In the House of Wisdom

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Continuing with C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress. John has grown up and left to pursue the vision of his Island, which filled him with immense longing. The path westward toward the Island is interrupted by something like the Grand Canyon (most likely representing sin), which no one can cross. John and his companion, Vertue, travel north and south along the canyon seeking help from several people representing different world views and ways of life, but no one understands or believes his goal is real. (Mother Kirk is the exception, but they reject her offer of guidance.) Vertue has become very sick and weak from these interactions and needs healing. And then they arrive at the house of Mr. Wisdom. Here, in allegorical form, is a defense of Longing, the desire for something this world can never satisfy.

Old Mr. Wisdom sits them down on his porch, looking west, and begins to speak.

From The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book VII, chapter 9.

“The words between you and and Reason were true. What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring. If water will not set a man at ease, then be sure it not thirst, or not thirst only, that tormented him: he wanted drunkenness to cure his dullness, or talk to cure his solitude, or the like. How, indeed, do we know our desires save by their satisfaction? When do we know them until we say, “Ah, this was what I wanted”? And if there were any desire which it was natural for man to feel but impossible for man to satisfy, would not the nature of this desire remain to him always ambiguous?

“If old tales were true, if a man without putting off humanity could indeed pass the frontiers of our country, if he could be, and yet be a man, in that fabled East and fabled West, then indeed at the moment of fruition, the raising of the cup, the assumption of the crown, the kiss of the spouse–then first, to his backward glance, the long roads of desire that he had trodden would become plain in all their winding, and when he found, he would know what it was that he had sought.

A lady named Contemplation takes John by moonlight to see the island.
Illustration by Michael Hague (c) 1981

“I am old and full of tears, and I see that you also begin to feel the sorrow that is born with us. Abandon hope: do not abandon desire. Feel no wonder that these glimpses of your Island so easily confuse themselves with viler things, and are so easily blasphemed. Above all, never try to keep them, never try to revisit the same place or time wherein the vision was accorded to you. You will pay the penalty of all who could bind down to one place or time within our country that which our country cannot contain. Have you not heard from the Steward of the sin of idolatry, and how, in their old chronicles, the manna turned to worms if any tried to hoard it? Be not greedy, be not passionate; you will but crush dead on your own breast with hot, rough hands the thing loved. But if ever you incline to doubt that the thing you long for is something real, remember what your own experience has taught you.

“Think that it is a feeling, and at once the feeling has no value. Stand sentinel at your own mind, watching for that feeling, and you will find–what shall I say?–a flutter in the heart, an image in the head, a sob in the throat: and was that your desire? You know that it was not, and that not feeling whatever will appease you, that feeling, refine it a you will, is but one more spurious claimant–spurious as the gross lusts of which the giant* speaks.

“Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember “it is” you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it….”

***

*The Spirit of the Age, Freudianism, which says spiritual longing is merely disguised sexual desire.

Afterword

Wisdom is not the lady Wisdom of the Bible; he is philosophical idealism. In the next chapter John discovers that Wisdom’s children do not adhere to his strict diet. They enjoy rich foods from other world-views and their own views are all over the map: the children of philosophical idealism include Marx, Herbert Spencer, Spinoza, Rudolf Steiner, Kant, and Bernard Bosanquet (an obscure figure to me, he was a 19th century English philosophical idealist and neo-Hegelian).

In his next session with John, Wisdom explains philosophical idealism without, of course, calling it that. The explanation is allegorical, like the rest of the novel, and terse. But those qualities may make it easier to follow if you’re unacquainted with the topic. If you are familiar with Hindu philosophy, the similarities will leap out at you.

Following these talks, Vertue is completely healed. He says he must go onward, down into the canyon bottom and then up the other side. He and John argue, for has not Wisdom told them that the other side cannot be reached, except by contemplation? To Vertue it matters not; he must go on even if he dies. Vertue is willing to abandon every scrap of creature comfort, including friendship. John decides he must follow him.

And we will find out if Mr. Wisdom was right, that our longings are real and good and must be kept alive, but their attainment is hopeless.

Grand Canyon photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

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Through the Lord’s Prayer to the infinite

Simone Weil was introduced in the previous post.  In this passage she continues the same letter to Father Perrin.  Not all of her statements in Waiting for God are theologically kosher.  However, she was the type of seeker and philosopher who insisted on following truth wherever it led, and who can say whether her journey in theological learning was complete when her brief life ended?  God uses and blesses imperfect vessels to do his work.  

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

From Waiting for God

Since that time I have made a practice of saying [the Lord’s Prayer] through once each morning with absolute attention.  If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.  Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse. 

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. 

At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view.  The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or third degree.  At the same time filling very part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound.  Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence. 

Afterword

In this book Simone Weil writes that she had never read any “mystical works.”  She had not, until a few months before this letter, ever prayed to God.  This passage shows that entirely on her own, she discovered a practice known to Christians since the early centuries of the church: reaching God by meditating on His word.  Such is the grace and power of our Lord. 

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A 20th century French philosopher, a 17th-century English poem, and a mystical experience

Here is proof that poetry can take us where flat statements cannot.  This selection is twinned with the previous one, George Herbert’s poem.  You will see why.

220px-Simone_Weil_1921

The French philosopher Simone Weil was born in 1909 and lived only until 1942. Gifted with sharp intelligence and curiosity, she obtained an advanced degree in Philosophy from the Ecole Normale Superiuere and taught at a girls’ school.  Her short life was marked by a restless search for truth and fighting for justice for the working class.  Several times she rejected the academic life to work the soil with her bare hands.  Some thought of her as “an unorthodox Marxist moving toward anarchism.”  She helped the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War and took part in the French resistance when the Germans invaded France.  Yet she wrestled with belief in God and pursued truth passionately, allowing no ideologies or alliances to block her.

young-simone-weil

When the Nazis occupied France Weil eventually left for the United States.  The French provisional government asked for her assistance and she moved to London.  There she wanted to share in the sufferings of those in the occupied zone, but this self-imposed lack of nutrition along with her working to the point of exhaustion led to her death. 

She published no books in her lifetime and few essays on religion.  The record of her spiritual hunger and mystical experiences only came to light when her letters were published posthumously.  She may be the most “heady” of 20th century thinkers to have a mystical experience. 

From Waiting for God by Simone Weil

There was a young English Catholic there [at Solesmes Abbey] from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance—for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence—made of him a messenger to me.  For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named “metaphysical.”  In reading them later on, I discovered the poem…called “Love.”* I learned it by heart.  Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines.  I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.  It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.  I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never believed in them.  In the Firetti the accounts of apparitions rather put me off if anything, like the miracles in the Gospel.  Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

*Titled “Love III” in most editions of Herbert’s works.

The Abbey at Solesme, France
The Abbey at Solesme, France. By Bautsch – Own work, Public Domain

 

From Waiting for God by Simone Weil, transl. by Emma Craufield, © 1951 by G. P. Putnam, pp. 68-69.  Big thanks to poet-scholar Anna Vogt for first telling me about Weil so, so long ago.