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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.

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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.

 

 

Infinite Love says: “Pull up a chair. Join me. Let’s dig in.”

George HerbertGeorge Herbert was a vicar in the Church of England as well as one of the most beloved poets of the 17th century. The monasteries on England were no more, but it is clear that neither all-out devotion to God nor mystical experience had disappeared. Herbert wrote many poems expressing a deep, affective devotion and an imagination awakened to God’s infinite love as found in Jesus.

The following poem is one of his best.  It assumes knowledge of the New Testament’s simple teaching, “God is love.”  With connotations of the communion rite, it describes our hesitancy to accept the grace of God. “Can I really join You, be with You, without becoming perfect first, without having earned the right?”

The poem had a momentous effect on the 20th century philosopher and social activist  Simone Weil, as we will see in the next installment.

Love III

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 lacked any thing.

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

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

Quotation marks added to clarify who's speaking. 

“Whatever struggles you have, transfer them to Me”

Sorry, fans, for the longest delay ever!  Travels, new jobs, new schools, hurricanes, bees, sin.

The conclusion of our series from John Amos Komensky. The pilgrim responds to Jesus’ welcoming words. He tells Jesus he will do whatever Jesus asks, to be nothing, so that Jesus will be everything.

Chapter 39

Their Betrothal

Jesus replies,

I accept this from you, my son.  Hold to this, become, call yourself, and remain my own. Mine, indeed, you were and are from all eternity, but you did not know it. I have long prepared for you that happiness to which I will now lead you; but you did not understand what I was doing. I have led you to yourself through strange paths and by round-about ways; you did not know this, nor what I, the ruler of all my chosen ones, intended. Neither did you perceive by what means I worked on you. But I was everywhere with you, and therefore somewhat guided you through these crooked paths, that I might at last bring you even closer to me.  Neither the world, your guides, nor even Solomon could teach you. There is no way that they could enrich you, content you, satisfy the desires of your heart, because they didn’t have what you were searching for. But I will teach you everything, enrich you, and content you.

“This only I demand of you: that whatever you have seen in the world, and whatever struggles you have witnessed among people, you should transfer it to me, and lay the burden of it on me. This as long as you live, shall be your work and your task; of that which men seek there in the world, but don’t find—that is, peace and joy—I will give you in abundance.”

From Komensky’s The Labyrinth of the World.  As with many of our selections this one is taken from The Protestant Mystics, selected and edited by Anne Fremantle, with an introduction by W. H. Auden. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964. I have modernized some of the syntax and vocabulary for contemporary readers.

How to Find What You Have Always Wanted

Continuing from the previous installment and the vision of the 17th-century Moravian educator and bishop John Amos Komensky. Recall that shortly before these mystical experiences Komensky lost his wife and children while fleeing war. We can be sure that, as Frank Laubach expressed it, Komensky had “the heart of his heart cut by suffering.”  This passage continues his vision of Jesus Christ.

…Then He, seeing me overwhelmed with joy, spoke further to me: “Where, then, have you been, my son? Why have you tarried so long?  By what path have you come? What have you sought in the world? Joy! Where could you see it but in God; 

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and where could you seek God, but in His own temple, and what is the temple of the living God, but the living temple that He Himself has fashioned—your own heart? I saw, my son, that you went astray, but I want to see it no longer. I have brought you to your own self. I have led you into yourself. For here have I chosen my palace and my dwelling. If you want to dwell with me here, you will find here what you have vainly sought on earth:  rest, comfort, glory, and abundance of all things. This I promise you, my son, that you will not be deceived here as you were there in the world.” 

Christ’s words to Komensky confirm a concept often repeated in the New Testament letters, “Christ in you” (e.g., Col. 1:17). And it confirms many Old Testament verses too. That is because it may well be said that the entire aim of God as recounted in the Bible is to once again bring human beings into fellowship with Himself as it wasand perhaps even better than it wasbefore the Fall. 

As with many of our selections this one is taken from The Protestant Mystics, selected and edited by Anne Fremantle, with an introduction by W. H. Auden. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964. I have modernized some of the syntax and vocabulary for contemporary readers.

The Pilgrim Desires to Flee from the World

John Amos Komensky was born in 1592 in Moravia.  Well educated at several European universities, he became minister of a church at Fulneck, Moravia.  War caused him to flee to Brandeis but his wife and children died along the way.  In a hut in Brandeis he wrote the spiritual masterpiece from which our selections are taken, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.  

The wars in Europe continued to harass Komensky all his life.  He lived in Silesia, then England, where the civil war in 1642 forced him to move to Sweden.  He was appointed Moravian (Unity) Bishop of Lissa in 1648. Poland and Sweden began to fight, resulting in Komensky’s home and library being destroyed by fire.  He moved to Amsterdam. He died there and his buried at the church of the French Protestants.  Following the scholarly custom of the day, Komensky took a Latin name, Comenius, by which he is found in most historical writings.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Komensky is considered the father of modern education. He advised Protestant governments all over Europe.  He was the first to promote universal education, picture books for children written in their native tongues not Latin, and other innovations.  His life belies the notion that those who believe in heaven and hell do not focus on improving life on earth. 

This selection is one of those that is not happy and bright.  But, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the “good news” of Christ does not begin with comfort and affirmation. Hang on; our next installment continues with Komensky’s vision of Christ.

John Amos Kemensky, from The Labyrinth of the World, Chapter 26

(The Pilgrim beholds the Dying and Dead. The Bottomless Abyss beyond the World.)

3. Looking now about me, I behold the ways of the dying, of whom there were many; and I see a mournful thing–to wit, that all gave up the ghost with horror, lamentation, fear and trembling, knowing now what would befall them and whither they would go. Although I was afraid, yet wishing to ever acquire more knowledge, I walked through the rows of the dead to the limits of the world and of light. Here, where others, shutting their eyes, blindly cast forth their dead, I threw off the glasses of Falsehood, rubbed my eyes, and leaned forward as far as I dared. And I behold awful darkness and gloom, of which the mind of man can find neither the end nor the ground; and there was here naught but worms, frogs, serpents, scorpions, rottenness, stench, the smell of brimstone and pitch that overwhelmed body and soul, generally unspeakable horror. 

(The Pilgrim falls to the Ground terrified.)

4. Then My bowels quaked, my whole body trembled, and, terrified, I fell swooning to the ground, and cried mournfully: “Oh, most miserable, wretched, unhappy mankind! This then, is your last glory! This the conclusion of your many splendid deeds! This the term of your learning and much wisdom over which you glory so greatly! This the rest and repose that you crave after countless labors and struggles! This the immortality for which you ever hope! Oh, that I had never been born, never passed through the gate of life! For after the many vanities of the world, nothing but darkness and horror are my part! O God, God, God! God, if you are a God, have mercy on wretched me!”

 

 

 

Accord and discord

Continuing with Frank Laubach’s amazing letters home, introduced a couple of installments ago. 

March 23, 1930

….An hour of any day may be made perfect by merely choosing. It is perfect if one looks toward God that entire hour, waiting for His leadership all through the hour and trying hard to do every tiny thing exactly as God wishes it done, as perfectly as possible. No emotions are necessary. 

April 18, 1930

I have tasted a thrill in fellowship with God which has made anything discordant with God disgusting. This afternoon the possession of God has caught me up with such sheer joy that I thought I never had known anything like it. God was so close and so amazingly lovely that I felt like melting all over with a strange blissful contentment. Having had this experience, which comes to me now several times a week, the thrill of filth repels me, for I know its power to drag me from God. And after an hour of close friendship with God my soul feels clean, as new fallen snow. 

“…this direct first hand grasping of God Himself…”

Frank LaubachContinuing with the letters of Frank Laubach.  See previous post for information on Laubach. 

March 15, 1930

This week a new, and to me marvelous experience, has come out of my loneliness. I have been so desperately lonesome that it was unbearable save by talking with God. And so every waking moment of the week I have been looking toward him, with perhaps the exception of an hour or two. 

Last Thursday night I was listening to a phonograph in Lumbatan and allowing my heart to commune when something broke within me, and I longed to lift my own will up and give it completely to God. 

How infinitely richer this direct first hand grasping of God Himself is, than the old method which I used and recommended for years, the reading of endless devotional books. Almost it seems to me now that the very Bible cannot be read as a substitute for meeting God soul to soul and face to face. And yet, how was this new closeness achieved? Ah, I know now that it was by cutting the very heart of my heart and by suffering. Somebody was telling me this week that nobody can make a violin speak 

alex-blajan-199244-unsplashthe last depths of human longing until that soul has been made tender by some great anguish. I do not say it is the only way to the heart of God, but must witness that it has opened an inner shrine for me which I never entered before. 

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash