refused to leave Paris until it was declared an open city, after which she moved with her parents to Marseilles.

But there she was caught by the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy Government which made it impossible for her to teach any longer; and so she went to Gustave Thibon, a lay theologian, in charge of a Catholic agricultural colony in the South of France. Under his guidance, she worked in the vineyards with the peasants (whom she astonished and bored with lectures on the Upanishads!), sleeping as they slept, and eating their meager fare until her feeble health broke down once more. M. Thibon at first immensely mistrusted her motives — a radical intellectual “returning to the soil” — then became closely attached to her, and it was to him that she entrusted her journals and occasional jottings, which he finally decided to publish after her death despite her request to the contrary.

The chief external influence on Simone Weil during these last years of her spiritual progress was not M. Thibon, but Father Perrin, with whom she was apparently able to talk as she had never been able to before, and to whom she communicated what of her secrets could be spoken at all. He was truly and deeply her friend. One has the sense of Simone Weil as a woman to whom “sexual purity” is as instinctive as breath; to whom, indeed, any kind of sentimental life is scarcely necessary. But a few lines in one of her absolutely frank and unguarded letters to Father Perrin reveal a terrible loneliness which only he was able to mitigate, to some degree, and a vulnerability which only he knew how to spare. “I believe that, except for you, all human beings to whom I have ever given, through my friendship, the power to harm easily, have sometimes amused themselves by doing so, frequently or rarely, consciously or unconsciously, but all of them at one time or another…”

It is no evil in them, she hastens to add, that prompts this infliction of pain, “but an instinct, almost mechanical, like that which makes the other animals in the chicken yard fall on the wounded hen.” The figure of the wounded hen is one to which she returns elsewhere, and in contemplating it, one knows suddenly the immense sensitivity beneath the inflexible surface, her terrible need not to be laughed at or pitied for her patent absurdities. One remembers another heart-rending figure she used once to describe herself, “Indeed for other people, in a sense I do not exist. I am the color of dead leaves, like certain unnoticed insects.” And the phrases from her journal recur, “never seek friendship…never permit oneself to dream of friendship… friendship is a miracle!”

It was with. Father Perrin that Simone Weil argued out the question of baptism: Would she lose her intellectual freedom in entering the Church? Did Catholicism have in it too much of those “great beasts” Israel and Rome? Did Christianity deny the beauty of this world? Did excommunication make of the Church an instrument of exclusion? Her friendship for the priest made her problem especially difficult: she did not want to hurt him personally by refusing baptism at his hands, nor did she certainly want to accept merely out of her love for him.

là the end, she decided to wait for an express command from God, “except perhaps at the moment of death.” Searching, she believed, leads only to error; obedience is the sole way to truth. “If,” she wrote in one of her most splendid paradoxes, “it were conceivable that one might be damned by obeying God and saved by disobeying him; I would nonetheless obey him.” The role of the future spouse is to wait; and it is to this “waiting for God” that the title of the present collection refers. Simone Weil finally remained on the threshold of the Church, crouching there for the love of all of us who are not inside, all the heretics, the secular dreamers, the prophesiers in strange tongues; “without budging,” she wrote, “immobile… only now my heart has been transported, forever I hope, into the Holy Sacrament revealed on the altar.”

In May, 1942, she finally agreed to accompany her parents, who had been urging her for a long time, and set sail for America. Before her departure she remarked ruefully to a friend, “Don’t you think the sea might serve me as a baptismal font?” But America proved intolerable to her; simply to be in so secure a land was, no matter how one tried to live, to enjoy what most men could not attain. She finally returned to England, where she tried desperately to work out some scheme for re-entering France, and where she refused to eat any more than the rations allowed her countrymen in the occupied territory. Exhausted and weakened by her long fast, she permitted herself to be borne off into the country by well-meaning protectors, but on August 24th in 1943, she succeeded at last in dying, completing the process of “de-creation” at which she had aimed all her life.

Her Method

Simone Well’s writing as a whole is marked by three characteristic devices: extreme statement or paradox; the equilibrium of contradictions; and exposition by myth. As the life of Simone Weil reflects a desire to insist on the absolute even at the risk of being absurd, so her writing tends always toward the extreme statement, the formulation that shocks by its willingness to push to its ultimate conclusion the kind of statement we ordinarily accept with the tacit understanding that no one will take it too seriously. The outrageous (from the natural point of view) ethics of Christianity, the paradoxes on which it is based are a scandal to common sense; but we have protected ourselves against them by turning them imperceptibly into platitudes. It is Simone Weil’s method to revivify them, by recreating them in all their pristine offensiveness.

“He who gives bread to the famished sufferer for the love of God will not be thanked by Christ. He has already had his reward in this thought itself. Christ thanks those who do not know to whom they are giving food.” Or “Ineluctable necessity, misery, distress, the crushing weight of poverty and of work that drains the spirit, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, terror, sickness — all these are God’s love!” Or “Evil is the beautiful obedience of matter to the will of God.”

Sometimes the primary function of her paradoxes is to remind us that we live in a world where the eternal values are reversed; it is as if Simone Weil were bent on proving to us, by our own uncontrollable drawing back from what we most eagerly should accept, that we do not truly believe those things to which we declare allegiance. “[E]very time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy.” “Suffering: superiority of man over God. We needed the Incarnation to keep that superiority from becoming a scandal!”

Or sometimes it is our sentimentality that is being attacked, that ersatz of true charity which is in fact its worst enemy, “[Christ] did not however prescribe the abolition of penal justice. He allowed stoning to continue. Wherever it is done with justice, it is therefore he who throws the first stone.” “Bread and stone are love. We must eat the bread and lay ourselves open to the stone, so that it may sink as deeply as possible into our flesh.”

Or the paradox may have as its point merely the proving of the impossibility of God’s justice, the inconsequentiality of virtue and grace. “A Gregorian chant bears testimony as effectively as the death of a martyr.” “…a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.”

Corresponding to Simone Well’s basic conviction that no widely held belief is utterly devoid of truth is a dialectical method in which she balances against each other contrary propositions, not in order to arrive at a synthesis in terms of a “golden mean,” but rather to achieve an equilibrium of truths. “One must accept all opinions,” she has written, “but then arrange them in a vertical order, placing them at appropriate levels.” Best of all exercises for the finding of truth is the confrontation of statements that seem absolutely to contradict each other. “Method of investigation –” Simone Weil once jotted down in a note to herself, “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.”

When she is most faithful to this method, her thought is most satisfactory; only where some overwhelming prejudice prevents her from honoring contradictions is she narrow and un-illuminating — as for instance, toward Israel, Rome, Aristotle, or Corneille. These unwitting biases must be distinguished from her deliberate strategic emphases, her desire to “throw the counterweight” on the side of a proposition against which popular judgment is almost solidly arrayed; as she does most spectacularly by insisting, in the teeth of our worship of happiness and success, that “unhappines?’ is the essential road to God, and the supreme evidence of God’s love.

One can see her method of equilibrium most purely in her remarks on immortality of the soul, in her consideration of the rival Protestant and Catholic theories of the Eucharist, and especially in her approach to the existence of God. “A case of contradictories, both of them true. There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am sure my love is no illusion. I am quite sure there is no God, in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word.

There are three main factors that converge in Simone Weil’s interest in the myth (this is yet another aspect of her thought with which the contemporary reader of Jung and Joyce and Eliot and Mann feels particularly at home): first, there is the example of her master, Plato, who at all the great crises of his thought falls back on the mythic in search of a subtle and total explication; second, there is her own belief in multiple revelation, her conviction that the archetypal poetries of people everywhere restate the same truths in different metaphoric languages; and third, there is her sense of myth as the special gospel of the poor, a treasury of insights into the Beauty of the World, which Providence has bestowed on poverty alone, but which, in our uprooted world, the alienated oppressed can no longer decipher for themselves.

To redeem the truths of the myths, they must be “translated.” Sometimes this is a relatively simple process of substituting for unfamiliar names, ones that belong to our own system of belief: Zeus is God the Father, Bacchus God the Son; Dionysus and Osiris “are (in a certain manner) Christ himself.” In the fragment of Sophocles, Electra is the human soul and Orestes is Christ; but in this latter example we are led, once we have identified the protagonists, to a complex religious truth: as Electra loves the absence of Orestes more than the presence of any other, so must we love God, who is by definition “absent” from the material world, more than the “real,” present objects that surround us.

In a similar manner, other folk stories and traditional poems can lead toward revelations of fundamental truths: the “two winged companions” of an Upanishad, who sit on a single branch, one eating the fruit of the tree, the other looking at it, represent the two portions of the soul: the one that would contemplate the good, the other (like Eve in the Garden) that would consume it. Or the little tailor in Grimm’s fairy tale who beats a giant in a throwing contest by hurling into the air a bird rather than a stone teaches us something about the nature of Grace. And finally, we discover from “all the great images of folklore and mythology” what Simone Weil considers to be the truth most necessary to our salvation, namely, “it is God who seeks man.”

The fate of the world, she knew, is decided out of time; and it is in myth that mankind has recor4ed its sense of its true history, the eternal “immobile drama” of necessity and evil, salvation and grace.

Her Essential Thought

It is no accident that Simone Weil has left behind no single summation of her thought; for she is not in any sense a systematic thinker. Some of her profoundest insights were flashed off as detached aphorisms; and, as we have seen, she sought, rather than avoided, inconsistency. To reduce her ideas to a unified body of dogma would be, therefore, misleading and unfair; yet there are certain central concepts to which she always returned, key images that she might extend or vary, but which she could never entirely escape. These figures which adumbrate the core of her commitment are those of eating, looking, and walking toward; of gravity (pesanteur) and light; of slavery, nudity, poverty, and decreation.

The first group seems almost instinctive, rooted below the level of thought in Simone Well’s temperament itself, and provides a way into the others. The whole pattern of her life is dominated by the concepts of eating and not eating; from her childhood refusal of sugar, through her insistence at Le Puy on eating only as much as the relief allowance of the unemployed, to her death from semi-starvation in England, her virtue seems naturally to have found its expression in attitudes toward food. The vcry myths that most attracted her: the Minotaur, Eve and the apple, the two birds of the Upanishad are based on metaphors of eating; and the final line of the poem of George Herbert, which was the occasion of her first mystical experience, reads, we remember, “So I did sit and eat.”

There are two kinds of “eating” for Simone Weil, the “eating” of beauty and the beloved here below, which is a grievous error, “what one eats is destroyed, it is no longer real,” and the miraculous “eating” in Heaven, where one consumes and is consumed by his God. “The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same single operation… It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.”

Here below we must be content to be eternally hungry; indeed, we must welcome hunger, for it is the sole proof we have of the reality of God, who is the only sustenance that can satisfy us, but one which is “absent” in the created world. “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread [God], but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief, it is a certainty.”

Not to deny one’s hunger and still not to eat what is forbidden, there is the miracle of salvation! It is true even on the level of human friendship, “a miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to him as food.” And how much more true on the level of the divine! “If [Eve] had been hungry at the moment when she looked at the fruit, if in spite of that she had remained looking at it indefinitely without taking one step toward it, she would have performed a miracle analogous to that of perfect friendship.”

It is “looking” which saves and not “eating.” “It should also be publicly and officially recognized that religion is nothing else but a looking.” Looking, the mere turning of the head toward God, is equated by Simone Weil with desire and that passive effort of “waiting for God” which titled one of her books; while eating is equated with the will, and the false muscular effort to seize that which can only be freely given. Man’s “free will” consists in nothing but the ability to turn, or to refuse to him, his eyes toward what God holds up before him. “One of the principal truths of Christianity, a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that 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.”

Besides the temptation to consume what should only be regarded, man is beset by the longing to march toward the inapproachable, which he should be willing merely to look at from afar; and worst of all, he ends by persuading himself that he has approached it. “The great error of the Marxists and of all the nineteenth century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one had mounted into the air.” What we really want is above us, not ahead of us, and “We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up.” We are free only to change the direction of our glance; we cannot walk into heaven; we cannot rise without being lifted by grace.  

The vertical is forbidden to us because the world is the province of gravity and dead weight (pesanteur). The whole universe, as we know it through the senses and the imagination, has been turned over by God to the control of brute mechanism, to necessity and blind force, and that primary physical law by which all things eternally fall. The very act of creation entailed the withdrawal of the Creator from the created, so that the sum total of God and his world and all of its creatures is, of course, less than God himself. Having withdrawn from the universe so that it might exist, God is powerless within it, ineffective except as his grace penetrates on special occasions, like a ray of light, the dark mechanical realm of unlimited misery.

Yet we must love this world, this absence of God by virtue of which we are, for only through it, like the smile of the beloved through pain, can we sense the perfectly non-present Being who alone can redeem it. “In the beauty of the world, brute necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?”

This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the “imaginary,” our own dreams and self-deceits, the utopias of the politicians, or the futile promises of future reward and consolation which the misled blasphemously call “religion.” The soul has a million dodges for protecting itself against the acceptance and love of the emptiness, that “maximum distance between God and God,” which is the universe; for the price of such acceptance and love is abysmal misery.

And yet it is the only way. “If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.”

The final crown of the life of holiness is the moment of utter despair in which one becomes totally a “slave,” naked and abandoned and nailed to the cross in imitation of the absolute spiritual poverty of Christ. “Extreme affliction… is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time… He whose soul remains ever turned toward God though pierced with a nail finds himself nailed to the center of the universe… at the intersection of creation and its Creator. . . at the intersection of the arms of the Cross.”

On the cross, deceit is no longer possible; we are forced to “recognize as real what we would not even have believed possible,” and having yielded ourselves in love to spiritual poverty, spiritual nudity, to death itself, even to the point of provisionally renouncing the hope of immortality, we are ready for the final gesture of obedience: the surrender of the last vestiges of selfhood. In the ultimate “nuptial yes,” we must de-create our egos, offer up everything we have ever meant by “I,” so that the Divine Love may pass unimpeded through the space we once occupied, close again on Itself. “We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”


The Abolition of Truth and Morality – Francis A. Schaeffer

June 24, 2010

Francis Schaeffer

The evangelical Protestant Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) and the evangelical Roman Catholic Karol Wojtyla (1920- 2005) never met. Francis Schaeffer, founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, was a Christian intellectual and cultural critic, practical theologian, author, noted speaker, and evangelist, whose ministry in the last half of the twentieth century incited worldwide study and discipleship centers. He has been credited with the founding of the evangelical Christian right in the United States.Karol Wojtyla is a philosopher, university professor, theologian, priest, bishop, cardinal, author, noted speaker, evangelist, and, last but not least, the man who became Pope John Paul II ago.

These two great Christian pastors probably would have liked each other as well as deeply appreciated each other’s vision of the Christian life, each marked by intellectual vigor, theological substance, doctrinal orthodoxy, compassion, and a love for people. For them, Christian spirituality is based on the biblical affirmation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philemon 2:11) over the whole of life, including culture, and that the whole of life is under God’s blessing, judgment, and redeeming purposes. Both Michael Novak and James I. Packer have made comparisons between Schaeffer and Wojtyla and picking up on some of these comments I found this essay by Reverend Schaeffer prescient.

The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years or so, in regard to society and in regard to government, is that they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.

They have very gradually become disturbed over permissiveness, pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and finally abortion. But they have not seen this as a totality — each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much larger problem. They have failed to see that all of this has come about due to a shift in world view — that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole. This shift has been away from a world view that was at least vaguely Christian in people’s memory (even if they were not individually Christian) toward something completely different — toward a world view based upon the idea that the final reality is impersonal matter or energy shaped into its present form by impersonal chance. They have not seen that this world view has taken the place of the one that had previously dominated Northern European culture, including the United States, which was at least Christian in memory, even if the individuals were not individually Christian.

These two world views stand as totals in complete antithesis to each other in content and also in their natural results—including sociological and governmental results, and specifically including law.

It is not that these two world views are different only in how they understand the nature of reality and existence. They also inevitably produce totally different results, The operative word here is inevitably. It is not just that they happen to bring forth different results, but it is absolutely inevitable that they will bring forth different results.

Why have the Christians been so slow to understand this? There are various reasons but the central one is a defective view of Christianity. This has its roots in the Pietist movement under the leadership of P. J. Spener in the seventeenth century. Pietism began as a healthy protest against formalism and a too abstract Christianity. But it had a deficient, “platonic” spirituality. It was platonic in the sense that Pietism made a sharp division between the “spiritual” and the “material” world — giving little, or no, importance to the “material” world. The totality of human existence was not afforded a proper place. In particular it neglected the intellectual dimension of Christianity.

Christianity and spirituality were shut up to a small, isolated part of life. The totality of reality was ignored by the pietistic thinking. Let me quickly say that in one sense Christians should be pietists in that Christianity is not just a set of doctrines, even the right doctrines. Every doctrine is in some way to have an effect upon our lives. But the poor side of Pietism and its resulting platonic outlook has really been a tragedy not only in many people’s individual lives, but in our total culture.

True spirituality covers all of reality. There are things the Bible tells us as absolutes which are sinful — which do not conform to the character of God. But aside from these the Lordship of Christ covers all of life and all of life equally. It is not only that true spirituality covers all of life, but it covers all parts of the spectrum of life equally. In this sense there is nothing concerning reality that is not spiritual.

Related to this, it seems to me, is the fact that many Christians do not mean what I mean when I say Christianity is true, or Truth. They are Christians and they believe in, let us say, the truth of creation, the truth of the virgin birth, the truth of Christ’s miracles, Christ’s substitutionary death, and His coming again. But they stop there with these and other individual truths.

When I say Christianity is true I mean it is true to total reality — the total of what is, beginning with the central reality, the objective existence of the personal-infinite God. Christianity is not just a series of truths but Truth — Truth about all of reality. And the holding to that Truth intellectually — and then in some poor way living upon that Truth, the Truth of what is — brings forth not only certain personal results, but also governmental and legal results.

Now let’s go over to the other side — to those who hold the materialistic final reality concept. They saw the complete and total difference between the two positions more quickly than Christians. There were the Huxleys, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), and many others who understood a long time ago that there are two total concepts of reality and that it was one total reality against the other and not just a set of isolated and separated differences, The Humanist Manifesto published in 1933, showed with crystal clarity their comprehension of the totality of what is involved. It was to our shame that Julian (1887-1975) and Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and the others like them, understood much earlier than Christians that these two world views are two total concepts of reality standing in antithesis to each other. We should be utterly ashamed that this is the fact.

They understood not only that there were two totally different concepts but that they would bring forth two totally different conclusions, both for individuals and for society. What we must understand is that the two world views really do bring forth with inevitable certainty not only personal differences, but also total differences in regard to society, government, and law.

There is no way to mix these two total world views. They are separate entities that cannot be synthesized. Yet we must say that liberal theology, the very essence of it from its beginning, is an attempt to mix the two. Liberal theology tried to bring forth a mixture soon after the Enlightenment and has tried to synthesize these two views right up to our own day. But in each case when the chips are down these liberal theologians have always come down, as naturally as a ship coming into home port, on the side of the nonreligious humanist. They do this with certainty because what their liberal theology really is is humanism expressed in theological terms instead of philosophic or other terms.

An example of this coming down naturally on the side of the nonreligious humanists is the article by Charles Hartshorne in the January 21, 1981, issue of The Christian Century, pages 42-45. Its title is, “Concerning Abortion, an Attempt at a Rational View.” He begins by equating the fact that the human fetus is alive with the fact that mosquitoes and bacteria are also alive. That is, he begins by assuming that human life is not unique. He then continues by saying that even after the baby is born it is not fully human until its social relations develop (though he says the infant does have some primitive social relations an unborn fetus does not have).

His conclusion is, “Nevertheless, I have little sympathy with the idea that infanticide is just another form of murder, Persons who are already functionally persons in the full sense have more important rights even than infants.” He then, logically, takes the next step: “Does this distinction apply to the killing of a hopelessly senile person or one in a permanent coma? For me it does.” No atheistic humanist could say it with greater clarity. It is significant at this point to note that many of the denominations controlled by liberal theology have come out, publicly and strongly, in favor of abortion.

Dr. Martin E. Marty is one of the respected, theologically liberal spokesmen. He is an associate editor of The Christian Century and Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago divinity school. He is often quoted in the secular press as the spokesman for “mainstream” Christianity. In a Christian Century article in the January 7-14, 1981, issue (pages 13-17 with an addition on page 31), he has an article entitled: “Dear Republicans: A Letter on Humanisms.” In it he brilliantly confuses the terms “being human,” humanism, the humanities and being “in love with humanity.” Why does he do this? As a historian he knows the distinctions of those words, but when one is done with these pages the poor reader who knows no better is left with the eradication of the total distinction between the Christian position and the humanist one.

I admire the cleverness of the article but I regret that in it Dr. Marty has come down on the non-religious humanist side, by confusing the issues so totally it would be well at this point to stress that we should not confuse the very different things which Dr. Marty did confuse. Humanitarianisrn is being kind and helpful to people, treating people humanly. The humanities are the studies of literature, art, music, etc. — those things which are the products of human creativity. Humanism is the placing of Man at the center of all things and making him the measure of all things.

Thus, Christians should be the most humanitarian of all people. And Christians certainly should be interested in the humanities as the product of human creativity, made possible because people are uniquely made in the image of the great Creator. in this sense of being interested in the humanities it would be proper to speak of a Christian humanist, This is especially so in the past usage of that term. This would then mean that such a Christian is interested (as we all should be) in the product of people’s creativity. In this sense, for example, Calvin could be called a Christian humanist because he knew the works of the Roman writer Seneca so very well. John Milton and many other Christian poets could also be so called because of their knowledge not only of their own day but also of antiquity.

But in contrast to being humanitarian and being interested in the humanities Christians should be inalterably opposed to the false and destructive humanism, which is false to the Bible and equally false to what Man is.

Along with this we must keep distinct the “humanist world view” of which we have been speaking and such a thing as the “Humanist Society,” which produced the Humanist Manifestos I and 11(1933 and 1973). The Humanist Society is made up of a relatively small group of people (some of whom, however, have been influential — John Dewey, Sir Julian Huxley, Jacques Monod, B. F. Skinner, etc.). By way of contrast, the humanist world view includes many thousands of adherents and today controls the consensus in society, much of the media, much of what is taught in our schools, and much of the arbitrary law being produced by the various departments of government.

The term humanism used in this wider, more prevalent way means Man beginning from himself, with no knowledge except what he himself can discover and no standards outside of himself. In this view Man is the measure of all things, as the Enlightenment expressed it.

Nowhere have the divergent results of the two total concepts of reality, the Judeo-Christian and the humanist world view, been more open to observation than in government and law.

We of Northern Europe (and we must remember that the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and so on are extensions of Northern Europe) take our form-freedom balance in government for granted as though it were natural. There is form in acknowledging the obligations in society, and there is freedom in acknowledging the rights of the individual. We have form, we have freedom; there is freedom, there is form. There is a balance here which we have come to take as natural in the world. It is not natural in the world. We are utterly foolish if we look at the long span of history and read the daily newspapers giving today’s history and do not understand that the form-freedom balance in government which we have had in Northern Europe since the Reformation and in the countries extended from it is unique in the world, past and present.

That is not to say that no one wrestled with these questions before the Reformation nor that no one produced anything worthwhile. One can think, for example, of the Conciliar Movement in the late medieval church and the early medieval parliaments. Especially one must consider the ancient English Common Law. And in relation to that Common Law (and all English Law) there is Henry De Bracton. I will mention more about him in a moment.

Those who hold the material-energy, chance concept of reality, whether they are Marxist or non-Marxist, not only do not know the truth of the final reality, God, they do not know who Man is. Their concept of Man is what Man is not, just as their concept of the final reality is what final reality is not. Since their concept of Man is mistaken, their concept of society and of law is mistaken, and they have no sufficient base for either society or law.

They have reduced Man to even less than his natural finiteness by seeing him only as a complex arrangement of molecules, made complex by blind chance. Instead of seeing him as something great who is significant even in his sinning, they see Man in his essence only as an intrinsically competitive animal, that has no other basic operating principle than natural selection brought about by the strongest, the fittest, ending on top. And they see Man as acting in this way both individually and collectively as society.

Even on the basis of Man’s finiteness having people sweat in court in the name of humanity, as some have advocated, saying something like, “We pledge our honor before all mankind” would be insufficient enough. But reduced to the materialistic view of Man, it is even less. Although many nice words may be used, in reality law constituted on this basis can only mean brute force,

In this setting Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1842) Utilitarianism can be and must be all that law means. And this must inevitably lead to the conclusion of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935): “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” That is, there is no basis for law except Man’s limited, finite experience. And especially with the Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest concept of Man (which Holmes held) that must, and will, lead to Holmes’ final conclusion: law is “the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others.”

The problem always was, and is, What is an adequate base for law? What is adequate so that the human aspiration for freedom can exist without anarchy, and yet provides a form that will not become arbitrary tyranny?

In contrast to the materialistic concept, Man in reality is made in the image of God and has real humanness. This humanness has produced varying degrees of success in government, bringing forth governments that were more than only the dominance of brute force.

And those in the stream of the Judeo-Christian world view have had something more. The influence of the Judeo-Christian world view can be perhaps most readily observed in Henry De Bracton’s influence on British Law. An English judge living in the thirteenth century, he wrote De Legibus et Consuetudinibus (c.1250). Bracton, in the stream of the Judeo-Christian world view, said:

And that he [the King] ought to be under the law appears clearly in the analogy of Jesus Christ, whose vice-regent on earth he is, for though many ways were open to Him for His ineffable redemption of the human race, the true mercy of God chose this most powerful way to destroy the devil’s work, he would not use the power of force but the reason of justice.

In other words, God in His sheer power could have crushed Satan in his revolt by the use of that sufficient power. But because of God’s character, justice came before the use of power alone. Therefore Christ died that justice, rooted in what God is, would be the solution. Bracton codified this: Christ’s example, because of who He is, is our standard, our rule, our measure. Therefore power is not first, but justice is first in society and law. The prince may have the power to control and to rule, but he does not have the right to do so without justice. This was the basis of English Common Law. The Magna Charta (1215) was written within thirty-five years (or less) of Bracton’s De Legibus and in the midst of the same universal thinking in England at that time.

The Reformation (300 years after Bracton) refined and clarified this further. It got rid of the encrustations that had been added to the .Judeo-Christian world view and clarified the point of authority — with authority resting in the Scripture rather than church and Scripture, or state and Scripture. This not only had meaning in regard to doctrine but clarified the base for law.

That base was God’s written Law, back through the New Testament to Moses’ written Law; and the content and authority of that written Law is rooted back to Him who is the final reality. Thus, neither church nor state were equal to, let alone above, that Law. The base for law is not divided, and no one has the right to place anything, including king, state or church, above the content of God’s Law.

What the Reformation did was to return most clearly and consistently to the origins, to the final reality, God; but equally to the reality of Man — not only Man’s personal needs (such as salvation), but also Man’s social needs.

What we have had for four hundred years, produced from this clarity, is unique in contrast to the situation that has existed in the world in forms of government. Some of you have been taught that the Greek city states had our concepts in government. It simply is not true. All one has to do is read Plato’s Republic to have this come across with tremendous force.

When the men of our State Department, especially after World War II, went all over the world trying to implant our form-freedom balance in government downward on cultures whose philosophy and religion would never have produced it, it has, in almost every case, ended in some form of totalitarianism or authoritarianism.

The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite), Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for a cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality, it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being. Its natural interest is the two collectives: the state and society.


The Notion Of Person In Theology by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

June 23, 2010

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Relativity toward the other constitutes the human person.

This article is a translation of the chapter, “Zum Personenverständnis in der Theologie,” from Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma und Verkündigung(Munich: Erich Wewel Verlag, 1973), 205-223. It was translated by Michael Waldstein and appeared in the quarterly journal Communio in 1988 under the title Retrieving The Tradition Concerning The Notion Of Person In Theology.  

The human person is the event or being of relativity. The concept of person, as well as the idea that stands behind this concept, is a product of Christian theology. In other words, it grew in the first place out of the interplay between human thought and the data of Christian faith and so entered intellectual history. The concept of the person is thus, to speak with Gilson, one of the contributions to human thought made possible and provided by Christian faith.

It did not simply grow out of mere human philosophizing, but out of the interplay between philosophy and the antecedent given of faith, especially Scripture. More specifically, the concept of person arose from two questions that have from the very beginning urged themselves upon Christian thought as central: namely, the question, ‘What is God?” (i.e., the God whom we encounter in Scripture); and, “Who is Christ?”

In order to answer these fundamental questions that arose as soon as faith began to reflect, Christian thought made use of the philosophically insignificant or entirely unused concept “prosopon” = ” persona.” It thereby gave to this word a new meaning and opened up a new dimension of human thought. Although this thought has distanced itself far from its origin and developed beyond it, it nevertheless lives, in a hidden way, from this origin. In my judgment one cannot, therefore, know what “person”‘ most truly means without fathoming this origin.

For this reason please forgive me because, although I was asked to talk (this article was developed from a speech) as a systematic theologian about the dogmatic concept of the person, I will not present the latest ideas of modern theologians. Instead, I will attempt to go back to the origin, to the source and ground from which the idea of “person” was born and without which it could not exist. The outline flows from what was said above. We will simply take a closer look at the two origins of the concept of person, its origin in the question of God and its origin in the question of Christ.

The Concept Of Person In The Doctrine Of God

The Origin Of The Concept Of Person
The first figure we meet is that of the great Western theologian Tertullian. Tertullian shaped Latin into a theological language and, with the almost incredible sureness of a genius, he knew how to develop a theological terminology that remained unsurpassable in later centuries, because already on the first attempt it gave form permanently to valid formulae of Christian thought.

Thus it was Tertullian who gave to the West its formula for expressing the Christian idea of God. God is “una substantia-tres personae,” one being in three persons. [The final formula of the West was una essentia-tres personae; Tertuulian had said, una substanta tres personae, Augustine una essen tia-tres substantiae.] It was here that the word “person” entered intellectual history for the first time with its full weight. It took centuries for this statement to be intellectually penetrated and digested, until it was no longer a mere statement, but truly a means of reaching into the mystery, teaching us, not, of course, to comprehend it, but somehow to grasp it.

When we realize that Tertullian was able to coin the phrase while its intellectual penetration was still in its infancy, the question arises, How could he find this word with almost somnambulant sureness? Until recently, this was a puzzle. Carl Andresen, historian of dogma at Gottingen, has been able to solve this puzzle so that the origin of the concept of person, its true source and ground,/ is somewhat clear to us today (C. Andresen., + Zur Entstehung und Geschichte des trinitarischen Personbegiffs, ZNW 52 (1961): 1-38. The Patristic texts cited below are taken from Andresen’s article)

The answer to the question of the origin of the concept “person” is that it originated in “prosopographic exegesis.” What does this mean? In the background stands the word prosopon, which is the Greek equivalent of persona. Prosopographic exegesis is a form of interpretation developed already by the literary scholars of Antiquity. The ancient scholars noticed that in order to give dramatic: life to events, the great poets of Antiquity did not simply narrate these events, but allowed persons to make their appearance and to speak.

For example, they placed words in the mouths of divine figures and the drama progresses through these words. In other words, the poet creates the artistic device of roles through which the action can be depicted in dialogue. The literary scholar uncovers these roles; he shows that the persons have been created as “roles” in order to give dramatic life to events (in fact, the word “prosopon,” later translated by “Il persona,” originally means simply “role,” the mask of the actor). Prosopographic exegesis is thus an interpretation that brings to light this artistic device by making it clear that the author has created dramatic roles, dialogical roles, in order to give life to his poem or narrative.

In their reading of Scripture, the Christian writers came upon something quite similar. They found that, here too, events progress in dialogue. They found, above all, the peculiar fact that God speaks in the plural or speaks with himself (e.g., “Let us make man in our image and likeness,” or God’s statement in Genesis 3, “Adam has become like one of us,” or Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord which the Greek Fathers take to be a conversation between God and his Son). The Fathers approach this fact, namely, that God is introduced in the plural as speaking with himself, by means of prosopographic exegesis which thereby takes on a new meaning. Justin, who wrote in the first half of the second century (d. 165), already says “The sacred writer introduces different prosopa, different roles.”

However, now the word no longer really means “roles,” because it takes on a completely new reality in terms of faith in the Word of God. The roles introduced by the sacred writer are realities, they are dialogical realities. The word “prosopon” = idea of person. I will cite merely one text by Justin to clarify this process. “When you hear that the prophets make statements as if a person were speaking (hos apo prosopou), then do not suppose that they were spoken immediately by those filled with the spirit (i.e., the prophets) but rather by the Logos who moves them.”

Justin thus says that the dialogical roles introduced by the prophets are not mere literary devices. The “role” truly exists; it is the prosopon, the face, the person of the Logos who truly speaks here and joins in dialogue with the prophet. It is quite clear here how the data of Christian faith transform and renew a pre-given ancient schema used in interpreting texts. The literary artistic device of letting roles appear to enliven the narrative with their dialogue reveals to the theologians the one who plays the true role here, the Logos, the prosopon, the person of the Word which is no longer merely role, but person.

About .fifty years later, when Tertullian wrote his works, he was able to go back to an extensive tradition of such Christian prosopographic exegesis in which the word prosopon = persona had already found its full claim to reality. Two examples must suffice. In Adversus Praxean, Tertdian writes, “How can a person who stands by himself say, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness,’ when he ought to have said, ‘Let me make man in my image and likeness,’ as someone who is single and alone for himself. If he were only one and single, then God deceived and tricked also in what follows when he says, ‘Behold, Adam has become like one of us,’ which he said in the plural. But he did not stand alone, because there stood with him the Son, his Word, and a third person, the Spirit in the Word. This is why he spoke in the plural, ‘Let us make’ and ‘our’ and ‘us.’”4

One sees how the phenomenon of intra-divine dialogue gives birth here to the idea of the person who is person in an authentic sense. Tertullian similarly says in his interpretation of “The Lord said to my Lord” (Psalm 110:1), “Take note how even the Spirit as the third person speaks of the Father and of the Son, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies at your feet.’ Likewise through Isaiah, ‘The Lord says these words to my Lord Christ’…

In these few texts the distinction within the Trinity is clearly set before our eyes. For himself exists the one who speaks, namely, the Spirit; further the Father to whom he speaks, and finally the Son of whom he speaks.

I do not wish to enter into the historical details of these texts. I will merely summarize what results from them for the issue of the idea “person.” First, the concept “person” grew out of reading the Bible, as something needed for its interpretation. It is a product of reading the Bible. Secondly, it grew out of the idea of dialogue, more specifically, it grew as an explanation of the phenomenon of the God who speaks dialogically.

The Bible with its phenomenon of the God who speaks, the God who is in dialogue, stimulated the concept “person.” The particular interpretations of Scripture texts offered by the Fathers are certainly accidental and outdated. But their exegetical direction as a whole captures the spiritual direction of the Bible inasmuch as the fundamental phenomenon into which we are placed by the Bible is the God who speaks and the human person who is addressed, the phenomenon of the partnership of the human person who is called by God to love in the word.

However, the core of what “person” can truly mean comes thereby to light. To summarize we can say: The idea of person expresses in its origin the idea of dialogue and the idea of God as the dialogical being. It refers to God as the being that lives in the word and consists of the word as “I” and “you” and “we.” In the light of this knowledge of God, the true nature of humanity became clear in a new way.

Person As Relation
The first stage of the struggle for the Christian concept of God has been sketched above. I want to add a brief look at the second main stage, in which the concept of “person” reached its full maturity. About two hundred years later, at the turn of the fifth century, Christian theology reached the point of being able to express in articulated concepts what is meant in the thesis: God is a being in three persons. In this context, theologians argued, person must be understood as relation. According to Augustine and late patristic theology, the three persons that exist in God are in their nature relations. They are, therefore, not substances that stand next to each other, but they are real existing relations, and nothing besides. I believe this idea of the late patristic period is very important. In God, person means relation. Relation, being related, is not something superadded to the person, but it is the person itself. In its nature, the person exists only as relation. Put more concretely, the first person does not generate in the sense that the act of generating a Son is added to the already complete person, but the person is the deed of generating, of giving itself, of streaming itself forth. The person is identical with this act of self-donation.

One could thus define the first person as self-donation in fruitful knowledge and love; it is not the one who gives himself, in whom the act of self-donation is found, but it is this self-donation, pure reality of act. An idea that appeared again in our century in modern physics is here anticipated: that there is pure act-being. We know that in our century the attempt has been made to reduce matter to a wave, to a pure act of streaming. What may be a questionable idea in the context of physics was asserted by theology in the fourth and fifth century about the persons in God, namely, that they are nothing but the act of relativity toward each other.

In God, person is the pure relativity of being turned toward the other; it does not lie on the level of substance — the substance is one — but on the level of dialogical reality, of relativity toward the other. In this matter Augustine could attempt, at least in outline, to show the interplay between threeness and unity by saying, for example: in Deo nihil secundum aexidens dicitur, sed secundum substantiam aut secundum relationem (in God there is nothing accidental, but only substance and relation). Relation is here recognized as a third specific fundamental category between substance and accident the two great categorical forms of thought in Antiquity. Again we encounter the Christian newness of the personalistic idea in all its sharpness and clarity. The contribution offered by faith to human thought becomes especially clear and palpable here. It was faith that gave birth to this idea of pure act, of pure relativity, which does not lie on the level of substance, and does not touch or divide substance; and it was faith that thereby brought the personal phenomenon into view.

We stand here at the point in which the speculative penetration of Scripture, the assimilation of faith by humanity’s own thought, seems to have reached its highest point; and yet we can notice with astonishment that the way back into Scripture opens precisely here. For Scripture has clearly brought out precisely this phenomenon of pure relativity as the nature of the person. The clearest case is Johannine theology. In Johannine theology we find, for example, the formula, “The Son cannot do anything of himself” (5:19). However, the same Christ who says this says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30). This means, precisely because he has nothing of himself alone, because he does not place himself as a delimited substance next to the Father, but exists in total relativity toward him, and constitutes nothing but relativity toward him that does not delimit a precinct of what is merely and properly its own — precisely because of this they are one.

This structure is in turn transferred — and here we have the transition to anthropology — to the disciples when Christ says, “Without me you can do nothing” (15:5). At the same time he prays “that they may be one as we are one” (17:11). It is thus part of the existence even of the disciples that man does not posit the reservation of what is merely and properly his own, does not strive to form the substance of the closed sell, but enters into pure relativity toward the other and toward God. It is in this way that he truly comes to himself and into the fullness of his own, because he enters into unity with the one to whom he is related.

I believe a profound illumination of God as well as man occurs here, the decisive illumination of what person must mean in terms of Scripture: not a substance that closes itself in itself, but the phenomenon of complete relativity, which is, of course, realized in its entirety only in the one who is God, but which indicates the direction of all personal being. The point is thus reached here at which — as we shall see below — there is a transition from the doctrine of God into Christology and into anthropology.

One could go much further in following out this line of the idea of relation and of relativity in John, and in showing that it is the dominant theme of his theology, at any rate of his Christology. I want to mention only two examples. John picks up the theology of mission found in the Synoptics and in the Judaism of antiquity in which the idea is already formulated that the emissary, inasmuch as he is an emissary, is not important in himself, but stands for the sender and is one with the sender. John extends this Jewish idea of mission, which is at first a merely functional idea, by depicting Christ as the emissary who is in his entire nature “the one sent.”

The Jewish principle, “The emissary of a person is like that person” now takes on a completely new and deepened significance because Jesus has absolutely nothing besides being the emissary, but is in his nature “the one sent.” He is like the one who sent him precisely because he stands in complete relativity of existence toward the one who sent him. The content of the Johannine concept “the one sent” could be described as the absorption of being in “being from someone and toward someone.” The content of Jesus’ existence is “being from someone and toward someone,” the absolute openness of existence without any reservation of what is merely and properly one’s own.

And again the idea is extended to Christian existence of which it is said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (20:21). The other example is the doctrine of the Logos, the concept of the Word which is applied to Jesus. Once again, John picks up a schema of theological thought that was extremely widespread in the Greek and Jewish world. Of course, he thereby adopts a whole series of contents that are already developed therein and he applies them to Christ.

However, there was a new element he introduced into the concept of the Logos. In important respects, what was decisive for him was not so much the idea of an eternal rationality-as among the Greeks, or whatever other speculation there may have been; what was decisive was much rather the relativity of existence which lies in the concept of the Logos.

For again, the point is that a word is essentially from someone else and toward someone else; word is existence that is completely path and openness. Some texts express this idea differently and clarify it, for instance when Christ says: “My teaching is not my teaching” (7:16). Augustine offers a marvelous commentary on this text by asking: Is this not a contradiction? It is either my teaching or not. He finds an answer in the statement, Christ’s doctrine is he himself, and he himself is not his own, because his “I” exists entirely from the “you.”

He goes on to say, “Quid tam tuum quam tu, quid tam non tuum quam tu — what belongs to you as much as your ‘I,’ and what belongs to you as little as your ‘I?”‘ Your “I” is on the one hand what is most your own and at the same time what you have least of yourself; it is most of all not your own, because it is only from the “you” that it can exist as an “I” in the first place.

Let us summarize: in God there are three persons which implies, according to the interpretation offered by theology, that persons are relations, pure relatedness. Although, this is in the first place only a statement about the Trinity, it is at the same time the fundamental statement about what is at stake in the concept of person. It opens the concept of person into the human spirit and provides its foundation and origin.

One final remark on this point. As already indicated, Augustine explicitly transposed this theological affirmation into anthropology by attempting to understand the human person as an image of the Trinity in terms of this idea of God. Unfortunately, however, he committed a decisive mistake here to which we will come back later. In his interpretation, he projected the divine persons into the interior life of the human person and affirmed that intra-psychic processes correspond to these- persons. The person as a whole, by contrast, corresponds to the divine substance. As a result, the Trinitarian concept of person was no longer transferred to the human person in all its immediate impact. However, at present we can merely hint at this point; it will become clearer below.

The Concept Of Person In Christology
The second origin of the concept of person lies in Christology. In order to find its way through difficult problems, theology again used the word persona and thus gave the human mind a new task. Theology answered the riddle, “Who and what is this Christ?” by means of the formula, “He has two natures and one person, a divine and a human nature, but only a divine person.” Here again the word persona is introduced. One must say that this statement suffered from tremendous misunderstandings in Western thought. These misunderstandings must be removed first, in order to approach the authentic meaning of the Christological concept of person.

The first misunderstanding is to take the statement, “Christ has only one person, namely, a divine person,” as a subtraction from the wholeness of Jesus’ humanity. This misunderstanding has occurred de facto and is still occurring. All too easily one thinks as follows: Person is the authentic and true apex of human existence. it is missing in Jesus. Therefore the entirety of human reality is not present in him. The assumption that some defect is present here was the point of departure of various distortions and aberrations, for example in the theology of the saints and of the Mother of God.

In reality, this formula does not mean that anything is lacking in the humanity of the man Jesus. That nothing is lacking in his humanity was fought through inch by inch in the history of dogma, for the attempt was made again and again to show where something is missing. Arianism and Apollinarianism first thought Christ had no human soul; monophysitism denied him his human nature. After these fundamental errors had been rejected, weaker forms of the same tendency made their appearance. The monothelites asserted that although Christ had everything, he had at least no human will, the heart of personal existence. After this view had been rejected too, monergism appeared. Although Christ had a human will, he did not have the actualization of this will; the actualization comes from God.

These are all attempts at locating the concept of person at some place in the psychic inventory. One after the other was rejected in order to make one point clear: this is not how the statement is meant; nothing is missing; no subtraction from humanity whatever is permitted or given. I believe that if one follows this struggle in which human reality had to be brought in, as it were, and affirmed for Jesus, one sees what tremendous effort and intellectual transformation lay behind the working out of this concept of person, which was quite foreign in its inner disposition to the Greek and the Latin mind. It is not conceived in substantialist, but, as we shall soon see, in existential terms.

In this light, Boethius’s concept of person, which prevailed in Western philosophy, must be criticized as entirely insufficient. Remaining on the level of the Greek mind, Boethius defined “person” as naturae rationalis individua substantin, as the individual substance of a rational nature. One sees that the concept of person stands entirely on the level of substance. This cannot clarify anything about the Trinity or about Christology; it is an affirmation that remains on the level of the Greek mind which thinks in substantialist terms.

By contrast, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Richard of St. Victor found a concept of the person derived from within Christianity when he defined person as spintualis naturae incomniun lea bills existentia, as the incommunicably proper existence of spiritual nature [unmittelbar eigene Existenz]. This definition correctly sees that in its theological meaning “person” does not lie on the level of essence, but of existence. Richard thereby gave the impetus for a philosophy of existence which had, as such, not been made the subject of philosophy at all in Antiquity.

In Antiquity philosophy was limited entirely to the level of essence. Scholastic theology developed categories of existence out of this contribution given by Christian faith to the human mind, its defect was that it limited these categories to Christology and to the doctrine of the Trinity and did not make them fruitful in the whole extent of spiritual reality. This seems to me also the limit of St. Thomas in the matter, namely, that within theology he operates, with Richard of St. Victor, on the level of existence, but treats the whole thing as a theological exception, as it were.

In philosophy, however, he remains faithful to the different approach of pre-Christian philosophy. The contribution Of Christian faith to the whole of human thought is not realized; it remains at first detached from it as a theological exception, although it is precisely the meaning of this new element to call into question the whole of human thought and to, set, it on a new course.

This brings us to the second misunderstanding that has not allowed the effects of Christology to work themselves out fully. The second great misunderstanding is to see Christ as the simply unique ontological exception which must be treated as such. This exception is an object of highly interesting ontological speculation, but it must remain separate in its box as an exception to the rule and must not be permitted to mix with the rest of human thought. I believe it is useful here to remind ourselves of a methodological insight developed by Teilhard de Chardin in a completely different field. He raises the question of the nature of life, “Is it only an accident, on a tiny planet in the midst of the great cosmos, or is it symptomatic for the direction of reality as a whole?” He uses the discovery of radium as an example to address this question. “How should one understand the new element? As an anomaly, an aberrant form of matter?.. . As a curiosity or as the beginning for a new physics?” Modern physics, Teilhard continues, “w6uld not have come to be if physicists had insisted on understanding radioactivity as an anomaly.”

Something methodologically decisive for all human thinking becomes visible here. The seeming exception is in reality very often the symptom that shows us the insufficiency of our previous schema of order, which helps us to break open this schema and to conquer a new realm of reality. The exception shows us that we have built our closets too small, as it were, and that we must break them open and go on in order to see the whole. This is the meaning of Christology from its origin: what is disclosed in Christ, whom faith certainly presents as unique, is not only a speculative exception; what is disclosed in truth is what the riddle of the human person really intends.

Scripture expresses this point by calling Christ the last Adam or “the second Adam.” It thereby characterizes him as the true fulfillment of the idea of the human person, in which the direction of meaning of this being comes fully to light for the first time. If it is true, however, that Christ is not the ontological exception, if from his exceptional position he is, on the contrary, the fulfillment of the entire human being, then the Christological concept of person is an indication for theology of how person is to be understood as such. In fact, this concept of person, or simply the dimension that has become visible here, has always acted as a spark in intellectual history and it has propelled development, even when it had long come to a standstill in theology.

After these two fundamental misunderstandings have been rejected, the question remains, What does the formula mean positively, “Christ has two natures in one person?” I must admit right away that a theological response has not yet completely matured. In the great struggles of .the first six centuries, theology worked out what the person is not, but it did not clarify with the same definiteness what the word means positively. For this reason I can only provide some hints that point out the direction in which reflection should probably continue.  

I believe two points can be made:

  1. It is the nature of spirit to put itself in relation, the capacity to see itself and the , other. Hedwig Conrad-Martius speaks of the retroscendence of the spirit: the spirit is not merely there; it goes back upon itself, as it were; it knows about itself; it constitutes a doubled existence which not only is, but knows about itself, as itself. The : . difference between matter and spirit would, accordingly, consist in this, that matter is what is “das auf sich Geworfene” (that which is thrown upon itself), while the spirit is “das sich selbst Entwerfende” (that which throws itself forth, guides itself or designs itself) which is not only there, but is itself in transcending itself, in looking toward the other and in looking back upon I itself.

However this may be in detail — we need not investigate it here — openness, relatedness to the whole, lies in the essence of the spirit. And precisely in this, namely, that it not only is, but reaches beyond itself, it comes to itself. In transcending itself it has itself; by being with the other it first becomes itself, it comes to itself. Expressed differently again: being with the other is its form of being with itself.

One is reminded of a fundamental theological axiom that is applicable here in a peculiar manner, namely Christ’s saying, “Only the one who loses himself can find himself” (cf. Matthew 10:36). This fundamental law of human existence, which Matthew 10:36 understands in the context of salvation, objectively characterizes the nature of the spirit which comes to itself and actualizes its own fullness only by going away from itself, by going to what is other than itself.

We must go one step further. The spirit is that being which is able to think about, not only itself and being in general, but the wholly other, the transcendent God. This is perhaps the mark that truly distinguishes the human spirit from other forms of consciousness found in animals, namely, that the human spirit can reflect on the wholly other, the concept of God. We may accordingly say: The other through which the spirit comes to itself is finally that wholly other for which we use the stammering word “God.” If this is true, then what was said above can be further clarified in the horizon of faith and we may say: If the human person is all the more with itself, and is itself, the more it is able to reach beyond itself, the more it is with the other, then the person is all the more itself the more it is with the wholly other, with God.

In other words, the spirit comes to itself in the other, it becomes completely itself the more it is with the other, with God. And again, formulated the other way around, because this idea seems important to me: relativity toward the other constitutes the human person. The human person is the event or being of relativity. The more the person’s relativity aims totally and directly at its final goal, at transcendence, the more the person is itself.

              2.  In this light we may venture a second approach:

According to the testimony of faith, in Christ there are two natures and one person, that of the Logos. This means, however, that in him, being with the other is realized radically. Relativity toward the other is always the pre-given foundation to all consciousness as that which carries his existence. But such total being-with-the-other does not cancel his being-with-himself, but brings it fully to itself. Of course, one will admit that the chosen terminology, “una persona-duae naturae” remains accidental and is not without problems. But the decisive thing that emerges from it for the concept of the person and for the unerstanding of human beings is, in my judgment, still completely clear. In Christ, in the man who is completely with God, human existence is not canceled, but comes to its highest possibility, which consists in transcending itself into the absolute and in the integration of its own relativity into the absoluteness of divine love.

As a consequence, a dynamic definition of the human person flows from Christ, the new Adam. Christ is the directional arrow, as it were, that indicates what being human tends toward, although, as long as history is still on the way, this goal is never fully reached. At the same time it is clear that such a definition of being human manifests the historicity of the human person. If person• is the relativity toward the eternal, then this relativity implies “being on the way” in the manner of human history.

            3. In closing, a third idea.

In my judgment Christology has a further significance for the understanding of the concept of “person” in its theological sense. It adds the idea of “we” to the idea of “I” and “you.” Christ, whom Scripture calls the final Adam, that is, the definitive human being, appears in the testimonies of faith as the all-encompassing space in which the “we” of human beings gathers on the way to the Father. He is not only an example that is followed, but he is the integrating space in which the “we” of human beings gathers itself toward the “you” of God. Something emerges here that has not been sufficiently seen in modern philosophy, not even in Christian philosophy. In Christianity there is not simply a dialogical principle in the modern sense of a pure “I-thou” relationship, neither on the part of the human person that has its place in the historical “we” that bears it; nor is there such a mere dialogical principle on God’s part who is, in turn, no simple “I,” but the “we” of Father, Son, and Spirit. On both sides there is neither the pure “I,” nor the pure “you,” but on both sides the “I” is integrated into the greater “we.”

Precisely this final point, namely, that not even God can be seen as the pure and simple “I” toward which the human person tends, is a fundamental aspect of the theological concept of the person. It explicitly negates the divine monarchy in the sense of antiquity. It expressly refuses to define God as the pure monarchia and numerical unity. The Christian concept of God has as a matter of principle given the same dignity to multiplicity as to unity. While antiquity considered multiplicity the corruption of unity, Christian faith, which is a Trinitarian faith, considers multiplicity as belonging to unity with the same dignity.

This Trinitarian “we,” the fact that even God exists only as a “we,” prepares at the same time the space of the human “we.” The Christian’s relation to God is not simply, as Ferdinand Ebnér claims somewhat one-sidedly, “I and Thou,” but, as the liturgy prays for us every day, “per Christum in Spiritu Sancto ad Patrem” (Through Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father). Christ, the one, is here the “we” into which Love, namely the Holy Spirit, gathers us and which means simultaneously being bound to each other and being directed toward the common “you” of the one Father.

The bracketing from Christian piety of the reality of the “we” that emerges in the three-fold formula “through Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father,” and that binds us into the “we” of God and into the “we” of our fellow human being happened as a consequence sf the anthropological turn in Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity and was one of the most momentous developments of the Western Church. In fundamental ways it influenced both the concept of the Church and the understanding of the person which was now pushed off into the individualistically narrowed “I and you” that finally loses the “you” in this narrowing.

It was indeed a result of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity that the persons of God were closed wholly into God’s interior. Toward the outside, God became a simple “I,” and the whole dimension of “we” lost its place in theology.” The individualized “I” and “you” narrows itself more and more until finally, for example in Kant’s transcendental philosophy, the “you” is no longer found. In Feuerbach (and thus in a place where one would least suspect it) this leveling of “I” and “you” into a single transcendental consciousness gave way to the breakthrough to personal reality. It thus gave the impetus to reflect more deeply on the origin of our own being which faith recognizes as once and for all disclosed in the word of Jesus the Christ.


The Struggle Against Sin – Ralph Martin

June 22, 2010

St. Francis de Sales

I’ve been deliberately very slow about reading this book, waiting it seems for it to call me back and to savor more of it. Two chapters, this one on sin and another on prayer have offered up some great reading selections. If this book (The Fulfillment of All Desire) is not in your library, get it (simple as that).

What I love about it is that it draws you into other writers and books. This chapter introduces the wisdom of Saint Francis de Sales, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

AS WE BEGIN THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY, the struggle against sin may be particularly intense. Ignorance about what’s right and wrong needs to give way to true understanding. Conversion has to deepen. Deeply ingrained habits have to be exposed to the light and the power of grace.

Bernard gives a striking summary:

We have seen how every soul — even if burdened with sin (2 Timothy 3:6), enmeshed in vice, ensnared by the allurements of pleasure, a captive in exile, imprisoned in the body caught in mud (Psalms 68:3), fixed in mire, bound to its members, a slave to care, distracted by business, afflicted with sorrow, wandering and straying, filled with anxious forebodings and uneasy suspicions, a stranger in a hostile land (Exodus 2:22), and, according to the Prophet, sharing the defilement of the dead and counted with those who go down into hell (Baruch 3:11) — every soul, I say, standing thus under condemnation and without hope, has the power to turn and find it can not only breathe the fresh air of the hope of pardon and mercy, but also dare to aspire to the nuptials of the Word, not fearing to enter into alliance with God or to bear the sweet yoke of love (Matthew 11:30) with the King of angels.”
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol. IV Sermon 83

Bernard, excruciatingly aware of the condition of the soul apart from God, nevertheless knows that every soul, without exception, however deeply mired in the mud of sin and disordered lives, is called not only to begin the journey to union with God, but to complete it successfully by attaining spiritual marriage.

It’s time now for us to meet another teacher who can help us a great deal in making progress on this noble journey, Saint Francis de Sales.

Everyday Holiness: The Wisdom of Francis de Sales
Francis was born on August 21, 1567, in France, near the present-day Swiss border. He was the firstborn of thirteen children, five of whom died in infancy, and was named after Francis of Assisi. His father, also named Francis, at the age of forty-three married a young girl named Frances, who was fourteen years old at the time. Unlike Augustine, Francis grew up in the faith, and when he was twelve years old he felt strongly called to serve the Lord as a priest. He was well educated and studied at the Jesuit College in Paris, and was fluent in both Latin and French. He was accomplished in the “arts of the nobility” (horsemanship, fencing, dancing). He pursued higher studies in law and theology at the University of Padua and received a doctorate at the age of twenty-four.

The University of Padua was a large, cosmopolitan university with over twenty thousand students. It was there that Francis learned the wisdom that enabled him to live a life of holiness in the midst of the world, wisdom which he later developed in detail in his famous work, Introduction to the Devout Life. His other major work is the Treatise on the Love of God which presents a detailed account of the more advanced stages of the spiritual journey.

After completing his studies he was given a title of nobility and offered a senatorship in the senate of Chamberey. Francis’s father, now seventy years old, had picked out a fourteen-year-old girl for him to marry, an offer that he declined. He finally told his father of his vocation to the priesthood. After ordination, he was assigned to try to re-establish the Catholic Church in a region near Geneva, which had come under Calvinist domination. Geneva was the diocese in which Francis was born and in which he served as a priest, but during his lifetime it remained firmly in the hands of the Calvinists and the Catholic bishop resided in exile in Annecy, France, not a great distance to the south.

During this time, when passions were running strong between Catholics and Protestant reformers, Francis carried out his mission in a way that showed considerable respect for the Protestants while firmly holding to Catholic truth. In this regard, as in so many others, he anticipated the ecumenical spirit and policy of the Second Vatican Council. He declared that prayer, alms, and fasting would be the spiritual means used in re-establishing the Church in the region.

While firmly resolved to win back Geneva to the Catholic Church, Francis declared that it must be done with charity, and that he and his collaborators should suffer deprivation rather than their adversaries. He received special permission to read Calvin’s major works so he could have a firsthand acquaintance with their thought. He also made private visits to the successor of Calvin in Geneva in an attempt to win him over; efforts that appeared to be unsuccessful but were cordial and established mutual respect.

The years spent in this early mission were difficult. Because of the great hostility to his work, Francis often had to flee in order to avoid being beaten, or worse. He did convince some of the Calvinist pastors to engage him in public debate, however, and also posted hand-copied pamphlets in public places or slipped them under the doors of homes as a way of sharing the Catholic truth. Eventually, he did achieve considerable success. Many Catholic parishes were re-established, and much of. the population reconciled with the Church.

At a certain point Pope Clement VIII invited Francis to Rome to engage in theological debate with the theologians of Rome. He did so well that he was named the coadjutor bishop of Geneva and eventually succeeded to the See of Geneva when the former bishop died. Still unable to reside in Geneva itself, he continued the Catholic exile in Annecy.

On a mission to Paris he came in contact with the writings of Teresa of Avila, who had died only twenty years before and whose reformed Carmelites were establishing a convent in France. He also had occasion to make the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius several times, which confirmed his belief that all Catholics are called to holiness. As a bishop he placed great emphasis on the recruitment and formation of priests, ordaining nine hundred priests in his twenty-two years as bishop. He always encouraged his priests to look for lay people called to “devotion” and work with them, giving them formation.

In 1604 he met a married woman with children, Jeanne Francoise de Chantal, who upon the death of her husband worked with Francis in establishing a new religious order called the Visitation. Francis and Jeanne wanted the nuns to be able to visit people in their homes, but the rules for religious life at the time required that they be cloistered.

In 1609 he published Introduction to a Devout Life, which has been in print ever since.

Experiencing a variety of health problems, Francis died of a stroke on December 28, 1622, at the age of fifty-five. He was canonized a saint in 1665, and declared a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1877.

Up until the time of Francis, priests, nuns, or monks wrote almost all of the books on the spiritual life. Although these works contained much that was useful for lay people, and oftentimes their writers did attempt to relate what they were writing to lay life, they were nonetheless particular to religious life. Francis set out to write a book specifically for people living in the “world.”

Spirituality for Lay people: The “Devout Life”
Francis states his purpose very clearly:

Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion have been concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn from the world or have at least taught a kind of devotion that leads to such complete retirement. My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances!

What does Francis mean by devotion? In effect, when he speaks about the “devout” life he is speaking about the fervent, committed life, a life ordered towards growing in holiness. Let’s consider his definitions.

First, he takes pains to show what true devotion is not. He is concerned that popular understandings of the devout life contain many distortions, and even promote false spirituality.

Everyone paints devotion according to his own passions and fancies. A man given to fasting thinks himself very devout if he fasts, although his heart may be filled with hatred. Much concerned with sobriety; he doesn’t dare to wet his tongue with wine or even water but won’t hesitate to drink deep of his neighbor’s blood by detraction and calumny. Another man thinks himself devout because he daily recites a vast number of prayers, but after saying them he utters the most disagreeable, arrogant and harmful words at home and among the neighbors.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Francis goes on to describe how someone else may give money to the poor but not forgive his enemies. Or another may forgive his enemies but not pay his bills unless compelled to do so by law. The point he’s making is that “devotion” or holiness doesn’t consist primarily in external practices of piety but in a heart transformed in love and justice.

Bernard was similarly aware that the outward appearances of devotion can hide inward disorder, even in the life of religious orders.

We do sometimes hear men who have committed themselves to religious life and wear the religious habit, shamelessly boasting as they recall their past misdeeds:

the duels they fought, their cunning in literary debate or other kinds of vain display. . Some recount past vices as though to express sorrow and repentance for them, but their minds thrill with a secret pleasure about how, even after receiving the holy habit, they craftily outwitted their neighbor, how they cheated a brother in a business deal (1 Thessalonians 4:6), how they recklessly retaliated on those who insulted or reproached them, returning evil for evil, a curse for a curse (1 Peter 3: 9)
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Francis insists that true devotion must touch every area of our life. True devotion is not just a matter of spiritual practices but of bringing all our life under the lordship of Christ. Francis is known for his slogan: “Live, Jesus! Live, Jesus!” What he means by this is an invitation to Jesus to “live and reign in our hearts forever and ever.”

As we will see later on, the Scripture, and all our writers, make clear that true spirituality or devotion is characterized by both love of God and love of neighbor. The two cannot be separated without serious distortion.

One of the greatest challenges facing the Church today, as Vatican Council II pointed out, is the split between faith and daily life, or, as Pope Paul VI put it, the split between faith and culture.

After establishing what true devotion is not, Francis gives his own unique definition.

When it [divine love] has reached a degree of perfection at which it not only makes us do good but also do this carefully, frequently, and promptly, it is called devotion.. . . In short, devotion is simply that spiritual agility and vivacity by which charity works in us or by aid of which we work quickly and lovingly. . He must have great ardor and readiness in performing charitable actions.

It arouses us to do quickly and lovingly as many good works as possible, both those commanded and those merely counseled or inspired. Like a man in sound health he not only walks but runs and leaps forward “on the way of God’s commandments” (Psalm 119:32). Furthermore, he moves and runs in the paths of his heavenly counsels and inspirations.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

In other words, for Francis, to live the devout life is to reach the point in our love for God and neighbor that we eagerly (“carefully, frequently, and promptly”) desire to do His will in all the various ways in which it is communicated to us: in the duties of our state in life, in the objective teaching of God’s Word, in opportunities and occasions presented to us, in response to interior inspirations.

Francis is well aware that reaching this level of devotion is no small thing, and so proceeds to give instruction about how to make progress on the spiritual journey in order to reach this point. As we have already seen in considering the testimonies of Teresa and Augustine, turning from sin is a very important part of the process.

As the psalm puts it:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
And does not swear deceitfully.
(Psalms 24:3-4)

The First Purgation: Mortal Sin
Obviously, turning away from serious sin is one of the first things that needs to happen in true conversion. As Francis writes:

What is your state of soul with respect to mortal sin? Are you firmly resolved never to commit it for any reason whatsoever? In this resolution consists the foundation of the spiritual life.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Francis recommends that a person in such a situation — coming back to the Lord from a life that included serious sin — consider the possibility of making a “general confession.” This entails making an appointment with a trusted confessor and going over one’s whole life as a way of making a fresh start. Francis acknowledges that this is not absolutely necessary, but he strongly advises it.

He also points out how important the regular practice of the sacrament of Reconciliation can be in making a real change in our lives. He points out, though, that for the sacrament to be really efficacious it is important that we prepare for going to confession and be sincere and serious about wanting to turn away from sin.

Often they make little or even no preparation and do not have sufficient contrition. Too often it happens that they go to confession with a tacit intention of returning to sin, since they are unwilling to avoid its occasions or use the means necessary for amendment of life.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Francis recommends weekly confession, although other spiritual writers recommend other frequencies, such as monthly. Even when we don’t have mortal sins to confess, Francis points out the advantage of confessing venial sins, even though we don’t have an obligation to do so, as it brings them into focus so we can work on them more intently, as well as benefiting from the grace given in the sacrament. Francis emphasizes that we really need to be sorry for our sins in order to make their reappearance less likely.

Many who confess their venial sins out of custom and concern for order but without thought of amendment remain burdened with them for their whole life and thus lose many spiritual benefits and advantages… It is an abuse to confess any kind of sin, whether mortal or venial, without a will to be rid of it since confession was instituted for no other purpose.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

He also recommends that we be as specific as possible in our confession and not just confess generalities. For example, he encourages us not to confess in such general terms such as we didn’t love God or our neighbor enough, or pray devoutly enough, since “Every saint in heaven and every man on earth might say the same thing if they went to confession.”

The Second Purgation: The Affection for Sin
One of Francis’s most helpful insights is his teaching on the affection for sin. He points out that oftentimes we might turn away from serious sins in our life and try hard not to commit them, but still nurture affection for such sin, which greatly slows down our spiritual progress and disposes us to future falls.

He points out that although the Israelites left Egypt in effect, many did not leave it in affection; and the same is true for many of us. We leave sin in effect, but reluctantly, and look back at it fondly, as did Lot’s wife when she looked back on the doomed city of Sodom.

Francis gives an amusing but telling example of how a doctor, for the purpose of health, might forbid a patient to eat melons lest he die. The patient therefore abstains from eating them, but “they begrudge giving them up, talk about them, would eat them if they could, want to smell them at least, and envy those who can eat them. In such a way weak, lazy penitents abstain regretfully for a while from sin. They would like very much to commit sins if they could do so without being damned. They speak about sin with a certain petulance and with liking for it and think those who commit sins are at peace with themselves.”

Francis says this is like the person who would like to take revenge on someone “if only he could” or a woman who doesn’t intend to commit adultery but still wishes to flirt. Such souls are in danger. Besides the real danger of falling into serious sin again, having such a “divided heart” makes the spiritual life wearisome and the “devout” life of prompt, diligent, and frequent response to God’s will and inspirations virtually impossible.

Bernard similarly reminds us that feeling such affection for sin is not necessarily a sin in itself. To feel jealousy without yielding to it is no sin, but “a passion that time will heal.” He warns us though that if we “nurture” such affections or disordered passions we are heading in the wrong direction. He also tells us we should strive to eliminate or reduce such affection for sin by confession, tears, and prayer. Even if we should not prove successful, at least we can grow in gentleness and humility as we bear the burden of such a continuing struggle.12

What does Francis propose as the remedy for such remaining attachment to the affection for sin? A recovery of the biblical worldview.

Francis himself leads the reader of the Introduction to the Devout Life through ten such meditations on these basic truths, focusing on all we have been given by God and the debt of gratitude we owe Him, the ugliness and horror of sin, the reality of judgment and hell, the great mercy and goodness of Jesus’ work of redemption, the shortness of life, and the great beauty and glory of heaven. Francis and all the saints we are considering believe that there truly is power in the Word of God, and that meditating on the truth can progressively free us from remaining affection for sin.

The Scripture is clear:

How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I might not sin against you.
I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
(Psalm 119:9-16, NRSV)

The saints have a wonderful way of bringing the insight of Scripture into contact with the circumstances of our lives. Teresa of Avila puts it this way:

A great aid to going against your will is to bear in mind continually how all is vanity and how quickly everything comes to an end. This helps to remove our attachment to trivia and center it on what will never end. Even though this practice seems to be a weak means, it will strengthen the soul greatly and the soul will be most careful in very little things. When we begin to become attached to something, we should strive to turn our thoughts from it and bring them back to God — and His majesty helps.
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection

We need to make the prayer of Scripture our own:

So teach us to number our days
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
(Psalm 90:12)

Meditating on the passion of Christ is often recommended as being of special value. Bernard puts it like this:

What greater cure for the wounds of conscience and for purifying the mind’s acuity than to persevere in meditation on the wounds of Christ?
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol. III, Sermon 49

Francis knows that as long as we’re alive in this body the wounds of original sin and our past actual sins will cause affection for sin to spring up again and again. But it’s our response to this bent of our nature towards sin that is determinative of the progress we make on the spiritual journey. We need to grow in our hatred for sin so we can resist it when it makes its appeals. Catherine of Siena talks of the two-edged sword with which we fight the spiritual battle: one side is hatred for sin, the other is love for virtue.

Bernard speaks of how miserable it is to turn back to the slavery of our disordered passions once having tasted the grace of God, Such a person is doomed to continual frustration, as the things of the world simply can’t satisfy our hunger and “ravenous curiosity” since the forms of this world are passing away. He bemoans the fate of the soul “who once fed so delicately now lies groveling on the dunghill (Lamentations 4:5).”

The vigorous effort that the saints urge us to make in the struggle against sin is firmly grounded in the Scriptures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind… Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.
(James 4:7-10)

We need to determine, with the help of God’s grace, never to freely choose to offend Him. Francis makes clear that such purification of the affection for sin must extend to venial sins also.

Venial Sin
Teresa, Bernard, and Francis all acknowledge that there will probably always be some inadvertent venial sins that we commit, without full reflection or choice. As Bernard puts it:

Which of us can live uprightly and perfectly even for one hour, an hour free from fruitless talk and careless work?

They all also teach, though, very clearly and strongly, that in so far as it lies in our power, we need to resolve never to freely choose to offend God, even in a small matter, if we are to make progress in the spiritual life.

Both Francis and Teresa point out that to fall into same involuntary lie, out of embarrassment, for example, is one thing; but to maintain an affection for telling little lies, or to freely choose to do so, is a significant obstacle to making progress, and truly offensive to the Lord.

Affection for venial sin, just as affection for mortal sin, needs to progressively disappear from our lives as we make progress on the spiritual journey.

We can never be completely free of venial sins, at least so as to continue for long in such purity, yet we can avoid all affection for venial sins. . . . We must not voluntarily nourish, a desire to continue and persevere in venial sin of any kind. It would be an extremely base thing to wish deliberately to retain in our heart anything so displeasing to God as a will to offend him. No matter how small it is, a venial sin offends God.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Living in the close quarters of a community of monks, Bernard is particularly sensitive to how unkindness in speech and attitude can damage relationships and wound souls.

It is not enough, I say, to guard one’s tongue from these and similar kinds of nastiness [public insult and abuse, venomous slander in secret]; even slight offences must be avoided, if anything may be termed slight that is directed against a brother for the purpose of hurting him, since merely to be angry with one’s brother makes one liable to the judgment of God.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol. III, Sermon 29

Bernard also counsels us to be careful how we respond when a wrong has been done to us.

So when an offence is committed against you, a thing hard to avoid at times in communities like ours, do not immediately rush, as a worldly person may do, to retaliate dishonorably against your brother; nor, under the guise of administering correction, should you dare to pierce with sharp and seating words one for whom Christ was pleased to be crucified; nor make grunting, resentful noises at him, nor mutter and murmur complaints, nor adopt a sneering air, nor indulge the loud laugh of contempt, nor knit the brow in menacing anger. Let your passion die within, where it was born; a carrier of death, it must be allowed no exit or it will cause destruction, and then you can say with the Prophet: “I was troubled and I spoke not.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol. III, Sermon 29

To nourish affection for venial sin, Francis points out, weakens the powers of our spirit, stands in the way of God’s consolations, and opens the door to temptations. At the same time Francis doesn’t want to engender a morbid scrupulosity about the myriad temptations and sometimes inadvertent venial sins that are part of life in this world. He assures us that inadvertent venial sins and faults are “not a matter of any great moment” if as soon as they occur we reject them, and refuse to entertain any affection for them.

Francis makes clear that the process of purification will continue throughout our life, and so “we must not be disturbed at our imperfections, since for us perfection consists in fighting against them.”

Hatred for sin is important. Confidence in the mercy of God is even more important.

May the LORD, who is good, grant pardon to everyone who has resolved to seek God, the LORD, the God of his fathers, though he be not clean as holiness requires.
(2 Chronicles 30:l8b-19)

Thérèse makes clear that growth in the spiritual life is usually a gradual process; Jesus is patient with us, for He doesnt like pointing everything out at once to souls. He generally gives His light little by little.”

Thérèse also speaks of a “joyful resignation” to the lifetime struggle with faults.

At the beginning of my spiritual life when I was thirteen or fourteen, I used to ask myself what I would have to strive for later on because I believed it was quite impossible for me to understand perfection better. I learned very quickly since then that the more one advances, the more one sees the goal is still far off. And now I am simply resigned to see myself always imperfect and in this I find my joy.
Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII

Thérèse’ resignation was not one of despair, discouragement, passivity, or lack of effort, but a humble acceptance of her creaturely imperfection despite her efforts, infused with joy by her hope in God’s transforming love eventually bringing her to perfection.

In the last days of her life, when she was virtually suffocating from the tuberculosis, Thérèse was corrected for an impatient remark to a sister whom she found “tiresome.” Her response?

Oh! how happy I am to see myself imperfect and to be in need of God’s mercy so much even at the moment of my death.
Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII

Realistically, Francis says, there will probably be falls along the way, but God can use even these to deepen our humility.

Imperfections and venial sins cannot deprive us of spiritual life; it is lost only by mortal sin. Fortunately for us, in this war we are always victorious provided that we are willing to fight.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Francis, like many of the saints, wants to encourage us on the spiritual journey. This is a journey on which we are all called to embark; and God will give us the grace to make progress on this journey, if only we are willing to persevere, to fight the good fight.

As for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance.
(Luke 8:15, NAB)

Bernard wants us to know that even in the midst of the struggle — whether it be with mortal sin or venial sin, worldliness or temptation, perseverance in prayer or growth in virtue, loving or forgiving — we profoundly need to “lean on the Beloved.”

Bernard knows that to “fight against yourself without respite in a continual and hard struggle, and renounce your inveterate habits and inborn inclinations” is very hard, impossible really, without the help of the Lord.

But this is a hard thing. If you attempt it in your own strength, it will be as though you were trying to stop the raging of a torrent, or to make the Jordan run backwards
(Psalms 113:3).

What can you do then? You must seek the Word… You have need of strength, and not simply strength, but strength drawn from above
(Luke 24:49).

The words from Hebrews come to mind:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (12:1-2)

The journey up to the summit of the mountain of God (or Mount Carmel, as John of the Cross calls it) is difficult. And John, Bernard, Catherine, Thérèse, Teresa, Augustine, and Francis know that it’s impossible to attain the summit — spiritual marriage in this life, beatific vision in the next, without leaning heavily on the Beloved.

As Bernard, in accord with his fellow Doctors, explains:

“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?” (Psalms 23:3) If anyone aspires to climb to the summit of that mountain (Exodus 24:17), that is to the perfection of virtue, he will know how hard the climb is, and how the attempt is doomed to failure without the help of the Word. Happy the soul which causes the angels to look at her with joy and wonder and hears them saying, “Who is this coming up from the wilderness, rich in grace and beauty, leaning upon her beloved?” (Song 8:5). Otherwise, unless it leans on him, its struggle is in vain. But it will gain force by struggling with itself and, becoming stronger, will impel all things towards reason… bringing every carnal affect into captivity (2 Corinthians 10:5), and every sense under the control of reason in accordance with virtue. Surely all things are possible to someone who leans upon him who can do all things? ‘What confidence there is in the cry, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me!” (Philemon 4:13)… Thus if the mind does not rely upon itself, but is strengthened by the Word, it can gain such command over itself that no unrighteousness will have power over it” (Psalms 118:133).
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Vol. III, Sermon 85

The Good News is that the Beloved loves to be leaned on.


Reading Selections: Man Becomes The Image Of God By Communion Of Persons — Pope John Paul II

June 21, 2010

As I seek to understand more of what constitutes a person and the importance of the male-female relationship, I found this wonderful reflection by John Paul II which has become part of the Theology of the Body, which is the topic of a series of 129 lectures given by Pope John Paul II during his Wednesday audiences in the Pope Paul VI Hall between September 1979 and November 1984. It was the first major teaching of his pontificate and the complete addresses were later compiled and published as a single work by the same name. This particular topic was taken from his General Audience of Wednesday, 14 November 1979.

I always thought God created man and then created woman. However following John Paul II’s analysis here I begin to see that God created man which was the creation of a unity of two beings: man and woman. It is that communio personarum that is key. Marriage is the celebration of that communio personarum which can only be achieved by a man and a woman.

The Creation Of Man In Genesis
Following the narrative of Genesis, we have seen that the “definitive” creation of man consists in the creation of the unity of two beings. Their unity denotes above all the identity of human nature; their duality, on the other hand, manifests what, on the basis of this identity, constitutes the masculinity and femininity of created man. This ontological dimension of unity and duality has, at the same time, an axiological (vocab: The study of the nature of values and value judgments) meaning. From the text of Genesis 2:23 and from the whole context, it is clearly seen that man was created as a particular value before God. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But man was also created as a particular value for himself — first, because he is man; second, because the woman is for the man, and vice versa, the man is for the woman.

While the first chapter of Genesis expresses this value in a purely theological form (and indirectly a metaphysical one), the second chapter, on the other hand, reveals, so to speak, the first circle of the experience lived by man as value. This experience is already inscribed in the meaning of original solitude and then in the whole narrative of the creation of man as male and female. The concise text of Genesis 2:23, which contains the words of the first man at the sight of the woman created, “taken out of him”, can be considered the biblical prototype of the Canticle of Canticles. And if it is possible to read impressions and emotions through words so remote, one might almost venture to say that the depth and force of this first and “original” emotion of the male-man in the presence of the humanity of the woman, and at the same time in the presence of the femininity of the other human being, seems something unique and unrepeatable.

Unity In “Communion Of Persons”
In this way the meaning of man’s original unity, through masculinity and femininity, is expressed as an overcoming of the frontier of solitude.
At the same time it is an affirmation — with regard to both human beings — of everything that constitutes man in solitude. In the Bible narrative, solitude is the way that leads to that unity which, following Vatican II, we can define as communio personarum.( 1) “But God did not create man as a solitary being, for from the beginning “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion” (Gaudium et Spes 12).

As we have already seen, in his original solitude man acquires a personal consciousness in the process of distinction from all living beings (animalia). At the same time, in this solitude, he opens up to a being akin to himself, defined in Genesis (2:18, 20) as “a helper fit for him.” This opening is no less decisive for the person of man; in fact, it is perhaps even more decisive than the distinction itself. In the Yahwist narrative, man’s solitude is presented to us not only as the first discovery of the characteristic transcendence peculiar to the person. It is also presented as the discovery of an adequate relationship “to” the person, and therefore as an opening and expectation of a “communion of persons.”

The term “community” could also be used here, if it were not generic and did not have so many meanings. Communio expresses more, with greater precision, since it indicates precisely that “help” which is derived, in a sense, from the very fact of existing as a person “beside” a person. In the Bible narrative this fact becomes eo ipso — in itself — the existence of the person “for” the person, since man in his original solitude was, in a way, already in this relationship. That is confirmed, in a negative sense, precisely by this solitude.

Furthermore, the communion of persons could be formed only on the basis of a “double solitude” of man and of woman, that is, as their meeting in their distinction from the world of living beings (animalia), which gave them both the possibility of being and existing in a special reciprocity. The concept of “help” also expresses this reciprocity in existence, which no other living being could have ensured. All that constituted the foundation of the solitude of each of them was indispensable for this reciprocity. Self-knowledge and self-determination, that is, subjectivity and consciousness of the meaning of one’s own body, was also indispensable.

Image Of Inscrutable Divine Communion
In the first chapter, the narrative of the creation of man affirms directly, right from the beginning, that man was created in the image of God as male and female. The narrative of the second chapter, on the other hand, does not speak of the “image of God.” But in its own way it reveals that the complete and definitive creation of “man” (subjected first to the experience of original solitude) is expressed in giving life to that communio personarum that man and woman form. In this way, the Yahwist narrative agrees with the content of the first narrative.

If, vice versa, we wish to draw also from the narrative of the Yahwist text the concept of “image of God,” we can then deduce that man became the “image and likeness” of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning. The function of the image is to reflect the one who is the model, to reproduce its own prototype. Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right “from the beginning,” he is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons.

In this way, the second narrative could also be a preparation for understanding the Trinitarian concept of the “image of God,” even if the latter appears only in the first narrative. Obviously, that is not without significance for the theology of the body. Perhaps it even constitutes the deepest theological aspect of all that can be said about man. In the mystery of creation — on the basis of the original and constituent “solitude” of his being — man was endowed with a deep unity between what is, humanly and through the body, male in him and what is, equally humanly and through the body, female in him. On all this, right from the beginning, the blessing of fertility descended, linked with human procreation (cf. Genesis 1:28).

The Body Reveals Man
4. In this way, we find ourselves almost at the heart of the anthropological reality that has the name “body.” The words of Genesis 2:23 speak of it directly and for the first time in the following terms: “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones.” The male-man uttered these words, as if it were only at the sight of the woman that he was able to identify and call by name what makes them visibly similar to each other, and at the same time what manifests humanity.

In the light of the preceding analysis of all the “bodies” which man has come into contact with and which he has defined, conceptually giving them their name (animalia), the expression “flesh of my flesh” takes on precisely this meaning: the body reveals man. This concise formula already contains everything that human science could ever say about the structure of the body as organism, about its vitality, and its particular sexual physiology, etc. This first expression of the man, “flesh of my flesh,” also contains a reference to what makes that body truly human. Therefore it referred to what determines man as a person, that is, as a being who, even in all his corporality, is similar to God.(2 The dualistic contraposition “soul-body” does not appear in the conception of the most ancient books of the Bible. As has already been stressed (cf. L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, November 5, 1979, page 15, note 1), we can speak rather of a complementary combination “body-life.” The body is the expression of man’s personality, and if it does not fully exhaust this concept, it must be understood in biblical language as pars pro toto; cf. for example: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father…” (Matthew 16:17), that is, it was not a man who revealed it to you.)

Meaning Of Unity
We find ourselves, therefore, almost at the very core of the anthropological reality, the name of which is “body,” the human body. However, as can easily be seen, this core is not only anthropological, but also essentially theological. Right from the beginning, the theology of the body is bound up with the creation of man in the image of God. It becomes, in a way, also the theology of sex, or rather the theology of masculinity and femininity, which has its starting point here in Genesis.

The original meaning of unity, to which words of Genesis 2:24 bear witness, will have in the revelation of God an ample and distant perspective. This unity through the body — “and the two will be one flesh” — possesses a multiform dimension. It possesses an ethical dimension, as is confirmed by Christ’s answer to the Pharisees in Matthew 19 (cf. Mark 10). It also has a sacramental dimension, a strictly theological one, as is proved by St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians (“For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:29-32). This refers also to the tradition of the prophets (Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel). And this is so because that unity which is realized through the body indicates, right from the beginning, not only the “body,” but also the “incarnate” communion of persons — communio personarum — and calls for this communion right from the beginning.

Masculinity and femininity express the dual aspect of man’s somatic constitution. (“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”), and indicate, furthermore, through the same words of Genesis 2:23, they indicate the new consciousness of the sense of one’s own body: a sense which, it can be said, consists in a mutual enrichment. Precisely this consciousness, through which humanity is formed again as the communion of persons, seems to be the layer which in the narrative of the creation of man (and in the revelation of the body contained in it) is deeper than his somatic structure as male and female. In any case, this structure is presented right from the beginning with a deep consciousness of human corporality and sexuality, and that establishes an inalienable norm for the understanding of man on the theological plane.


Simone Weil and Wallace Stevens: The Notion of De-creation as Subtext in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” — JAMES R. LINDROTH

June 18, 2010

Wallace Stevens


I was amazed to read this essay. For the longest time I had associated Stevens with my new-age past. After my conversion to Catholicism I became drawn to the mystical writings of Simone Weil (several posts here). Until Professor Lindroth made the connection I had never imagined that Stevens had also been drawn to her and that his poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” could be seen as a response to many of the writings in Gravity and Grace which he had been influenced by. This is a complex essay and a difficult read. Probably only of interest to those of you who share my fascination with Weil and Stevens. Stevens’ “strong religious concern[s]” are still batted about in the secular university. Needless to say while I was growing up, this was never considered. I had always considered him a factor in my conversion and have been cheered by others seeing the religious significance of his poetry.

Wallace Stevens’ deathbed conversion to an orthodox Christian faith, reported by Peter Brazeau in Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (1983), has been met with cynicism by James K. Guimond, among others, who speaks of it as a “final insurance policy” and with outright denial by his daughter Holly. Yet Stevens’ correspondence with Sister M. Bernetta Quinn, (See particularly the letters dated 7 April 1948 and 21 Dec. 1951; in the first, Stevens remarks on the striking similarity of their minds, after which he asserts that he does “seek a center” and expects “to go on seeking it”; in the second, he expressly states his belief in God, although not “the same God in whom” he believed as “a boy.” Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens (NY: Knopf, 1977) 584, 735.)

His reading of Simone Weil toward the end of his life, (Stevens, who died in 1955, was 68 when Weil’s La Pesanteur et La Grace was published; he draws upon this 1947 edition for his essay “The Relations between Poetry and Painting,” originally read at the Museum of Modem Art in 1951 and subsequently published in his The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (NY:Knopf, 1951) 159-76) and the corpus of Stevens’ poetry, particularly the late poems, bears witness to a strong religious concern often commented upon by his critics.

Although most, like Milton J. Bates in his authoritative new biography, find it subordinate to and ultimately subsumed by his poetic theory. In Bates’ final judgment that “Stevens effaced himself before the Supreme Imagination” in the way that “Eliot effaced himself before the Supreme Being,” Bates is representative of those critics who reject the notion that what ultimately became most important for Stevens was the quest for Weil’s uncreated reality, although the emphasis on the effacement of self is very close to Weil’s notion of de-creation. However, unlike “The Man with the Blue Guitar” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” earlier poems to which it is frequently compared, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” composed in 1949 just prior to Stevens’ seventieth birthday, contains a subtext echoing Simone Weil’s religious meditations and displaying a spiritual ascesis in accord with the poet’s final religious act.

It is not only fitting that Wallace Stevens should be drawn to Simone Weil, a figure whose belief presents a religious paradox as problematic as his own, but that Weil’s mystical notion of de-creation should provide a key to the understanding of one of Stevens’ most difficult and, at the same time, most religious poems. Weil’s meditations on de-creation appear in her notebooks and were included in Gustave Thibon’s selections from these notebooks, published under the title La Pesanteur et La Grace (Gravity and Grace) 1947, two years before the composition of the Stevens poem. It is to the selection that Stevens refers in The Necessary Angel, and it is from this selection that he draws the notion of de-creation to emphasize the absolute value of artistic effort in his consideration of poetry’s relationship with painting.

“Simone Weil in La Pesanteur et La Grace,” says Stevens, citing the edition by its complete French title, “has a chapter on what she calls de-creation. She says that de-creation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness. In this essay, “The Relations between Poetry and Painting,” Stevens only appropriates Weil’s notion of de-creation for the purposes of his familiar aesthetic argument that in the modern world the poet functions as a substitute for God. Still, from the standpoint of his late poetry in general and more particularly as it applies to “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens’ acknowledgment of a full familiarity with the Weil text becomes critically significant, as does the undeniable sympathy between the two as religious thinkers. If Weil’s mystical notion of the de-creation of self is a pertinent idea for Stevens in his later years, so are the correlative notions of spiritual gravity, a hidden God, affliction, and the renunciation of time.

De-creation, as postulated by Weil in Gravity and Grace, is making “something created pass into the uncreated,” and to this she opposes the notion of destruction, making “something created pass into nothingness,” which she calls a “blameworthy substitute for de-creation” (Gravity and Grace 28). For Weil, the uncreated, another term for reality, is identified with God, and the passage from the created to the uncreated is not a fall into nothingness but the attainment of God. Yet this attainment of God, through de-creation, depends on the individual’s willingness to become nothing, to detach himself from sense life, and ultimately even from a “belief in the prolongation of life,” robbing “death of its purpose” of allowing the individual to attain divine being (Gravity and Grace 33).

Within this mystical formulation, one’s greatest enemy is the world of appearances to which one clings in a desperate effort to prolong life. “Appearance clings to being,” asserts Weil, “and pain alone can tear them from each other. For whoever is in possession of being there can be no appearance. Appearance chains being down” (Gravity and Grace, 34). Here, Weil’s chain metaphor emphatically evokes her notion of spiritual gravity, the force that binds one to the created world of appearance and time. Creation says Weil is composed of the descending movement of gravity to escape gravity’s pull the individual ‘must necessarily turn to something other than himself, since it is a question of being delivered from self’ (Gravity and Grace, 3) Paradoxically, and it is a paradox fully explored by Stevens in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”; time, our enemy in the conventional sense, becomes our salvation, since time “in its course tears appearance from being and being from appearance, by violence. Time makes it manifest that it is not eternity” (Gravity and Grace 34).

Weil’s notions of de-creation and spiritual gravity manifest themselves in the Stevens poem through two informing impulses. The first of these is the poet’s stated intention the need to strip created reality of all illusion ‘Here,” declares Stevens of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven:

“My interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. It is not a question of grim reality but plain reality.” The poem’s second informing impulse is the desire to embrace uncreated reality. This double movement produces a subtle text continually questioning the poet’s relationship to the phenomenal world of appearances, and an even subtler subtext presenting our relationship to the noumenal (vocab: In the philosophy of Kant, an object as it is in itself independent of the mind, as opposed to a phenomenon), to uncreated spiritual reality — to God.

Attending to the first movement alone has invariably led critics to reductive interpretations some dismissing the poem as an aging poet’s cry of despair over the loss of imagination; others finding a saving ballast in what they mistakenly judge to be the old Stevens’ renewed affirmation of the sense world Helen Vendler, for instance, invoking “Dejection An Ode,” sees the Stevens poem as a “long expansion of Coleridge’s disjunction before the moon and the stars,” the depression of the poet experiencing the “metabolic depletion” of age.  In a similar fashion, Harold Bloom, although rejecting Vendler’s interpretation of the poem as a “portrayal of dessication,” is equally reductive in his insistence that the poem is a Whitmanian celebration of sense life and that the final canto presents reality as “the solipsistic recognition of privileged moments, sudden perfections of sense, flakes of fire, fluttering things having distinct shapes.”[Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976) 336]

At the heart of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is neither “metabolic depletion” nor celebratory “solipsism” but, as is the case with Weil’s meditations, the notion of ascetic denial leading to spiritual life, to being, to God. Like Weil, Stevens raises the ordinary to a mystical level where the drama of de-creation is presented in terms of the shedding of appearances, the renunciation of the created in time, the acceptance of nothingness: “The dilapidation of dilapidations” (16.3), “total leafless-ness” (16.18), “The dominant blank” (17.7).

As a major obstacle to de-creation, Weil postulates spiritual gravity, the pull exerted by the world of appearances (Gravity and Grace 45-48). “Weil,” says Eric O. Springsted, commenting on this aspect of de-creation, “contended that our natural attachment to our terrestrial existence is weighty and constitutes a sort of spiritual gravity to which we are constantly subject. Consequently, she argued that as long as we remain subject to this gravity there is no way from man to God” (Springsted, Christus Mediator, 117).and it is in the exact middle of the poem, Cantos XV, XVI, and XVII, that Stevens gives his most compelling evidence of this spiritual gravity at work.

Canto XV, for example, places the drama of de-creation against a rain-drenched landscape where the rain heightens man’s awareness of the sense world, drawing him to it and away from the spiritual:

He preserves himself against the repugnant rain
By an instinct for a rainless land, the self
Of his self, come at upon wide delvings of wings.

The instinct for heaven had its counterpart:
The instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room,
The gay tournamonde as of a single world

In which he is and as and is are one.
For its counterpart a kind of counterpoint
Irked the wet wallows of the water-spout.

The rain kept falling loudly in the trees
And on the ground. The hibernal dark that hung
In primavera, the shadow of bare rock,

Becomes the rock of autumn, glittering,
Ponderable source of each imponderable,
The weight we lift with the finger of a dream,

The heaviness we lighten by light will,
By the hand of desire, faint, sensitive, the soft
Touch and trouble of the touch of the actual hand.

Because of his “instinct for heaven,” the protagonist in this drama of de-creation finds the rain “repugnant” rather than refreshing, and he “preserves himself against” it by “an instinct for a rainless land.” Against the backdrop of this rainless land, the biblical desert of purification, Stevens situates the protagonist’s “self / Of his self:,” the hidden “I” spoken of by Weil (“My ‘I’ is hidden for me . . . it is on the side of God, it is in God, it is God” [Gravity And Grace 33]); and the discovery of this hidden “I” is accompanied by the traditional sign of contact with the holy, the “wide delving of wings. But this is poetic drama, not platitude, and set against the man’s “Instinct for heaven” is an equally powerful “Instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room, / The gay tournamonde as of a single world / In which he is and as and is are one.”

“Tournamonde,” providing as it does a strong echo of Weil’s notion of spiritual gravity, is central here, and in a letter to Herbert Weinstock, his editor at Knopf, Stevens gives the following explanation of the word. “Tournamonde,” Stevens says, “is a neologism. For me it creates an image of a world in which things revolve and the word is therefore appropriate in the collocation of is and as. . . I think the word justifies itself in the sense of conveying an immediate, even though rather vague, meaning.” If the movement to God’s spiritual reality is outward, away from the apparent self and the created world, the movement here is centripetal and inward, in which the man revolves in tighter and tighter circles of the illusory self. It is not the joy of God that attracts but the gaiety of appearances, the world whose constant movement creates the illusion of being where “is” and “as” are the same.

Canto XVI heightens the drama of de-creation with further evidence of the pull of gravity emanating from creation and time:

Among time’s images, there is not one
Of this present, the venerable mask above
The dilapidation of dilapidations.

The oldest-newest day is the newest alone.
The oldest-newest night does not creak by,
With lanterns, like a celestial ancientness.

Silently it heaves its youthful sleep from the sea
The Oklahoman—the Italian blue
Beyond the horizon with its masculine,

Their eyes closed, in a young palaver of lips.
And yet the wind whimpers oldly of old age
In the western night. The venerable mask,

In this perfection, occasionally speaks
And something of death’s poverty is heard.
This should be tragedy’s most moving face.

It is a bough in the electric light
And exhalations in the eaves, so little
To indicate the total leaflessness.

The opening of this canto presents one of time’s most powerfully attractive images in the spectacle of the natural world continually renewing itself, but it is the figures of youth and old age, renewal and exhaustion, birth and death that give it its dramatic structure. Moreover, subtending the canto’s entire drama is the notion of nudity, the total purity achieved, according to Weil, at only two points of existence: birth and death (Gravity and Grace 32),

Death, an emphatic point of nudity for Weil and Stevens alike, is suggested by the “dilapidation of dilapidations” and by the late-autumn tree bereft of its leaves, reduced from the image of fecundity to the bare line of “a bough in the electric light,” to “total leaflessness.” The second point of nudity, birth, is suggested by the two paradoxes of the “oldest-newest day” and the “oldest-newest night”; or rather the two points intersect, since as the day dies the night is born as “Silently it heaves its youthful sleep from the sea” and encroaches on “The Ok1ahoman — the Italian blue” disappearing beyond the mind’s horizon. This symbolic intersection of birth and death resonates with and reinforces a similar intersection in canto XV where Stevens juxtaposes winter, the season of death, with spring, the season of new life, through “The hibernal dark that” hangs “In primavera.”

Moreover, in both cantos XV and XVI, the opposites of youth and age, renewal and exhaustion, birth and death combine in a metamorphic process resulting in a denudation of existence synonymous with Weil’s notion of de-creation. In canto XV, the darkness of winter already present in the spring landscape in the “shadow of rock” is transformed into the “rock of autumn”; in canto XVI, the “masculine” light of the “oldest-newest day” retreating from the implicitly feminine darkness of the “oldest-newest night” is metamorphosed into the asexual, barren “electric light” illuminating the once youthful lips and eyes (“Their eyes closed, in a young palaver of lips”) now shrunk into “The venerable mask” of age. Finally, both cantos conclude with emphatic symbols of existence stripped bare: the “rock of autumn” and “total leaflessness.”

A major part of the drama of de-creation derives from Weil’s postulating a God who “could create only by hiding himself’ (GG 33) with the consequence that “God and the supernatural are hidden and formless in the universe” (Gravity and Grace 49: As Gustave Thibon points out in a comment on a related text, “contact with supernatural reality is first felt as an experience of nothingness” since “God does not exist in the same way as created things which form the only object of experience for our natural faculties” (Gravity and Grace 19n) Stevens meditates on the hiddeness of uncreated reality throughout “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” but a particularly clear example of such meditation presents itself in canto XVII where Weil’s absent God, the hidden holiness, is poetically evoked as “The dominant blank, the unapproachable:

The color is almost the color of comedy,
Not quite. It comes to the point and at the point,
It falls. The strength at the centre is serious.

Perhaps instead of failing it reflects
As a serious strength rejects pin-idleness.
A blank underlies the trials of device,

The dominant blank, the unapproachable.
This is the mirror of the high serious:
Blue verdured into a damask’s lofty symbol,

Gold easings and ouncings and fluctuations of thread
And beetling of belts and lights of general stones,
Like blessed beams from out a blessed bush

Or the wasted figurations of the wastes
Of night, time and the imagination,
Saved and beholden, in a robe of rays.

These fitful sayings are, also, of tragedy:
The serious reflection is composed
Neither of comic nor tragic but of commonplace.

In discussing Weil’s argument that perfect love of God is possible “only in actual affliction” and His “total absence,” Eric O. Springsted, in Christus Mediator: Platonic Mediation in the Thought of Simone Weil, points to Weil’s emphasis on parallel notions in Saint John of the Cross and Plato. Springsted emphasizes Weil’s singling out of “two periods of void” described in Plato’s “Cave Analogy,” two periods, which in Well’s words, “correspond exactly to the two dark nights described by Saint John of the Cross.” The first of these occurs “when one is unchained and walks out of the cave without being able to use his customary, but illusory, bearings”; the second occurs “when one emerges from the cave and is blinded by the light”

If Stevens evokes the hidden God through “The dominant blank” and the problematic of affliction through his opening rejection of comedy, he also, like Weil, reinforces these notions with imagery drawn from the Bible, the literature of mysticism, and Plato. For example, Stevens’ “wasted figurations of the wastes / Of night” evokes not only the Old Testament prophet’s desert of purification and Christ’s agony in the garden but the mystic’s dark night of the soul. Moreover, drawing upon the imagery of Plato’s cave and upon the Old Testament figure of the Burning Bush, Stevens renders the relation between uncreated and created reality as light reflected in darkness, and at the same time hints at the hidden God suddenly revealed in a “robe of rays.”

These major themes of Weil — de-creation of self in and through time, the pull of gravity exerted on the spirit by the world of appearances, affliction that leads to a freeing of the spirit, and a God who is hidden—resonate throughout “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” with the world of appearances receiving particularly strong emphasis in its opening cantos. Canto I, a meditation on spiritual gravity, first postulates a Platonic world of appearances and then suggests the way in which man under the force of this gravity produces an illusory God fashioned on the model of self:

The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience.
Of this, A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet –

As part of the never-ending meditation,
Part of the question that is a giant himself:
Of what is this house composed if not of the sun,

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,

Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first–
A recent imagining of reality,

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring; up-springing and inevitable,
A large poem for a larger audience,

As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.

Starting with the “eye’s plain version” dramatically contrasted to the “experience” of transcendence, then focusing his attention on the first of these, Stevens ponders the material world as manifested in the houses and streets of New Haven and offers the possibility that these creations of light are illusions lacking substance, “Dark things without a double.” This pessimistic questioning of created reality leads to a second question that, displacing the first, relates the material site of existence to the “crude collops” coming together in the imagination as an androgynous “mythological form” with “great bosom, beard, and being.”

The figure of the giant, with his great height but also his great weight, dramatically displays man operating under the force of gravity, first dismissing plain reality because he is not the uncreated self supporting it and then filling the “dominant blank” of the absent God with one of his own making. In each case, the figure of the giant, Polyphemus translated to Plato’s cave, emphasizes the obscured vision of the questioner and implies an ultimately unsatisfactory answer to the question of being. Stevens demonstrates his emphatic rejection of this second “giant,” the anthropomorphic god of mythology, in canto XXIV where this god in the guise of “The statue of Jove” is blown up “among the boomy clouds.” This can be construed as a de-creative act in that it conforms to Weil’s notion that we must empty ourselves of “false divinity” (Gravity and Grace, 30); Jove as an anthropomorphic divinity modeled on self is an emphatic example of such falseness. Leonora Woodman sees this as a “token of Stevens’ repeated effort to banish mistaken forms of the divine” (Woodman, Stanza My Stone, 109)

“The reality of the world,” Weil asserts, is “the reality of the self which we transfer to things. It has nothing to do with independent reality. That is only perceptible through total detachment.” Having examined New Haven, the material site of existence, as appearance and reflection, Stevens in canto II meditates on Weil’s notion of the world as an extension of self

Suppose these houses are composed of ourselves,
So that they become an impalpable town, full of
Impalpable bells, transparencies of sound,

Sounding in transparent dwellings of the self,
Impalpable habitations that seem to move
In the movement of the colors of the mind,

The far-fire flowing and the dim-coned bells
Coming together in a sense in which we are poised,
Without regard to time or where we are,

In the perpetual reference, object
Of the perpetual meditation, point
Of the enduring, visionary Jove,

Obscure, in colors whether of the sun
Or mind, uncertain in the clearest bells,
The spirit’s speeches, the indefinite,

Confused illuminations and sonorities,
So much ourselves, we cannot tell apart
The idea and the bearer-being of the idea.

If one answer to the question of being lies in the direction of Plato’s shadow-world of appearances, and another in the direction of the god of mythology, still a third looks to external reality as spiritualized self. On one hand, this version of reality has the advantage of freeing the self from limitations of “time” and space; it has a second advantage of situating the self at the metaphysical center. From this central point of intersection issue the “transparencies of sound” and the “colors of the mind” that come “together” as the impalpable town the way the “crude collops” came together as “mythological form.” The disadvantages are that although situated at the metaphysical center and poised between created reality and the “visionary love” of the uncreated, the self has in Weil’s sense transferred its reality to the reality of the created world with the effect of confusion. Subject-object distinctions vanish; and in “the indefinite, I Confused illuminations and sonorities” that result “The idea,” the “Impalpable town,” the “transparent dwellings of self” can no longer be distinguished from “the bearer-being of the idea.”

Turning from the versions of created reality postulated in the first two cantos, Stevens, in canto III, further heightens the drama of de-creation by directing his attention to the hidden holiness to be discovered through affliction and selfless love:

The point of vision and desire arc the same.
It is to the hero Qf midnight that we pray
On a hill of stones to make beau mont thereof.

If it is misery that infuriates our love,
If the black of night stands glistening on beau mont,
Then, ancientest saint ablaze with ancientest truth,

Say next to holiness is the will thereto,
And next to love is the desire for love,
The desire for its celestial ease in the heart,

Which nothing can frustrate, that most secure,
Unlike love in possession of that which was
To be possessed and is, But this cannot

Possess. It is desire, set deep in the eye,
Behind all actual seeing, in the actual scene,
In the street, in a room, on a carpet or a wall,

Always in emptiness that would be filled,
In denial that cannot contain its blood,
A porcelain, as yet in the bats thereof

In drawing a distinction between the actualities of holiness and love and their potentialities, Stevens places the same weight as Weil on possession and the need to relinquish possession if divine holiness and divine love are to be attained.

Weil’s paradoxical distinction between being and having is echoed in Stevens’s distinction, which in its elaboration situates desire “Behind all actual seeing” and raises its value above that of actual possession. For Weil, only “having,” Stevens’s “possession,” belongs to man situated in the ordinary world; or as Weil puts it: “Being does not belong to man, only having. The being of man is situated behind the curtain, on the supernatural side…The curtain is human misery: there was a curtain even for Christ” (GG 33-34). For Stevens and Weil alike, the divine, true holiness and true love, lie behind the curtain. Stevens alternately examines and embraces, wraps himself in, and steps through this curtain of the ordinary. Or as Stevens expresses it in the last two triads of canto III, behind the “actual scene,” the “street,” the “room,” the “carpet,” the “wall,” there is always the “emptiness that would be filled” and that can only be filled by being.

As the drama of de-creation unfolds in canto III, the afflicted Christ, “the hero of midnight…On a hill of stones,” displaces the self at the point of intersection between “vision and desire,” between the created and uncreated. The imagery conflates two figures central to the notion of the afflicted Christ: the figure of Christ as “the hero of midnight” undergoing the nightlong agony in the garden of Gethsemane; and the crucified Christ “On a hill of stones,” on Calvary. In his suffering, the afflicted Christ is the avatar of holiness and sainthood and in this sense becomes “ancientest saint ablaze with ancientest truth” whose holiness not only transforms the “hill of stones” into the “beau mont” but who embodies in his humanity the desire for the “celestial ease” of God’s love, “which nothing can frustrate.”

Stevens returns to Weil’s notion of affliction in canto XIX with the introduction of”A figure like Ecclesiast” (19.16). In this Old Testament guise, the afflicted Christ functions as a bridge to uncreated reality, although the imagery providing the backdrop against which the figure appears is more emphatically that of Plato’s cave rather than Calvary. A dominant figure of affliction emerges in two images: things not only shrouded in darkness but lying “Prostrate” (19.3) in the reflected light of the moon; and the transformation of daylight splendor into the privately sterile, the “public green turned private gray” (19.4).

Negative changes wrought by time reinforce the sense of affliction, as the “man who was the axis of his time” (19.9) is reduced to the “infantines” of the original “Image” (19.10). “What is the radial aspect of this place,” asks the afflicted speaker, “This present colony of a colony / Of colonies, a sense in the changing sense / Of things?” (19.13-16). In his affliction, the speaker looks to a “figure like Ecclesiast,” the embodiment of Old Testament wisdom in regard to suffering resulting from the depredations of time and the insubstantiality of created reality: “A figure Like Ecclesiast, / Rugged and luminous, chants in the dark / A text that is an I answer, although obscure” (19.16-18).

If the hero of midnight and a figure like Ecclesiast point toward Weil’s notions of the uncreated and of affliction that leads to a freeing of the spirit, two other of Stevens’s chief dramatis personae, Professor Eucalyptus and the black shepherd, restage Weil’s drama of de-creation with renewed vigor, as they show the self torn from gravity’s pull by the assault of time and death. Through Professor Eucalyptus, Stevens refocuses attention on the world of appearances, and in canto XIV where Stevens first introduces him and canto XXII where he returns, Professor Eucalyptus provides another powerful example of man operating under the force of Weil’s spiritual gravity

In the first of these two cantos, Professor Eucalyptus seeks God not in the realm of the transcendent but “In New Haven with an eye that does not look / Beyond the object” (14.3-4); more particularly “He seeks / God in the object itself, without much choice” (14.6-7). Caught by this powerful attraction to the created yet longing to discover the uncreated, professor Eucalyptus presents a theological paradox echoing those of Weil. On one hand, filled with self he freely proclaims his own divinity in the “commodious adjective” (14 8), the paradisal parlance” (14 13) that substitutes god-like word for plain thing. On the other hand, he achieves partial de-creation, release from gravity’s pull, through an “Indifference of the eye” that remains “Indifferent to what it sees.” (14.15-16) This neutrality of vision, if not of speech, sets up the possibility of a bridge to the uncreated through the unsparing presentation of its opposite, not “grim / Reality but reality grimly seen” (14.11-12).

With the return of Professor Eucalyptus in canto XXII, the philosopher and the poet conduct parallel searches “For reality” (22 2), in the philosopher’s case the “search / For an interior made exterior” and in the poet’s the search “for the same exterior made / Interior” (22.4-6). Like Professor Eucalyptus in canto XIV, the poet presents a paradox in that he demonstrates the powerful force of spiritual gravity through his emphasis on recreation of the here-and-now and at the same time discovers through this recreation a bridge to the uncreated. Intimated in “breathless things broodingly a breath / With the inhalations of original cold / And of original earliness” (22 6-8), the uncreated prompts the poet “To re-create” (22 12), to search” (22 14) a possible for its possibilities” (22 18).

Just as in canto XIV, where “The tink-tonk / Of the rain” serves as a bridge to an ‘essence not yet well perceived (14 16-18), here it is “the evening star, /The most ancient light in the most ancient sky” (22 14-15) that serves as such a bridge. In a similar manner, Professor Eucalyptus, the philosopher operating under the force of gravity and self, is like his natural namesake “The dry eucalyptus” that seeks “god in the rainy r cloud” (14.1). Moreover, as symbolic comment on the Professor’s search  for God, the eucalyptus suggests the hidden flower of spirit still enclosed within its base material covering, and paradoxically this spirit will emerge g not with spring rain as is the case in the natural world but only when / total leaflessness, Weil’s de-creation of self, has been achieved

The introduction of the black shepherd in canto XXI further  intensifies the drama of de-creation, since through his meditation on the black shepherd’s approach, Stevens, like Weil, stresses the painful rending of self from the world of appearance and necessity through the twin assaults of time and death “Necessity,” for Weil, “is the screen set between God and us so that we can be,” and she declares that it “Is for us to pierce through the screen so that we can cease to be” (Gravity and Grace 28). Stevens turns his attention to this “will of necessity, the will of wills” (21.3) with the appearance of the black shepherd, but as a prelude canto XX evokes New Haven and the individual self assaulted by what Weil calls “Time’s violence” (Gravity and Grace 134):

The imaginative transcripts were like clouds,
Today; and the transcripts of feeling, impossible
To distinguish. The town was a residuum,

A neuter shedding shapes in an absolute.
Yet the transcripts of it when it was blue remain,
And the shapes that it took in feeling, the persons that

It became, the nameless, flitting characters –
These actors still walk in a twilight muttering lines.
It may be that they mingle, clouds and men, in the air

Or street or about the corners of a man,
Who sits thinking in the corners of a room.
In this chamber the pure sphere escapes the impure

Because the thinker himself escapes. And yet
To have evaded clouds and men leaves him
A naked being with a naked will

And everything to make. He may evade
Even his own will and in his nakedness
Inhabit the hypnosis of that sphere.

Under the force of necessity’s will, the apparently solid forms constituting New Haven vanish until the town becomes “a residuum, / A neuter shedding shapes in an absolute” and its even more substantial inhabitants partially dematerialize into “nameless, flitting characters” dimly seen and faintly heard as they “walk in a twilight muttering lines.”

In response to time’s assault, the man withdraws from the world into his “chamber,” into the “corners of a room,” into the self where “the pure sphere escapes the impure / Because the thinker himself escapes.” Transformed through partial de-creation into “A naked being with a naked will,” the protagonist through his emphasis on the imagination shows himself to be still under the influence of gravity. “The imagination,” says Weil, “is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass,” and this is the role of the imagination here (Gravity and Grace, 16). Instead of inciting the protagonist to acts of further de-creation, the void (because it leaves “everything to make”) becomes a test for the imagination, gravity’s call for recreation in resistance to de-creation. The canto con-eludes by reemphasizing, as a possible alternative to the self drawn by gravity into time’s process of recreation, the earlier escape of self into the Platonic ideality of “the pure sphere”: “He may evade / Even his own will and in his nakedness / Inhabit the hypnosis of that sphere” (20.16-18).

Now, as the black shepherd looms up at the edges of the dominant blank, Stevens, in canto XXI, considers still another possibility:

But he may not.
He may not evade his will,
Nor the wills of other men; and he cannot evade
The will of necessity, the will of wills –

Romanza out of the black shepherd’s isle,
Like the constant sound of the water of the sea
In the hearing of the shepherd and his black forms,

Out of the isle, but not of any isle.
Close to the senses there lies another isle
And there the senses give and nothing take,

The opposite of Cythére, an isolation
At the center, the object of the will, this place,
The things around — the alternative romanza

Out of the surfaces, the windows, the walls,
The bricks grown brittle in time’s poverty,
The clear. A celestial mode is paramount,

If only in the branches sweeping in the rain:
The two romanzas, the distant and the near,
Arc a single voice in the boo-ha of the wind.

Emanating from the black shepherd’s isle and “In the hearing of the shepherd and his black forms,” the sound of necessity is the sound di death’s approach. This sound strips away the illusory pleasures of Cythére, and draws attention to a contrapuntal sound, “an alternate romanza,” emanating from “an isolation at the center.” An end result of a decreative process spurred by “time’s poverty,” this “isolation at the center” affirms Weil’s paradox that time aids de-creation by “tearing appearance from being and being from appearance” (Gravity and Grace, 34). If the black shepherd defines one limit of creation and naked being another, the sounds of death and isolation marking these limits are contrapuntal; but paradoxically, like the decreative process in which the self gains the uncreated through annihilation, these opposites merge into the single voice” of “A celestial mode” that “is paramount.”

In their turn, Professor Eucalyptus, the hero of midnight, and the black shepherd evoke Weil’s notions of spiritual gravity, salvational affliction, and time’s violent rending of the self from the world of appearance and necessity. They also make it possible to discern Weil’s drama of de-creation in the otherwise perplexing roles of Alpha and Omega, the “Immaculate interpreters” of canto VI:

Reality is the beginning not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,
Of dense investiture, with luminous vassals.

It is the infant A standing on infant legs,
Not twisted, stooping, polymathic Z,
He that kneels always on the edge of space

In the pallid perceptions of its distances.
Alpha fears men or else Omega’s men
Or else his prolongations of the human.

These characters are around us in the scene.
For one it is enough; for one it is not;
For neither is it profound absentia,

Since both alike appoint themselves the choice
Custodians of the glory of the scene,
The immaculate interpreters of life.

But that’s the difference: in the end and the way
To the end. Alpha continues to begin.
Omega is refreshed at every end.

Omega, whose “dense investiture” suggests the weight of the human and whose “twisted” shape testifies to the force of gravity’s pull, is, like Professor Eucalyptus, tied to the thingness of things. As “Custodians of the glory of the scene” and the “Immaculate interpreters of life” both characters, despite their apparent differences in that Alpha is “the infant A standing on infant legs” and Omega the “stooping, polymathic Z,” demonstrate a similar inability to become disentangled from the created.

However, considered in another way, Alpha and Omega present a demonstration of Weil’s distinction between the different modes of God’s presence. “The presence of God,” says Weil, “should be understood in two ways. As Creator, God is present in everything that exists as soon as it exists. The presence for which God needs the cooperation of the creature is the presence of God, not as Creator but as Spirit. The first presence is the presence of creation. The second is the presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace, 33). Stevens, through his personification of Alpha and Omega, Greek letters traditionally understood as signifying God, offers a strong echo of Weil. Not only does he evoke the created world through symbolic types, he also presents a poetic figure of God’s the created and subtending it. The figure is that of created reality as a circle closed at the point where Alpha and Omega meet: “But that’s the difference: in the end and the way / To the end. Alpha continues to begin. / Omega is refreshed at every end.”

From the standpoint of God’s support of it, created reality, as is suggested in Alpha’s continuing “to begin” and Omega’s being “refreshed at every end,” is continuously created, and in this sense “Reality is a beginning not the end, / Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega.” But for Stevens, as for Weil, this manifestation of God’s presence is not to be confused with God as Spirit, the Spirit behind the dominant blank, the “profound absentia” to which creation points.

“Time,” says Weil, “is an image of eternity, but it is also a substitute for eternity” (Gravity and Grace, 18); and for Weil and Stevens alike, the Spirit behind the dominant blank can be attained only through the renunciation of time. In the final cantos of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens presents the most emphatic example of Weil’s link between the renunciation of time and spiritual ascesis. The penultimate canto, canto XXX, in preparation for this final renunciation, opens with a scene whose barrenness powerfully echoes that of “The dilapidation of dilapidations,” “total leaflessness,” “The dominant blank”:

The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen.
The robins are là-bas, the squirrels, in tree-caves,
Huddle together in the knowledge of squirrels.

The wind has blown the silence of summer away.
It buzzes beyond the horizon or in the ground:
In mud under ponds, where the sky used to be reflected.

The barrenness that appears is exposing.
It is not part of what is absent, a halt
For farewells, a sad hanging on for remembrances.

It is a coming on and a coming forth.
The pines that were fans and fragrances emerge,
Staked solidly in a gusty grappling with rocks.

The glass of the air becomes an element – 
It was something imagined that has been washed away.
A clearness has returned. It stands restored.

It is not an empty clearness, a bottomless sight.
It is a visibility of thought,
In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.

Unlike Omega’s men who attach themselves to the past with their prolongations of the human, the protagonist rejects any such “sad hanging on for remembrances,” any “halt / For farewells.” Rather the “barrenness” of the present moment readies the de-created self for a final renunciation of time and for the approach of the uncreated: “The barrenness that appears is exposing”; “It is a coming on and a coming forth.” Within the context of barrenness the de-creation of self hurries toward completion as it finds its own relation to the uncreated repeated in the upward movement of the pines in their “grappling with the rocks” and in the transparency replacing the darkness of the cave with its flickering reflections:

“The glass of the air becomes an element — / It was something imagined that has been washed away. / A clearness has returned.” What is exposed is an Argus-eyed reality: “It is a visibility of thought, / In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.” At the conclusion of this penultimate canto, then, the hidden God stands revealed and the passage from the created to the un-created, Weil’s de-creation, is all but finished.

The powerful final triad of the poem’s final canto brings Stevens’ drama of de-creation to an emphatic close through a second extraordinary evocation of Weil’s hidden God:

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.

In this canto, as in the poem as a whole, Stevens employs figures of incompletion and emptiness, “dead candles at the window” (31.5), “Mr. Blank” (31.9), a woman’s canceled note (31.15), to mark the world of time and prepare for its renunciation. And if the black shepherd’s approach can be discerned in the evening’s “spectrum of violet” (31.14), so too does the earlier figure of the “fire-forms” (316), like that of the “blessed beams from out a blessed bush” of canto XVII, announce the uncreated and prepare for the final triad’s disclosure of God. In these last lines, not only does Stevens invoke Weil’s God as Creator, her “presence of creation” (UG 33), through the Biblical figure of Adam’s creation inhering in the “shade that traverses / A dust”; he also invokes Weil’s hidden God, God as Spirit, God as the “presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace 33), in the paradoxical figure of the force behind creation, the “force that traverses a shade.” For Stevens, as for Weil, reality and God are one, and with these mystical hints of the spiritual fullness awaiting the de-created self the poem ends.


Aquinas’ Exegesis of John 3:27-36

June 17, 2010

St. Thomas Aquinas

As mentioned before the previous post concerning the origins and implications of the fourteenth-century metaphysical shift is followed in Levering’s Participatory Biblical Exegesis by concrete examples of exegesis. He begins with Aquinas’s commentary on John 3:27-36 to establish a benchmark of patristic-medieval exegesis and then goes on to examples of representative commentaries on John 3:27-36 from the fourteenth through the twentieth centuries to view what was “lost” (the “modern misfortune” as Pickstock describes it — “the loss of an integrally conceptual and mystical path.”).  

John 3:27-36 reads:
27 John the Baptist: answered, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” 31 He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth belongs to the earth, and of the earth he speaks; he who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony; 33 he who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit; 35 the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand. 36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.41

Interpreting this passage, Aquinas employs a radically participatory understanding of reality that draws together Trinitarian theology, Christology, the Church’s hierarchical structure, the transformative movement of deification, and eschatology. He provides, in other words, a portrait of the biblical realities of creation and redemption into which the lives of believers are already incorporated (both metaphysically as creatures and Christologically-pneumatologically) and must be more fully incorporated until “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) have been fully manifested.

He returns continually to the themes of participation, gifting, mediation, receptivity, and transformation. He begins by discussing the origin of the “offices” of John the Baptist and Jesus. Following St. John Chrysostom, he affirms John the Baptist’s appreciation of providence, which he metaphysically identifies as “the order of perfection and goodness”  One can share in this order only through God’s gift, and therefore it is fruitless to try to usurp what God has not given one. All offices or missions are thus God’s gift and are participations in God’s perfection and goodness.

Christ’s office, Aquinas states, “is to judge and to preside.” It might seem, then, that Christ’s office stands aloof in the manner of a courtroom judge. But the very opposite is the case. Following the text of John 3:27-29, Aquinas notes that the unique office of Christ in fact constitutes the source of a continuous stream of mediations of divine gifts. This mediation occurs through our relationship to Christ. As friends of Christ, believers participate in bringing the “bride” (the Church) to the “groom” (Christ), and receiving from Christ the consummation of truth and love. Believers refer all things to Christ: John the Baptist “did not keep the bride, i.e., the faithful, for himself, but brought them to the groom, that is, to Christ” (~5 19). To be brought to the groom means receiving and nourishing the gift of obedient faith.

This account of office in terms of receptivity and participation has ecclesiological resonance, as Aquinas recognizes. Christ’s office is the source of all, and believers rejoice in Christ’s gifts, Aquinas observes, “if it made me, John the Baptist, but also Aquinas himself and every Christian sad that Christ, who is the true groom, preaches to the bride, i.e., the Church, I would not be a friend of the groom; but I am not sad.” Believers cannot and should not be jealous of Christ as the source; Christ employs his office as source to enable believers to share in his perfections. Nonetheless, as Aquinas recognizes, some who have office in the Church do in fact become jealous and attempt to usurp Christ’s role. They set themselves up as autonomous sources: “This is in opposition to those evil prelates who do not follow Christ’s command in governing the Church.” In so doing, they both cut themselves off from the source and also lead astray the faithful who seek the “groom.”

John the Baptist, in contrast, exemplifies the proper office of a shepherd in the Church, who “decreases” (John 3:30) — that is, who directs “esteem and reverence” to the source (Christ) — and so enables Christ to “increase” (John 3:30) as his members share increasingly in his perfections. Christ, Aquinas notes, increases “not in himself, but in relation to others, in the sense that his power becomes more and more known” through his holy members.

This relation between spiritual decrease and increase belongs to the pattern of our deification. Interpreting John 3:30 “in the moral sense,” Aquinas says that for us to decrease meant for Christ to increase in us by our participating in his perfections more deeply Our decrease is actually an increase in perfection, but it is one that occurs by our coming to participate more in God (Christ’s increase in us) and to rely less on ourselves (our decrease). The more we deepen our wisdom and love, the more Christ increases in us, because Christ is wisdom and love. Aquinas observes:

Christ must increase in you, i.e., you should grow in the knowledge and love of Christ, because the more you are able to grasp him by knowledge and love, the more Christ increases in you; just as the more one improves in seeing one and the same light, the more that light seems to increase. Consequently, as men advance in this way their self-esteem decreases; because the more one knows of the di­vine greatness, the less he thinks of his human smallness.

Here the themes of mediation and participation are clear; Christ’s office, as the mediator, is to share the divine gifts (wisdom and love) with us, and our sharing depends on the grace of humility, through which we recognize God, rather than ourselves, to be the source. In sharing in Christ, we are transformed and increase even as we decrease. In this participatory framework, the path of increasing is decreasing.

Aquinas therefore divides the text somewhat differently than do modern commentators, most of whom view John 3:31-36 as a later addition in which the voice is no longer John the Baptist’s Aquinas treats John 3:27-32a (through “He bears witness to what he has seen and heard”) as a unit depicting the source of our deifying participation. Christ is “above all” (John 3:31) both because of his origin and because of his teaching. On both counts, Aquinas is concerned to interpret “above all” not in terms of an aloof power, but in terms of gifting, medi­ation, and participation. Thus as regards his origin, not only is Christ God and therefore the fundamental source, but also his human nature is “above all” in that it is perfectly constituted to mediate the divine gifts as the Head of the Church .

This emphasis on mediation continues with Aquinas’s description of Christ’s teaching as “above all.” Aquinas affirms that “the quality of a teaching or doctrine is consid­ered according to the quality of its origin.” John the Baptist’s teaching is therefore inferior to Christ’s, even though John’s is also di­vine teaching. Drawing on Augustine, Aquinas explains that “we can consider what any person has of himself’ and what he has received of another.” When John teaches divinely revealed realities, he does so by participation. In contrast, when Christ teaches of divine realities, Christ as man testifies to himself as God, and thereby teaches not merely as one who participates, but indeed as the source of all participation.

John 3:32 enables Aquinas to explore the Trinitarian dimension of the source. Christ’s “seeing” and “hearing” of divine realities pertain, Aquinas suggests, to God’s unity and Trinity Hearing differs from seeing in that sight provides immediate knowledge, whereas the knowing that arises from hearing involves an act of understanding. Aquinas thus links seeing with the divine unity (act of being) and hearing with the procession of the Word in the divine Trinity (act of understanding) It follows that “in the Son, to see and to hear are the same thing,” since the divine Person is the same as the divine essence. Yet, Christ’s “hearing” of the divine realities expresses Christ’s identity as the Word — and it is our hearing of the Word, which is none other than the divine essence, that enables us to participate in God by being deified.

If for Aquinas John 3:27-32a forms a unit in which the author of the Gospel describes the source of our deification, John 3:32b-36 (beginning with “no one receives his testimony”) constitutes a second unit that depicts those who participate, or fail to participate, in the source. In verse 32 we read that no one accepts Christ, while in verse 33 we read that some do. While suggesting that this apparent divergence may simply be a manner of speech, Aquinas also applies to the difference between the verses his understanding of causality and participation.  No one, he notes, ‘receives” Christ’s testimony on his or her own; rather such receptivity to the Word of God is always a gift of grace.  God’s gift of grace, he goes on to say, fits with his gift of the incarnate Son, and the former gift enables one to affirm the latter. To affirm the gift of the incarnate Son is to participate in the expression of the Father: Christ “expressed verbally nothing but the Father and the words of the Father, because he has been sent by the Father, and because he is the Word of the Father. Hence, lie Christ says that he even bespeaks the Father.”  In short, the economy of gift brings about nothing less than deifying participation in Trinitarian life.

Moving from verse 33 to verse 34, Aquinas remarks that Christ, who as God possesses the Holy Spirit perfectly (in that the Father spirates the Spirit through the Son), is able as man to express the Father perfectly because of his perfect anointing with the Spirit. Unlike the prophets, Christ the true Prophet never speaks except in the fullness of the Spirit. In perfectly expressing the Father’s Word in the Spirit, Christ as man mediates the gift of the Spirit to all human beings. Christ sanctifies His members by giving them his Holy Spirit. This participatory economy of gift requires Aquinas to analyze Christ’s grace in the course of his commentary. He first points out that the hypostatic union itself is a grace, as an unmerited gift that elevates Christ’s holy humanity at the instant of its conception to perfect union with the divine nature in the Person of the Word. As a result of’ that perfect union, Christ as man receives the full influence of the Holy Spirit on his soul, filling his soul with the charity and wisdom that befit such a union. Given his uniqueness, Christ in his holy humanity receives a graced participation in God’s life that includes “everything that could pertain to the nature of grace.” Created nature cannot receive a higher participation in the divine life than that received in Christ’s soul, as befits the union, at the instant of his conception.

Yet, this perfection is not for Christ alone. On the contrary, his perfect participation as man in God is intended, as the goal of the Incarnation, to enable others to share by grace in God’s own life. Thus Christ’s grace also makes him “head” of the Church: “For from the fact that he possessed that from which the gifts of the Spirit could flow out without measure, he received the power to pour them out without measure, so that the grace of Christ is sufficient not merely for the salvation of some men, but for all the people of the entire world” and indeed for all worlds. The dignity of Christ and his office as source is grounded in radical gift. His human participation, while higher than ours, is ordered to our own.

Commenting on the next verse, “the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35), Aquinas distinguishes its significance regarding Christ’s divinity and humanity. If one takes the verse as referring to the Son in his divinity, then one must be careful not to make the Son himself a participated “god.” The Son is not loved into being, even eternal being, by the Father. This would make the Son the product of the Father’s will, which would mean that “the Father generated the Son by will, and not by nature; and this is the Arian heresy.”

Moreover, the Father’s love is the Holy Spirit. As Aquinas notes, “if the love of the Father for the Son were the reason why the Father put everything into his hands, it would follow that the Holy Spirit would be the principle of the generation of the Son,” whereas in fact the Father is the principle. Instead, on the divine level, this verse means that the Father gives everything to the Son, a communication of goodness that is signaled by the Father’s love for the Son.

This level of intra-Trinitarian gift undergirds what Aquinas has to say about the other way of taking the verse, namely as referring to the Son in his humanity. Here the aspect of participation — participation in the Trinitarian gifting — stands out once again as the key. Creatures come into existence when God wills to create finite participations in God’s infinite existence, and thus it is true to say that God loves all creatures into existence. In willing the greatest possible participation in God for Christ’s humanity (union in the Person of the Son), God loves Christ above all else, because lie gives Christ’s humanity the greatest possible created degree of sharing in God’s perfection, goodness, and existence.

This greatest sharing grounds the gift of all “authority” to Christ, who possesses the “kingdom” as the “beloved Son” (Aquinas cites Matthew 3:17 and 28:18, as well as Colossians 1:13, in support of John 3:55). In short, we see in this discourse from the Gospel of’ John, interpreted in the patristic-medieval participatory mode, what Pickstock calls “the prevailing theologico-metaphysical discourse of participated — in perfections” that sustains, in both method and content, “a ready continuity between reason and revelation.”

The discourse concludes with the fruit of faith and the consequences of unbelief. Faith, when enlivened by charity, enables us to share in Christ’s own participation in the divine life. Aquinas emphasizes that faith gives an intimate spiritual contact or unity with Christ. He states, “Whoever believes in the Son has that toward which he tends, that is, the Son, in whom he believes.” To possess the Son is to possess the Son’s life, which is eternal life. This state of being is a sharing in the intra-Trinitarian giving: “For if the Father has given everything he has to the Son, and the Father has eternal life, then He has given to the Son to be eternal life.” We come to share in the Father’s gift, the eternal life of the Son, by receiving Christ in the economy of gift and participation.

By contrast, however, the reverse of this participatory transformation is to lack a sharing in true life. If one rejects God’s saving gift through unbelief, one cannot come to share in the love and knowledge that is God, what Aquinas calls “the sweetness of eternal life.” Refusing in pride to be caught up into the participatory economy of gift, one stays rooted in one’s own selfishness. To be bound forever by selfishness is to experience the “wrath of God,” both as loss of the eternal communication of wisdom and love for which one was created, and as the punishment incumbent on such selfish wickedness.

And yet the logic of gift, even here, cannot be avoided: only the gift of faith frees us from the selfishness that we inherit by birth, as members of a disordered human race descending from Adam. In sum, as St. Paul puts it, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Romans 8:27).

Aquinas’s probing of the realities set forth in John 3:27-36 invites us to share in the mystical-metaphysical dynamisms inscribed in the Gospel of John, thereby instancing the “discourse of participated-in perfections” and “ready continuity between reason and revelation” that Pickstock seeks to retrieve.

Most modern exegetes, however, would find that his interpretation eisegetically imposes theological and meta­physical claims not present in the text. How else to explain Aquinas’s account of hearing and seeing (John 3:82, “He bears witness to what he has seen and heard”) as referring to the divine unity and the Word’s procession, or to explain Aquinas’s understanding of the reception of testimony (John 3:32-38, “yet no one receives his testimony; he who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true”) as a ref­erence to the necessity of grace to receive God’s Word?

Before deter­mining what constitutes eisegesis [vocab], however, one must apprehend the patristic-medieval understanding of reality. Since reality includes the triune God, creatures cannot be fully understood by attending solely to their linear historicity. Rather, creatures, in their historicity, bear a participatory relation to God metaphysically and Christologically­-pneumatologically.

In bearing participatory reference to divine and created realities, the words of the Gospel refer to both the linear and participatory his­torical dimensions of these realities — to the creative and redemptive work of the Son and Holy Spirit that make creatures’ metaphysical par­ticipation and their deeper participation of grace possible. As regards the linear historical past, historical-critical interpretation may show that tile evangelist John — let alone John the Baptist, in the places where he is the one speaking — did not have “grace’ conceptually in mind when discussing the reception of Christ’s testimony, and did not intend to gesture toward “God’s unity and Trinity” in describing the witness of “he who comes from heaven.”

Yet as regards the participatory historical aspect of the realities depicted by the Gospel, Aquinas’s interpretation of’ John 3:27-36 captures a dimension of the text that remains closed to linear historical-critical research.  Surveying Aquinas’s verse-by-verse interpretation makes this clear. For Aquinas verse 27 points to the reality of creaturely receptivity; verse 28 to vocation; verse 29 to Christ’s primacy; verse 30 to the humility that glorifies Christ; verse 31 to Christ’s divinity and theandric (Relating to, or existing by, the union of divine and human operation in Christ, or the joint agency of the divine and human nature.) humanity; verse 32 to Christ’s manifestation of the triune God; verse 33 to faith and grace; verse 34 to Christ’s relationship to the Father and Holy Spirit; verse 55 to Christ’s authority as mediator; verse 36 to faith and eschatology.

As regards human creatures, we see the theological and metaphysical aspects of receptivity, vocation, humility, grace, faith, and eschatological life. As regards Jesus, we see the aspects of his primacy, grace, headship in the Church, glorification in his members, manifestation of the Trinity, relationship to the Father and Holy Spirit, and authority as mediator. These elements belong at the heart of Aquinas’s participatory understanding of reality.

When history is understood as a participation in God, the words and deeds depicted in John’s Gospel take on what for Christians is recognizable as their true and deepest meaning. Jesus Christ constitutes the center of linear and participatory history as the incarnate Word, the one Mediator, in whom human beings receive the Holy Spirit and are led to the Father. Such Johannine phrases as “no one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven,” “I have been sent,” “the friend of the bridegroom,” “he must increase,” “he who comes from heaven is above all,” “what he has seen and heard,” “he who receives his testimony,” “it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit,” “the Father loves the Son,” and “he who believes in the Son has eternal life” — all possess a “participatory” historical meaning along with their “linear” historical meaning.

John the Baptist and/or the inspired author certainly may not have known many of the theological and metaphysical implications that Aquinas draws from the biblical words.  This is the linear-historical dimension.  But the linear aspect does not say all, be­cause these words possess, equally historically, a participatory dimen­sion expressed by Aquinas’s theological and metaphysical language.  Jesus Christ, the sacraments, the Church—these realities, active and present in linear history cannot be confined to linear history, which they transcend by their ongoing mediation of the divine life of the Trinity in which human beings participate.

Receptivity belongs (metaphysically and theologically) to the historical reality of John the Baptist and/or the evangelist, because of the realities of creation, vocation, grace, inclusion in Christ, arid so on. Thus John the Baptist’s and/or the evangelist’s attempts to express the reality of “Christ” as well as the reality of the “Father, Son, and Spirit” — all named in John 3:27-36 — participate likewise, historically and not merely by a later eisegetical projection, in the fullness of truth about these realities. Historical criticism itself can often identify these partici­patory dimensions within John’s text, since the evangelist so clearly has them in mind. These (metaphysical and theological) realities are not projected into the biblical text, hut rather are actively present therein, just as their presence marks all of human history.

Human history is never separate from these divine and divinity-mediating realities, which are constitutive of human history. This point applies even more to the biblical texts, which are caught up uniquely in the historical revelation of these realities. In approaching John’s Gospel not only as linear his­tory, but also as participatory history, Aquinas, despite his relative lack of linear historical-critical tools, penetrates profoundly the true histori­cal dimensions of the realities depicted in the text. The reference of the words of John’s Gospel has a richness that goes deeper than warranted solely by its linear-historical reference.

Christian biblical interpretation, then, must avoid an interpretive historicism that defines “history” solely as linear. In faith we affirm that Christ is the Word of God. Thus what he has “seen and heard” per­tains to the life of the Trinity: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). In faith we know that grace alone enables us to receive what Christ has “seen and heard.” Such knowledge, which belongs to the biblical wit­ness as taught in the Church, “reads into” John’s Gospel in a manner that affirms the continuity of the realities there taught with the same realities as taught in the ongoing Church.

Robert Jenson makes clear that this understanding of continuity conforms with the biblical understanding of time: “time, in any construal adequate to the gospel, does not in fact march in this wooden strictly linear fashion. Time, as we see it framing biblical narrative, is neither linear nor cyclical but perhaps more like a helix, and what it spirals around is the risen Christ.  Time or history as understood biblically, as Christologically and metaphysically participatory, challenges the modern understanding of eisegesis by understanding biblical realities from within their ongoing historical “conversation” with God.”


St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas a Creatore

June 16, 2010

In this altarpiece St Thomas Aquinas receives not only the divine wisdom but also the wisdom of the Evangelists and the philosophers of the classical world. He then convey this to the Christian community, and also, in order to convert them, to the enemies of the Church. The intertwining structure of these rays of vision or wisdom determines the composition of the picture and creates a pictorial order which reflects the divine order of the cosmos. The panel probably was painted on the occasion of the canonization of St Thomas in 1323.

I’m going to post Thomas Aquinas’ exegesis of John :27-36 to contrast it later with other modern exegesis of the same passage – an exercise that Matthew Levering does in his book Participatory Biblical Exegesis. Before that however I found this nice little meditation on St Thomas in Josef Pieper’s The Silence of St. Thomas. It focuses on how the thought of St. Thomas is so radically different from that of the Augustinianism and Latin Averroism. I think we’ll meet this again in his exegesis of John :27-36.  

We have already mentioned the two opposing theories at the University of Paris against whom Thomas had to defend his own positions on God and the world. They were, firstly, the traditional and predominating trends, primarily philosophical but also theological, which we are accustomed to designate as Augustinianism; and secondly, Latin Averroism. From the viewpoint of these two opposing theories we have, perhaps, the best opportunity of making clear the unique character of St. Thomas’s teaching.

In the strife between Thomas Aquinas and medieval Augustinianism two of the most revealing points in dispute were the following. Thomas taught the unity of the substantial form, while Augustinianism accepted several forgiving principles in man. Thomas asserted that all our knowledge, including the spiritual, and also our knowledge of God, took its starting point (and therefore always remained somehow dependent upon) sense perception, while Augustinianism claimed that spiritual knowledge was independent of sense perception. At first sight, this appears to be a petty quarrel between “schools.” But for Thomas it involved nothing less than the saving of creation as a visible reality from any attempt at reduction, devaluation, or sheer annihilation.

What is the meaning of these two theses of St. Thomas? They mean that in man there is not one part — the soul — which is the “real” man, and another part — the body, a separate reality — which is the instrument or even the prison of the soul; rather, body and soul are an immediate existential unity. And further, that the “real” man is not the soul alone but precisely this existential unity of body and soul. The body belongs to the essence of man. The second thesis means that it is not the spiritual soul which is the ultimate bearer of our knowledge, but man — composed of body and soul. Therefore, our knowledge is always an image of our own being; knowledge is, like our being itself, an indissoluble unity of spiritual and corporal (sentient) principles.

These theses mean more than they directly express. In them is mirrored, as we have already remarked, that affirmation of the natural reality of creation which is so characteristic of St. Thomas: All created things are good because they were created by God. For the same reason, they have a reality and effectiveness of their own, which may not be ignored or obliterated through making absolute in one way or another the “spiritual” or “religious” element in man.

Moreover, the reality of creation in man, the natural light of his reason, his five senses, all the powers of his being, have their place and assignment in the make-up of man as Christian. (On the other hand, one may well say of St. Augustine, without violating the reverence due to this great saint and great thinker, that, as the history of Christian teaching shows, his work falls more easily into the danger. of being construed or, rather, misconstrued in the sense of a de-actualization and devaluation of the visible reality of creation.) Of course, Thomas is also aware of the injury caused to creation through original sin. In fact, he even says that the more deeply a man recognizes the true being of created things, the more this knowledge becomes for him a source of sadness — because out of every created reality- can arise a menace to salvation. But Thomas also knows that the same Christ Who founded the New Creation is simultaneously the eternal archetype of the first creation.

In his Commentary on St. John’s Epistle  St. Thomas remarks that we can find in Sacred Scripture three different meanings for the term “the world”: first, “the world” as the creation of God, and second, as the creation perfected in Christ; last, as the material perversion of the order of creation. To “the world” in this last-named sense, and to this world only, may one apply the saying of St. John:

“The world is seated in wickedness” (1 John 5:19). It is precisely the claim of St. Thomas that the first meaning of “world” (as creation) may not be identified nor interchanged with the third — (”world” as material perversion of the order of creation); the world as creation is not seated in wickedness.

A single common denominator underlies all these theses. To affirm and accept the reality of creation in all its provinces is the response befitting quite particularly the Christian. This is the key to understanding his thesis on the unity of the substantial form in man. This is likewise the foundation of St. Thomas’s teachings on the true place of natural reason and philosophy with regard to supernatural faith and theology. From the standpoint of his affirmation of the wholeness of creation, one may, perhaps, also understand the ease with which, in the Summa Theologica, he recommends bathing and sleeping as remedies against melancholy of the soul.

One of the most penetrating remarks in Chesterton’s book on St. Thomas is the following: If, conformable to Carmelite custom, a fitting epithet such as John “of the Cross” or Thérêse “of the Child Jesus” were sought for Thomas Aquinas, the one most appropriate would be “Thomas of the Creator,” Thomas a Creatore.

Only when we have truly recognized that the intention of St. Thomas is always directed toward God the Creator and His creation are we competent to evaluate his “Aristotelianism.” Aristotle is for St. Thomas (in the measure in which he follows him) nothing more nor less than a clear mirror of the natural reality of creation, a great and rich mind in which the ordo of the natural universe was inscribed. Thomas confronted the work of Aristotle with greater freedom and independence than is normally the case in the attitude of a school toward the work of its master — the “Thomistic” school not excepted.

It is also not correct to speak of a “Hellenizing” of Christian doctrine in the teaching of St. Thomas. When the Reformers of the sixteenth) century attempted to “purge” Christian theology of the supposedly Hellenizing scholastic element, it became quickly evident (and in the properly “reformed” theology of Karl Barth, for example, it is still evident today) that they were risking the error of removing from the Christian consciousness the reality of creation itself. (It is an unhistorical legend that Luther burned the Summa Theologica along with the papal bull in the marketplace at Wittenberg. The true story of that incident, however, makes a more telling point. A recently uncovered report of that auto-da-fé testifies that there was the intention of burning the Summa along with the papal document, but no one could be found who was willing to part with his copy!)

Far from being or signifying a secularization of genuine Christian teaching, the affirmation of the reality of creation in the theology of St. Thomas surges from the very depths of Christian intuition, namely, from reverence for the reality of the Incarnation of God. According to St. Thomas, the Evangelist John had deliberately said the Word was made flesh, in order to exclude the Manichaean principle that the body is evil.

It is this altogether religious and theological root which differentiates St. Thomas’s openness to the world from the truly secularizing concepts of his second and more dangerous opponent — Late Averroism, named after Averroes (1126-1198), one of the great Arabian commentators on Aristotle. We are not concerned here with the individual points of teaching (the numerical unity of the intellect in all men, the eternity of the world, the denial of free will). The decisive point is that Averroism radically severed the connection between faith and reason, between theology and philosophy. It maintained the complete independence of philosophical thinking from faith and theology. Moreover, it overvalued excessively this separated philosophical thinking, inasmuch as it expected to find in it the true and final wisdom, i.e., an answer which would satisfy the human spirit inquiring into the meaning of the world and human life. To this, Thomas says: The Christian can neither seek nor find a wisdom outside Christ. A single divine grace exceeds, in its existential value, the whole of the natural universe.

One notices that by this decisive secularization of thought, Latin Averroism is fundamentally the forerunner of the Renaissance and, therefore, of modem philosophy and science in general.

This family likeness extends to another, rarely noticed characteristic. In Latin Averroism appeared, for the first time, the purely historical approach to the interpretation of philosophy — the opinion that the true object of philosophy is its own history. For Siger of Brabant, the leader of the Averroists at the University of Paris, the study of philosophy signifies the exploration of the historical systems of philosophy, irrespective of whether they were true or false. Here for the first time appears that modern type of philosopher who, instead of discussing his true subject, reality, discusses something quite different, the philosophies. A magnificent and invigorating retort given by Thomas to Siger of Brabant should preface all translations and interpretations of Thomas, in order to cut short from the very start any attempt to take the “Universal Teacher” of the Church himself as a merely “historical” phenomenon: “The study of philosophy does not mean to learn what others have thought but to learn what is the truth of things.”

In spite of this unequivocal opposition and in spite of the enormous differences between Thomas and Averroism, it is apparently Thomas’s destiny to be confused with his secularized opponent. Three years after the death of St. Thomas, for example, several misinterpreted propositions from his writings were condemned by the Bishop of Paris and enumerated on the same list with the errors of Averroism.

Since that time, not only has Thomas been canonized by the Church; he is also the first man, as Martin Grabmann says, to be canonized qua theologian and teacher. Moreover, Thomas has been solemnly declared a Doctor of the Church — and, indeed, the “Universal Doctor of the Church.” Pius XI says of him that the Church testifies in every way that she has made his teaching her own. Yet the censure that his teaching is tainted with a virtually pagan worldliness has persisted since the days when William of St. Amour wrote against Albert and his great pupil: “They arrogate divine wisdom to themselves, although they are more familiar with worldly wisdom.” To which Thomas answered: “The opinion of those who say with regard to the truth of faith that it is a matter of complete indifference what one thinks about creation, provided one has a true interpretation of God is notoriously false. For an error about creation is reflected in a false opinion about God.”

This censure is likely to take the following forms: the confidence which St. Thomas puts in natural reason goes beyond the Christian norm; his philosophy and theology are much too rational, indeed too rationalistic; they have a tendency to offer facile, all-inclusive “solutions” to all questions; the harsh daylight of his syllogisms deprives the human spirit of the dark glow of the mysteries of our faith; the element of mystery in supernatural truth is almost totally suppressed in favor of its supposedly demonstrable rationality . . and so on.

It is indisputably true that a great number of “neo-scholastic” or “Thomistic” presentations, “according to the teaching of St. Thomas,” provide real cause and seeming justification for such objections. Thomas himself, however, goes so far in the recognition of mystery, both in creation and in God, that for us modern Christians, who seldom hear about the incomprehensibility of God, it comes as a cause of alarm when we find our ignorance so intrepidly and clearly pointed out in the Summa Tbeologica. For in this “summary” of his teaching on God, Thomas begins by saying: “Because we are not capable of knowing what God is but only what He is not, we cannot contemplate how God is but only how He is not.” Evidently, Thomas did not wish to withhold this basic thought of “negative” theology even from the beginner. And in the Quaestiones Disputatae is even said: “Hoc en ultimum cognitionis humanae de Deo; quod sciat se Deum nescire, this is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know Him.”

There is a saying frequently heard among Thomists which expresses a significant fact:

Thomas feared logic as little as he feared mystery. He who fears the bold light of logic will never penetrate into the region of real mysteries. The man who does not use his reason will never get to that boundary beyond which reason really fails. In the work of St. Thomas all ways of creaturely knowing have been followed to the very end — to the boundary of mystery. And the more intensely we pursue these ways of knowledge, the more is revealed to us — of the darkness, but also of the reality of mystery. (Simone Weil discussed the reality of mystery here.)


The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of gift in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.

The acts of the canonization process record: On the feast of St. Nicholas, in the year 1273, as Thomas turned back to his work after Holy Mass, he was strangely altered. He remained steadily silent; he did not write; he dictated nothing. He laid aside the Summa Theologica on which he had been working. Abruptly, in the middle of the treatise on the Sacrament of Penance, he stopped writing. Reginald, his friend, asks him, troubled: “Father, how can you want to stop such a great work?” Thomas answers only, “I can write no more.” Reginald of Pipemo seriously believed that his master and friend might have become mentally ill through his overwhelming burden of work.

After a long while, he asks and urges once again. Thomas gives the answer: “Reginald, I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.” Reginald is stunned by this reply. Some time later, as he had often done before, Thomas visits his younger sister, the Countess of San Severino, near Salerno. It is the same sister who had aided Thomas in his escape from the castle of San Giovanni, nearly thirty years ago.

Shortly after his arrival, his sister turns to his travelling companion, Reginald, with a startled question: what has happened to her brother? He is like one struck dumb and has scarcely spoken a word to her. Reginald once more appeals to Thomas: Would he tell him why he has ceased writing and what it is that could have disturbed him so deeply? For a long time, Thomas remains silent. Then he repeats: “All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

This silence lasted throughout a whole winter. The great teacher of the West had become dumb. Whatever may have imbued him with a deep happiness, with an inkling of the beginning of eternal life, must have aroused in the men in his company the disturbing feeling caused by the uncanny.

At the end of this time, spent completely in his own depths, Thomas began the journey to the General Council at Lyons. His attention continued to be directed inward. The acts of the canonization report a conversation which took place on this journey between Thomas and Reginald. It seems to have arisen out of a long silence and to have receded immediately into a long silence. This brief exchange clearly reveals to what degree the two friends already live in two different worlds. Reginald, encouragingly: “Now you are on your way to the Council, and there many good things will happen; for the whole Church, for our order, and for the Kingdom of Sicily.” And Thomas: “Yes, God grant that good things may happen there!”

The prayer of St. Thomas that his life should not outlast his teaching career was answered. On the way to Lyons he met his end.

The mind of the dying man found its voice once more, in an explanation of the Canticle of Canticles for the monks of Fossanova. The last teaching of St. Thomas concerns, therefore, that mystical book of nuptial love for God, of which the Fathers of the Church say: the meaning of its figurative speech is that God exceeds all our capabilities of possessing Him, that all our knowledge can only be the cause of new questions, and every finding only the start of a new search.


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