Archive for the ‘Readings’ Category


Reading Selections Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

January 17, 2012

Street Scene, Lisbon, Portugal

A middle-aged Swiss high-school teacher browsing in a second-hand bookshop comes across a collection of essays by a writer he has never heard of, in a language (Portuguese) he has never studied. Picking through the text with the aid of a dictionary, he is enthralled by the writer’s reflections on the difficulty of expressing ideas and experience in words. Within hours, the teacher abandons his hometown in the heart of Europe and travels to the writer’s native city on the continent’s western edge. The following reading selections will give you a feel for the novel:


Nous sommes tons de lopins et d une contexture si injbrme et diverse, que chaque piece, chaque momant, faict son jeu. Et se trouve autant de difference de nous a nous mesmes, que de nous a autruy.

We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.
Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Second Book


Cada um de nos e vdrios, e muitos, e uma prolixidade de si mesmos. Por isso aquele que despreza o ambiente ndo e o mesmo que dele se alegra ou padece. Na vasta colonia do nosso ser ha gente de muitas especies, pensando e sentindo diferentemente.

Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.
Fernando Pessoa, Livro Do Desassossego


The Book
Now the student shut the book and got up. But instead of putting it on the table with the others, she stood still, let her eyes slide again over the yellowed binding, stroked it with her hand, and only a few seconds later did she put the book down on the table, as softly and carefully as if it might crumble to dust with a nudge. Then, for a moment, she stood at the table and it looked as if she might reconsider and buy the book. But she went out, her hands buried in her coat pockets and her head down. Gregorius picked up the book and read: AMADEU INACIO DE ALMEIDA PRADO, UM OURIVES DAS PALAVRAS, LISBOA 1975.

The bookdealer came in, glanced at the book and pronounced the title aloud. Gregorius heard only a flow of sibilants; the half-swallowed, hardly audible vowels seemed to be only a pretext to keep repeating the hissing sh at the end.

“Do you speak Portuguese?”

Gregorius shook his head.

“A Goldsmith of Words. Isn’t that a lovely title?”

“Quiet and elegant. Like dull silver. Would you say it again in Portuguese?”

The bookdealer repeated the words. Aside from the words themselves, you could hear how he enjoyed the velvety sound. Gregorius opened the book and leafed through it until the text began. He handed it to the man who looked at him with surprise and pleasure and started reading aloud. As he listened, Gregorius shut his eyes. After a few sentences, the man paused.

“Shall I translate?”

Gregorius nodded. And then he heard sentences that stunned him, for they sounded as if they had been written for him alone, and not only for him, but for him on this morning that had changed everything.

Of the thousand experiences we have, we find language for one at most and even this one merely by chance and without the care it deserves. Buried under all the mute experiences are those unseen ones that give our life its form, its color, and its melody. Then, when we turn to these treasures, as archaeologists of the soul, we discover how confusing they are. The object of contemplation refuses to stand still, the words bounce off the experience and in the end, pure contradictions stand on the paper. For a long time, I thought it was a defect, something to be overcome. Today I think it is different: that recognition of the confusion is the ideal path to understanding these intimate yet enigmatic experiences. That sounds strange, even bizarre, I know. But ever since I have seen the issue in this light, I have the feeling of being really awake and alive for the first time.

“That’s the introduction,” said the bookdealer and started leafing through it. “And now he seems to begin, passage after passage, to dig for all the buried experiences. To be the archaeologist of himself. Some passages are several pages long and others are quite short. Here, for example, is a fragment that consists of only one sentence.” He translated:

Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us — what happens with the rest?

“I’d like to have the book,” said Gregorius.


Translating Amadeu de Prado

PROFUNDEZAS INCERTOS. UNCERTAIN DEPTHS. Is there a mystery under the surfaces of human action? Or are human beings utterly what their obvious acts indicate?

It is extraordinary, but the answer changes in me with the light that falls on the city and the Tagus. If it is the enchanting light of a shimmering August day that produces clear, sharp-edged shadows, the thought of a hidden human depth seems bizarre and like a curious, even slightly touching fantasy, like a mirage, that arises when I look too long at the waves flashing in that light. On the other hand, if city and river are clouded over on a dreary January day by a dome of shadowless light and boring gray, I know no greater certainty than this: that all human action is only an extremely imperfect, ridiculously helpless expression of a hidden internal life of unimagined depths that presses to the surface without ever being able to reach it even remotely.

And to this amazing, upsetting unreliability of my judgment is added another experience that, since I have come to know it, steeps my life continually in a distressing uncertainty: that, in this matter, the really most important one for us human beings, I waver even when it concerns myself. For when I sit in front of my favorite cafe, basking in the sun, and overhear the tinkling laughter of the passing Senhoras, my whole inner world seems filled down to the deepest corner, and is known to me through and through because it exhausts itself in these pleasant feelings. Yet, if a disenchanting, sobering layer of clouds pushes in before the sun, with one fell swoop, I am sure there are hidden depths and abysses in me, where unimagined things could break out and sweep me away. Then I quickly pay and hastily seek diversion in the hope that the sun might soon break out again and restore the reassuring superficiality.

Gregorius opened the picture of Amadeu de Prado and leaned the book against the table lamp. Sentence after sentence, he read the translated text into the bold, melancholy eyes. Only once had he done something like that: when he had read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as a student. A plaster bust of the emperor had stood on the table, and when he worked on the text, he seemed to be doing it under the aegis of his mute presence. But between then and now there was a difference, which Gregorius felt ever more clearly as the night progressed, without being able to put it into words. He knew only one thing as two o’clock approached: With the sharpness of his perception, the Portuguese aristocrat had granted him an alertness and precision of feeling that didn’t come even from the wise emperor, whose meditations he had devoured as if they were aimed directly at him. In the meantime, Gregorius had translated another note:

PALAVRAS NUM SILENCIO DE OURO. WORDS IN GOLDEN SILENCE. When I read a newspaper, listen to the radio or overhear what people are saying in the cafe, I often feel aversion, even disgust at the same words written and spoken over and over — at the same expressions, phrases, and metaphors repeated. And the worst is, when I hear myself and have to admit that I too repeat the eternally same things. They’re so horribly frayed and threadbare, these words, worn out by being used millions of times. Do they still have any meaning? Naturally, the exchange of words functions, people act on them, they laugh and cry, they go left or right, the waiter brings the coffee or tea. But that’s not what I want to ask. The question is: Are they still an expression of thoughts? Or only effective sounds that drive people here and there because the worn grooves of babble incessantly flash?

Then I go to the beach and hold my head far into the wind, which I wish were icy, colder than we know it in these parts: May it blow all the hackneyed words, all the insipid language habits out of me so I could come back with a cleansed mind, cleansed of the slag of the same talk. But the first time I have to say something, it’s all as before. The cleansing I long for doesn’t come by itself. I have to do something, and I have to do it with words. But what? It’s not that I’d like to get out of my own language and into another. No, it has nothing to do with linguistic desertion. And I also tell myself something else: You can’t invent a new language. But is that what would I like? Maybe it’s like this: I’d like to reset Portuguese words. The sentences that would emerge from this new setting might not be odd or eccentric, not exalted, affected or artificial. They must be archetypal sentences of the Portuguese that constitute its center so that you would have the feeling that they originated directly and undefiled from the transparent, sparkling nature of this language. The words must be as unblemished as polished marble, and they must be pure as the notes in a Bach partita, which turn everything that is not themselves into perfect silence. Sometimes, when a remnant of conciliation with the linguistic sludge is in me, I think, it could be the pleasant silence of a cozy living room or the relaxed silence between lovers. But when I am utterly overcome by rage at the sticky habits of words, then it must be no less than the clear, cool silence of the unlighted outer space, where I pull my noiseless orbits as the only one who speaks Portuguese. The waiter, the barber, the conductor — they would be puzzled if they heard the newly set words and their amazement would refer to the beauty of the sentences, a beauty that would be nothing but the gleam of their clarity. They would be — I imagine — cogent sentences, and could even be called inexorable. Incorruptible and firm they would stand there and thus be like the words of a god. At the same time, they would be without exaggeration and without pomposity, precise and so laconic that you couldn’t take away one single word, one single comma. Thus they would be like a poem, plaited by a goldsmith of words.


. Gregorius started, opened his eyes, and looked out at the flat French landscape, where the sun was bending down to the horizon. The word that had been like a melody lost in a dreamy expanse, all of a sudden had lost its force. He tried to retrieve the magical sound of the voice, but what he managed to grasp was only a rapidly fading echo, and the vain attempt only strengthened the feeling that the precious word, the basis of this whole crazy trip, had slipped away. And it didn’t help that he still knew precisely how the speaker on the language record had pronounced the word.

He went to the bathroom and held his face under the chlorinated water for a long time. Back in his seat, he took the book of the Portuguese aristocrat out of his bag and started translating the next passage. At first, it was mainly an escape, the desperate attempt, despite the fear, to keep on believing in this trip. But after the first sentence, the text fascinated him again as much as it had in the kitchen at night.

NOBREZA SILENCIOSA. SILENT NOBILITY. It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, or the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.

From time to time, Gregorius glanced up from the text and looked out to the west. In the remaining brightness of the twilight sky, it seemed the sea could now be imagined. He put the dictionary away and shut his eyes.

If I could see the sea just once, his mother had said half a year before her death, as if she felt that the end was near; but we simply can’t afford that.

What bank will give me a loan, Gregorius heard the father say, and for such a thing.



Waking Up

December 2, 2011

Andrei Rublev The Virgin of Vladimir, after 1410


“His second night in Talkingham, Hazel Motes walked along down town close to the store fronts but not looking in them. The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all of time to complete. No one was paying attention to the sky.”
From Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

JESUS SAID TO HIS DISCIPLES: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: `Watch!”
Mark 13: 33-37

Waking Up to Ourselves
The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of mankind in general.

This entire message about God’s coming, about the Day of Salvation, about redemption drawing near, will be merely divine game-playing or sentimental lyricism unless it is grounded upon two clear findings of fact.

The first finding: insight into, and alarm over, the powerlessness and futility of human life in relation to its ultimate meaning and fulfillment. That powerlessness and futility are both boundaries of our existence and are also consequences of sin. At the same time we are keenly aware that life does have an ultimate meaning and fulfillment.

The second finding: the promise of God to be on our side, to come to meet us. God resolved to raise the boundaries of our existence and to overcome the consequences of sin.

However, as a result, the basic condition of life always has an Advent dimension: boundaries, and hunger, and thirst, and lack of fulfillment, and promise, and movement toward one another. That means, however, that we basically remain without shelter, under way, and open until the final encounter, with all the humble blessedness and painful pleasure of this openness.

Therefore there is no interim finality, and the attempt to create final conclusions is an old temptation of mankind. Hunger and thirst, and desert journeying, and the survival teamwork of mountaineers on a rope — these are the truth of our human condition. The promises given relate to this truth, not to arrogance and caprice. There really are promises given to this truth though, and we can and should rely upon them. The truth will make you free (John 8: 32).

That truth is the essential theme of life. Everything else is only expression, result, application, consequence, testing, and practice. May God help us to wake up to ourselves and in doing so, to move from ourselves toward him.
Father Alfred Delp,

Father Delp was a German priest condemned to death in Germany by the Nazis during World War II.


Reading Selections from “The Love of Saint Thérèse” by Philip Zaleski

October 14, 2010

Saint Thérèse: A Fairy Tale Told Backwards

Philip Zaleski is a research associate in religion at Smith College .This is his review of five recent books concerning Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Some wonderful summation at the end that explains why I always keep running into Saint Thérèse. Shame on me for not featuring her more amongst these posts. Fr. Robert Barron’s reactions to her here.

Thérèse and Leo XIII
The Pope leaned toward her, so that “their faces nearly touched,” and Thérèse hurriedly whispered her desire (despite her bishop’s opposition) to become a Carmelite nun. Leo, flustered by this breach of protocol, first ventured a conventional response: “Ah well, my child, do what the superiors say.” When Thérèse continued to argue, he appealed to God, enunciating each syllable like a patient schoolmaster: “Go . . . Go . . . you will enter if God wills it.” But Thérèse refused to budge, clutching the Pope’s legs more tightly still; finally papal guards intervened, lifting and dragging the now-sobbing girl to the exit. “In the bottom of my heart I felt a great peace,” Thérèse recalled some years later, “[but] bitterness filled my soul, for Jesus was silent.”

This incident tells us much about Thérèse: her boldness, her stubbornness, her confidence, even at a young age, in her divinely appointed mission. It tells us just as much about how others saw and still see her. The old Pope is by turns interested but bewildered, annoyed but charmed. His chameleon response encapsulates the world’s response to Thérèse. Has any saint provoked such a spectrum of reactions as she?

The Lowbrow Saint
The English novelist Vita Sackville-West, in one of the first biographies of Thérèse, dismissed her as “the lowbrow” among saints and claimed that “there was no originality in her thought,” and Catholic theologian Karl Rahner confessed that “many things in Thérèse and her writings irritate me or quite simply bore me.” On the other hand, along with Pius X’s encomium, we have Hans Urs von Balthasar declaring that Thérèse’s “whole life [was] an exposition of God’s word,” Pope John Paul II describing her as “a living icon” of God, and a tidal wave of popular support, expressed in the sales of her autobiography, Story of a Soul, which has reached millions of hands in sixty different languages and in the vast crowds that venerated the saint’s relics during their recent voyage around the world. These responses cover nearly a century of controversy; as the third Christian millennium opens, a new crop of Thérèse books has appeared to continue the debate.

Arthur Cavanaugh’s Thérèse: The Saint Who Loved Us: A Personal View
Even at a glance, Arthur Cavanaugh’s Thérèse: The Saint Who Loved Us: A Personal View, stands out on two accounts: it is the only book under review that avoids a generic title; and it bears that rare ornament, a double subtitle. It is the second subtitle that catches the eye. Here is something more than a standard biography; Cavanaugh writes in confessional mode, dishing out highlights of his own Catholic odyssey and explaining how St. Thérèse more than once helped him on his way. As a child plagued by loneliness and self-doubt, he first encountered the saint by glimpsing her statue in a shadowy corner of his local church. The image was unexceptional: a plaster Thérèse in black robes, sandaled, holding a crucifix wreathed in roses. But something awoke in the boy: “As I steered up one Woodhaven street and down another, the image of a young nun, a crucifix of roses in her arms, floated above, like a banner in the sky, following after me, all the way home.”

This quasi-miraculous event presaged a lifetime of Theresian interludes. In Paris in 1945, sick with pneumonia and awaiting Army transport back to the United States, Cavanaugh stumbled upon a procession transporting the saint’s relics from Notre Dame Cathedral, their temporary refuge during Allied bombings, to their permanent home in Lisieux; this glimpse of the tiny, silk-enclosed casket brought him back to the Church. In New York in 1956, he lent a picture of Thérèse, patroness of all the sick, to a friend dying of bone cancer and realized, as he did so, the primacy of God’s love. In 1999, again in New York, he revisited Thérèse’s relics in St. Patrick’s Cathedral during their dramatic American tour and confirmed, as his first subtitle declares, that “she was the saint who loved us.” The tone throughout is intelligent, nostalgic, devout; the style sometimes breathless, like a romance novel — Cavanaugh seems genuinely moonstruck by his saint — with a fondness for italicized exclamations (“The roses, the roses!”, “Who was it, who could it be rather than my Thérèse?”) but nonetheless thoroughly engaging, with the winsome appeal of a love story with a happy ending.

All this has the makings of a compelling memoir, but Cavanaugh heads in another direction. Thérèse’s gravitational pull is too strong; he is locked into her orbit, and his personal memories serve merely as bookends to a recounting of Thérèse’s own life. For reasons that remain unclear, he does not proceed chronologically but shuttles back and forth in time, going from Thérèse’s death to her childhood to her posthumous fame to her convent years. This historical back-and-forth is ably handled, however, and the reader has little trouble assembling from these shards a coherent life.

A Fairy Tale Told Backwards
And what a life it was, beginning in the damascene-and-brocade furnishings of a French bourgeois household and ending on a straw pallet in an unheated convent cell. In some measure, Thérèse’s story is a fairy tale told backwards, a reverse Cinderella story in which our heroine exchanges golden slippers for rough monastic sandals and embraces a life of self-denial and suffering. Yet, like the original, this tale has a happy ending, sealed by love, in which death itself plays the fool.

Nauseating As A Surfeit Of Marshmallows
Thérèse’s first years had the quality of a golden age. She was a pampered princess, holding court over her four older siblings and adoring parents in a sheltered realm of well-bred manners and well-cooked meals. “Everything on this earth smiled on me; I found flowers under each of my steps,” she remembered in Story of a Soul, employing the richly embroidered, overly sweet language that characterizes much of that volume (Sackville-West, exaggerating the effect, calls it “as nauseating as a surfeit of marshmallows”). Was she stifled by this warm but banal environment? Perhaps. Some of Thérèse’s biographers have wondered that anything extraordinary could grow in such circumstances. But the close-knit family life instilled in her an unshakable belief in love’s omnipotence, while the unflagging religious devotions in which all participated — daily Mass, praying the rosary, fasting, keeping the Sabbath — taught her the closeness of God and the fragile beauty of earthly things.

The death of her mother, when Thérèse was only four, shattered this cozy world. Suddenly, she later recalled, “the earth seemed to be a place of exile”; a long siege of grief and sorrow ensued, culminating in a mysterious illness marked by hallucinations and seizures. She was cured by what she and her family considered a miracle, one of the few times in her life that Thérèse — in striking contrast to her Carmelite predecessor and namesake Teresa of Avila — enjoyed a mystical transport: as she prayed for relief to a statue of Our Lady of Victories, the plaster figure grew radiantly lovely — “more beautiful than anything I had seen before” — and smiled at her. The sickness vanished, never to reappear.

Her “Conversion”
What emerged instead, growing in intensity over the years, was a desire to follow in the footsteps of her older sisters by becoming a cloistered nun. First, however, she needed to be purged of her overweening self-love, perhaps the inevitable consequence of being a cosseted child in a culture that idolized childhood. The turning point, which Thérèse described as her “conversion” and as “a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant” — the inner counterpart to the external event of the smiling Virgin — came on Christmas Eve of 1886. She was ascending the stairs when she overheard her father complain about her spoiled, self-serving behavior; his angry words, perhaps because they fell upon a mind filled with images of the birth of one who came to serve others, triggered a revolution. “On that luminous night,” she reported, “Our Lord accomplished in an instant the work I had not been able to do during years. Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took complete possession of my heart, and thenceforward I was perfectly happy.” Students of French Catholic history or of God’s contrapuntal grace will note that Paul Claudel’s conversion transpired earlier the same day and a hundred miles to the southwest, during vespers at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The immediate fruit of this transformation was a desire to work for the salvation of sinners. From now on, Thérèse vowed, she would rescue the fallen through the intensity and splendor of her prayers. She would take up impossible cases — reprobates, murderers, the dregs of humanity — and reclaim their souls. The next summer she read in the newspaper La Croix about Henri Pranzini, sentenced to the guillotine for triple murder. She resolved to redeem this vagabond-thug for God, declaring him her “first child” and entering an intense cycle of prayer, personal sacrifice, and attendance at Mass. She was absolutely certain that she would succeed; God could not reject petitions so passionate and pure. On the morning of his death, Pranzini again refused to repent. Then, when all seemed lost, an instant before offering his neck to the blade, the murderer seized a crucifix proffered by the attending priest and kissed it three times. When Thérèse heard the news, she burst into tears. God had spoken; henceforth she would be a missionary of love.

Her “Act Of Oblation To Merciful Love”
Once she entered the convent, Thérèse wrote poems, plays (in which she also acted), and her famous memoirs. Her most precious undertaking, however, remained the salvation of souls through prayer. In order to succeed in this tremendous enterprise, she needed to give herself unflinchingly to God. She did so during June 1895, in her “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love”:

In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God! . . . I want, O my Beloved, at each beat of my heart to renew this offering to You an infinite number of times, until the shadows have disappeared and I may be able to tell You of my Love in an Eternal Face to Face!

The peculiar orthography, with its exclamation marks, capitals, and italics so reminiscent of an adolescent’s diary, faithfully reproduces the original. It reveals the high pitch of Thérèse’s emotions but may obscure the gravity of her intentions. Yes, she was young and in her youthful ardor she sometimes fell into bathos, but she was venturing something new in the history of the Church, a vocation that encompassed all others:

I understood that it was LOVE ALONE that made the Church’s members act, and that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the gospel, martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that LOVE CONTAINED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING , THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIME AND ALL PLACES, IN A WORD, THAT IT IS ETERNAL!

Then, in the excess of my ecstatic joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my vocation. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!

The Little Way
Love subsumed every work, every way; in love she would travel all roads at once, be soldier and peacemaker, apostle and hermit, priest and nun. Through the austere life of a cloistered Carmelite, devoted to contemplation, the opus Dei, and menial chores — that is, loving God through mind, heart, and body — she would help Jesus to save the world. Thenceforth, love would dictate every aspect of her behavior — how she would fold the laundry, scrub the floors, kneel before the altar. For love, she would always put others first. A friend of mine once observed that “it must have been terrible to find that Thérèse was being particularly nice to you, because she always made a point of being particularly nice to people she didn’t like.” Thérèse developed a distrust of mysticism (“I do not wish to see the good God here on earth. . . . I prefer to live in faith.”) and replaced it with what she called her Little Way, an immediate and complete abandonment to God’s love.

The Little Way is in some sense a devotional analogue to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith: instead of an intellectual vault over the abyss of doubt into Christian faith, an emotional vault over the abyss of self into Christian love. Cavanaugh describes it, inelegantly, as “a doctrine of liberation, taking us beyond our faults and limitations into a whole new realm of possibility.” It is the way of childhood, of, in Thérèse’s words, “a small child abandoning itself without fear in its father’s arms,” but also the way of the soldier, of storming heaven, “the way to force Jesus to come to your help.” It is, she said, a form of martyrdom of love. In this spirit she embraced the sufferings of being a Carmelite — lack of sleep, lack of freedom to talk or travel, lack of familial or romantic attachment — and the sufferings of her own deteriorating health: “Out of love I will suffer and out of love rejoice.”

Sickness and Death
As tuberculosis ravaged her body, new miseries struck: doubts about her profession, about the goodness of creation, even about the intentions of God. In the woods outside her window she saw a “black hole,” and declared, “I am in a hole just like that, body and soul. Ah! what darkness.” Yet this storm she weathered, too, through prayer and confidence in the primacy of love. After all, she pointed out on her deathbed, Jesus died as a “victim of love” and so might she; “to die of love does not mean to die in transports.” It does mean, however, that love will be one’s condition in the next world as well as in this vale of tears — a realization that leads to Thérèse’s most famous saying, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Love, for her, was an eternal project.

So ended the speeded-up life of St. Thérèse, but not, of course, her story. Cavanaugh devotes a large portion of his book to Thérèse’s posthumous fame, telling with zeal the rise of her cult and making much of its numerous ironies — for example, that she was canonized largely because of public acclaim for a book that she desired neither to write nor to publish (she wrote under obedience to her prioress). The Story of a Soul was also, as Cavanaugh takes pains to point out, heavily bowdlerized. Shortly after Thérèse’s death, her sister Pauline (by this time Mother Agnes, superior of the community), convinced that Thérèse was a saint, decided to edit the manuscripts to ensure that nothing indiscreet would see the light of day. She proceeded to delete, condense, expand, interpolate, and reorganize at will, introducing more than seven thousand alterations to the text, quenching much of the work’s fire while retaining its sentiment, helping to produce the cloying tone on which Sackville-West and others have gagged. Cavanaugh, surprisingly, insists that Mother Agnes did “nothing to mar or efface her sister’s doctrine or her message to us.”

In a sense this is true: Thérèse’s doctrine of the Little Way survived even Agnes’ meddling hands. But we cannot overestimate the harm done by caramelizing Carmel, by producing a Thérèse whose courage and toughness — amply evidenced in the profundity of her life and the nobility of her death — remained for two generations obscured by this redaction of her writing. This is not to suggest that her unexpurgated autobiography is free of mawkishness. Even now few can read the book without wincing at the innumerable metaphors about flowers, little angels, little queens, and the like. But these are infelicities, not fatal flaws.

The Story of a Soul
The book, largely through word of mouth, became a best-seller; the public, it seems, does not mind a bit of sugar in its saints. Thérèse’s fame continued to spread. She was beatified in 1923 and, after letters attesting to miracles started arriving at the Vatican at the rate of one thousand per day, canonized in 1925. Then something happened that Cavanaugh describes as “unprecedented in the annals of the Church”: a saint became a worldwide sensation. Shrines devoted to Thérèse sprang up from Alaska to Fiji. Statues of Thérèse appeared in thousands of churches. The Story of a Soul found its way into millions of homes, entrancing Protestants (and even Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims), as well as Catholics. In Lisieux, a vast basilica dedicated to Thérèse was erected southwest of the city center. She had become not only the greatest and most provocative saint of modern times, but the most popular as well.

Steven Payne’s Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Doctor of the Universal Church
Many reasons have been adduced for the public’s lavish response: Thérèse’s physical beauty (photographs show a pleasing, full-cheeked face with brooding eyes); her romantic death; her floral imagery; her native energy and kindness; her dazzling promise to spend eternity saving earthly souls, confirmed in the eyes of many by the bumper crop of reported miracles connected to her intercession; her doctrine of the Little Way, which laid out a path of sanctity in the midst of ordinary life. In any event, it is the last that led John Paul II in 1997, on the centenary of her death, to proclaim Thérèse a doctor of the Church, only the third woman (after Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena) and thirty-third saint to be so honored. To understand why and how this happened, and, in the process, to help explain Thérèse’s universal appeal, is the aim of Steven Payne’s Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Doctor of the Universal Church.

Payne’s work lacks the intimacy and simplicity of Cavanaugh’s congenial account. His manner is dry, formal, and understated. Nonetheless, the book draws one in, in part because its topic has generated some controversy: after all, Thérèse was neither a scholar nor a theologian; her schooling was limited; she published nothing during her life; her writings suffer from surface naïveté and a penchant for overblown metaphors. Why, then, should she rank alongside Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm as a doctor ecclesiae?

Is Thérèse a Doctor?
Payne begins, in workmanlike fashion, by recounting the etymological history of the title. The term “doctor” emerges in the Pauline letters of the Vulgate, as a translation for the Greek “teacher.” A doctor is one who transmits the gospel, teaching by word and example. During the patristic era, it became an honorific attached to those outstanding in evangelical skill and zeal. During the eighth century, the Venerable Bede crowned four men — Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and Jerome — with the title, a choice officially ratified, a half-millennium later, by Boniface VIII’s bull of 1298. This handful of doctors soon became a multitude, as Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and others joined the ranks. The list, now thirty-three strong, ranges from the famous (Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross) to the obscure (Ephraim the Syrian, Lawrence of Brindisi). All satisfy the three defining criteria of outstanding holiness, eminence of doctrine, and an official proclamation by pope or general church council.

Does the Little Flower meet these qualifications? From the very beginning, she had her advocates; the abbot of Gethsemane Abbey in Louisville, Kentucky, seems to have been the first to propose her for the doctorate, just three years after her canonization. The first worldwide petition circulated in 1932 and gathered, within a year, the signatures of 342 bishops. Prominent theologians such as Erich Przywara, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar championed Thérèse’s mission and detailed her contributions to theology and spirituality. Nonetheless, the drive stalled, the reason, as Pius XI tersely remarked, being “obstat sexus.”

But in 1970 Paul VI named as doctors two women, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, and the wheels began to turn for Thérèse, setting in motion a process of committee meetings, documentations, debates, analyses, and pronouncements, with curial officials, cardinals, bishops, and laity tugging this way and that. Payne sorts through the tangle with an attention to detail that will delight some readers and weary others; for example, he glosses each chapter of the Positio, a “large, red, clothbound, folio-sized volume of nearly one thousand pages” encasing a small mountain of background documents along with the reflections of seven theologians on the proposed doctorate. Naming a new doctor of the Church is, Payne amply demonstrates, a daunting process, but one completed, in the case of Thérèse, in near-record time. The participants enjoyed one great advantage, for thanks to numerous eyewitness testimonies and the saint’s own obsessively self-referential writings, more is known about Thérèse than about all but a few other saints.

Meeting the Criteria
The assembled experts had no difficulty dealing with the first doctoral criterion of outstanding sanctity. To a man (and one woman) they praised Thérèse’s radiant holiness, agreeing that her humility, her goodness, her integrity, her radical submission to God’s will, set upon her unmistakably the seal of sanctity. As the Positio mentions, people of many faiths revere Thérèse for her holiness; more than one Orthodox icon contains her image, and Cairo houses a Muslim shrine in her honor. Far more vexing was the second criterion, that of “eminence of doctrine.” According to precedent, the candidate must bring to the theological table a teaching that is original, profound, faithful to tradition, and of strong and lasting influence. But did Thérèse have any doctrine at all to offer the Church?

A consensus developed that Thérèse did fulfill the requirement — but only with a caveat. One must first acknowledge that a new kind of doctor has emerged in the Church, a master of spirituality rather than theology, and that the definition of doctor ecclesiae must evolve to keep pace. The cases of Francis de Sales (proclaimed doctor in 1877) and Anthony of Padua (1946) initiated this new understanding; Thérèse confirmed it. This granted, her preeminence becomes apparent. Her Little Way, with its radical insistence upon childlikeness and absolute love, constitutes an original and profound elaboration of gospel principles.

The influence of her doctrine is enormous and seems likely to last. Austria’s Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the most distinguished of the seven theologians to examine the case, argued in the Positio that Thérèse’s mission came directly from God, and that it has “changed the climate of the Church” through its definitive rejection of Jansenism in favor of the “Mystery of a God who is Love.” That Thérèse accomplished this largely through the example of her personal sanctity constitutes her particular “charism of wisdom.” John Paul II, during his homily for the October 19, 1997, Mass proclaiming Thérèse a doctor, confirmed this perspective by observing that “it is precisely this convergence of doctrine and concrete experience, of truth and life, which shines with particular brightness in this saint.”

A Master Of “The Science Of Divine Love”
In Divini Amoris Scientia, his apostolic letter announcing the doctorate, the Pope goes even further. Thérèse was a master of “the science of divine love” who “experienced divine revelation,” “knew Jesus,” and “penetrated the mysteries of his infancy,” making her a “living icon” of God. Moreover, the Pope adds, Thérèse’s Little Way is at once “unique” and “the most basic and most universal truth.” She thus draws from the wellsprings of the gospel and prepares the future harvest of the Church. Adding his own coda to this crescendo of praise, Payne suggests that Thérèse’s writings may be taken as a model for a new kind of theological reflection, deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition, that yields fundamental insights — witness her “rediscovery” of the God of infinite mercy or her revolutionary idea of heaven as a place, not only of beatific vision, but of earthly activity. Thérèse proves to be not only a saint, but, in Balthasar’s memorable phrase, a saint who practices “theology on its knees.”

The Case Against Therèse: Kathryn Harrison’s Saint Therèse of Lisieux
Unless, of course, one sees her as a closet neurotic, a masochist and fetishist, a hysteric driven by forces beyond her control. Such is the interpretation offered by Kathryn Harrison, novelist and memoirist (Thicker Than Water; The Kiss). Harrison is celebrated for her lyrical style, and she doesn’t disappoint in this regard, painting scenes from Thérèse’s life with beautiful precision. Here is Thérèse as a teenage nun:

The austerity of the convent, its bare cells and simple, whitewashed refectory, its stone hallways traveled by identically dressed women, silent except for the sweep of the habit, the hiss of rope sandals — all this presents a physical grace and order that materialism had buried. At fifteen, an age that seeks a new language, a separate identity, Thérèse must have longed for bare stone floors underfoot as much as she did doctrine overhead.

Harrison goes about her job briskly, covering all the major events of Thérèse’s life in a compact two hundred pages. It is what she does with these events that raises eyebrows, then hackles. The first clue is the author’s disproportionate focus upon Thérèse’s mother, a sure sign that a Freudian sensibility is at work. Soon enough, Harrison informs us that “contemporary readers” (in which category she clearly places herself) “cannot free themselves from post-Freudian suspicion,” and suspicion becomes the instrument with which Harrison dissects Thérèse, who suffers death by a thousand cuts under the deconstructionist scalpel.

She is guilty of “monomania,” of “zero ability to deal with rejection and separation”; her attempt to save Pranzini is “a triumph of sexual repression”; her desire to fulfill her Lenten vows despite her fatal illness is “a spasm of masochistic excitement”; Christ is for her “a narcotic promise”; even her charity in giving other Carmelite sisters the first pick of tools, while reserving old or damaged items for herself, is nothing but “fetishism.” The Church comes under a similar Freudian-Foucaultian barrage. It is “hostile to all earthly pleasures”; Carmelite spirituality is one of many “programs that deny human frailty and desire”; the Divine Office promotes “exhaustion, lack of feeling, the emotional depletion from which many religious suffer.” As for that dramatic moment in Thérèse’s childhood illness when she shouted out, “They want to poison me” — who knew, before Harrison, that this expressed Thérèse’s “toxic despair” at being forced to swallow the Church’s teaching that God is love?

These wayward interpretations mount as the book progresses, reaching their climax in the declaration that Thérèse’s typically floral and admittedly florid metaphorical description, in her poem “The Divine Dew, or The Virginal Milk of Mary,” of Jesus as a “new bud, gracious and scarlet red,” when properly decoded, reveals the Lord as “a phallic flower who, crucified, bleeds milk.” The reader waits breathlessly for Harrison to extend the analysis to Jesus’ masochistic desire for the Cross (itself a phallic symbol, the crossbar representing thwarted sexuality), or to his deeply neurotic relationship with his mother.

Here and there, Harrison seems to realize the inadequacy of her approach. She rarely tells us directly what she thinks, often placing her analysis in the hands of imagined readers (“a contemporary audience does insist upon psychology before marvels”). In one passage Harrison suggests indirectly, by way of rhetorical questions, that neurosis and supernatural revelation might mingle in the same religious experience. One wishes that she had explored this further, because the path to sanctity is indeed strewn with brambles, and no doubt many of the Church’s great saints give evidence of abnormal psychology. But this she fails to do. Instead, she has written a study that is blind to the true meaning of Thérèse’s life, that describes a Catholicism Thérèse would never recognize as her own, and that, faced with the mystery of holiness, retreats into neo-Freudian reductionism. This lovely poisoned pill of a book is the last to give anyone as an introduction to Thérèse.

Saint Therèse of Lisieux: Her Family, Her God, Her Message By Bernard Bro Ignatius
Saint Therèse of Lisieux: A Transformation in Christ By Thomas Keating Lantern
The battered reader may turn with relief from Harrison to the lucid, down-to-earth presentations of Bernard Bro and Thomas Keating, each of whom advances, albeit incrementally, our understanding of the saint. Bro, a Dominican and a celebrated Thérèse scholar, has produced a sturdy, sensitive biography, here translated from the French, that covers all the important bases and, in two or three places, ventures into unexplored territory. He is particularly good at emphasizing the unprecedented nature of Thérèse’s abandonment to God, a surrender that skips all the stages of mystical ascent favored by earlier saints. Also helpful is his emphasis upon the Christocentric nature of Thérèse’s devotions; he suggests that non-Christians who might appropriate Thérèse as an apostle of generic love miss the point, for she teaches not love for its own sake, but love of Christ for Christ’s sake. Unfortunately these discussions and others are marred by a puzzling translation in which the bones of the original French syntax and diction show through; it is anyone’s guess what is meant by “one can live alone and still live intensely with genius, poetry, action, generosity, but one dies of it” or “God alone can testify to God through a current Pentecost.” These incoherencies aside, Bro’s work may serve as a worthy alternative to Cavanaugh for those craving a more comprehensive discussion of Thérèse’s always elusive theology.

Readers in search of a condensed approach to Thérèse’s spirituality might turn to Keating’s slim volume. In his customary warm, unaffected manner, Keating examines six of Jesus’ best-known parables to see how they “resonate” with the teachings of Thérèse, whom he considers to be “the key figure in the recovery of the contemplative dimensions of the gospel in our time.” Keating’s approach offers much comforting advice (“God is fully present at all times!”), little intellectual analysis, and the occasional patch of jargon (“the Little Way is the path of liberation from our false self with its over-identification with our emotional programs for happiness and our cultural conditioning”). The shortest of the books under review, it has the merits of concision, clarity, and simplicity.

A Teacher For Our Time
What can we deduce from these recent studies of Thérèse? Above all, that we have entered a period of recapitulation in our understanding of this great saint. The primary materials — autobiography, notebooks, letters, poems, conversations — have been published and competently translated into all the major tongues; the authors discussed in this review usefully gloss these writings but, with the exception of Payne, break little new ground. We might surmise that the subject of Thérèse has been exhausted, but in fact various aspects of this great saint and her mission are crying out for investigation. A definitive scholarly biography has not yet been published. The last major theological study of the saint, by Balthasar, appeared more than half a century ago. A number of new areas for meditation, research, and writing beckon. “Thérèse,” as John Paul II has said, “is a teacher for our time,” and one can readily discern ways in which her significance for contemporary culture needs elaboration.

A Prototype For Feminine Devotion And Feminine Heroism
Thérèse provides an example of a woman free, for the most part, from those mystical extremes (vision, bi-location, levitation, ascetical excess) that characterize so many of her great female predecessors. What Thérèse did, any woman could do. Thus, she offers a prototype for feminine devotion and feminine heroism particularly apt for a skeptical age, a sanctity that, as John Paul II wrote in Divini Amoris Scientia, demonstrates “that practicality and deep resonance of life and wisdom which belongs to the feminine genius.” Nor did she see any separation between mission in the ordinary sense of preaching the gospel and her perceived mission to teach the Little Way. She staunchly supported, through prayer and letter-writing, the missionary activity of the Church. At a time when interfaith etiquette is often assumed to require silence or compromise in the face of other religions, Thérèse provides a bulwark of support for new evangelization and (hope is always permitted) for the re-evangelization of Europe.

Thérèse also bolstered the priesthood, succoring and strengthening God’s ministers through prayer and friendship. Many good priests feel misunderstood, even abandoned. Thérèse points a way for those who would like to help. In addition, she offers a solution to the issue of women’s ordination by cultivating the vocation of love as an expression of the universal priesthood of all believers.

And finally, she lived with complete fidelity as a contemplative and a celibate, two modes of practice under fierce attack these days. The most ancient disciplines and devotions of Christian life become, in Thérèse’s hands, not so much entrenched positions to defend as astonishing new movements of the Holy Spirit. Here, again, she provides hope for the future.

One wants to be cautious about corralling any saint into the culture wars, but others have already dragged Thérèse onto the battlefield. During the extended debates that preceded her proclamation as a doctor of the Church, the loudest opposition came from those who perceived her as a standard-bearer for female subservience and outmoded devotional practices, a lapdog of the Catholic right. Such an interpretation fails for several reasons — most obviously because it fails to see that Thérèse dwells neither on the left nor on the right but in the very heart of the Church. Thérèse makes the same demands upon everyone; her Little Way, precisely because it unfolds in the most humdrum of circumstances, and through the agency of love — the natural inclination of every heart — calls everyone to sanctity. There is no escape.

In Symbolic Relation To The Culture Of Her Age
Why, then, such vociferous and opposing views? Perhaps because Thérèse stands, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s felicitous phrase (which he applied to himself), in symbolic relation to the culture of her age. Comparing Thérèse to Wilde, her contemporary, reveals much. Both wrote obsessively about themselves and both declared their own greatness — he as artist, she as saint. Wilde attempted to conform Christ to himself (his prison memoir, De Profundis, paints Jesus as an eloquent aesthete); Thérèse attempted to conform herself to Christ. In a sense, although neither knew of the other, we can imagine them joined in battle. Against his celebration of self, her self-denial. Against his promiscuity, her chastity. Against his indulgence, her obedience. Against his cult of earthly beauty, her cult of heavenly glory.

Of the victor there can be no doubt. Wilde converted on his deathbed, received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist priest, a follower of St. Paul of the Cross, who saw in the Crucifixion “the greatest work of divine love,” a perception that Thérèse, master of “the science of divine love,” would surely second. Who knows? Perhaps Wilde, who died just three years after Thérèse, was one of the first fruits of her resolution “to spend her heaven doing good on earth,” his last-minute submission to Christ a realization that Christianity must rule both culture and souls. From this perspective Thérèse, not Wilde, is the touchstone against which modern culture must be measured. We may safely say that Thérèse’s mission, as these five books reveal through commission and omission, has just begun.


Jack Miles’ Literary Character of Jesus by James Wood

September 22, 2010


Jack Miles, Very Californian


James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian, in London, from 1992 to 1995, and a senior editor at The New Republic from 1995 to 2007. His critical essays have been collected in two volumes, “The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief” (1999) and “The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel” (2004), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He writes here on the literary interpretation of the bible, specifically a review of Jack Miles book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

Jack Miles is Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies with the University of California at Irvine and Senior Fellow for Religious Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other publications.  His book GOD: A Biography won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. His book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God led to his being named a MacArthur Fellow for the years 2003-2007.

It is unfortunate that this kind of thinking appears to be the province of the atheist mindset. It needn’t be. I find it provocative but it can provoke you to reflect more deeply on your faith. Chesterton has shown us that the paradox can lead us to view both sides of an apparent insoluble condition from a strange point of resolution. Let the literary show you a biblical narrative “embossed with pattern, allusion, and symbol.” It can be great food for thought and for your growing faith.

One of the many peculiarities of religion is that, like the Hoover-vacuum salesman and his celebrated packet of dirt, it offers to solve problems that it created in the first place. Take the “problem” of evil. In a world not created by God, the fact that people suffer must merely take its part in a team of other inexplicables. But in a world created by God evil must have been created, too — either by God or by a force opposed to God. Evil becomes a problem, an affront to God, which is “solved” only by our cleaving more strongly to God, who is goodness. In a sense, God is then what Cardinal Newman called the Catholic Church: “a great remedy for a great evil.”

But is evil the problem, or God? This is the dark question that crouches blasphemously in the Bible — in the punishment of Adam and Eve for committing a sin that only God himself could have made possible, in the divine injunction that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, in the lamentations of the Psalmist and Job, and on into the New Testament, culminating in Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The Bible is an anthology of human incomprehension. God made his covenant with Abraham, but then, over the next couple of thousand years, his chosen people found themselves slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, and colonized subjects in their own lands under Roman occupation. The Messiah, the Jewish leader who prophets said would conquer all foreign nations and subject them to Israel’s sovereignty, had conspicuously failed to appear.

The most inventive “solution” to the failure of the old covenant is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the son of God who comes from God and who is God, who takes upon himself the sins of the world, and who allows himself to be sacrificed, thereby cleansing the world of its sin. Christ is the great cure for a great sickness. In Christian doctrine, particularly in the visions of Paul and John, Jesus is God made briefly human (this is called the Incarnation), and he is the announcement of a new covenant, not with Israel alone but with the whole earth. For Paul, Jesus was the second Adam, the corrector of Adam’s original sin: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

So Jack Miles is quite right, in his new book, “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” (Knopf; $26.95), to suggest, a little blasphemously, that the story of the New Testament is the story of a self-rescue — a rescue by God from a calamity that God had created. God had cursed his own creation in Eden, after Adam’s sin, and was now lifting that curse, or, at least, allowing for the possibility of remission.

“The world is a great crime, and someone must be made to pay for it,” Miles writes. “Mythologically read, the New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it. . . . In its broadest outlines, the story of the Bible is the story of how God first turned his blessings of fertility and dominion into curses and then turned his curses back into blessings.”

And, as Miles argues, this new covenant represented a shocking rupture. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that most Jews expected. He was not a military leader. He claimed to be not merely an agent of God but the son of God, and even God made flesh (a ferociously un-Jewish idea). He spoke not of an imminent victory and a realizable kingdom but, riddlingly, of a vague immaterial salvation, of the need to be born again “of water and of the spirit.” In place of Israel’s victory over its enemies, he spoke of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Deuteronomy had promised that “the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail,” but Jesus promised that the first shall be last and the last first. And, most scandalously, this Messiah went willingly to be killed by the Roman authorities, speaking of himself as the sacrifice, the world’s sacrificial lamb.

All this, though familiar to Christians, is given lucid force in Miles’s careful retrieval, in which he combingly takes us through the chief astonishments of Jesus’ life, largely as they are recounted in the Gospel of John. Some commentators are so singly fixated on the New Testament that they make the Bible seem like a double bed that has been slept in on only one side. Miles, a former Jesuit with considerable expertise in the Biblical languages, lies on both sides, constantly reverting to the Old Testament, rightly noting the many ways in which the New Testament alludes to, builds on, and — the Christian claim — supersedes its Scriptures.

But Miles reads the Gospels in a peculiar manner. His previous book, “God: A Biography,” dealt with God, in Miles’s words, “as — and only as — the protagonist of a classic of world literature.” His new book continues that literary biography into the New Testament. Miles is not interested in Jesus as the object of religious belief or as the quarry of historical research. For him, Jesus is a “literary character” who also happens to be God incarnate. He wants to read Jesus as God, Part II.

Literary critique of the Bible has been one of the most fruitful developments in criticism over the past twenty years. The work of writers like David Damrosch, Robert Alter, Frank Kermode, and Gabriel Josipovici has expanded our sense of the Scriptures as pieces of literature, as narratives embossed with pattern, allusion, and symbol.

A literary analysis of Genesis has no interest in deciding either the religious or the historical authority of the text. It wants to see how it works as a piece of writing, on the proper assumption that in literature all effects are literary ones (that is, they are created by writers), and that even religious texts create religious effects through literary means.

This kind of criticism has sometimes set itself against historical Bible scholarship, though it has often been deeply indebted to it. Historical criticism is interested in the historical actualities of the Biblical world, and is keen to discover what we can know about who wrote what, and when. Such scholars do not deny the existence of literary artifice, but they want to explain its origins rather than explore its means. Contradictions in the character of God, say, might be explained by reference to the different human authors of the Bible, as far as scholarship has been able to ascertain the facts. But literary analysis is interested in how those contradictions are made by writers to work in the text.

Jack Miles’s criticism, though literary, differs from the familiar literary methods. Miles has little interest in how a literary character is constructed; he is merely grateful that it exists. Surveying the Bible’s contradictory representations of God, Miles sees not a variety of contradictory authors but the single biography of a God who is himself contradictory. He is fond of what used to be called “character criticism”; he reads God and Jesus as if they were fictional creations with real lives off the page. He is like the critic who discusses Dickens’s characters as if they were real human beings. (Does Pip live happily ever after?) Such a way of reading does not, despite its avowed ambitions, really attend to a literary character as a literary character but converts him out of literature and makes him a real human being, since it tends to supply motive where the text fails to.

Years ago, the Shakespeare scholar L. C. Knights mocked the character criticism of A. C. Bradley and others, in an essay entitled “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Miles, in his previous book, announced that he was on Bradley’s side against Knights, and that it was time for Biblical-character criticism: “Unless the viewer of ‘Hamlet’ can believe that Hamlet was born and will die, unless the viewer’s imagination is carried offstage into the life for which there is no direct evidence onstage, the play dies with its protagonist. A character understood to have no life offstage can have no life onstage. And so it is also with God as the protagonist of the Bible.”

The immediate effect of Miles’s decision to read Jesus “biographically” as God incarnate is that Jesus is furnished with a two-thousand-year past, an elephantine memory, and a lot of explaining to do. As Miles comments, if Jesus is God, then “God’s earlier words were Jesus’s words as well.” Suddenly, in Miles’s hands, the novelty of Jesus’ covenant becomes even greater. If Jesus was really God, then God died on the cross (or, indeed, committed suicide).

If Jesus was really God, then God did not suffer merely as a father when his son hung on the cross but suffered himself. It also means that, after two thousand years, God changed his mind, fiddled with his essence, and abandoned his old vengeful and jealous habits in place of a new gentleness, pacifism, and universalism. “If we grant that Jesus is God Incarnate, then we must grant as well that he has the right to announce a deep change in God — which is to say, in himself — without quite calling the change by that name and without otherwise troubling to explain it,” Miles writes.

Why would God have changed his mind? According to Miles, because he had failed: his covenant lapsed because he had been unable to defeat his enemies. God “knew he should have stopped Rome,” Miles says. “He knew he had not done so.” Within the terms by which, starting at his victory over Pharaoh, God himself has defined his divinity, “he has failed. Unless some adjustment of those terms can be made, then he cannot continue to be God. The adjustment he makes, his own disarmament, entails an expansion of membership in his covenant.

But he brings about this expansion not, first, out of love for Gentiles, much less out of hatred for the Jews, but, rather, to reconstitute his own identity.” It is a technique of diplomatic jujitsu: “Instead of baldly declaring that he is unable to defeat his enemies, God may declare that he has no enemies.” Hence God’s emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, and his decision to become the God of all, not the jealous potentate of Israel alone.

There is real interest in Miles’s story, in which God essentially apologizes for making a hash of things and promises to do better next time. And yet Miles’s habit of writing about God as if he were a human being — who not only failed but “must” admit this failure, who has to reconstitute his “identity,” who is in danger of ending his “storied career,” and so on — subverts his book’s own argument. Miles says that he wants to take Jesus “seriously as God Incarnate,” but how serious can Jesus’ divinity be if God is only human? At that point, why bother to go along with the notion of the Incarnation in the first place?

To be sure, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament often describe God in human terms, as jealous, vengeful, irrational, lonely, and so on — at one point, Miles calls God “strangely and painfully friendless.” But it is one thing to acknowledge the Bible’s helpless anthropomorphism — whereby any human being who tells stories about God will inevitably make God patchily in man’s image — and another to volunteer one’s own extra anthropomorphism, whereby God is thoroughly humanized; one thing, in other words, to see God in human terms and another to make him human. Miles’s inventively psychological language, as it wends its way through his book, imagines a God who shares the attributes of his people, is limited in power, is ultimately knowable, and has an admirable tendency to apologize. In short, he is the opposite of the God worshipped and feared by Israel in the Hebrew Bible — a work that, Robert Alter rightly warns, bristles with “forces that can be neither grasped nor controlled by humankind.” Miles’s God is too graspable and too controllable.

More to the point, although Jesus is a “literary character” in the sense that the Gospel writers represented and shaped his life on the page, he was not conceived by those writers as a literary character. The same goes for God. He may well be a human construction, but he was not constructed by the writers of the Scriptures as a human construction. He was constructed as the opposite of a human construction. The danger of Miles’s approach is obvious enough: too often in his book, the reader has the sense that Jesus is being treated as a fictional creation whom no human being actually created.

When describing Jesus’ nativity, Miles has many shrewd things to say about the symbolism of our encountering the Messiah as a baby in a manger. The story of how Mary and Joseph, returning to their home town in obedience to Caesar Augustus’ census, spent the night in a stable, where the baby Jesus was born, while clearly a literary invention, enhances the pathos and appeal of the Messiah. Miles notes a pattern: “Jesus’s involuntary defenselessness at the beginning of his life mirrors and anticipates his voluntary defenselessness at its end.” This is excellent, and it is therefore a pity that Miles also writes, “When God makes Mary and Joseph ciphers in the census of Caesar Augustus, he emphasizes their helplessness — and the helplessness of his own infant self.” Suddenly, God has become the Gospel writer, which is, to say the least, an oddly unliterary way to discuss a narrative created by people.

Miles’s lack of interest in the actual Gospel writers matters, because it is not always clear that the Gospel writers believed what Miles takes as the founding premise of his book — that Jesus was God incarnate. Miles gets around this problem by relying predominantly on the Gospel of John, which is the Gospel most intoxicated by the idea of incarnation. Whereas in Matthew and Mark Jesus sometimes suggests that he is subordinate to God, and may not always know God’s mind, in John Jesus astoundingly claims oneness with God — “I and my Father are one.” But, if Miles relies largely on only one Gospel, how can he claim that he is treating the New Testament as a unified literary text?

Miles’s book is perhaps less a literary critique than a theologico-literary retelling, even a meditation on the problem of evil. The philosopher Josiah Royce, whom Miles does not mention, labored at a theodicy — the formal term for the justification of God’s tolerance of evil — holding that when we suffer God suffers, too. Why would God suffer? Because, Royce replied, suffering completes a soul, and without suffering God’s life could not be perfected: “It is logically necessary that the Captain of your salvation should be perfect through suffering.”

Royce, cheerfully treating God as if he were human, sounds somewhat like Miles. Minus Royce’s anthropomorphism, this notion — that God suffered on the cross and thus suffers with us now when we suffer — has become commonplace in contemporary theodicy. Such a notion does not solve the problem of evil, because it does not absolve God of cruelty (after all, just because God suffers with us is no reason that we should also suffer); and because it seems to limit God’s power (God, in this scheme, seems incapable of not suffering). It is only a figure, a picture, a way of seeing. And, as a way of seeing, Miles’s book has great power and depth.

Though he does not try to solve the problem of evil, his book gives us, with horrid clarity, the vision of a culpable, guilty, and finally atoning God, who kills himself on the cross as Jesus Christ, in a botched attempt to cleanse the world of its sins. That the evil world we live in has clearly not been so cleansed may be evidence not that Jesus was not the Messiah but that there can be no Messiah, for the world cannot be cleansed. Pressing to its logical end the offense of Jesus’ great rupture, Miles conveys the paradox inherent in the idea of Messianism itself.

On the one hand, the rupture that Jesus enacted threatens the continuity whereby he could be what he claimed to be, the Son of God — God Extended. But without some kind of rupture there can be no Messiah, for a God who simply continues to be himself has no need of Messianic intervention. Messianism is the idea of God Interrupted; and so Messianism is necessarily a kind of blasphemy. Jesus was that blasphemy —  a blasphemy created, of course, by God himself.


Michael Novak On Two Radically Different Ways Of Living In The World

September 15, 2010

Another set of reading selections from Michael Novak’s 2008 bestseller, No One Sees God. Here we see a contrast between atheism and Catholicism: one where the inner horizon offers no answering personal presence (because the unbeliever thinks God is an illusion) and the other where a central light and energy and love lives within us. Both can be pretty awesome at times.

The Experience Of Insight
In coming to my own views, I have been much helped by Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Lonergan treats the experience of insight as an empirical datum. An insight (getting the point of a joke, for instance, or seeing at last the solution to an algebra problem) is not quite a sense datum, but it is an experience at least equally vivid. A more complex form of insight, also experienced vividly, is to conclude reflection by making a judgment; for instance: “Having heard the evidence, I conclude that your story is demonstrably false. I conclude that witness number one is a good man — but his associate is not to be trusted.”

The experience of insight and the steps involved in reaching a sound judgment are important to recognize in one’s own mental life. Beyond that, based on evidence we recognize in our own inner life, these steps offer important evidence for the judgment, Who do I understand myself to be? A mistake in this judgment deeply affects our judgments about God, his nature, his existence.

Our acts of insight are different in kind from acts of sensation. This difference suggests that our inner life goes beyond sense knowledge. It also suggests that what the ancients meant by “spirit” or “soul” appears most clearly today in a virtually unlimited drive within us — the drive to raise questions to have insights, and to reach sound judgrnents about what is true, what false. These common human drives instruct us about our true nature, who we really are. They also aim us in the direction of what an acceptable idea of God’s nature is. At the very least, He must be capable of insight and judgenent. He is nonmaterial and may be outside of the space-time continuum.

These are not matters of Christian faith or theology; they appertain to the branch of secular Philosophy called “metaphysics,” by which I mean considerations of reason, apart from faith. I mean the “background assumptions” about nature and history that are implicit in everything each person thinks and writes. I mean competing conceptions of God, some of which are to be judged better than others. In such explorations, the Greeks and Romans of old were far braver and more persistent than all but a small band in modern times

Among the chief participants in Plato dialogues, such differences in metaphysics are starkly drawn. If the participants in these dialogues are to make progress in their this-worldly arguments,  it is necessary to bring their underlying metaphysical differences to light. Plato found that the artful presentation of a back-and-forth conversation is the best way to bring out these differences. Bringing these differences to light is a work of reason, even if it is not exactly empirical reason.

A Commitment To Reason
Catholics hold that other Christian communities share with Catholics many affirmations of Christian faith, but not all. We cherish this community of beliefs, but pray that the shared circle of belief will grow larger. We hold that our Catholic faith does not make sense unless the Jewish faith is also true. We share with some atheists their clear commitment to reason. Truth is indeed crucial to Christian faith. But it does matter to our consciences which church is closest to the truth. As the aphorism puts it, faith does not take away from reason, but brings it to completion (gratia noi tollit sed perficit naturam). A quite imperfect analogy is how eyeglasses, microscopes and telescopes do not demean eyesight, only carry it where it could not go alone. For Catholics and some other Christians, reason is to be honored. Which church is true is a crucial judgment of reason.

The Tension Of The Absurd Is Crucial To Our Truthfulness
Albert Camus pointed out an unavoidable duality in human experience, which gives rise to what he calls the Absurd. On the one hand, we feel the undeniable longing for truth, beauty, goodness, justice, wholeness, love, that rushes powerfully within us, even under the most unpromising conditions (as in the Gulag, under torture). On the other hand, these aspirations cannot avoid crashing head-on with the cruel randomness, desolation, and emptiness that we are often forced to confront. We can evade this unhappy duality for a long time by distracting ourselves with pulsating music, card playing, ceaseless activity shopping.

Yet sooner or later we are driven to ask: Why are we here? Why are so many abandoned children crying in the night? Why the everlasting boredom, and the incessant rain of nothingness upon the windowpanes of our consciousness? Why so many jading daily routines, such petty strife, such pointless quarrels, such office pretenses?

Without both these sides of our consciousness, Camus taught us, we would not come to rest on the razor’s edge of the Absurd. Keeping the two sides in contact is crucial to our truthfulness. The Absurd arises from our longing for meaning and beauty held in contact with the absurdities we meet every day. Remove one or the other, and the tension falls limp.

Atheists would like to shift onto Christian shoulders the burden of explaining the evil and absurdity in the world, which their reason discerns steadily enough. Yet even when they have eliminated God from the scheme of life as they see it, they have not diminished by one iota the evils, sufferings, and injustices both Christians and atheists alike see around us. Atheists do not explain how they fit into their fairly rosy view of human progress, reason, and hopefulness. A faith they dare not express seems to tell them that this progress is indefinitely upward, ennobling, worth contributing to, quite enough purpose for a good life.

Yet, irony of ironies, meaninglessness squared, what if our visible “progress” is hurtling us toward the most awful end of history any apocalyptic writer has ever imagined? What if progress is not progress at all, but ultimate madness? (The atheist may well hold this darker assumption, not the rosy one.) I am not trying to diminish the glory of modern progress; without certain new pharmaceuticals, I would be dead. On the contrary, I am trying to make myself conscious of the underlying metaphysics on which progress depends — the vision behind it of the upward direction in which history tends, its underlying dynamism, and its ultimate kindliness toward humankind, Atheists seems to share this vision when they write of human reason and progress as benevolent. Atheists themselves suggest that the true problem before us is not the problem of evil but the problem of good. Why is there so much good?

In my experience, however, the problem of evil does in fact bother Jews and Christians, because it goes contrary to what faith teaches about the goodness of God. Evil may not be a problem for my atheist friends. For them, the evil of the world is just there. Insofar as evil matters metaphysically, it destroys arguments for the existence of a good God. To their minds, absurdity forms the backdrop for their heroic human Sisyphus who, against all odds, keeps rolling progress up the hill, only to watch it slide back down into meaninglessness.

Religion Recognizes Two Contrary Forces In The Human Soul
Here Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, who has known more than enough suffering from the irrationality of life, seems wiser than most:

In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

The weakness of atheism, however, is to take account of only one of them, the fact of injustice in the case of Epicurean atheism or the desire for justice in our Enlightenment atheism. I conclude that philosophy today — and science too — need not only to tolerate and respect religion, but also to learn from it.

Unbelievers And Believers Must In The End Submit
In real life,’ what we see seems sometimes ugly. We do not understand how mad the world then appears. We protest against evils that cause us revulsion. Yet, no matter what we do, welcome them or hate them, the facts remain the same. To a world of fact, where “randomness rules:’ unbelievers and believers must in the end submit. At this point, the unbeliever submits to randomness, while the believer submits to the inscrutable will of the Creator. Both must submit. The latter shows more confidence both in intelligence and in the intelligibility of all things.

A World In Which Free Agents Act Freely
God wills a world in which free agents act freely. He doesn’t only “permit” things to happen. He empowers free agents to act, even with less attention than they ought, or against His laws, or simply without common sense. Free agents acting freely, despite the frequently resulting irrationality, is what He now wills and has always willed. He does not command irrational (or evil) action. But He certainly brought into being, consciously and (I think) beautifully, a world in which free acts can occur, and evils and misfortunes are frequently transformed by courage, generosity of spirit, and charity into occasions of great human beauty.

God Wills And Approves The Whole
More profoundly, as Stephen Barr has pointed out:

“The really more relevant metaphysical point here is that God wills and approves the whole. He does not will the death of the unfortunate man at the railroad crossing for its own sake, as an end in itself, and as something good in itself. Considered in themselves some events are obviously not good, but horribly tragic.

But before we condemn God, consider this: We ourselves set up, and approve as good, systems that have as necessary consequences the occurrence of painful and tragic events… for example, educational systems and economic systems. When the professor flunks a student and dashes his life’s hopes, is he doing evil? Does he want the student to fail? Is any system unjust in which that happens? That it contains much tragedy is not an argument for the badness of the world.

Jewish and Christian faith do allow for trusting in God’s mysterious ways. Jews and Christians hold that the inscrutable workings of God always lead to an ultimate good, though the individual believer may be unable to see that himself.”

Is Freedom Worth The Price?
Professor Gelernter comments with great learning:

“All we know is that the evil and pain of this suffering world force us inward, onto the one path that leads to knowledge of self and God. What we don’t know: Would true self-sacrifice compassion exist without misery and suffering? Could moral heroism and concomitant strength and depth of character exist without it? Now we face a good question from doubters: even granted that we owe the existence of compassion in this world to suffering, is the gain worth the price? Or: granted, the price for human freedom is human suffering; is freedom worth the price? Or, in the words of a famous question posed in the Talmud: would man have been better off had he never been created? The two famous schools of Hillel and Shammai argued the point (as usual), and reached a conclusion: Man would have been better off had he never been created. But the rabbis know that their vision is limited, and their task is to take the world as God made it.”

We Ought Really To Thank God At Every Moment Of Our Existence
Professor Barr offers a richer and more lyrical response:

“Why do we thank God for good fortune but not blame Him for bad fortune? We ought really to thank God at every moment of our existence for our very existence at that moment, for all the blessings that we enjoy — the ability to think, to see and to hear, to taste and to touch, to move and to act, to know and to understand, to love and to be loved. Everything we have at every moment comes from God, and we should be thanking Him at every moment.

But being as we are, we forget and largely take things for granted. It is when we have a “near miss” and almost lose something important, that we remember to thank God that we have it in the first place. When the car swerves and narrowly misses the oncoming traffic, we say “Thank God?’ We are really just remembering to thank God for all of the life He has given us up to that point, and for allowing us some time more to live. If, however, something happens that takes away our health or wealth or even life, we have no legitimate claim that God has “robbed” us of anything. What we have lost was His free gift to begin with, not something to which we had a right.”

The Desire To Express Gratitude
Theodore Dalyrimple describes himself as an atheist but he is an unusually congenial, fair-minded, and discerning critic. A psychiatrist, he faults the new atheists for depriving billions of human beings of a crucial civilizing agency, the desire to express gratitude:

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality.

If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement, Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

For those who know God, by contrast, life is a conversation They are never far from raising their affections toward the Almighty directing their will to Him: “Thy will be done.” For them the world is personal, through and through. It is about friendship, and staying in close touch with our one closest Friend. Prayer is like breathing, like easy conversation with one’s Beloved. Even to love another human being, spouse or child, is to love them in and through and with the divine origin of all love: Deus Caritas Est. God is that particular form of love called Caritas.

Two Very Different Horizons
The logic in deciding whether to link one’s identify to atheism or to God is sui generis (vocab: unique, of its own kind). The argument is not whether there is one more object in the world (God), or one less (atheism). The center of the argument concerns whether I should think of the universe as impersonal and indifferent to me, and ruled by randomness and chance. Or whether I should interpret it as personal through and through, in such a way that all things that are (and have been, and will be) dwell in the presence of God, a Person (not in a literal but in an analogous sense) who understands and chooses all that He brings out of nothingness into existence. “Existence” here means being “alive in the presence of” our Creator. I apply the term now to conscious human persons, not to all existents.

For the believer, this world is personal. All of human life is an interior conversation with our Maker. Personality — whose defining traits are understanding and deciding (or creative insight and choice) — is the inner key and dynamic force in all things.

To the atheist, all this seems hot air. Solipsism. Fear of death. Illusion, delusion, poison. The unbeliever’s universe (say they) is far more bracing, invigorating, and challenging. Each brave spirit is like Prometheus, snatching a burning stick of justice from the nothingness of the night. The atheist believes that human beings put into a random, purposeless universe all the good that has ever been, is now, or ever will be. Using Ockham’s razor, the unbeliever slices off God: “We have no need of that hypothesis” The unbeliever holds that the most elegant, most economical, and most chaste explanation is likely to be best. Ockham’s razor seems to be in tune with the way things are. Into the bucket below the guillotine drops the head of God.

The believer, however, does not regard God as a “hypothesis:’ an “explanation:’ or even an “entity.” Rather, in the horizon of the believer, God is the inner dynamism of inquiry, understanding, and love in his (or her) own life, but also in the lives of all others. Dante Alighieri described God as “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” The believer sees God as the inner mathematical and creative light — and the inner, dynamic striving — of all things. Yes, that special sort of love that is proper only to the divine: Caritas.

In short, unbelief and belief are not two rival theories about phenomena in the universe. They are alternative “horizons.”  A horizon describes all that an intelligent, inquiring subject can experience, imagine, understand, and judge to be real, from the point at which that subject is currently situated. A horizon is defined by two parts: the attentive, conscious subject, and the range of all that that subject can experience, imagine, understand, and judge. Human horizons are “systems on the move?’ The horizon you now have has changed by a great deal — in range and in intensity –since you were ten, twenty, or forty, or even sixty. Ideally, one hopes one’s horizon will keep reaching out and growing until death.

The horizon of the unbeliever has within it no answering personal presence (because the unbeliever thinks God is an illusion). By contrast the horizon of the believer is permeated by an obscure sense of living within the presence of Another. Thus, if the believer strives mightily not to cooperate with the Lie, even under torture, even in prison with no possibility of escape, pain leads one to see that the inner light to which one tries to be faithful comes from beyond one’s pain or one’s own strength, burning Insight that fires one’s whole being. In being faithful to the truth, one is being faithful not only to oneself, but also to the One who is the central light and energy and love within us.

These are two radically different ways of living in the world. Two very different horizons.


A Simone Weil Collection

April 15, 2010

Album Cover Photo, "The Death of Simone Weil"

Simone Weil by Susan Hanson
Considered by Nobel laureate André Gide and others to be “the most truly spiritual writer” of the 20th century, Simone Weil would no doubt be confounded by all the fuss. “I never read the story of the barren fig tree without trembling,” she confessed in a letter to her friend and mentor Father Joseph-Marie Perrin in 1942. “I think that is a portrait of me.”

Indeed, Weil wanted nothing so much as to lose her self altogether. “May God grant that I become nothing,” she wrote in a notebook entry that would later be included in Gravity and Grace. “We must become nothing, we must go down to the vegetative level; it is then that God becomes bread.”

An unlikely candidate for sainthood by anyone’s standards, Simone Weil was paradox embodied: she considered herself a Christian — a Catholic, to be more precise  — she came from a secular Jewish home and was never baptized; she was a pacifist but fought in the Spanish Civil War; she was a brilliant intellectual known for her anti-intellectualism, a member of the bourgeoisie who worked on a French assembly line for a year, a person who loved life and yet longed for– some would say hastened — her own death.

Born in Paris in 1909, Simone Weil was “peculiar,” to use biographer David McLellan’s term, almost from birth. At the age of three, for example, she supposedly refused a cousin’s gift of an expensive ring by saying, “I do not like luxury.” And just two years later, with the outbreak of the war in 1914, she gave up sugar and other hard-to-find foods as an act of solidarity with the soldiers.

As Weil would later admit, her belief in the value of sacrifice was shaped in great part by a story she heard as a child. Sitting at the bedside of her three-and-a-half-year old daughter, who was in the hospital recovering from surgery for appendicitis, Selma Weil entertained Simone with the tale “Marie in gold and Marie in tar.” As Weil friend and biographer Simone Pétrement explains,

The heroine of this fairy tale, who was sent by her stepmother into the forest, reaches a house where she is asked whether she wants to enter by the door in gold or the door in tar. ‘For me,’ she replies, ‘tar is quite good enough.’ This was the right answer and a shower of gold fell on her. When her stepmother saw her bring back gold, she then sent her own daughter into the forest. But when asked the same question, her daughter chose the golden door and was deluged with tar.”

For Weil, “tar” — whether in the form of physical suffering or intellectual obscurity — was always “quite good enough.”

A precocious child who was memorizing passages from Cyrano de Bergerac at the age of five and calling herself a Bolshevik by age ten, Simone Weil nevertheless saw her own abilities as mediocre compared to those of her mathematically gifted brother, André, who was older by almost three years. “The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me,” she wrote in a letter to Father Perrin shortly before leaving France in 1942. “I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.”

This lack of self-esteem notwithstanding, Weil was a brilliant student of philosophy, becoming an academic legend even before completing her work at the École Normale Supérieure in 1931. It was also during her years at the university that Weil became politically active, particularly on issues of peace and economic justice. So intense was her commitment, in fact, that many of her classmates found her “extremely off-putting.” As an illustration, David McLellan cites the following comment from a fellow student: “We tried to avoid her in the corridors because of the blunt way she had of confronting you with your responsibilities by asking for your signature on a petition . . . or a contribution for some trade union strike fund.” Though remembered by many for her humor and kindness, Simone Weil was nonetheless seen as a misfit—socially inept, physically awkward, and given to a style of dress that confirmed this negative image.

Following her graduation, Weil worked sporadically as a teacher of philosophy at a series of girls’ lycées. Her career was short-lived, however, not only because of her unorthodox—and largely unsuccessful—teaching methods, but also because of her passion for workers’ rights; between 1933-1937, she took an extended leave of absence, first to experience life as a factory worker and then to join a group of anarchists fighting in the Spanish Civil War. In Aragon, too, her ungainliness quickly became an issue. Because of her poor marksmanship, she was assigned to the camp cook, with whom she served until accidentally stepping into a pot of hot grease and being sent away from the front for treatment.

It was during the following year, which she spent on sick leave, that Weil traveled to Italy, a country whose art and music brought her great joy. Spiritually, too, she was feeling a new sense of life. As she put it to Father Perrin following her visit to a chapel in Assisi, “Something stronger than I has compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” Equally powerful was her chance meeting in Solesmes, France, with a young English Catholic who introduced her to 17th century metaphysical poetry, most specifically George Herbert’s poem “Love.” Memorizing the lines, she would recite them again and again as a prayer. “It was during one of these recitations,” she later wrote to Perrin, “that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

LOVE by George Herbert (1593-1632)

LOVE bade me welcome; yet 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 lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘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 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,’ 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.

Meanwhile, Weil’s health, fragile since childhood, continued to deteriorate. Years of self-deprivation, her chief means of identifying with the poor, had left her weak and increasingly vulnerable to illness. Rather than lamenting her condition, however, she considered her suffering to be a necessary step in her quest for truth. By renouncing the “I,” she believed, she was making room in her soul for God, the ultimate truth.

With the German occupation of France, and the mounting pressure on the Jews, Weil and her family immigrated to New York in 1942. As Leslie Fiedler put it, though, “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.” Longing to serve with the French Resistance, Weil finally succeeded in being assigned to the office of the Free French in London, where once again she showed her compassion for the suffering of Europe by refusing to eat. Collapsing in April 1943, Weil was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium to recuperate. Though doctors were confident that she could recover, Weil ignored their recommendations of food and rest, essentially dying of starvation that August.

In the last years of her life in particular, Simone Weil increasingly found comfort in a God whom she described as “absent,” and in a consolation that wore the guise of suffering. “God gave me being in order that I should give it back to him,” she wrote in Gravity and Grace. “[H]e who gives us our being loves in us the acceptance of not being.” Like John the Baptist before her, Weil believed that “[h]e must increase, but I must decrease.”

Spiritual pilgrim though she was, Simone Weil remained outside the church to the end. Even in her attraction to Catholicism, she could not limit God to any dogma or creed; the very certainty of faith was for her a luxury to be shunned. For Weil, it was enough to gaze toward the empty place left by a God who was always just out of sight. “Attention animated by desire is the whole foundation of religious practices,” she wrote in “Forms of the Implicit Love of God.” “[L]ooking is what saves us.” Not possessing, not consuming, not controlling, but simply watching and waiting, expecting nothing, surrendering all.

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

I have no doubt that were she alive today, Simone Weil would be considered emotionally disturbed. Highly gifted, yet insecure, she often acted compulsively — and seldom in her own best interest. Rather than enjoying the life of privilege to which she was born, she chose to live in the midst of poverty and war; instead of fleeing from danger, she let herself be drawn into its heart, into a place where she could know the suffering wrought by injustice, violence, and hate.

Was she anorexic? By today’s standards, that would seem to be the case. Did she hasten her own death? To think otherwise would be to discount the facts. Psychologically healthy or not, however, Simone Weil also knew in some organic way that to desire God without the safety of dogma was to be possessed by God in return. Suffering for its own sake was debasing and cruel, but suffering with others was a means of encountering the divine.

John Marson Dunaway on Simone Weil
From all accounts, Weil was not an easy person to live with. And she is a decidedly difficult writer, in that she demands so much of her readers. One of the principle reasons for this rigid, inflexible, demanding character in both her writings and her interpersonal relationships is that she was so intolerant–toward herself as well as others–of any discrepancy between one’s beliefs and one’s way of life. Above all else she hated compromise, and her devotion to truth and obedience were significant contributing elements of her philosophy of vocation.

From Casablanca in 1942 she wrote to Father Jean-Marie Perrin: “My vocation imposes upon me the necessity of remaining outside the Church, without so much as engaging myself in any way, even implicitly, to her or to the dogmas of Christianity, in any case for as long as I am not quite incapable of intellectual work. And that is in order that I may serve God and the Christian faith in the realm of the intelligence.” (WG 40) There is an unusual clarity of vision that shines through these letters. This, of course, was well after the watershed moment when “Christ himself came down and took her” in the autumn of 1938 while she was reciting George Herbert’s poem “Love.” But I think we may trace an unusual clarity of calling growing in Simone Weil, even from quite early in her youth.

The immediately following passage from the letter to Father Perrin would apply almost equally well to the sense of calling evident even in her Marxist student days: “The degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception, including for instance materialism and atheism; it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to every one of them.” 

Now one could easily question how well Weil lived out that intellectual honesty in regard to her own Jewish heritage or the legitimate contributions of the Roman Empire to world civilization. There she was certainly guilty of a certain prejudice or closed-mindedness. Yet even as she studied with Alain, she was already dedicated to achieving the kind of intellectual honesty that would be required for becoming the exemplary witness to the truth that she remains for us today. Alain’s Cartesian skepticism as a fundamental method of philosophical inquiry provided a check on Weil’s youthful impulsiveness and led her to discipline her thinking with much the same kind of rigid stoicism that characterized her physical regimen. Hence her strong emphasis on the purifying effect of atheism on the soul of the searcher for truth.

Here, as in all areas of life, Simone Weil adhered to obedience as the supreme virtue. “The carrying out of a vocation,” she writes to Father Perrin, “differed from the actions dictated by reason or inclination. … The most beautiful life possible has always seemed to me to be one where everything is determined, either by the pressure of circumstances or by impulses such as I have just mentioned, and where there is never any room for choice.”  No room for choice, actions being pre-determined. One gets here the impression of the beauty of the inevitability of suffering that shines through Greek tragedy, the heroic serenity of martyrdom. No wonder she envied the cross of Christ.

She explained her painful decision to leave occupied France in these terms. “It seems as though the decision to stay would be an act of personal will on my part. And my greatest desire is to lose not only all will but all personal being. It seems to me as though something were telling me to go. As I am perfectly sure that this is not just emotion, I am abandoning myself to it.” 

Her radical need to obey makes it easier for us to understand why she began to feel such torment and despair in 1943 when it became increasingly clear that she would never get back to her homeland to take part in the resistance effort. Francine du Plessix Gray writes that Weil “felt misunderstood and totally rejected, and had great doubts as to whether her writings were being heeded by anyone in London.” She wrote to Maurice Schumann that her work for the Free French movement would most certainly be ended soon not only by her physical fatigue, but also by “a moral limit … the ever-increasing sorrow caused by the sense that I’m not in the right place.” 

Her writings were not being widely circulated, and now her attempts to obtain a sacrificial mission in the resistance were falling on deaf ears. Her need for heroic action was being utterly frustrated.

Weil’s strong emphasis upon obedience provides a healthy counterweight to the tendency among some contemporary writers on vocation, who might lead us to understand it as an issue only for the privileged elite. After all, most people in the world even today quite clearly do not enjoy the luxury of contemplating which career path might fulfill their deep gladness. Instead, they desperately hope for whatever menial job that might come available as a means to put bread on the table. And later in this paper we shall look at how her unique vision of the mystique of labor seeks to suffuse all levels of work–from manual labor to corporate management–with meaning and fulfillment.

As in all good vocation literature, Weil talks about two different kinds of callings. If her specific purpose in life was to serve God with pure honesty in the intellect, such a goal was seen in the larger context of a general or universal call to perfection. What is unique in her description of this general vocation is that she takes great pains to divorce it from the concept of belonging to the mystical Body of Christ, the importance of which is in her eyes “one of the most serious signs of our degeneration. For our true dignity is not to be parts of a body, even though it be a mystical one, even though it be that of Christ. It consists in this, that in the state of perfection, which is the vocation of each one of us, we no longer live in ourselves, but Christ lives in us; so that through our perfection Christ, in his integrity and in his indivisible unity, becomes in a sense each one of us, as he is completely in each host. The hosts are not a part of his body.”

This state of perfection to which we all are to aspire would result in “une nouvelle sainteté,” a phrase that, while she did not borrow it from Maritain, she acknowledged him as having called for before her. Like the older Thomist philosopher for whom she had little sympathy, Weil saw that the moral complexities of the twentieth century called for a new kind of saintliness. And even though she used the word “exiger” (or “demand”), it was clearly a calling, a vocation.

Maritain’s originality had been to show that the call to saintliness was not limited to specially favored heroic exceptionality; it was a universal call, somewhat in the sense of the priesthood of all believers. But for Simone Weil, the new saintliness was not just on a different scale, but also of a different order. It was to involve a miraculous dose of genius.

A new type of sanctity is indeed a fresh spring, an invention. … It is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and of human destiny. It is the exposure of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto concealed under a thick layer of dust. More genius is needed than was needed by Archimedes to invent mechanics and physics. A new saintliness is a still more marvelous invention. … The world needs saints who have genius, just as a plague-stricken town needs doctors. 

One is reminded here of Weil’s insistence that all true artistic genius necessarily entails sainthood. Wherever there is celestial beauty she believed it was produced in saintliness. At first blush one might wonder how the necessity of genius for this new saintliness can square with the notion of its universality. Not all of us are called to be geniuses, one might object. However, we must also recall her conviction that genius is a realm where absolutely any one may have access simply by dint of genuine desire. So in that sense, we might say that Weil’s philosophy of vocation is universally applicable.

In many ways, The Need for Roots can be said to represent the most mature thinking of Simone Weil’s short life, having been written, as it was, in the final days in England that led up to her singularly stoic death in Ashford, Kent. It is there, at the conclusion of that book, that she gives her mystique of labor one of its most articulate forms. “Physical labour willingly consented to is, after death willingly consented to, the most perfect form of obedience,” she writes.  She assails the interpretations of Genesis 2 in which labor is seen as a curse, a punishment for Adam’s sin, insisting that the passage implies no disdain for work. Instead, she says “the belief in direct instruction in the various trades by God implies the memory of a time when the exercise of these trades was above all a sacred activity.”

“Labor,” she writes at the conclusion of The Need for Roots, (and she had physical labor particularly in mind) “should be the spiritual core of a well-ordered society.” And in her meditation upon Christianity and agricultural life she elaborated some details of how she envisioned such a society. “Manual labor is either a degrading servitude for the soul or a sacrifice. In the case of working in the fields, the link with the Eucharist, if only it is felt, is sufficient to make of it a sacrifice.” She recalls the innumerable comparisons in Jesus’ teachings between the life of the spirit and the daily life of the planter. The comparisons are extended to all professions and trades in her philosophy, but particularly to manual labor. The manual laborer, whether on a farm or in a factory, burns or consumes his or her flesh and transforms it into energy as a machine burns fuel, thus giving one’s body and blood to be transformed into the fruits of one’s labor (crops, livestock, manufactured goods).

In each trade, Weil identifies the relation to the Gospel in this rich biblical anagoge of work. “What is needed is … to find and define for each aspect of social life its specific link with Christ. … Thus, as religious life is distributed in orders corresponding to vocations, so in like manner would social life appear as an edifice of distinct vocations converging in Christ. … It is a question of transforming, in the largest possible measure, daily life itself into a metaphor with a divine significance, a parable.” Those of us who are teachers should remember that Jesus was the master teacher and read the Gospels from that perspective as a guide. Doctors can model their careers after the Great Physician. Builders can see him as the carpenter’s apprentice. Others can look for the many lessons in the Gospels concerning business, finance, the military, and so on. “Christianity should contain all vocations without exception since it is catholic.”

Simone Weil’s vision of a just society, then, was fundamentally structured upon this mystique of work, of labor, and of vocation. A significant influence in this regard was Alain, who had an unusually strong belief in the spiritual power of labor. Near the end of her life, she was seeking the most effective ways of causing the inner core of the Gospel to suffuse her world. Again in “Christianity and Agricultural Life,” she writes: “In a general manner, Christianity will only impregnate society if each social category has its specific, unique, inimitable link with the Christ.” 

Her own unique individual calling, she believed, was to intellectual life, to a perfect, unswerving devotion to truth. Yet her witness entailed brutal manual labor in factories, in the fields, and in non-combatant military service. Given her delicate health and physical weakness, these forays into manual labor could only hasten the coming of her premature demise. “Physical labour is a daily death,” she wrote in The Need for Roots, and how prophetic that comment became!

And her famous prayer of self- immolation (recorded in La Connaissance surnaturelle, 204-205) was even more excruciatingly and ironically prophetic when it painted the vision of utter decreation which she resembled at the hour of her passing: “that I may be a paralytic, blind, deaf, a senile idiot.” This woman whose ultimate calling was to the intellectual life prayed to be bereft of her intellect. It was the closest she could come to experiencing the cross of Jesus, for which she so often expressed a deep envy.

The deepest significance of Simone Weil’s philosophy of vocation, ultimately, shines forth in the organic unity of her thought and her life. In one who prized obedience above all and for whom there could be no more dreadful failing than not to live according to one’s convictions, this should hardly be a surprising discovery. “The universe, compact mass of obedience with luminous points. Everything is beautiful,” she writes in La Connaissance surnaturelle.  From this understanding of the world in terms of amor fati, which characterized her life and thought up to the moment of her encounter with Christ, she moved in her last four years ever more deeply into the way of mediation, of logos, of work as sacrament.

“That which in man is the very image of God is something that in us is attached to the fact of being a person but is not the person. It is the faculty of renunciation of personhood. It is obedience.”  She goes on to explain that in human relationships, the obedience of a slave does not make him resemble his master. Rather, it makes him all the more unlike the one who commands him. Yet in one’s relationship with God, the more perfectly obedient one becomes, the more one resembles the Almighty, like a son resembles a father or an image resembles a model.

“This knowledge,” she affirms, “is supernatural (Cette connaissance est surnaturelle).”  Weil must have been particularly attached to the great Kenosis passage in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as well as verses such as Hebrews 5:8, in which Jesus, even though he was the Son of God, is said to have “learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” So for us, to expend our energy in labor with a view toward transforming our efforts into the fruit of the vine and the staff of life, the blood and body of Jesus, is the model of obedience in this sacramental understanding, not just of manual labor in the fields, but of all human work, thanks to the insights of supernatural knowledge.

It also subsumes affliction along with work in this all-encompassing theological vision of calling. “Supreme mediation, harmony between the why of Christ (repeated ceaselessly by all souls in affliction) and the silence of the Father. The universe (including us) is the vibration of that harmony.” 

In her “Letter to Joë Bousquet,” which was written in May of 1942 in London and was first published in Pensées sans ordre concernant l’amour de Dieu, Simone Weil explores the mystery of affliction in particularly luminous terms. For her, Bousquet was not just an unusually dear friend, he was also an extraordinarily powerful example of living redemptively with affliction. In her letter she writes that because of his paralysis, produced by wounds inflicted in war, he has the privilege of being very close to a breakthrough in supernatural knowledge. This breakthrough she describes in parabolic language with the myth of the chick hatching from inside its egg.

“The egg is the visible world,” she writes. “The chick is Love, the Love which is God Himself and lives deep inside all men, first as invisible germ. When the shell is pierced, when the being is outside, it still has this same world as its object, but it is no longer inside. Space has been torn open. The spirit, leaving the miserable body abandoned in a corner, is transported to a point outside space, which is not a point of view, from which there is no perspective, from which this visible world is seen in its reality, without perspective. Space has become — in relation to what it was in the egg — an infinity to the second or rather third power. The instant is immobile. All of space is filled — even if there are sounds being heard — by a dense silence, which is not an absence of sound, which is a positive object of sensation, more positive than a sound, which is the secret word, the word of Love that since the beginning has held us in his arms.” (Pensées 74-75)

Later in this same letter, Weil notes that it is only through affliction — or sometimes through beauty — that one is enabled to pierce through the egg into this kind of perspectiveless outer space where one sees the visible world in a way somewhat analogous to that in which an astronaut views it from the spacecraft. The suffering of affliction makes one cry out “Why?” just as the Christ did from the cross. Beauty can also elicit a “Why?” … “Why is this beautiful?”

“But rare are those who are capable of pronouncing within themselves this why for several straight hours. The why of affliction lasts for hours, days, years; it only ceases with exhaustion. He who is capable not only of crying out but also of listening hears the response. That response is silence. It is the eternal silence for which Vigny bitterly reproached God. But he did not have the right to say what is the response of the just to that silence, for he was not one of the just. The just love. He who is capable not only of listening but also of loving hears this silence as the word of God.” (Pensées 128-129)

The Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny — who fancied himself isolated by tragic exceptionality like Moses on Mount Pisgah and denied entrance into the Land of Promise — was indeed not one of the just. To Vigny, God’s silence was evidence of his absence, an absence which the poet was simply obliged to bear stoically in his own particular incarnation of the Romantic hero. The refrain of Vigny’s poem about Moses’s conversation with God on Mt. Pisgah reads: “Laissez-moi m’endormir du sommeil de la terre (Let me sleep the sleep of the earth).” God’s silence leads for Vigny to death — and not the death of the Hebrew leader who will rest in the bosom of Abraham, but only the extinction of rotting in the cold, hard earth.

For Simone Weil, the call of God was at least in some measure a silent call. But that silence spoke a rich world of wisdom. Obedience required the patience of living over an extended period of time with the why of affliction, as well as listening to the silence of God’s response. So her philosophy of vocation leads us ultimately to the sound of silence, and that silence requires supernatural knowledge for those who would hear it with understanding. “Necessity here below is the vibration of the silence of God.” (Pensées 129)

The Quoted Weil

By Fr. Edward Oakes
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied, full of charm, while imaginary good is tiresome and flat. Real evil, however, is dreary, monotonous, barren. But real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

By Fr. Neuhaus
Everything was going just right for Christian Wiman.  He writes in American Scholar that he had found a reliable publisher for his poetry, moved into a good teaching position, and then moved on from that to assume the prestigious post of editor of Poetry. “But there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.” For reasons he did not understand, he had given up the writing of poetry, or maybe, as he says, it had been taken from him. And with that loss was a loss of being alive. “I think most writers live at some strange adjacency to experience, that they feel life most intensely in their reaction to it.”

He recalls Simone Weil’s description of two prisoners in solitary confinement, separated by a stone wall. In time they found a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall separates and unites them. “It is the same with us and God,” writes Weil. “Every separation is a link.” But Christian Wiman was quite unlinked. Then he fell in love. Then he was married. And then he found out he had a mysterious cancer of the blood for which there was neither cure nor certain prognosis. “In those early days after the diagnosis, when we mostly just sat on the couch and cried, I alone was dying, but we were mourning very much together. And what we were mourning was not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.” “Then one morning we found ourselves going to church. Found ourselves. That’s exactly what it felt like, in both senses of the phrase, as if some impulse in each of us had finally been catalyzed into action, so that we were casting aside the Sunday paper and moving toward the door with barely a word between us; and as if, once inside the church, we were discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be.”

What began that Sunday morning continues: “So now I bow my head and try to pray in the mornings, not because I don’t doubt the reality of what I have experienced, but because I do, and with an intensity that, because to once feel the presence of God is to feel His absence all the more acutely, is actually more anguishing and difficult than any ‘existential anxiety’ I have ever known. I go to church on Sundays, not to dispel this doubt but to expend its energy, because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world. How charged this one hour of the week is for me, and how I cherish it, though not one whit more than the hours I have with my wife, with friends, or in solitude, trying to learn how to inhabit time so completely that there might be no distinction between life and belief, attention and devotion. And out of all these efforts at faith and love, out of my own inevitable failures at both, I have begun to write poems again.

But the language I have now to call on God is not only language, and the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is no longer a cell but this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone. As I approach the first anniversary of my diagnosis, as I approach whatever pain is ahead of me, I am trying to get as close to this wall as possible. And I am listening with all I am.”

We are all uncertain about what God wants us to do. That is to say, we do not know for sure. Of course it seems silly, when you’re well past middle age and have spent your life doing what you believe you’ve been given to do, to always be getting up in the morning or suddenly stopping in the middle of the day’s work to ask, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” I mentioned this to a young man who is discerning whether he has a call to the priesthood, and he was shocked, perhaps scandalized. He said, in effect, “You mean after all these years of being a priest, of writing books, of editing and lecturing, of organizing so many projects, you still aren’t sure you’re doing what God called you to do? How am I ever to know that God is calling me to the priesthood?”

The answer is that we act in the courage of our uncertainties. I am fond of pointing out that the word decide comes from the Latin decidere, “to cut off.” You face choices — whether to be a priest, whether to go to this school or that, whether to marry a certain person, whether to pursue this line of work or another — and then you decide. And, in deciding, you have cut off the alternatives and pray you have decided rightly. But you do not know for sure. Or else you are trapped in the tangled web of indecision.

In this connection, I have had frequent recourse, both homiletically and personally, to one of the most liberating passages from Saint Paul — 1 Corinthians 4. He has been trying to explain himself and his apostolate to the Christians in Corinth. He doesn’t know whether he has succeeded, and then he says this: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. . . .

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” Do not judge before the time! I do not even judge myself! These are the words of a life set free from the tangled web of introspection and indecision.

I was thinking about the above while reading a recent and splendid book by John Peter Kenney on Augustine’s Confessions. The book is The Mysticism of Saint Augustine, and, in Kenney’s “rereading” of Augustine’s classic text, the emphasis is on the inescapably Christocentric character of Augustine’s experience. This is against the frequent reading of the Confessions as a psychological thriller, which downplays the specifically Christian and theological in Augustine’s story.

Augustine was, as everybody knows, a Neoplatonist, but a Neoplatonist with very important differences. In Neoplatonism, the ascending soul discovers its intelligible and “undescended” self in the eternal world of being as it moves from dialectical reasoning in time into pure intellect. Kenney writes: “After this transformative discovery, embodiment has no charm [for Plotinus]. But Augustine countenances no such direct access to an unfallen self. His helplessness, his habituation to sins, his tears of self-betrayal have taught him otherwise. And so have the importunity of divine grace and the providential emergence of Christ in his life, whose power effects the conversion of his wholly fallen soul.

Thus the contemplative soul cannot discover its real self within eternal wisdom, for there is no eternal self there to be recovered. Contemplation can only be an exercise in hope, the discernment of where the self may one day rest, if it should achieve its salvation. Thus, for Augustine, contemplation is inherently eschatological and, unlike in Plotinus, that eschatological hope is never realized by the embodied soul. It can only be actualized after death.” Precisely. Let no one judge before the time!

And Finally…
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.


The Introduction to Gravity and Grace — A View of Simone Weil

April 14, 2010

While Gravity and Grace is one of the books most associated with Simone Weil, the work as such was not one she wrote to be published as a book. Rather, the work consists of various passages selected from Weil’s notebooks and arranged topically by Gustav Thibon, who knew and befriended her. Weil had in fact given some of her notebooks, written before May 1942, to Thibon, but not with any idea or request to publish them. Hence, the resulting work, in its selections, organization and editing, is much influenced by Mr. Thibon, a devoted Catholic. His introduction to Gravity and Grace also serves as a good introduction to Simone Weil, a Christian mystic whose epigrammatic style has made her highly quotable. The quirky title of this blog is derived from her idea of paying attention. You might want to print some of this out and stick it on the front of your refrigerator…

Introduction by Gustave Thibon
Simone Weil’s writings belong to the category of very great writings which can only be weakened and spoiled by a commentary. My sole reason for introducing these texts is that my friendship with the author and the long conversations we had together clear away my difficulties in entering into her thought, and make it easier for me to replace in their exact setting and their organic context certain formulae which are too bald or need to be elaborated. We must, in fact, remember that we are here concerned, as in Pascal’s case, with simple waiting stones set out day by day, often hurriedly, with a view to a more complete building, which alas! never came into being.

The texts are bare and simple (This is the explanation of certain repetitions and negligences of style which we have scrupulously respected throughout) like the inner experience which they express. No padding is interposed between the life and the word; soul, thought, and expression form one block with no joins in it. Even if I had not known Simone Weil personally, her style alone would in my opinion guarantee the authenticity of her testimony. What is most striking in these thoughts is the comprehensiveness of their possible applications; their simplicity simplifies everything they touch; they transport us onto those summits of being from which the eye embraces in one glance an infinity of horizons one above the other. “We must welcome all opinions,” she used to say, “but they must be arranged vertically and kept on suitable levels.” Again, ‘“Whatever is real enough to allow of superposed interpretations is innocent and good.” This sign of greatness and purity is found on every page of her work.

Here, for instance, is a thought which wipes out the ancient quarrel between optimism and pessimism — that quarrel which Leibnitz could not settle: “There is every degree of distance between the creature and God. A distance in which the love of God is impossible: matter, plants, animals. Evil is so complete there that it destroys itself: there is no longer any evil: mirror of divine innocence. We are at the point where love is just possible. It is a great privilege since the love which unites is in proportion to the distance. God has created a world which is not the best possible but which contains the whole range of good and evil. We are at the point where it is as bad as possible because beyond is the stage where evil becomes innocence.”

Or there is this other thought, which throws light onto the problem of evil and reaches to the very secrets of divine love: “All created things refuse to satisfy me as ends. Such is the extreme mercy of God toward me. And that very thing constitutes evil. Evil is the form which the mercy of God takes in this world.” And. then there is this abrupt and final refutation of all such philosophers as Schopenhauer or Sartre who argue that the presence of evil in the world justifies a fundamental pessimism: “To say that the world is not worth anything, that this life is of no value, and to give evil as the proof is absurd, for if these things are worthless what does evil take from us”’

Or again, we find the law of the insertion of the higher into the lower formulated thus: “Every order which transcends another can only be introduced into it under the form of something infinitely small.” This completes and deepens the law of the three orders of Pascal. The world of life does indeed appear to be infinitely small in the midst of the material world: What do living beings represent when compared to the huge mass of the planet and perhaps of the cosmos? It is the same with the spiritual world in relation to the world of life: There are at least 500,000 living species on the earth of which only one possesses “il ben dell intelleto.” And as for the world of grace, it, in turn, appears infinitely small against the mass of our secular thoughts and affections: the Gospel illustrations of the leaven and the grain of mustard seed are clear enough evidence of this “characteristic of being infinitesimal which belongs to pure goodness.”

Impregnating the whole of Simone Weil’s work is the driving force of an intense desire for inward purification which comes out even in her metaphysics and her theology. Stretching out with all her soul toward a pure and absolute goodness of which nothing here below provides her with a proof, but which she feels to be more real than anything existing in and around her, she seeks to establish her faith in this perfect being upon a base which no strokes of fortune, no affliction, no surging waves either of mind or matter can shake. For that, it is important before all things to eliminate from the inner life all forms of illusion and compensation (imaginative piety, the “consolations” of religion, a crude faith in the immortality of the self, etc.) which too often usurp the name of God, and which are really no more than shelters for our weakness or our pride: “We have to be careful about the level on which we place the infinite. If we put it on the level which is only suitable for the finite it does not much matter what name we give it.”

Creation reflects God by its beauty and harmony, but through the evil and death which abide in it, and the blind necessity by which it is governed, it also reflects the absence of God. We have issued from God: That means that we bear his imprint and it means also that we are separated from him. The etymology of the word “exist” (to be placed outside) is very illuminating in this respect: We can say we exist; we cannot say we are. God who is Being has in a sense effaced himself so that we can exist; he has given up being everything in order that we might exist; he has dispossessed himself in our favor of his own necessity, which is identical with goodness, to allow another necessity to reign, which is alien and indifferent to good.

The central law of this world, from which God has withdrawn by his very act of creation, is the law of gravity, which is to be found analogously in every stage of existence. Gravity is the force which above all others draws us from God. It impels each creature to seek everything which can preserve or enlarge it and, as Thucydides says, to exercise all the power of which it is capable. Psychologically it is shown by all those motives which are directed toward asserting or reinstating the self, by all those secret subterfuges (lies of the inner life, escape in dreams or false ideals, imaginary encroachments on the past and the future, etc.) which we make use of to bolster up from inside our tottering existence, that is to say, to remain apart from and opposed to God.

Simone Weil presents the problem of evil as follows: “How can we escape from that which corresponds to gravity in ourselves ?”  By grace alone. In order to come to us, God passes through the infinite thickness of time and space; his grace changes nothing in the play of those blind forces of necessity and chance which guide the world; it penetrates into our souls as a drop of water makes its way through geological strata without affecting their structure, and there it waits in silence until we consent to become God again. Whereas gravity is the work of creation, the work of grace consists of “de-creating” us. God consented through love to cease to be everything so that we might be something; we must consent through love to cease to be anything so that God may become everything again. It is therefore a question of abolishing the self within us, “that shadow thrown by sin and error which stops the light of God and which we take for a being.” Without this utter humility, this unconditional consent to be nothing, all forms of heroism and immolation are still subject to the law of gravity and falsehood:

“We can offer nothing short of ourselves. Otherwise, what we term our offering is merely a label under which the ‘I’ is compensated.”

In order to kill the self we must be ready to endure all the wounds of life, exposing ourselves naked and defenseless to its fangs; we must accept emptiness, an unequal balance; we must never seek compensations, and above all we must suspend the work of our imagination, “which perpetually tends to stop up the cracks through which grace flows.” Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness. We must also renounce the past and future, for the self is nothing but a coagulation of past and future around a present which is always falling away. Memory and hope destroy the wholesome effect of affliction by providing an unlimited field where we can be lifted up in imagination (I used to be, I shall be…), but faithfulness to the passing moment reduces man truly to nothing and thus opens to him the gates of eternity.

The self should be destroyed in us from within, by love. But its destruction can also be brought about from without by extreme suffering and degradation. There are vagrants and prostitutes who have no more self-esteem than the saints, and whose life is confined to the passing moment. Therein lies the tragedy of degradation. It is irreparable, not because the self which it destroys is precious, for the self is made to be destroyed, but because it prevents God from effecting the destruction himself and robs eternalizing love of its prey.

Simone Weil makes a sharp distinction between this supernatural immolation and all forms of human grandeur and heroism. Here below, God is the feeblest and most destitute of beings; his love, unlike that of idols, does not fill the carnal part of the soul; to go to him we have to labor in the void, to refuse every intoxication of passion or pride which veils the horrible mystery of death, and to allow ourselves to be guided only by the “still small voice” of the Bible, which in the flesh we cannot hear and which goes unnoticed by the self. “To say to Christ as St. Peter did, ‘I will always be faithful to thee,’ is to deny him already, for it is to suppose that the source of fidelity is in ourselves and not in grace. As he was chosen, this denial was made known to all men and to himself. How many others boast in the same way — and never understand.”

It is easy to die for something forceful because participation in force produces an intoxication which stupifies us. But it is supernatural to die for something weak: Thousands of men were able to die heroically for Napoleon, while Christ in his agony was deserted by his disciples (the sacrifice was easier later on for the martyrs, for they were already upheld by the social force of the Church). “Supernatural love has no contact with force, moreover it does not protect the soul against the coldness of force, the coldness of steel. Only an earthly attachment, if it has in it enough energy, can afford protection against the coldness of steel. Armor is made of metal in the same way as the sword. If we want a love which will protect the soul from wounds we must love something other than God.”

The hero wears armor, the saint is naked. Now armor, while keeping off blows, prevents any direct contact with reality and above all makes it impossible to enter the third dimension which is that of supernatural love. If things are really to exist for us they have to penetrate within us. Hence the necessity for being naked: nothing can enter into us while armor protects us both from wounds and from the depths which they open up. All sin is an attack against the third dimension, an attempt to bring back onto the plane of unreality and painlessness an emotion which seeks to penetrate to the depths. This law is inexorable: We lessen our own suffering to the extent that we weaken our inner and direct communion with reality.

At the extreme limit of this process, life is entirely stretched out on the surface: We suffer no more except in a dream, for existence, reduced to two dimensions, becomes flat like a dream. This holds good for consolations, illusions, boasting, and all the compensatory reactions by which we try to fill up the hollows bitten into us by reality. Every empty place or hollow does in fact imply the presence of the third dimension; it is not possible to enter into a surface, and to fill up a hole is equivalent to taking refuge in isolation on the surface. The adage of ancient physics, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” is strictly true in psychology. But this vacuum is precisely what grace needs in order to come into us.

This process of “decreation,” which is the only way of salvation, is the work of grace and not of the will. Man does not pull himself up to heaven by the hair. The will is only useful for servile tasks; it controls the right use of natural virtues which are prerequisites of the work of grace in the same way as the plowman’s effort must precede the sowing. But the divine seed comes from elsewhere. . . . In this realm Simone Weil, like Plato and Malebranche, considers attention to be of far more importance than will. “We must be indifferent to good and evil, really indifferent, that is to say we must turn the light of attention equally on each of them. Then the good will triumph by an automatic phenomenon.” It is precisely this superior automatism which has to be created; it is not obtained by tightening up the self and “going beyond one’s capacity” (forçant son talent) for doing good (nothing is more degrading than a noble action performed in an unworthy spirit), but by arriving through self-effacement and love at that state of perfect docility to grace whence goodness spontaneously emanates. “Action is the needle that shows the balance. We must not touch the needle but the weight.” Unfortunately it is easier to tamper with the needle than to alter our own weight in these “golden scales of Zeus.”

So then, religious attention raises us above the “aberration of opposites” and the choice between good and evil – “Choice, a notion belonging to a low level.” So long as I hesitate between doing or not doing a bad action (for instance, possessing or not such and such a woman who offers herself to me, betraying or not betraying some friend), even if I choose the good I scarcely rise above the evil I reject. In order for my “good” action to be really pure I must dominate this miserable oscillation so that the righteous of my outward behavior is the exact expression of my inward necessity.

Holiness is like degradation in this respect This is the postulate of Hermes: the highest resembles the lowest — a central law of being of which Simone Weil gives infinite illustrations in her work. Thus the nonresistance of the saints is outwardly indistinguishable from cowardice; supreme wisdom ends in a sense of ignorance, the motions of grace have the inevitability of animal instincts. [“I have become as a beast of burden before thy face]; detachment is like indifference, etc. just as an utterly despicable man does not hesitate to possess himself of a woman if his passion demands it, or to betray a friend if it is in his interest to do so, a saint has no choice to make about remaining pure and faithful: he cannot do anything else; he goes toward goodness like the bee toward a flower.

Goodness which we choose by balancing it against evil has scarcely anything but social value; to the eyes of him who seeth in secret it proceeds from the same motives and is marked by the same vulgarity as evil. Hence the kinship often observed between certain forms of “virtue” and the corresponding sin: their and the bourgeois respect for property, adultery and a “respectable woman,” the savings bank and waste, etc. Real goodness is not opposed to evil (in order to oppose something directly it is necessary to be on the same level); it transcends and effaces it. “What evil violates is not goodness, for goodness is inviolate; only a degraded good can be violated.”

The soul engaged in the pursuit of pure goodness comes up against irreducible contradictions. Contradiction is the criterion of reality. “Our life is impossibility, absurdity. Everything that we want is in contradiction with the conditions or consequences which are attached to it. It is because we ourselves are a contradiction, being creatures, being God and infinitely other than God.” Have countless children, for instance, and you are bringing about overpopulation and war (Japan is a typical case of this); improve the material conditions of a nation and you are in danger of impairing its soul; devote yourself entirely to someone and you will cease to exist for them, etc.

Only imaginary good things have no contradiction in them: the girl who wants to have numerous offspring, the social reformer who dreams of the people’s well-being, etc., meet with no obstacles so long as they do not pass on to action; they sail gaily forward in a sea of pure but fictitious goodness; the shock of hitting the rocks is the signal which wakens them. We must accept this contradiction — the sign of our misery and our greatness — in all its bitterness. It is through fully experiencing and suffering from the absurdity as such of this universe where good and evil are mixed that we attain to the pure goodness whose kingdom is not of this world. “That action is pure which we can accomplish by keeping our intention totally directed toward pure and impossible goodness, without disguising from ourselves by any lie either the attraction or the impossibility of pure goodness.”

Instead of filling the space, which stretches between necessity and goodness, with dreams (faith in God as a temporal father, science, progress…) we must receive the two branches of contradiction just as they are and allow ourselves to be torn asunder by their distance. And it is in this tearing, which is as it were a reflection in man of the creative act which rends God, that we rediscover the original identity of necessity and goodness: “This world, in so far as it is quite empty of God, is God himself. Necessity, in so far as it is absolutely distinct from goodness, is goodness itself. That is why all consolation in affliction separates us from love and from truth. Therein lies the mystery of mysteries. When we touch it we are secure.”

He, therefore, who refuses to accept confusion is marked for suffering. From Antigone, whom the guardian of the temporal city called upon to go and love among the shades, down to Simone Weil herself, whom human injustice crucified until she was in her grave, affliction is the lot of all those lovers of the absolute who are astray in this world of relative things: “If we want only goodness we are opposed to the law which links good to evil as the illuminated object to the shadow, and, being opposed to the universal law of the world, it is inevitable that we should fall into affliction.” In so far as the soul is not completely emptied of itself, this thirst for pure goodness leads to the suffering of expiation; in a perfectly innocent soul it produces redemptive suffering: “To be innocent is to bear the weight of the whole universe. It is to throw in the counterweight to restore the balance.” Thus purity does not abolish suffering; on the contrary it deepens it to infinity while giving it an eternal meaning: “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.”

This mystery of suffering which “decreates” man and gives him back to God finds its center in the mystery of the Incarnation. If God had not been incarnate, man who suffers and dies would have become, in a sense, greater than God. But God made himself man and died on the Cross. “God abandoned God. God emptied himself: These words enfold the meaning both of the Creation and of the Incarnation with the Passion. . . . To teach us that we are nothing [non être] God made himself nothing.”

In other words God became a creature in order to teach us how to undo the creature in ourselves, and the act of love by which he was separated from himself brings us back to him. Simone Weil sees the essence of the mediatorial function of Jesus Christ in his assumption of the human condition with all that is most miserable and tragic in it: the signs and miracles constitute the human and relatively low part of his mission; the supernatural part consists of the agony, the sweat of blood, the cross, and his vain calls to an un-answering heaven. The words of the Redeemer: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” which sum up all the agony of the creature thrown into the midst of time and evil, and to which the Father replies only with silence — these words alone are enough proof for her of the divinity of Christianity.

Man only finds salvation by living in the bare instant, renouncing the past and future. That rules out the modern myth of the indefinite progress of humanity, even when it is presented under the form of a divine education. There are few ideas which are as impious as this one, for it tends to make us seek in the future what eternity alone can give, that is to say to turn away from God. “Nothing can have a destination which is not its origin. The contrary idea, the idea of progress — poison. The plant which bears such fruit should be torn up by the roots.” This does not mean to say that humanity cannot acquire anything in the course of time but such progress, in so far as it is temporal, can never be indefinite; for duration always ends by devouring what it has brought to birth. Time, accepted as irremediably different from eternity, is for us the door opening onto the eternal: we must not make of it a substitute for eternity.

From this essential condition of salvation, the necessity of living in the pure, instantaneous present and of toiling regardless of results, Simone Weil draws a magnificent spirituality of manual work. Such work puts man into direct contact with the inherent absurdity and contradiction of earthly life and thus, if the worker does not lie, it enables him to touch heaven. “Work makes us experience in an exhausting manner the phenomenon of finality rebounding like a ball; to work in order to eat, to eat in order to work.

If we regard one of the two as an end, or the pair of them taken in isolation, we are lost. Only the cycle contains the truth.” But in order to compass this cycle we must turn from the future and rise up to the eternal. “It is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the people.”

Here below a thousand relative objects bearing the label of absolute come between the soul and God. So long as man does not consent to become nothing in order to be everything he needs idols. “Idolatry is a vital necessity in the cave.” And among these idols the social one of the collective soul is the most powerful and dangerous. Most sins can be traced back to the social element. They spring from a thirst to appear and to dominate. It is not that Simone Weil rejects the social clement as such; she knows that our environment, roots, and traditions form bridges, metaxu between earth and heaven; what she repudiates is the totalitarian city — symbolized by the “Great Beast” of Plato and.the Beast of the Apocalypse — whose power and prestige usurp God’s place in the soul.

Whether it shows itself under a conservative or a revolutionary aspect, whether it consists of adoring the present or the future city, social idolatry always tends to stifle and to replace the true mystic tradition. All the persecutions of prophets and saints are due to it; through it Antigone and Joan of Arc were condemned and Jesus Christ crucified. The social Beast offers man a substitute for religion which allows him to transcend his individuality without surrendering his self, and so, at small cost, to dispense with God; a social imitation of the highest virtues is possible by which they are immediately degraded into Pharisaism: “The Pharisee is he who is virtuous out of obedience to the Great Beast.”

Two nations of antiquity illustrate this idolatry of the collective soul: Israel and Rome. “Rome is the Great Beast of atheism and materialism adoring nothing but itself. Israel is the Great Beast of religion. Neither the one nor the other is likable. The Great Beast is always repulsive.” The conflict between Israel and Rome, in which Nietzsche saw the dual of two irreconcilable conceptions of life, was reduced for Simone Weil to a struggle between two totalitarianisms of the same nature. It must, however, be emphasized that her anti-Semitism, which was so violent that the continuity established by the Church between the Old and New Testaments was one of the chief obstacles to her becoming a Catholic, was of a purely spiritual order and consequently had nothing in common with what goes by that name today.

She had, for example, the same aversion for Hitlerian anti-Semitism as for the Jewish idea of a temporal Messianic rule. How many times did she not speak to me of the Jewish roots of anti-Semitism! She was fond of saying that Hitler hunted on the same ground as the Jews and only persecuted them in order to resuscitate under another name and to his own advantage their tribal god, terrestrial, cruel and exclusive. Her horror of the social idol was of course extended to all other forms of totalitarian mysticism and in particular to Marxism.

Even the Catholic Church, which, moreover, she admired in many of its aspects, did not escape her criticism as a social body. Its Jewish and Roman sources, its connection with temporal things, its organization and hierarchy, its councils, certain formulae such as “no salvation outside the Church” or anathema sit, and some of its historical records such as the Inquisition, etc., appeared to her to be forms (of a higher order, but nevertheless infinitely to be feared) of social idolatry. Yet she never ceased to believe in the divine presence and inspiration within the Church. “Happily, the gates of hell will not prevail,” she wrote toward the end of her life. “There remains an incorruptible core of truth.”

Such are the main lines of Simone Weil’s thought. The schematic nature of this exposition necessarily leaves on one side a thousand touches which give precision, strength, and balance to her doctrine. But an introduction, as its name suggests, can be no more than an invitation to cross the threshold.

I may say that my friendship and veneration for Simone Weil, the pain of losing her and the joy of finding her again each day above and beyond death, the fact that I constantly feed upon her thought, and, above all, the insuperable reserve with which all true intimacy is accompanied, combine to make the effort of detachment required of me in undertaking an objective and critical analysis of her work almost impossible.

I am a Catholic, Simone Weil was not. I have never doubted for a second that she was infinitely more advanced than I am in the experimental knowledge of supernatural truths, but outwardly she always remained on the borders of the Church and was never baptized. One of the last letters she wrote me shows very clearly her attitude with regard to Catholicism: “At this moment I should be more ready to die for the Church, if one day before long it should need anyone to die for it, than I should be to enter it. To die does not commit one to anything, if one can say such a thing; it does not contain anything in the nature of a lie…At present I have the impression that I am lying, whatever I do, whether it be by remaining outside the Church or by entering it. The question is to know where there is less of a lie…”

As to whether Simone Weil was a heroic lover of Jesus Christ, my conviction has never changed; all the same her doctrine, though it is within the orbit of the great Christian truths, contains nothing specifically Catholic and she never accepted the universal authority of the Church. Now a Catholic who has to assess the thought of a non-Catholic has difficulty in avoiding two opposite extremes. The first consists of applying the principles of speculative theology to the thought in question and mercilessly condemning everything which, seen from outside, does not appear to be strictly orthodox. This method has the advantage of railings, which are always necessary on the bridges leading to God, but used without understanding or love, it is in danger of degenerating into an abuse of the evangelical precept: “If thine eye offend thee…”

For my part, as I am neither a theologian nor specially entrusted with the defense of the deposit of Christian faith, I do not feel myself in any way qualified for such an undertaking. The last thing I want to do is to set myself up as an official theologian who, armed with a sort of Baedeker of divine things, presumes to pronounce final judgment on the report, even incomplete, of a heroic explorer. .. .

The second danger consists of trying, at whatever cost, to bend the thought one is studying into conformity with Catholic truth. That is a manifest abuse of the text, “Compel them to come in.” We think that whatever is true or pure in a human life or work finds its place naturally in the Catholic synthesis without being forced or twisted in order to do so. We have no need to grasp everything for ourselves like a miser trying to increase his treasure, for everything already belongs to us who belong to Christ.

It is not for me to decide how far the ideas of Simone Well are or are not orthodox. I will confine myself to showing — on purely personal evidence — how far a Christian can interpret these ideas in order to find nourishment for his spiritual life.

I shall be particularly careful not to pick a quarrel with Sirnone Weil about words. Her vocabulary is that of the mystics and not of the speculative theologians: it does not seek to express the eternal order of being but the actual journey of the soul in search of God. This is the case with all spiritual writers. When in the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena Christ says to her, “I am that which is, thou art that which is not,” this formula which reduces the creature to pure nothingness cannot be accepted on the plane of ontological knowledge. It is the same with the expressions used by so many mystics who speak of the poverty of God, of his dependence in relation to the creature, etc.: they are true in the order of love, and false in the order of being. Jacques Maritain was the first to show, with perfect metaphysical precision, that these two vocabularies do not contradict each other, for one is related to speculative and the other to practical and affective knowledge.

Two things in particular in Simone Weil’s work have shocked the few friends to whom we have shown her manuscripts. First, the absolute division which she seems to establish between the created world and a transcendent God, who has tied his own hands in the presence of evil and who abandons the universe to the sport of chance and absurdity: there is a danger lest this clean cut should lead to the elimination of the idea of Providence in history and of the notion of progress, and as a result to a misunderstanding of the values and duties of this present world. In the second place, her fear of the social element is likely to lead to the isolation of the individual in a proud self-sufficiency.

We repeat that Simone Weil speaks as a mystic and not as a metaphysician. We are prepared to admit, and we do so readily, that the tendency of her genius, which inclines her constantly to stress the irreducible nature of supernatural reality, often leads her to overlook the meeting places and transitional stages between nature and grace. Nothing is more certain than that she has misunderstood certain aspects of Christian piety. But that does not authorize us to assert that the aspect she describes is not Christian. No human experierice—if we except that of Christ—has ever embraced supernatural truth in its totality. St. John of the Cross, for instance, does not emphasize the same divine realities as St. Bonaventura. There are several schools of spirituality, and if we substitute the word “God” for “world,” we can say of the mystics what the poet said of men in general:

Dan jeder sieht die Welt in seinem Sinn

Und jeder siehet recht, so viel ist Sinn darin!

If, as the Gospel says, there are many mansions in heaven, there are also many roads which lead to heaven.

Simone Weil chose the negative road: “There are people for whom everything is salutary here below, which brings God nearer; for me it is everything that keeps him at a distance.” Is not this royal road of salvation, which consists of finding and loving God in what is absolutely other than God (the blind necessity of nothingness and evil…), strangely like the bare mountain of Carmel where man has as his guide just one single word: nothing? And does St. John of the Cross speak in less absolute terms of the nothingness of created things and of the love which binds us to them? “The entire being of the creatures compared with the infinite being of God is nothing, and thus the soul, which is a prisoner of what is created, is nothing. All the beauty of creatures is supreme ugliness before the infinite beauty of God. All the grace, all the charm of creatures is insipid and repulsive before the divine beauty. All the goodness the creatures contain is only the height of malice when it is in the presence of divine goodness. Only God is good. ..

Moreover, though the theology of Simone Weil rejects the idea of popular imagination, of a God who governs the world like the father of a family or a temporal sovereign, it does not in any way exclude the action of Providence in the higher sense of the word. There is no doubt that here below matter and evil exercise “all the causality which belongs to them”; the spectacle of the innumerable horrors of history is enough to prove that the kingdom of God is not of this world. (Does not Scripture describe the devil as the prince of this world?) Nevertheless, God remains mysteriously present in creation: without in any way changing the calamities which weigh upon us, his grace plays upon the laws of gravity like the sun’s rays in the clouds. This God “who is silent in his love” is not indifferent to human misery after the manner of the God of Aristotle or Spinoza. It is out of love for his creature that he appears to efface himself from creation; it is in order to lead him on to the supreme purity that he leaves him to cross the whole expanse of suffering and darkness, abandoned and alone. In tying his own hands in the presence of evil, in stripping himself of everything which resembles earthly power and prestige, God invites men to love nothing but love in him. “He gives himself to men either as powerful or as perfect—it is for them to choose.” But here below infinite perfection is infinite weakness: God, in so far as he is love, hangs wholly and entirely on the Cross.

Simone Weil is not in any way mistaken about the dignity and necessity of temporal values. She sees them as intermediaries — metaxu — between the soul and God. “What is it a sacrilege to destroy? Not that which is base, for that is of no importance. Not that which is high, for we cannot touch that. The metaxu. The metaxu form the region of good and evil. .. No human being should be deprived of these metaxu, that is to say of those relative and mixed good things (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible.” But these relative and mixed good things can only be treated as such by those who, out of love for God, have passed through the total stripping; all others make them more or less into idols: “Only he who loves God with a supernatural love can see means simply as means.”

Whatever she may have said about “choice, a notion of a low level” and about the absolute fruitlessness of voluntary action in the spiritual domain, Simone Weil does not, for all that, fall into quietism. On the contrary she constantly recalls that without strict diligence in our practice of the natural virtues, mystical life can be nothing but an illusion. The cause of grace dwells outside man, but its condition is within him. Simone Weil’s hatred for illusion, above all when it takes the form of sensible devotion and a kind of religious “Schwärmerei,” counterbalances everything which in so purified a spirituality might flatter the imagination or the pride. She liked to repeat, after St. John of the Cross, that inspiration which leads us to neglect the accomplishment of simple and lowly obligations does not come from God. “Duty is given us in order to kill the self…We only attain to real prayer after we have worn down our own will by keeping rules.”

She regarded with such suspicion any religious exaltation unsupported by a strict fidelity to the daily task, that the infrequent negligences of which she was guilty in the accomplishment of her duties—largely as a result of her delicate health—caused her to have bitter doubts about the truth of her spiritual vocation. “All these mystical phenomena,” she wrote at the end of her life, with heart-rending humility, “are absolutely beyond me. I do not understand them. They are meant for beings who, to start with, possess the elementary moral virtues. I speak of them at random. And I am not even capable of telling myself sincerely that I speak of them at random.”

Fully sharing the political ideas of Simone Weil as I do, I think it more becoming that I should not dwell on them at great length. Any other person but myself might make something very moving out of the story of this life in which, through the influence of reflection and faith, an essentially revolutionary temperament was gradually impregnated with the cult of tradition and the past. For Simone Weil never ceased to be a revolutionary. She was not, however, pledged to a chimerical future leading men away from reality, but devoted herself more and more to revolution in the name of an unchanging and eternal principle — a principle which has to be constantly re-established because it constantly tends to be degraded by time.

Simone Weil did not believe in an indefinite perfecting of humanity: she even thought that the unfolding of history gave proof of the law of entropy rather than that of unlimited progress after the style of Condorcet. There is no need to defend her on this point. I do not see how it can be heretical to hold (in conformity with the great Greek tradition) that “change cannot be anything but limited and cyclic.” As for her invectives against the “social Beast,” however excessive a form they may sometimes take, we only have to put them back into their context in order to be assured that they do not in any way constitute an apology for anarchy. “The social order,” she writes, “is irreducibly that of the prince of this world. Our only duty with regard to the social is to try to limit the evil of it. – .. Something of the social labeled divine; an intoxicating mixture which brings about every sort of license—the evil disguised.” But she adds immediately: “And yet what about a city? But that is not of the social order — it is a human environment of which we are no more conscious than of the air we breathe — a contact with nature, the past, tradition. A man’s roots are not of the social order.” In other words, social influence is both food and poison. It is food in so far as it provides the individual with the inner equipment necessary for living as a man and for approaching God; poison, in so far as it tends to rob him of his liberty and to take God’s place. The perpetual encroachments of the social order upon the divine — that incessant degradation of mystical conceptions into politics — afford strong enough evidence, today more than ever, of the seriousness of this last danger.

Mutatis mutandis, the same remarks are applicable to the Church. Obviously a spirit so hungering for the absolute as was that of Simone Weil would necessarily be somewhat lacking in a sense of historical relativity: the words nolite conformari huic a seculo (Be not conformed to this world.) were for her a commandment allowing of no reservations. She found it very hard to understand that certain concessions of the Church to temporal exigencies did not in any way involve its eternal soul: The beatification of Charlemagne, for instance, seemed to her a scandalous compromise with the social idol. Somewhere she speaks of the Church as “a great totalitarian beast.” What does that signify? Totalitarianism is characterized at the same time by a refusal of the all and by the claim to be all. As the Catholic Church is the messenger of the All here below it does not need to be totalitarian.

The accusation made by Simone Weil, in so far as it is well founded, can therefore only be applicable to certain members of the body of the Church who arbitrarily bolt the doors of love and truth, thus failing to understand the universal vocation of Catholicism. There is no question of reopening here — especially at a time when so many Catholics do not hesitate to provide whips with which to beat their Master — the discussions formerly caused by the idea of “the Church as a body marked by sin.” We will only state that when Christ said that “the gates of hell should not prevail,” he did not promise that everything in the Church would remain eternally pure, but that the essential deposit of faith would be saved, come what might. The Church is rooted in God: that does not exclude the possibility that the tree may bear dried up or worm-eaten branches. To have faith is to believe that the divine sap will never fail. The preservation of this “incorruptible core of truth,” to use the actual expression of Simone Weil, in the midst of all the impurities mixed into the body of the Church, constitutes, moreover, one of the strongest proofs of the divinity of Catholicism. The Church could only become a “great totalitarian beast” in so far as its human body were totally separated from its divine soul. This is an impossible hypothesis for the gates of hell shall never prevail. . . . Today it is seen as the last refuge of the universal faced with rampant totalitarianisms.

Thus with Simone Weil the expulsion of the social idol does not lead to religious individualism. “The self and the social are the two great idols.” Grace saves from the one as from the other. That is doubtless what Célestin Bouglé was trying to express in his own manner when he saw in Simone Weil while she was still a student “a mixture of anarchist and cleric…

Simone Weil can only be understood on the level from which she speaks. Her work is addressed to souls who, if they are not stripped as naked as her own, have at least kept deep within them an aspiration for that pure goodness to which she devoted her life and her death. I am not unaware of the dangers of a spirituality such as hers. The worst forms of giddiness are caused by the highest summits. But the fact that light may burn us is not a valid reason for leaving it under a bushel. It is not a question of philosophy here but of life. Far from claiming to set up a personal system, Simone Weil strove with all her power to keep herself out of her work. Her one wish was to avoid getting in the way between God and men — to disappear “so that the Creator and the creature could exchange their secrets.” She cared nothing for her genius, knowing only too well that true greatness consists in learning to be nothing. “What does it matter what energy or gifts there may be in me? I have always enough to disappear. .

She had her way: Some of the text attains to that impersonal resonance which is the sign of the highest inspiration: “It is impossible to forgive whoever does us harm if this harm lowers us. We have to think that it does not lower us but that it shows our true level.” Or again: “If someone does me harm I must want this harm not to degrade me — this out of love for him who inflicted it upon me and so that he shall not really have done harm.” It is in such ejaculations of humility and love, rather than on the systematic side of her work, that Simone Weil appears as a pure messenger. I have never ceased to believe in her. In publishing the following pages I extend this confidence to all the souls who shall come to her.

All the writings contained in this book have been taken from the manuscripts which Simone Weil confided to us personally. They were therefore all written before May 1942.  More recent work, which her parents have been kind enough to show us, has not been included here. We have ourselves chosen the extracts from the notebooks, in which they were interspersed with innumerable quotations as well as philological and scientific studies. We hesitated between two ways of presentation: either to give the thoughts of Simone Weil one after the other in the order of their composition, or to classify them. The second method seemed preferable to us. We are anxious to express our thanks to all who have helped and encouraged us in our work: the Reverend Father Perrin, Lanza del Vasto, M. and Mme. Honnorat (who were personal friends of Simone Weil), Gabriel Marcel, and Jean de Fabrêgues. In the checking and transcription of the texts

M. V.-H. Debidour, who kindly helped to translate the Greek quotations incorporated in the aphorisms, and our devoted colleague, Mlle. Odile Keller, have both given us an infinite amount of valuable help.

Gustave Thibon
February, 1947.


Reading Selections from “Two Thomisms, Two Modernities” by Russell Hittinger

April 6, 2010

F. Russell Hittinger

From a reader of the essay: “It is rare that an essay aids one in understanding the landscape of one’s own faith community and tradition, but Russell Hittinger’s article did just that for me. Hittinger admirably illustrates how the bifurcation of two Thomisms—one focusing on the metaphysics of the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae and the second concentrating on the social and political questions of the Secunda Pars—is intellectually untenable.

The fissure caused by this bifurcated reading of St. Thomas is perhaps more radical for Catholicism in America than Hittinger hints. He writes: “We need only survey the chronic and significant differences of opinion over the systematic grounding of natural law today, as well as the extraordinarily complicated and controversial skirmish lines over questions of moral theology, to see that this is so.”

Indeed, he is correct, but I suspect that the ramifications extend to liturgical questions, doctrinal opinions, devotional practices, attitudes toward ecumenism, ecclesiological models, understandings of authority, and the general understanding of how Catholics are in relation to the world at large.

Moreover, John Paul II clearly understood the divide in terms not only of the universal Church but also of the intellectual superficiality of reading one pars at the expense of another pars. The whole of his pontificate can be seen as a magisterial effort to restore the Church to reading the Summa as a whole. Every Sunday we pray at Mass that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Intellectually, we should recommit ourselves to reading the whole Summa

Russell Hittinger is an internationally recognized contributor to major contemporary debates in jurisprudence, law, and ethics and has held professorships at the Catholic University of America, Princeton University, Fordham University, and New York University. Here he traces the historical background of the rise of two Thomisms and the two Modernisms in Catholic thought over the past hundred and fifty years and then tries to untangle them.

This seminal article in First Things back in 2007 it helped me sort out some questions that had been bubbling up as I approached the topic of Personalism in the thought of Jacques Maritain and later in John Paul II. Some highlights here:

Different Approaches to the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas
The past century and a half of papal teaching on modern times often seems a tangle: any number of different strands — theology, Thomistic philosophy, social theory, economics — all snarled together. And yet a little historical analysis may help loosen the knot. In fact, a careful reading of papal documents reveals one of the main causes of the tangle. Throughout Catholic thought over the past hundred and fifty years, there have run two entirely distinct conceptions of modernity and two quite different uses of Thomism — a combination of four threads weaving in and out of the Catholic Church’s response to the strangeness of modern times.

For example, several modern popes have championed the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, but they did so in very dissimilar ways. At times, a reactionary, legislative, and disciplinary form of Thomism was deployed, directed inward at members of the Church, chiefly about uses of philosophy in the study of sacred doctrine. At other times, Thomism was allowed to play a more constructive, synthetic, and open role, directed outward to the world, chiefly on questions of social and political order.

Views of Modernity
Meanwhile, modernity came to be seen in two ways. There were the economic, political, and legal problems of modernity — the aspects of modern life that made necessary the development of “social doctrine.” And yet modernity was also understood as a philosophical and theological system that displaced, or at least threatened, what could be called the praeambula fidei — the “preambles of faith,” which include the truths of natural reason, particularly on philosophical issues close to sacred doctrine.

An examination of the historical documents can trace each of these distinct threads — and, along the way, solve some of the puzzles of Catholic intellectual history. The two Thomisms and the two Modernisms do not line up, but their interplay helps explain how St. Thomas’ moral, legal, and political thought was gradually detached from his metaphysical and theological thought. And it helps explain, as well, why John Paul II used so much of his papacy in an effort to reunite the Church’s understanding of both Thomas Aquinas and modernity.

An Early History
Until the late nineteenth century, the word modern was rarely used for describing or listing errors. Indeed, in the eighteenth century Catholicism had comfortably — perhaps all too comfortably — adapted itself to many aspects of modernity. So, for instance, with the discovery of the New World and the rush of Catholic missions to far-flung lands, many Catholics understood that they were living in a new era of exploration, industry, education, art, literature, devotion, science, and philosophy.

The Reformation and the religious wars, culminating in the 1648 treaties of Westphalia, destroyed the old medieval common law of Christendom by creating a system of states having diverse confessional allegiances. A new common law, however, evolved among the peoples under Catholic rule. It was built on a complex and evolving set of treaties, informal agreements, and legal fictions through which the Church conceded to Catholic sovereigns rights over many aspects of ecclesiastical life — in exchange for which those sovereigns protected the Church from schism and supplied the resources for missions across the world. The sovereigns were deemed junior apostles, entitled to rule “in trust” the everyday life of the Church in Europe and her colonies.

Catholicism thus developed a remarkable symbiosis with the new system of modern sovereignty — so long as it was in the hands of Catholic families. This political system is what writers in the nineteenth century called the ancien régime, because Catholics had no living memory of any other order. But it was, in fact, neither ancient nor medieval. It was, instead, something quite modern — and for the Church it worked, off and on, reasonably well.

The French Revolution, however, upended this modern system of religious and political Christendom. France’s 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy gave church governance not to the mischievous yet familiar Catholic families but to the nation, and this French model soon spread elsewhere, particularly to the former European colonies in Latin America. The clergy became civil servants, elected by democratic vote. In other words, modernity saw the transference of rights that had once belonged to the Church itself. Catholic kings received those rights first, but the nation-states would soon inherit them — nation-states that were, as often as not, governed by a doctrine of often anti-Catholic laicism.

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the Congress of Vienna attempted to restore the earlier model of a religious sovereign — the union of throne and altar, brought back to tamp down the fire of social rebellion. Thus, encyclicals of the era urged Catholics to obey legitimate authority, beginning with the pope’s own temporal authority in the Papal States. But the revolutions of 1848 swept aside the Restoration, and, with the 1864 Syllabus of Errors, something we might call the Paper Wars commenced.

The Paper Wars and The Syllabus of Errors
The Syllabus of Errors derives from one simple historical fact: In 1860, Pius IX lost his Italian dominions to the House of Savoy, and the Papal States came to an end. The immediate effect was the removal of the pope from the political problems of governing, but there was a second and unexpected effect: Along the way, the papacy lost the inhibitions about speaking on political matters that actual rulers must have. But how should the Church speak? There had been no systematic political theology for two centuries, so Pius IX and his advisers cobbled together a number of pontifical statements and admonitions, grouped them under various headings, and fired away.

The Syllabus of Errors was the result. Attached to the encyclical Quanta Cura, the Syllabus lists eighty condemned propositions, and even the most sympathetic churchmen quickly realized the problem of carrying on a theological discussion in this way. Published in a new era of daily newspapers and the telegraph, the list of errors instantly reached millions of readers, nearly all of whom were confused.

The format was particularly vexatious: Almost every erroneous proposition is stated in the affirmative, leaving the reader to puzzle out the correct Catholic view by negation. So, for example, the eightieth proposition condemns the idea that the pope is obliged to “reconcile himself to contemporary liberalism.” The negation might be that “the pope is obliged not to reconcile himself to contemporary liberalism,” or it might be that “the pope is not obliged to reconcile himself to liberalism (though he could, if he wanted).” It might even be that “the pope is obliged not to reconcile himself to contemporary liberalism (but liberalism understood in some other way might be all right).”

Still, despite such confusions, Pius IX had a clear target in mind with the Syllabus. This was not a disciplinary encyclical on matters inside the Church. Over and over, in seventy-three of the eighty propositions, the Syllabus takes aim at the modern common law of Christendom. Pius IX flatly rejects the rights once exercised by Catholic sovereigns and then by nation-states. He declares, in effect, the independence of the Church not only in matters of ordinary governance (sacraments and the episcopacy) but also with regard to schools, religious orders, marriages, families, and sodalities.

Late in 1869, the First Vatican Council convened. Parts of the Syllabus were reworked into five chapters and twenty-one canons of the first draft of a conciliar document, De Ecclesia Christi, where they seemed to add up to something like a separation of the Catholic Church from the formerly Catholic states. In the end, the chapters and canons drawn from the Syllabus were dropped when the bishops could not agree about any overarching theory to unify them. They did agree that the Church is independent of the nation-states. And, on that principle, they reconfirmed the universality of the Church, giving the papacy universal jurisdiction to try to solve the problem, and went home.

The result was that, when Leo XIII was elected pope eight years later, he inherited an incomplete revolution. He had no new catechism or full set of conciliar doctrines, and no part of the revolution had been canonically codified. He inherited a fact rather than a coherent theory.

At least two things needed to be put into some kind of synthesis: the Syllabus of Errors and Vatican I’s constitution for the Church, Dei Filius. The Syllabus would need to be converted not merely into negations but into a positive civil doctrine. For that matter, Dei Filius asserted that God is the “Lord of the Sciences,” that faith and reason have distinct yet mutually supportive objects and ends, and that the “assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind.” The preambles of the faith, in other words, needed to be clarified and organized for modern times.

For his answer, Leo chose to move the school he had founded, the Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, from Perugia to Rome and to make cardinals out of two of its faculty members (including his brother). A year later, in 1879, he issued his great philosophical encyclical, Aeterni Patris.

Aeterni Patris insists that a sound philosophy is needed “in order that sacred theology may receive and assume the nature, form, and genius of a true science.” He advocated the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas as the modern antidote: “While, therefore, We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind, We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”

What Leo saw is this: The issues of faith and reason highlighted in Dei Filius could not be advanced by philosophical eclecticism. Since the sixteenth century, he complained, philosophical systems have “multiplied beyond measure,” and even Catholic philosophers have accommodated themselves to a curricular mentality that “depends on the authority and choice of any professor.”

Leo proposed that Thomas be held out as the “Master” whose doctrines must enjoy “excellence over others” — but his purpose was not to reduce the Catholic mind to a homogeneous Thomism. Rather, it was to achieve an integrated response to issues that were both theological and political. When we read Aeterni Patris as a whole, we see that Leo framed the revival of Christian philosophy chiefly in the context of the ongoing political problems: “False conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schools of philosophy, have now crept into all the orders of the State.” Indeed, throughout Leo’s work — in the some 110 encyclicals and other teaching letters — Thomas is rarely discussed or referenced apart from social and political problems.

Leo’s two aims — picking up the pieces from the Syllabus and fleshing out Dei Filius — were not without tension. In the subjects close to sacred doctrine, it was crucial to achieve a rather tightly organized account of the relation between philosophy and the deposit of faith. Even slight changes in the philosophy entail new estimations of the doctrine. Social and political issues, however, allow much more room for creative maneuver, and there emerged a kind of broad Thomism suitable for these issues. Thomists developed rather freewheeling accounts of the political, economic, legal, and social order, and they showed considerable ingenuity in making their accounts look continuous with the work of the Angelic Doctor.

A New Kind Of Paper War
Turning away from the example of Pius IX, Leo undertook a new kind of paper war. He took the outmoded structure of a medieval scholastic article (for example, what we find in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, with the question, the objections, the sed contra, the response, and the replies to objections), changed the questions, and rebuilt the article in the prose of an encyclical teaching. It was in part dialectic, in part systematic, and in part apologetic. There was no need to make lists of errors that would leave Catholics scratching their heads.

The affirmations to be negated in Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus became affirmations to be affirmed in Leo XIII’s famous 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum — positive statements of Catholic teaching on modern social and political issues. The underlying Thomistic doctrine gave the body of work at least the appearance of coherence, and, as Leo’s papal successors, together with lay and clerical scholars, continued the project, there emerged a remarkably structured but evolving body of social doctrine.

Pius X
All of this makes more curious Pope Pius X’s sudden condemnation of Modernism, which appeared in two documents in 1907. On July 3 of that year, the Vatican published a decretum called Lamentabili Sane, containing a syllabus of sixty-five Modernist propositions to be condemned. Two months later, on September 8, the pope issued the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Admitting that his exposition was unusually prolix and didactic, Pius X insisted that such was necessary to deal with Modernism as a “whole system,” indeed as “the synthesis of all heresies.” Modernists were accused of reducing revelation to experience, Scripture to history, and doctrine to evolving symbols.

If, however, we examine the condemnations with an eye to the pattern of two Modernisms and two Thomisms, much comes clear — for Pius X had gone back into the mode of making lists of errors, but he focused his attention not on social modernity but on the doctrinal and metaphysical aspects of modern thought. Lamentabili Sane not only listed sixty-five errors; to complicate matters, it also referenced the 1794 encyclical Auctorem Fidei, which condemned eighty-five further propositions in connection with Jansenism. A scrupulous scholar under ecclesiastical discipline now found himself reckoning with 150 propositions — 230, if the Syllabus of Errors is added in. Who could keep track of all these errors?

…For Pius, the sure sign of Modernism was derogation from, or even disparagement of, scholasticism. “Whether it is ignorance or fear, or both, that inspires this conduct in them, certain it is that the passion for novelty is always united in them with hatred of scholasticism, and there is no surer sign that a man is tending to Modernism than when he begins to show his dislike for the scholastic method.” To be heard carping at scholasticism was a ground for dismissing faculty and administrators at ecclesiastical schools.

Lest there be any doubt what is meant by scholasticism, Pius X issued in 1914 a motu proprio called  Doctoris Angelici, which put the Thomistic norm for studies (in degree-granting ecclesiastical schools) explicitly under precept from the Holy See. To curb the private opinions of professors, Pius X ordered that the Summa Theologiae itself be used as the text of the lectures and that professorial comments be restricted to Latin. The Thomistic fundamentals, or “capital theses,” were not to be “placed in the category of opinions capable of being debated one way or the other.”

A few weeks later, just before Pius X’s death, Cardinal Lorenzelli, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Studies, published a list of twenty-four theses to be affirmed — including, at the very beginning, a statement of divine being as pure act, in contrast to the admixture of potency in creatures. In other words, these were metaphysical theses of just the sort that Pius X had said cannot be placed “in the category of opinions capable of being debated.” Everyone understood that Lorenzelli’s “XXIV Theses” were aimed in the direction of the sixteenth-century Jesuit scholastic philosopher Francisco Suárez, beginning with the doctrine of the real distinction between essence and existence in creatures, which was not generally held by his followers.

The Two Thomisms
By the time Pius X died in 1914, the Vatican had in place two entirely different Thomisms, one broad and oriented to social questions, the other narrow and focused on capita that could not be debated. For a good example, look at the international congress in Granada that was planned for 1917, the third centenary of the death of Suárez. The Catholic press, of course, noted that the XXIV Theses had impeached the reliability of Suárez on certain questions of metaphysics. Moreover, the newly drafted Code of Canon Law (1917) required those in charge of religious and clerical formation to teach the “principles of the Angelic Doctor and hold to them religiously.” The congress did not fall under the discipline of canon law, but it was an awkward moment nonetheless, and Rome’s solution was to recommend that the congress focus on the social, political, and international-law aspects of Suárez’s thought. On these matters, one was permitted to avow an evolving line of thought and to celebrate its utility in handling modern problems.

And yet, beginning with Benedict XV, the papacy grew increasingly unwilling to enforce Pius X’s official Thomism, even within the seminaries and the religious orders. While the exhortations of Leo XIII and the precepts of Pius X were duly noted by Benedict and his successors, rigorous enforcement proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, only five months after Pius X’s death, Benedict said that there is room “for divergent opinions” so long as they constitute no “harm to faith or discipline” and so long as they are expressed “with due moderation.”

Pius XI’s Studiorum Ducem
With the disaster of the First World War and the rise of the totalitarian regimes, the papacy’s attention was funneled back into the social and political issues. The shift of magisterial attention to political modernity is particularly evident during the pontificate of Pius XI, who became pope in 1922. In the 1923 encyclical  Studiorum Ducem, he approvingly quoted Pius X’s admonition that there must be no deviation from Thomas in metaphysical issues. This core of metaphysical systematics must be preserved intact, even while allowing the “lovers of Thomas” to engage in “honorable rivalry in a just and proper freedom which is the life-blood of studies.”

But what is most striking about Studiorum Ducem is the interest in the social and political issues. In Ubi Arcano (1922), Pius XI had insisted: “There is a species of moral, legal, and social modernism which We condemn, no less decidedly than We condemn theological modernism.” Accordingly, in Studiorum Ducem he emphasized Thomas’ contributions “in the science of morals, in sociology and law, by laying down sound principles of legal and social, commutative and distributive justice, and explaining the relations between justice and charity.” He noted particularly “those superb chapters in the second part of the Summa Theologiae on paternal or domestic government, the lawful power of the State or the nation, natural and international law, peace and war, justice and property, laws and the obedience they command, the duty of helping individual citizens in their need and cooperating with all to secure the prosperity of the State, both in the natural and the supernatural order.”

“It is therefore to be wished,” Pius XI concluded, “that the teachings of Aquinas, more particularly his exposition of international law and the laws governing the mutual relations of peoples, became more and more studied, for it contains the foundations of a genuine ‘League of Nations.’”

Prima Pars Vs Secunda Pars
On paper, Thomas’ metaphysics remained the standard, but in practice Pius XI focused not on the prima pars, with its metaphysical armature, but rather the secunda pars of the Summa, on human conduct.
While Pius XI never separated the two Thomisms — his encyclicals are as elegantly synthetic as were Leo’s — he focused intently, in the 1920s and 1930s, on Thomistic resources for the political and social problems.

Remember the four threads we set out to untangle in the last century and a half of papal teaching — the two Thomisms and the two Modernisms. On the one hand, there was a constructive and open form of Thomism, which began as a way to discuss political and social issues. On the other hand, there was a legislative and disciplinary form of Thomism, developed originally to discuss sacred doctrines and the metaphysical preambles to faith. Meanwhile, there were two ways to understand modernity: first, as a set of social and political problems brought to a head by the French Revolution and the loss of the Papal States; and, second, as a defiantly nationalist, antireligious, and anti-Catholic philosophical movement.

It would be convenient if the two pairs lined up in what appears to be their natural order: the disciplinary Thomism used for philosophical Modernism, and the constructive Thomism used for political modernity. Unfortunately, that was not always the case, and the two Thomisms and two Modernisms cannot be aligned in papal documents without a great deal of guesswork.

Still, the disciplinary form of Thomism may have created more problems than it solved, even when properly applied to matters of sacred doctrine. Lists of errors and truths never really achieved the results for which they were designed. Whether in response to political or philosophical modernity, the syllabi sparked confusions and resentments. In the news-hungry environment of the modern media that emerged in the nineteenth century, these lists invited constant spin on the part of the Church’s friends and enemies. They did not substitute for a catechism, and they certainly did not equal the Leonine practice of encyclical teaching, which was more effective, both ad extra and ad intra.

Nor did the list-making approach play to the strong suit of Thomism, which requires not only definitions and conclusions but also a deeply textured set of questions and distinctions. The metaphysical issues were complex, subtle, and difficult on their own terms, never mind the practical questions of how to instantiate and enforce them in educational institutions. To put beyond debate the most intellectually challenging work of Thomas Aquinas did no favors for his heritage. A slight and passing familiarity with Thomas’ system, usually acquired secondhand and enforced as a party line, was almost bound to breed that kind of contempt that comes from bored students who know a little but not enough.

The Decline Of Thomistic Metaphysics
We often think of John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963), with its long list of human rights, as the epitome of the Second Vatican Council’s spirit of aggiornamento. Of the twenty-five discrete rights listed in that encyclical, however, all but three are quotations or paraphrasings of Leo, Pius XI, and Pius XII. Moreover, by the time of Pacem in Terris, lay and clerical neo-Thomists — Maritain, Murray, Rommen, Journet, Simon — had produced a widely read body of scholarly literature on these subjects.

As ecclesiastical discipline declined precipitously in the 1950s and 1960s, systematic Thomism underwent a kind of defenestration. No longer privileged in the curriculum of either seminaries or Catholic schools, Thomistic metaphysics became a scholar’s specialty consigned to a chapter in the history of medieval philosophy. But we should not be surprised that in the topics related to human action — intention, choice, the moral virtues, natural law, and political philosophy — Thomism survived as worthy of study beyond the historical cubbyholes.

And yet the gradual separation of the social doctrine from the overall system of Thomas began to create the impression that the philosophy of practical reason was freestanding: a kind of first philosophy in its own right, connected to the metaphysical system and even sacred theology only by way of dotted lines. The two Thomisms ceased to be deeply integrated — with the secunda pars of the Summa Theologiae (on human action) read separately from the doctrine of providence, the metaphysics, and the anthropology of the prima pars. We need only survey the chronic and significant differences of opinion over the systematic grounding of natural law today, as well as the extraordinarily complicated and controversial skirmish lines over questions of moral theology, to see that this is so.

John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio
When he became pope in 1978, John Paul II inherited the problem of how to put the two Thomisms back together. As outward looking a pope as we have had since Leo XIII — as socially and politically concerned — John Paul II nonetheless saw that the solution required him to emphasize, throughout his pontificate, that Thomistic metaphysics demands study. Speaking at his alma mater, the Angelicum, on the anniversary of Aeterni Patris in 1979, he said that “the philosophy of St. Thomas is a philosophy of being, that is, of the ‘act of existing’ (actus essendi) whose transcendental value paves the most direct way to rise to the knowledge of subsisting Being and pure Act, namely to God.” In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, he again warned that theology needs both analytic rigor and a sapiential dimension drawn from a philosophy of being.

The real questions facing John Paul were, first, how to rekindle interest in sapiential philosophy without resorting to ecclesiastical imposition from on high, and, second, how to show its relevance to the practical problems. He found a solution that stood close to the genius of his magisterium. He contended in Fides et Ratio that anthropology is the nexus of the two Thomisms: “Metaphysics should not be seen as an alternative to anthropology, since it is metaphysics which makes it possible to ground the concept of personal dignity in virtue of their spiritual nature. In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry.”

Far from conforming human persons to a philosophical system, the Church has held Thomas as the master because humans themselves thirst for the kind of wisdom Thomas pursued and taught. The metaphysical questions are neither divine nor angelic, but human — because man himself stands at the frontier of matter and spirit. As John Paul II said: “The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity. How could the Church not be concerned by this? It is the Gospel which imposes this sapiential task directly upon her pastors.”

A Teacher On The Integrity Of The Human Person
Some have claimed that, in all this, John Paul II is subordinating both human action and metaphysics to a philosophy of personalism, but that misjudges his steady desire to repristinate (vocab: To restore to an original state) what Leo XIII had proposed in Aeterni Patris. We have come a long way from Pius X when John Paul II insists that the Angelic Doctor should also be called the Doctor Humanitatis. Thomas is recommended not as a tool for weeding out disorder within the Church but rather as a teacher on the integrity of the human person. There can be no social doctrine without reckoning with “the integral truth about what is real.” And there can be no efficacy in a systematic philosophy that loses sight of the vocation of the human knower to the whole of reality.


Some Readings on Jacques and Raissa Maritain

March 19, 2010

First, some reading selections from “The Achievement of Jacques Maritain” by Michael Novak:

An Architect Of Christian Democratic Politics
Although the twentieth century was often proclaimed by the church to be the “Age of the Laity,” it remains true that most Catholic discourse is still taken up with the words of popes, bishops, priests, and sisters. Nonetheless, as in the nineteenth century so in the twentieth, a number of lay men and women have made intellectual contributions to religious discourse of such magnitude as to place not just Roman Catholics but the entire body of Christians in their debt. Of these, no one has been so influential in so many different spheres as Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), a man who, in addition to his intellectual stature, was widely esteemed for his holiness of life.

His range was truly catholic. Perhaps no one in any tradition has written more beautifully of the subject he addressed in his book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. (So lovely is that book that often, while reading it as an undergraduate, I had to put it down and go for a long walk, my heart burning with more than it could bear.) In political and social thought, no Christian bas ever written a more profound defense of the democratic idea and its component parts, such as the dignity of the person, the sharp distinction between society and the state, the role of practical wisdom, the common good, the transcendent anchoring of human rights, transcendent judgment upon societies, and the interplay of goodness and evil in human individuals and institutions. Indeed, in the thrust that this body of thought gave to Christian Democratic parties after World War II, Maritain gained the right to be thought of as one of the architects of Christian Democratic politics both in Europe and Latin America.

A Giant of Catholic Intellectual Life
Nonetheless, it is perhaps in his profound grasp of the metaphysics of the philosophia perennis (vocab: An idea taken up by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who used it to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical streams within them. The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy). that one must seek the essence of Maritain’s achievement. More clearly and subtly than anyone else in modern times, and over a larger body of materials, Maritain grasped the “intuition of being” that animates the deepest stratum of Catholic intellectual life. For him, this was at once an intuition of charity as well as of being. He chose most often to express this intuition philosophically — philosophy, not theology, was his vocation — but his vision of caritas, “the Love that moves the sun and all the stars,” broke through over and over again.

A number of critics have pointed out that of all Maritain’s books no doubt the most seminal, like a pebble plunked in a quiet pool and rippling outwards in ever-expanding circles, is his tiny Existence and the Existent. This “Essay on Christian Existentialism,” a difficult and dense but immensely pregnant book, lies at the heart of his work. Its brief 142 pages were penned in Rome from January through April of 1947, as much of Europe still lay in the ruins of war and as the terribly disappointing Cold War of the subsequent era was just beginning. Its five compact chapters, it is safe to predict, will echo in the world’s thinking for generations to come. Indeed, their full meaning is likely to become more apparent in the future than at the time of the book’s first appearance, as thinkers from other world traditions engage its arguments.

Limits of His Achievements
I would not suggest that there are no faults or limits in Maritain’s achievement. Concerned as much as he was for the poor (or, as he usually expressed it in the vulgar Marxism current at the time, the “workers”), it is surprising how little sustained attention Maritain gave to the most significant new discipline of post-medieval times, political economy, with the accent on economy. Maritain came to the problems of politics and society rather late in his reflections and then, having achieved much, never took up a study of the great economic classics, especially those of the Austrian and Anglo-American worlds. Further, much as he admired the United States — a civilization, he felt, full of reverberations of the realities to which he was trying to point in Integral Humanism — Maritain never fully grappled with such classics of American political economy as The Federalist, his fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or the writings of Abraham Lincoln.

His Writing Style
On the whole, Maritain wrote a beautiful prose, a prose that reaches the heart and the imagination more than that of most philosophers, even while manifesting a Thomist love of exquisite clarity, particularly in the making of distinctions. To read him on any subject is to be forced to look, through such distinctions, from many angles of vision at once. And all for the sake of unity: “To distinguish in order to unite” was a most suitable motto for his life’s work. He had a passion for clear and precise ideas, distinguished sharply from their nearest neighbors, as well as for the relations that tie each idea to every other. Sometimes, indeed, he tried to capture too much at once, piling up within a single sentence distinctions within distinctions or introducing an analogous aside, all the while trying to encapsulate an entire argument. Many of his sentences require rereading. But the effort is almost always worthwhile, for Maritain’s true conversation partners were less his contemporary critics than the classics, whose intricate treasures he did not wish to muffle, encrust, or belittle by oversimplification.

In the autumn of 1960, in one of my first conversations with a full professor in Harvard’s philosophy department, a teacher of metaphysics and ethics who confessed cheerily that he deeply admired Hume’s happy atheism mentioned how nonetheless deeply impressed be bad been with Jacques Maritain during the latter’s presence on campus. “He was perhaps the most saintly philosopher I have ever known,” be said, “gentle, kind, honest, almost childlike. Of course, I didn’t agree with a single position he took. But I did come to admire him a great deal.” This was meant to be a warning to me, of course; I, also a Catholic, should not expect an easy time at Harvard. Yet it was also meant as a token of esteem for a significant tradition and a remarkable thinker: no small tribute considering its source.

Understanding Fragility
That professor’s tribute to Maritain’s saintliness, his gentleness, his childlike manner has remained with me, especially the unusual word (for Harvard), “childlike.” This is, I think, the key to Maritain’s intuition of being, a way of seeing in which so many other philosophers simply could not follow him. Maritain approached each day with a certain wonder — at the color of the sky, the scent of the grass, the feel of the breeze. He marveled that such a world could have come to be. There was, he understood, no necessity in its coming to be. It had happened. Here it was. He could sense it, his every sensible organ alive to its active solicitations of color, sound, scent, taste, and feel. More than that, his intellect would wonder at it, knowing that it did not have to be as it was on that particular day, or on any other day. And it could also cease to be.

Well before the cloudburst of the first atomic bomb, long before a perceived “ecological crisis,” Maritain perceived the fragility of life on earth — not only in his personal mortality, nor even in the fragility of planet earth. Rather, Maritain sensed, in the obscure way of the human intellect at its most childlike and most profound, that all changeable created things— all things short of an Existent necessarily and fully existing in Itself — are fragile and dependent….

Nonetheless, I am emboldened by the recent testimony of my second-favorite atheist humanist, Sidney Hook—Albert Camus still being my first—who just before his death confided to the American Jewish Committee Archives that there were many times in his life, at the height of his powers, that he often felt well up within him the desire to say thanks that things, which might have gone badly, worked out in existence as they had. This barely conscious, intuitive inference seems to me wholly natural. It seems to me also a bit of data about the human intellect that ought never to be lost to the attention of philosophers. Sidney Hook was a supremely honest man, willing to put on the record evidence that went against his own philosophy. True, Hook never understood that bit of data as Maritain did, or accepted the interpretation of human life that went with it, but his experience of the movement of human intellect to utter thanks remains a phenomenon to be explained.

Maritain and Russell Kirk
It is not my intention, however, to spell out the implications that Maritain derived from his intuition of the existent, not at least in the direction of metaphysics, the philosophy of God, or even Jewish and Christian faith. (Maritain was deeply involved through his wife Raissa in questions of Jewish as well as Christian faith; in fact, he may have done as much as any Christian in our time to lay the intellectual groundwork for a special instinct of fraternity among Christians and Jews.) I would prefer here to carry the intuition of the existent into Maritain’s further reflections on politics and society.

For if all of human existence is fragile, even more fragile is human action, above all in the political sphere. Maritain writes in Existence and the Existent that the end of practical wisdom is “not to know that which exists but to cause to exist what is not yet.” Between the cup and the lip, many a slip. It is easier to intend results in ethical or in political action than to achieve those results. Politics, in a language more favored by Reinhold Niebuhr than by Maritain but by no means in conflict with the latter’s, is the realm of the contingent, the ironic, and the tragic.

We might pause here to observe the sharp difference between a Thomist view of politics, such as that of Maritain, and that of classical conservatives such as Russell Kirk. Struck by the contingency and organic relatedness of social institutions, practices, and actions, and dismayed by the Utopian ideologies to which so many modern minds are prone, paleoconservatives (as they now style themselves) such as Kirk are opposed to “ideological infatuation” or even to imagining social projects for the future at all. Considering the projection of social notions into the future to be signs of the disease of “ideology,” such conservatives prefer to let things continue, to move along “organically,” to be. They resist “thinking for the future,” for fear of contamination by ideology. Maritain had a significantly different view. For him (as for Thomas Aquinas), practical intellect is aimed by its very nature not at knowing that which already exists, but at causing to exist what is not yet. Practical intellect is oriented toward the future, more precisely, to changing the future, to making the future different, “to cause to exist what does not yet exist.” For this reason, Maritain did not hesitate in Integral Humanism (1936) to imagine possible futures or to suggest new courses of action that would alter the awful European present in the direction of a better—a more humane, more Christian—proximate future.

Maritain took considerable care not to think in a merely Utopian fashion. But he did not hesitate to try to imagine proximate, achievable next steps, which might in turn lead to yet further achievable steps, toward building up a more humane and more Christian civilization than the world had yet known. In brief, Maritain shared with those who are currently known as neoconservatives a willingness to project a future at once more attractive and more plausible than socialists or others could imagine, a future thoroughly realizable within the bounds of proximate probable developments. Unlike Kirk, Maritain was not willing to embrace social laissez-faire in the political realm, and he was resolutely opposed to mere nostalgia about some supposedly more humane premodern era. Maritain claimed the future. Indeed, insofar as the Christian Democratic parties of Sturzo, de Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer drew crucial inspiration from his work, Maritain may be said to have in fact caused to exist much that had not existed before him.

Charity and Wisdom
In this sense, Aquinas is properly called the “first Whig” because his ethics and his politics did lay claims upon the future, did inspire, down the ages, a search for political institutions worthy of the rational, consensual dignity of humans. This is the sense in which Maritain was able in Christianity and Democracy, Man and the State, and other works to claim for a specific idea of democracy the support of the main spine of the Christian intellectual tradition. For this tradition nourished over the centuries the slow emergence of the ideal of a civilized politics, a politics of civil conversation, of noncoercion, of the consent of the governed, of pluralism, of religious liberty, of respect for the inalienable dignity of every human person, of voluntary cooperation in pursuit of the common good, and of checks and balances against the wayward tendencies of sinful men and women. As we shall see presently, Maritain did not claim too much for the historical efficacy of the Christian intellectual tradition; he chastised its failures severely and gave credit to nonbelievers for crucial advances. But neither did he wish to claim too little.

Here it is necessary to see how profound was Maritain’s understanding of the hold that the ideal of caritas had upon the political thinking of Thomas Aquinas. Maritain held that action in the world — whether ethical action among individuals or political action among systems, institutions, and groups — is always action among existents, among real sinners and saints and all those in between, not among purely “rational agents.” For him, realistic thinking about ethics and politics could not be conducted wholly within the boundaries of philosophy; theology was necessarily required.

Why? Because ethics and politics are about the real, existing world, and in this existing world humans are not purely rational agents but, rather, fallen creatures redeemed by grace on the condition that they are willing to accept God’s action within them. To proceed in purely philosophical categories about ethics and politics would be Utopian; one must deal with real, existing creatures locked in the actual historical drama of sin and grace.

That is why, in explicating “the fundamentally existential character of Thomist ethics,” Maritain stresses two points, one regarding charity, the other regarding practical wisdom or prudence. Concerning the first, he writes:

St. Thomas teaches that perfection consists in charity, and that each of us is bound to tend towards the perfection of love according to his condition and in so far as it is in his power. All morality thus hangs upon that which is most existential in the world. For love (this is another Thomist theme) does not deal with possibles or pure essences, it deals with existents. We do not love possibles, we love that which exists or is destined to exist.

Regarding practical wisdom, Maritain makes two extremely subtle points whose fullness I will not be able to reproduce. The first is that, at the heart of concrete existence, when an actual person is confronted with a set of particulars among which to decide to act, that person’s appetite—that person’s will or secret and deepest loves—enters into the quality of his or her perception of alternatives. More than that, for Aquinas, the rectitude of an existing person’s intellect depends upon the rectitude of his existing loves. This is a powerfully realistic doctrine. Intellect follows love, and if the love is errant so also will be the judgment of practical intellect or “conscience.” Although, for Maritain as for Aquinas, practical intellect still exerts a major discipline over the soul (over its loves, for example), nonetheless, here and now, under the immediate pressures of choice, the predispositions of one’s loves are highly likely to bend the intellect to their purposes. (Were not David Hume and Adam Smith, under different background assumptions but with the same Augustinian sense for real experience, to make an analogous point?)

Hence, for Aquinas, there is necessary in one’s ethical formation in advance of such choices a deep and profound habit of disciplining and directing one’s loves, seducing them so to speak, so that in every case they will love the good, the true, and the just, and be habituated to being restless with anything less. Absent a right will, a right practical intelligence will also be absent. In doing what they think is best, those whose loves are disordered will distort even their own intellects. As they love, so will they perceive. “Love is blind,” we say, meaning that, disordered, it is more powerful than light, obscures the light, and darkens the eye of intelligence itself.

The second subtle point that Maritain makes about practical intellect begins again with the fact that ethical and political action are always about existents. This time he points out that such action always faces two wholly singular, unrepeatable realities: first, the singular character, here and now, of this particular agent; and, second, the singular, never-to-be-repeated circumstances of the here and now. For these reasons, practical wisdom is utterly different from science. Whereas scientific judgment depends upon regularities, moral judgment must cope with singulars. “The same moral case never appears twice in the world. To speak absolutely strictly, precedent does not exist.” Practical wisdom concerns unprecedented singulars (“Useless to thumb through the dictionary of cases of conscience!”). At the same time, however, its point is “not to know that which exists, but to cause that to exist which is not yet,” and so it is moved by the appetite of will or love that thrusts us toward creating something new, whether of evil or of good.

Building A Humane, Christian Society
From this discussion of the sheer existing of ethical and political action—here and now, singular, unprecedented, unrepeatable—it follows that building a humane, Christian society is an uncertain business. It cannot be built upon any institutional framework at all; it has preconditions; many things can go wrong. Thus, to be faithful to the full measure of Christian intellectual conviction about the dignity (and fallibility) of the human person, about civilization as a state of society characterized by uncoerced decisions arrived at through civil discourse, and about the pull upon human love of God’s own command of love, new forms of social institutions will have to be labored towards in history, and not without setbacks. For reasons Maritain articulates at some length, a certain kind of democracy, guarded against the diseases to which “pure” democracies are prey, best represents the full flowering of human practical wisdom about the sorts of institutions worthy of Jewish and Christian thought. This particular kind of democratic reality gives the broken world some hope for a better future.

Maritain is not unsophisticated about democracy. He knows, writing in 1944 in the depths of destruction, that “the very name democracy has a different ring in America and in Europe.” And before proceeding very far on this subject in Christianity and Democracy, Maritain makes three important distinctions, each of which he discusses at more length than we can here duplicate. “First, the word democracy, as used by modern peoples, has a wider meaning than in the classical treatises on the science of government. It designates first and foremost a general philosophy of human and political life.” Its inner dynamism, although consistent with a monarchic regime and even other classic “regimes” or “forms of government,” leads “in the words of Abraham Lincoln,” to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democratic regimes are not the only good regimes, but all good regimes will have to embody the dynamism of respect for free persons and their consent.

Second, Maritain argues that democracy after the war will certainly have to be ordered democracy, based on constitutions that have at least three characteristics: formation through the consent of the governed; protection of “the essential bases of common life, respect for human dignity and the rights of the person”; and grounding in a “long process of education.” This long process of education will be necessary to lead peoples away from habits of dictatorship, nationalistic impulses, and the mental sloth of unfree and coercively minded peoples. It will have to lead them towards the “slow and difficult construction” of new habits in the temporal life of nations, supportive of “the soul of democracy,” that is, “the law of brotherly love and the spiritual dignity of the person.”

By these first two distinctions, Maritain shows that he intends what in the United States we mean by a democratic republic, protective of the rights of the person. He means no totalitarian or merely majoritarian democracy, but limited government, grounded in a tradition of sound habits, associations, and institutions. Moreover, he means a set of principles not exhausted by any one form of regime, and yet capable of distinguishing false from true ideas of democracy.

Then, by his third distinction, Maritain makes clear both that Christian faith cannot be made subservient to democracy as a philosophy of life and that democracy cannot claim to be the only form of regime demanded by Christian belief. He intends “by no means to pretend that Christianity is linked to democracy and that a Christian faith compels every Christian to be a democrat.” To so argue would be to mix the things of Caesar and the things of God. Nonetheless, Maritain does affirm “that democracy is linked to Christianity and that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.”

Christianity In The World
Maritain does not believe that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees Christianity “as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.” Maritain is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: “It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.” He knows full well the many non-Christian sources of the democratic impulse: “Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.”

Once again, Maritain is interested in existents, not essences. In the existing world of 1944, “The chances of religion, conscience, and civilization coincide with those of freedom; freedom’s chances coincide with those of the evangelical message.” The terrors of war have obliged the democracies to rethink their spiritual foundations so as to recover their spiritual energies and humanizing mission. They dare not go back to what they were before. The demands of ‘the human spirit for the time include authentic understandings, many of them rooted in the Gospels and in the deepest Christian intellectual traditions, about the nature of human existents. But these have not always been best expressed, or best developed in practical life, by believers.

It is clear that Maritain considers the Christian message about the cry of the poor for justice to be a motor of human temporal improvement. He holds simultaneously that existing democratic ideas, traditions, and institutions were often championed in actual history by those who were non-Christians or even anti-Christian; and yet that, in building better than they knew, such persons were often generating in human temporal life constructs whose foundations were not only consistent with Jewish and Christian convictions about the realities of ethical and political life, but in a sense dependent on them. Pull out from under democratic principles the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity about the transcendent dignity of the person and the human propensity to sin, and the existing edifice of democratic thought is exposed to radical doubt.

Thus, Maritain argued, existing democratic institutions need to be grounded on a deeper, sounder foundation of intellectual conviction and moral habits than had been achieved in previous history. He urged Christians to take up this work both in intellect and in active practice. He saw a great deal to be done, both intellectually and morally, in the “slow and difficult construction” of a more humane world, whether considered from a Christian or a humanistic viewpoint.

Reading Selections from Raissa Maritain: Philosopher, Poet, Mystic by Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P.

Her Life and Work
Raïssa’s understanding of her Hasidic heritage is best seen in her description of the work and personality of another Russian Jew, her friend Marc Chagall:

“The tender spiritual joy that permeates his work was born with him in Vitebsk, in Russian soil, in Jewish soil. It is thus penetrated with melancholy, pierced by the sting of nostalgia and a hard-pressed hope. Truly, Jewish joy is not like any other; one might say that by sending its roots deeply into the reality of life, Jewish joy simultaneously draws from this reality the tragic sense of its fragility and of death.”

With images drawn from Chagall’s paintings, Raïssa continues:

“The Jewish bride cries under the wedding canopy. The little Jew who dances does not lose the memory of his misery; by dancing he mocks it and accepts it as his divine lot. If he sings, he sings with sighs; for he is penetrated with the past sufferings of his people and his soul is bathed in the prophetic awareness of the unimaginable sufferings that are reserved for it. Did not God forewarn them about it? Did not God take the trouble, something he did not do for any other people, to tell them through the prophet Isaiah, through Jeremiah and the other great voices of the Bible, about the purifications that his love reserves for them? They know all of these things, those Jews who have not given themselves over to the secular world, but are bathed each day in the living waters of the Scriptures. They know these things, the Jews of Chagall.”

Raïssa Maritain was also to know them. In describing Chagall’s art, she describes herself. Her life and work were also suffused with a “tender spiritual joy” that was “penetrated with melancholy,” and “pierced by the sting of nostalgia and a hard-pressed hope.” The song she sings throughout her writings, she sings with sighs: she too was permeated with the past sufferings of her people; her soul too was bathed in the awareness of the sufferings that are reserved for all wayfarers on earth. By the time she wrote her reflections on Chagall, she had already long discovered the mystery of human suffering revealed in Christ. Yet, that was later. First, she was to undergo exile and a painful search for meaning.

Meeting Jacques Maritain
When Raïssa began her studies at the University of Paris she was seventeen years old and the year was 1900. It was a time of great scientific achievement and the Sorbonne was one of its centers. Marie and Pierre Curie, for example, had discovered radium there only two years before. It was natural, therefore, for Raïssa to turn to the sciences for the answers she sought. To her dismay, however, she soon discovered that her professors were either strict materialists or simply did not pose for themselves philosophical questions concerning truth and meaning. Hope began to wane in her heart. Yet, she also continued to await “some great event, some perfect fulfillment.”8 The first step toward that fulfillment came when she met the man who would become her greatest companion during her earthly pilgrimage.

Almost from the moment that Jacques Maritain introduced himself to Raïssa Oumansov they became inseparable. They were both students at the Sorbonne, he a year older than she, and they both were searching for the meaning of their lives. Jacques Maritain came from a family that embodied the values of the French Revolution.” Maritain offers a revealing description of these values in his account of the intellectual outlook that filled the home of his closest boyhood friend, Renan’s grandson, Ernest Psichari. He explains that his friend’s home was suffused by:

a spirit of moral inquiry that was extremely broad and lofty, but foreign to all metaphysical certainty, a marked tendency to ignore the conflicts created by the opposition of intellectual principles. You did not fight Christianity, you were deeply persuaded that you had assimilated it and outgrown it.

Maritain was raised in a similar intellectual climate. He early discovered, however, what many others of his generation would one day recognize: the metaphysical agnosticism that was their heritage was too thin a soil for the sense of justice that burned in their hearts. To withstand the winds of tyranny, justice needs deep roots and a rich soil in which to sink them. It was during his search for that rich metaphysical soil that Jacques encountered Raïssa. In the friendship that grew between them, they undertook the search together.

As they pursued their studies, the calm materialism and convinced atheism of their science professors left them cold. The philosophers at the Sorbonne were equally disappointing to them.

“Our teachers were philosophers, yet they in fact had lost all hope in philosophy…. Through some curious de facto contradiction, they sought to verify everything by processes of material learning and of positive verification, and yet they despaired of truth, whose very name was unlovely to them and could be used only between the quotation marks of a disillusioned smile.”

The cumulative effect of their years of study led Raïssa and Jacques to the threshold of despair. For Raïssa, her exile from the homeland of faith that began when her family first left Russia was now reaching its lowest ebb.

We swam aimlessly in the waters of observation and experience like a fish in the depths of the sea, without ever seeing the sun whose dim rays filtered down to us,… And sadness pierced me, the bitter taste of the emptiness of a soul which saw the lights go out, one by one.

In the midst of their distress, Jacques and Raïssa reached a fateful decision that would shape the rest of their lives. While strolling through Paris beloved Jardin des Plantes they both agreed that if it were impossible to know the truth, to distinguish good from evil, just from unjust, then it was impossible to live with dignity. In such a case it would be better to die young through suicide than to live an absurdity. Something, however, kept them from taking that final step. Their refusal to accept the absurd and their desire to know truth, a desire that caused them great suffering, seemed to point to something beyond the absurd.

What saved us then, what made our real despair still a conditional despair was precisely our suffering. That almost unconscious dignity of the mind saved our minds through the presence of an element which could not be reduced to the absurdity into which everything seemed to be trying to lead us.

Thus, they decided to give “the unknown” a chance to explain itself to them and to reveal a truth that they could live by.

Léon Bloy And Baptism Into The Catholic Church
In the days that followed, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain were to discover the wondrous fact that the Unknown God “desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God in his great mercy led them to Christ, to baptism in the Catholic Church and to the consolation of the Eucharist. Their way to faith in Christ had many twists and turns. It led from the philosopher Henri Bergson, through the writings of Plotinus and Ruysbroeck, and finally by way of Maeterlinck to the writer and fiery lay preacher, Leon Bloy.

In reading Bloy’s great novel, The Woman Who Was Poor, the Maritains encountered the profile and the grandeur of the Christian saint. “What struck us so forcibly on first reading La Femme Pauvre was the immensity of this believer’s soul, his burning zeal for justice, the beauty of a lofty doctrine which for the first time rose up before our eyes.” Upon meeting Bloy and his family, they were even more impressed. His poverty, his faith, his heroic independence, all spoke to the young Maritains of the life-giving mystery of Christ. Entering Bloy’s home seemed to them a homecoming. They recognized in his description of sanctity and in his efforts to live it — with its zeal for divine justice, its desire for truth and its tender love for the afflicted — the image of the longings present in their own hearts.

Equally important for Raïssa was Bloy’s book Le Salut par les Juifs (Salvation through the Jews). Although Bloy’s earthy and prophetic style was often offensive to the very people he intended to defend, Raissa recognized in Bloy’s description of the vocation of the Jewish people the key to solving the problem that had plagued her since childhood: the problem of God and suffering. The key was Christ. Paradoxically, by leading Raïssa to Christ, Bloy gave back to her the Jewish faith of her childhood, now brought to completion in the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. Bloy was explaining something to Raïssa that she somehow already sensed: the salvific power of human suffering when in God’s grace it is united to the sufferings of Christ.

Léon Bloy was perhaps the most remarkable figure to arise in France at the twilight of the nineteenth century. Destitute, constantly harassed by creditors, with a wife and two children to feed, Bloy spent his life thundering against France’s rejection of God and the lukewarm complacency of those believers who still remained. At the very moment when Paris was preparing to celebrate its paean to human progress — the Exposition of 1900 — Bloy was telling France to prepare for the destruction that would befall her: “The Exposition … ought not to take place, because Paris and all nations will have enough to do with hardening their sinews against death.” When war finally did come, with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Bloy remarked that it was “only the beginning.”

In 1916, in the preface of Au Seuil del’ Apocalypse (At the Threshold of the Apocalypse ), Bloy writes, “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a nation was found to undertake something that had never been seen since the beginning of History: THE EXTINCTION OF SOULS. This was called German Culture.”

This hyperbolic assessment, so characteristic of Bloy, pointed out a real truth: something was terribly wrong in Germany, and it was spreading. Bloy was particularly concerned with the new strain of anti-Semitism that was arising around him. It was no longer this or that individual Jew or community of Jews that was being attacked. Jews were now in danger as an entire race. Remarkably, Bloy was writing this in 1916

Bloy’s message was not solely a message of destruction. He also spoke of a coming renewal. Christians would have to suffer, but united to Christ their sufferings would purify them and help many souls find the healing love of God. Mysteriously, in Bloy’s view, the sufferings of the Jews were a sign that pointed to the Christ, their fellow Jew who suffered with them. Bloy’s mission, as he saw it, was to help France prepare to walk with Christ the way of Calvary so that the Church might be renewed.

Raïssa was receptive to Bloy’s message. In 1906, with Jacques and Vera, she was baptized into the Catholic Church, with Léon and Jeanne Bloy as her godparents. From that point on, Raïssa began to discern the features of her vocation. She was being called to live in union with Christ. She was also being invited, through a life of prayer and study, to put into words — in prose and poetry — the truths she was now discovering in Christ. In the years that followed, physical and emotional suffering would never be far from her, but there was also peace and a quiet joy. She was strengthened by the growing conviction that in Christ her sufferings were secretly working for the good of souls. The life that she and Jacques were to live in the service of the Church is best understood as an effort to live Bloy’s vision.

The House in Meudon
The years between their baptism and the outbreak of the First World War were a time of spiritual gestation for the Maritains, and for many others in Europe. Those years saw the conversion of Jacques’ sister and Raïssa’s father. A number of their friends also converted at this time, including two who had become dear to many in France through their writings and exploits: Jacques’ boyhood friend, Ernest Psichari, and his early mentor, Charles Péguy. During those years, Jacques and Raïssa with her sister Vera became Benedictine oblates, establishing together a domestic community of prayer and study. Jacques and Raïssa had decided to live as brother and sister, forsaking marital intimacy and the joys of raising a family in order to dedicate themselves more deeply to their vocation to serve the truth. It was also during those years that the Maritians discovered Thomas Aquinas and began, under the guidance of their Dominican mentors, to study his works in depth.

Although Jacques was already beginning to become known in France through his articles, it was only after the First World War that his life as a philosopher began in earnest. Having received a bequest in support of his work from a soldier killed at the front, the Maritains were able to buy a home in Meudon, a village not far from Paris, and bring their plans to fruition. They could live a life of prayer and study, and make their home a center for Catholic thought and culture, under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas. Their home became a place where artists and intellectuals could find friendship and lively discussion. The guest lists to their home during those years read like a Who’s Who of the Catholic intellectual revival in France. It was during the Meudon years that Raïssa’s public life as a writer and a poet began.

Raïssa’s Writings
Raïssa Maritain’s first publication was the slender La Vie d’Oraison (Prayer and Intelligence), a work she wrote with Jacques as a spiritual guidebook for the Thomistic study groups she and Jacques had formed. The goal of this little work was to convey to the members of the study groups the priority of prayer and Christian love for progress in the intellectual life: “the intelligence itself can only develop its highest powers in so far as it is protected and fortified by the peace given by prayer. The closer a soul approaches God by love, the simpler grows the gaze of her intelligence and the clearer her vision.” The intellectual life, therefore, must be fortified by the contemplative life if it is to make real progress in discovering truth and in leading others to know and love the truth.

Raïssa took to heart the message of her book and strove to live it. From the earliest days of her conversion she felt an intense call to contemplative prayer. It was during this period that Raïssa began to write her Journal, which was published only after her death. With arresting clarity she describes the Lord’s action in her life and her struggles to understand and respond. Brief insights — “To love and understand one’s neighbor one must forget oneself” — are interspersed with descriptions of her struggles and pearls of calm wisdom, such as the following:

“Error is like the foam on the waves; it eludes our grasp and keeps reappearing. The soul must not exhaust itself fighting against the foam. Its zeal must be purified and calmed and, by union with the divine Will, it must gather strength from the depths. And Christ, with all his merits and the merits of all the saints, will do his work deep down below the surface of the waters. And everything that can be saved will be saved.”

The journal also provides the record of her awareness that the Lord was inviting her to accept a share in his suffering:

“During silent prayer I feel inwardly solicited to abandon myself to God, and not only solicited but effectively inclined to do it, and do it, feeling that it is for a trial, for a suffering, for which my consent is thus demanded. I make this act of abandon in spite of my natural cowardice.”

Her Poetry
It was during these years at Meudon that Raïssa received the gift of poetry: “He who would know the depths of the spirit or, if you will, the spirituality of being, begins by entering into himself. And it is also in the inwardness of life, of thought, of conscience that he encounters Poetry, if he be destined to encounter it.” In the depths of her prayer, Raïssa encountered Poetry. Poems became a way for her to express her inner experiences. While specialists have noted the technical limitations present in a number of her poems, her best pieces succeed in making the ordinary events of life glow with “spiritual transparency.” One finds here themes that recur throughout her works: the sudden encounter with God in the ordinary (“The Cloud”); the mystery of moral evil and natural beauty (“The Fall of Icarus”); the workings of God’s providence in the midst of human sinfulness (“Meditation”); and the ever present mystery of Christ’s suffering and our vocation to participate in it (“O Cross”). In all, Raïssa wrote close to ninety poems, published in four different collections, and brought together into one volume by Jacques after her death. For those who have the patience to let the poet’s art speak to them, her poems are of enduring value.

Darkness below and darkness above;
Under Archangel’s black wing
The plan of God unfolds.

Creation’s paradox is infinite
Eternity is being made of time,
Imperishable good by evil fostered.

Humanity plods onward seeking justice
On lazy by-ways of iniquity,
And the deceits and errors of today
Tomorrow’s truth will serve.

The little good,
Through unavailing it may seem
To overcome disaster in our time,
Contains the seed of love’s eternal tree

The Fall of Icarus
A branch in flower frames the sea.
Some ships dream of the universe; On shore the sheep stand drowsily.
Icarus has fallen from the sky
With a sea-gull’s downard dive.
In noon-day sun creation sleeps –
The world, serene, its beauty keeps.

O Cross
O Cross you divide the heart,
O Cross you split the world,
Cross divine and wood of bitterness,
Bloodstained price of the Beatitudes,
Royal rood, imperious impress,
Most sombre Cross, gibbet of God,
Star of Mysteries,
Key to certitude.

The Cloud
A cloud in the sky,
Ezechiel’s chariot
Flashing by.

In the meadow see
Under the peach tree
Roses glow,
Then you appear

And the tears flow
In the thin air
Upon your face
O messenger.


Reading Selections from “René Girard for Holy Week” by Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

March 11, 2010

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the Catholic seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. As you know I have featured a number of posts on Girard, whose theories I find fascinating. In this article, published in First Things (You can find the original here.) back in 2007, he looks at Girardian theory from a Catholic perspective. Exactly what I was looking  for. I’ve grouped the posts on Girardian Theory in the category “Understanding Violence.”

A Key To All Mythologies
To read René Girard is to want to slap one’s forehead and say, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?” If I might pump up the volume on my praise a bit more, he is the direct opposite of that sad figure in George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch , the Rev. Mr. Casaubon, who spent his whole adult life pathetically trying to complete a “Key to All Mythologies,” a project that brought both him and his marriage to ruin. But Girard has pulled it off, at least in my estimation: Here we do have a key to all mythologies.

The Challenge of Blameless Tragedies
Although he started off as a medieval historian, Girard became more and more interested in literary criticism — to be sure, in the dreary debunking mode that would soon become the métier of the deconstructionists. But his outlook made a significant turn when, in the spring of 1959, he began work on a study of five novelists (Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoyevsky) that eventually was published as Desire, Deceit, and the Novel . He had been an agnostic for the previous twenty-six years, but a health scare forced him to reconsider his past convictions, abetted by the experience of his brother’s suicide earlier, where he noticed how difficult it was for his family to come to terms with that tragedy without apportioning blame.

The combination of these two events must have got under his skin while he was writing the book, for Desire, Deceit, and the Novel bears no resemblance to the poststructuralist efforts common in France at that time. As he recounted in an interview in 1997, he discovered that his earlier constant reliance on the “hermeneutics of suspicion” — always harping on the bad faith of the writers he was studying — was gradually leading him to a concept of original sin: “An experience of demystification if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.” And so we are not surprised to learn that, while writing Desire, Deceit, and the Novel, he returned to his Catholic faith.

Mimetic Desire
As an added bonus, Desire, Deceit, and the Novel is brilliant, a tour de force of teeming insights, one piled on another — proof that literary criticism can sometimes make for a thrilling read. Taking a cue from Aristotle’s remark in his Poetics that “man is distinguished from the other animals by his capacity for imitation,” Girard saw how each of his chosen novelists depicted a protagonist who was besotted by a literary model he or she wanted to mimic.

Thus Don Quixote spent his life trying to emulate the fictional knight Amadis de Gaul; Madame Bovary modeled her life on the adulteresses she read about in romances; and the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time openly says, “I was incapable of seeing a thing unless a desire to do so had been aroused in me by reading.” In Notes from Underground , the narrator — a petty bureaucrat obsessed by what others (might) think of him — crashes a banquet put on by his former school chums (now mostly successful army officers) and tries to be noticed, all the while loathing them: “Smiling scornfully, I paced backwards and forwards on the side of the room opposite the sofa. . . . I was trying with all my might to show that I could do without them; meanwhile, I purposely made a clatter with my boots, coming down hard on my heels. But it was all in vain; they didn’t even notice.”

“Every man hath business and desire,” says Hamlet to Horatio, and that’s the key to Girard: Besides the needs we share with the other animals, we also have desires, or more exactly, learned desires — born purely out of imagination and mimicry — which Girard dubs “mimetic desires.” (Think here of the advertising and fashion industries, the “worship” of Hollywood stars, on and on, and everything Girard says falls into place.) But as Quixote, Bovary, and the “underground man” all show, these desires can never be fulfilled. In a deft formulation, Girard says that “masochists are always fascinated artisans of their own unhappiness.”

The Scapegoat
This inevitable frustration (trying to satisfy the demands of mimetic desires) always leads to resentment, which will collectively build up in society until it gets focused, like lightning in a charged atmosphere, and lands on a scapegoat. But the scapegoat can only purge this collective frustration when the sacrifice of the victim becomes society’s conscious act, meaning when the scapegoat is ritually slaughtered. This is the insight of Girard’s next great book Violence and the Sacred , whose title nicely encapsulates, and is encapsulated by, this central thesis: “Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.”

Girard’s anthropological book is interesting in its own right, but I want to get to Girard’s later discussion of the Bible in perhaps his most theological work, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning . In this fascinating book, Girard shows no worries about some obvious formal parallels with the scapegoating rituals of other societies and the Christian doctrine of the Atonement.

Scapegoating And Christ’s Victimhood
He does not feel threatened by these parallels because he also sees a fundamental difference between scapegoating and Christ’s victimhood. In a provocative essay, “Nietzsche and the Crucified” (in The Girard Reader ), he remarks: “Resentment is the interiorization of weakened vengeance. Nietzsche suffers so much from it that he mistakes it for the original and primary form of vengeance. He sees resentment not merely as the child of Christianity, which it certainly is, but also as its father, which it certainly is not.”

Given the sordid history of Christian anti-Semitism, witch burning, heretic hunting, and the like, this gnomic passage might sound like special pleading on Girard’s part. But his retort to that more-than-obvious objection is subtle: Because of its doctrine of the Atonement, Christianity is uniquely placed to recognize these episodes as rank deviations from its true message; and thus it is from Christianity that society has learned to take the side of the victim. As he says in The Scapegoat:

The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. The modern Western world has forgotten [Christian] revelation in favor of its by-products, making them weapons and instruments of power; and now the process has turned against it. Believing itself a liberator, it discovers its role as a persecutor.

Liberalism’s Narcissistic Pro-Victim Indulgences
If you want to know why liberalism instinctively identifies with certain classes of favored victims but is so ruthless in its politics, there’s your answer. Crying crocodile tears over the genocide in Sudan is permitted provided we don’t do anything about it; and while we’re at it, let’s enjoy watching White House aides get their just deserts in court. Still, that’s better than approving the Islamist government of Sudan perpetrating the genocide. And that vestigial identification with the victim we owe to Christianity, however reluctant we are to act on our narcissistic pro-victim indulgences. As Michael Kirwin, author of a fine (if occasionally repetitious) monograph, Discovering Girard , says: When we see the scapegoating mechanism at work, this “makes us instinctive partisans for the victim. This history is the product not of an Enlightenment rationality, banishing the darkness of religious superstition, but of the evangelical impulse itself.” Even as early as Desire, Deceit, and the Novel, Girard was on to this liberal ruse:

Promethean philosophy sees in the Christian religion only a humanism which is still too timid for complete self-assertion. The novelist, regardless of whether he is a Christian, sees in the so-called modern humanism a subterranean metaphysics which is incapable of recognizing its own nature.

In another book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World , Girard drives home this point even more polemically, when he points out that utopianism (that ultimate project of imaginative mimetic desire, now become a full-blown monstrous Leviathan) issues directly out of modern humanism and is its true “subterranean metaphysic”:

The more people think they are realizing the utopias dreamed up by their desire — in other words, the more they embrace ideologies of liberation — the more they will in fact be working to reinforce the competitive world that is stifling them. . . . All modern thought is falsified by a mystique of transgression, which it falls back into even when it is trying to escape.

Again, if you want to know why contemporary art keeps preening itself on its “daring transgressions,” you’ll find the answer in Girard. Also, if you’re a puzzled secularist, wondering why religion is making such a comeback in the headlines, you need only go to Girard for the answer. As Kirwin rightly notes: “Girard has explicitly distanced himself from Marcel Gauchet’s claim that Christianity has brought about the end of religion in the world. Rather, he suggests our current humanism will be perceived as merely a short interval between two forms of religion.” (I don’t think Girard has been at all taken off-guard by the resurgence of militant Islam.)

Of course, that still leaves open the question of what that “second form” of religion will look like in the future, to which Girard has only this quintessentially Christian answer to give: “What makes our hearts turn to stone is the discovery that, in one sense or another, we are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers. . . . One thing alone can put an end to this infernal ordeal, the certainty of being forgiven.”

So What Is God Doing In All This?

All well and good. I hope readers of this short panegyric will find Girard as helpful in their Holy Week meditations as I have. But I can’t help but feel that he has left one question hovering unaddressed: theology. As he said in a passing remark in the introduction to I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “[This] present book means to be a defense of our Judaic and Christian tradition, an apology of Christianity rooted in what amounts to a Gospel-inspired breakthrough in the field of social science, not of theology.”

Perhaps I say this because I’m a theologian by craft, but that concession seems to leave a lot of questions hanging — above all this one: What is God doing in all this? After all, the Bible says that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” and that Christ “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself of his divinity, taking on the form of a man, indeed of a slave, being obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Both these verses use active verbs and thereby assert a direct divine involvement in the cross. Indeed, this is what the doctrine of the Atonement as understood by all the ancient fathers and medieval theologians means. (Anselm is especially clear on this point.)

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Criticism
Not surprisingly, that most Anselmian of contemporary theologians, the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, took issue with Girard on just this point — most directly in the fourth volume of his Theo-Drama , subtitled The Action (or “plot”). There he points out, tellingly, that in Violence and the Sacred the words God and Christ never appear (although Balthasar concedes God and Christ are present throughout the book implicitly). But, more to the point, Girard adopts a position on the Atonement, Balthasar claims, that is oddly redolent of the early Karl Barth:

Girard’s synthesis is a closed system, since it wants to be “purely scientific,” jettisoning all “moribund metaphysics.” All philosophy is secularized religion, and religion owes its existence to the covert scapegoat mechanism. There is therefore no such thing as a “natural” concept of God. This brings us back to the “theology” of the young Barth (and also to Barth’s later theology insofar as he regards the analogy of being “as the invention of the Anti-Christ”); for Girard, religion is the invention of Satan.

Yes, Girard is surely Catholic in his deepest instincts. He accepts Christ’s divinity and his birth from the Virgin, for example. But by accepting these doctrines, Balthasar points out, Girard has “explode[d] his allegedly pure scientism.” Perhaps this is why we always hear the words power and violence in Girard but rarely the word justice. “Can it be proved scientifically,” Balthasar asks, “that the justice for which men long is nothing but power in disguise?” (Odd how Girard echoes here not just the early Barth but also the mature Nietzsche.)

Here’s the real problem: By completely bracketing out the question of divine involvement in the event of the cross, Girard cannot make clear how Christ can bear the world’s sin “unless we suppose that men themselves load this sin onto him.” But, for Girard, what are these “sins” that men pile on him? Without an adequate concept of justice, whether philosophical or theological, Girard cannot even speak of sin, properly defined:

Girard maintains a complete hiatus between naturalism and theology; they are not even linked by an ethics. In his view, the “omnipresence of violence” means that distinction between “good” and “evil” is illusory [another Nietzschean motif!]. Accordingly, he does not speak of “sin” but of “hostility.”

All that said (and I think Balthasar’s objections hit their target), Girard is no doubt an immensely fertile thinker, even — and perhaps especially — for the theologian. A careful study of this prodigious mind opens up vistas that are hard to gainsay. Not least, he shows how superficial are those liberal objections to the Atonement, now heard so often, that the New Testament’s doctrine of the Atonement is but a Jewish or pagan projection of patriarchal child abuse onto the godhead. (Not for nothing do many feminists object to Girard, prompting one dissenter in their ranks, Jennifer L. Rike, to wonder aloud if their criticisms might not indicate a reluctance to confront the issue of violence in women as well as in men, as Kirwin rightly notes.)

The issue of sacrifice, no matter how primitive it might seem to us in our sanitized culture — where we studiously ignore even so obvious a fact as how meat reaches our tables — just won’t go away; in fact, it comes close to reaching the very core of the gospel. For making that clear in our obtuse age, we owe a debt of gratitude to Girard. As Balthasar says, “Girard’s system, with its clear, inherent contradictions, has brought us face to face with this very concrete question [of God's involvement in the Atonement], and to that extent it has rendered us a service.”


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