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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.

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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.

Another from our series by 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 is 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 (instead of 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

Surprised by Fire

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I didn’t know about a connection to the royal wedding until just now. Rev. Michael Curry’s sermon at that historic event has an ancient and deeply spiritual heritage.  Here is a second passage from Richard Rolle’s 14th century spiritual classic, The Fire of Love.  The prologue is one of the few places where Rolle speaks of the personal aspect of his experience plainly, not using generalities about “they” and “those” who experience the fire of love. 

Note the similarities to the brief, intermittent experiences of C. S. Lewis with which I began this blog.  Lewis wrote of his childhood experiences of Joy as “…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…. [I]t might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.”  We also cannot ignore the momentous conversion experience of John Wesley, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”

I will write more in an afterword below. You want to get right to Rolle.

The Fire of Love: Prologue

I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire.  I was astonished at the way the heat surged up, and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort. I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it! But once I realized that it came entirely from within, that this fire of love had no cause, material or sinful, but was the gift of my Maker, I was absolutely delighted and wanted my love to be even greater. And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul. Before the infusion of this comfort I had never known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there.

Yet as some may well remind us, there are people on fire with love for Christ, for we can see how utterly they despise the world, and how wholly they are given over to the service of God. If we put our finger near a fire we feel the heat; in much the same way a soul on fire with love feels, I say, a genuine warmth. Sometimes it is more, sometimes less: it depends on our particular capacity.

What mortal man could survive that heat at its peak–as we can know it, even here–if it persisted? He must inevitably wilt before the vastness and sweetness of love so perfervid, and heat so indescribable. Yet at the same time he is bound to long eagerly for just this to happen: to breathe his soul out, with all its superb endowment of mind, in this honeyed flame, and, quit of this world, be held in thrall with those who sing their Maker’s praise.

But some things are opposed to love [caritas, i.e., divine, unselfish love]: carnal, sordid things which beguile a mind at peace. And sometimes in this bitter exile physical need and strong human affection obtrude into this warmth, to disturb and quench this flame (which metaphorically I call “fire” because it burns and enlightens). They cannot take away what is irremovable, of course, because this is something which has taken hold of my heart. Yet because of these things this cheering warmth is for a while absent. It will reappear in time, though until it does I am going to be spiritually frozen, and because I am missing what I have become accustomed to, will feel myself bereft. It is then that I want to recapture that awareness of inner fire which my whole being, physical as well as spiritual, so much approves; with it it knows itself to be secure.  

–From Prologue in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

Afterword

Fire of Love-fig_07-st_apollinare_in_classe

Rolle says here that he uses “fire” metaphorically because it both burns and enlightens. Who would want to experience a “burning” sensation? Yet when we desire something or someone deeply, the sensation is more like a burning than anything else, isn’t it?  —As thousands of poems and pop songs testify.  Not a “heartburn” that you simply want to go away; more like a boiling that says “Something has got to happen; either I am going to explode in song and dance or I am going to quench this fire.”  God is the greatest object of desire, the deepest satisfaction of the soul. It makes sense that desire for Him would be greater than any other desire.  I tend to think of desire-love as eros, following C. S. Lewis’s description in his book The Four Loves, and thus second-rate compared to agapé or divine, self-sacrificing love, which does what is best for the beloved, not seeking satisfaction of one’s desire.  But Rolle and similar mystics bring me up short.  How can this fire of love be a divine form of love if it is desire? 

So this is a paradox.  Perhaps we might say that this “fire of love” is a kind of “eros” transfigured, desire for something that nothing in this world can satisfy but still cousin in its bodily sensations to earthly desires.

And this seems to be what Rolle is indicating.  Augustine or others are often credited with writing “Each person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill,” and Pascal did say something along these lines.  But actually, the thought originated with Rolle in this book: “Since the human soul is capable of receiving God alone, nothing less than God can fill it; which explains why lovers of earthly things are never satisfied” (chapter 11).

And this is a fire that drives us to agapé, which is action not feeling.  It drives us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Have you every experienced the fire of love?

P.S.:  I began this series not having watched any of the Royal Wedding. I just learned that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry gave a “fiery” (at least for a royal wedding) sermon on The Fire of Love.  Though his focus was not our love for God, many of his thoughts are still relevant.  And since I will probably get 396,481 new visitors to this site, I will link and tag it here, nudge nudge, wink wink. (“OMG, he’s sold out.”)

Joyful Heat

What the 14th-century mystic Richard Rolle has to say is not merely inspiring but challenging.  In it we find the same axis that is throughout the Bible, the unyielding fact that you cannot love both the world and God.  At least not very well.  Like me, you may find yourself busy with both but getting the best of neither relationship. 

Of late there has been a refreshing current in Christian thought, a return to the doctrine of creation and God’s judgment “it is good.” But the hard words remain: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:15-17). “Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?” (James 4:4).  “You cannot serve both God and Mammon [money]” (Matthew 6:24). In our current, unprecedented material prosperity, it is well to remember these verses and the teachings of Richard Rolle.

For a 14th century man much is known about Richard Rolle. All I will say here is that he was a student at Oxford when a Master’s degree was a seven-year program, but he abandoned his studies. He stole two cloaks from his father and ran away from home to be a monk. Theft! An inauspicious start to a holy life, as many have noted. 

The Fire of Love

Further, perfect souls who have been caught up into this friendship–surpassing, abundant, and eternal!–discover that life is suffused with imperishable sweetness from the glittering chalice of sweet charity.* In holy happy wisdom they inhale joyful heat into their souls, and as a result are much cheered by the indescribable comfort of God’s healing medicine. Here at all events is refreshment for those who love their high and eternal heritage, even though in their earthly exile distress befell them. However, they think it not unfitting to endure a few year’s hardship in order to be raised to heavenly thrones, and never leave the. They have been selected out of all mankind to be the beloved of their Maker and to be crowned with glory, since, like the seraphim in highest heaven, they have been inflamed with the same love. Physically they may have sat in solitary state, but in mind they have companied with angels, and have yearned for their Beloved. Now they sing most sweetly a prayer of love everlasting as they rejoice in Jesus:

Oh honeyed flame, sweeter than all sweet, delightful beyond all creation!

My God, my Love, surge over me, pierce me by your love, wound me with your beauty. 

Surge over me, I say, who am longing for your comfort. 

Reveal your healing medicine to your poor lover. 

See, my one desire is for you; it is you my heart is seeking.

My soul pants for you; my whole being is athirst for you. 

–From chapter 2 in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

*Not today’s common usage of “charity” but from caritas (Greek agape), which means the type of love that is unconditional, giving, self-sacrificing, divine.

 

Exodus 19: The Deadly Presence of Holiness

This is the type of mystical experience that leaves us in fear and trembling. This passage is the Grandaddy of that type.

mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104-wallpaperIn the middle of the desert a lone mountain rises up.  It is called Sinai. The Israelites camp at the base, and Moses climbs up. Somewhere along the way, God calls from the mountain. God tells Moses to remind the people below how God rescued them from the Egyptians to “be my own little flock….a kingdom of priests to God, a holy nation.”  The context is important. God appears with fire and thunder in the passage below, and then he gives to Moses the commandments for creating that reverent and just society: a holy nation. 

God appears once again without disguise, even the disguise of a burning bush.  This aspect of holiness that we see in Exodus 19 is unpopular or unknown these days, even despised–even among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, sometimes.  To believe someone is so different from us, so set apart (one of the meanings of “holy”), so much better than we are, may defy our democratic principles. It certainly hurts our egos.Exodus-19-21-1024x658

But unless we understand this aspect, we cannot understand how infinitely morally good God is compared to us. But when we do understand it, we also get a glimpse of how much love and humility is poured out in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  We understand why we need Jesus, why he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the end as well as the means. We understand that only a man who was God, and a God who would become a man, could bridge that awe–full gap between us and God. 

Exodus 19

Moses returned from the mountain and called together the leaders of the people and told them what the Lord had said.

They all responded in unison, “We will certainly do everything he asks of us.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

Then [God] said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in the form of a dark cloud, so that the people themselves can hear me when I talk with you, and then they will always believe you. Go down now and see that the people are ready for my visit. Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes.  Then, the day after tomorrow, I will come down upon Mount Sinai as all the people watch.  Set boundary lines the people may not pass, and tell them, ‘Beware! Do not go up into the mountain or even touch its boundaries; whoever does shall die— no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot to death with arrows, whether man or animal.’ Stay away from the mountain entirely until you hear a ram’s horn sounding one long blast; then gather at the foot of the mountain!”

So Moses went down to the people and sanctified them and they washed their clothing.

He told them, “Get ready for God’s appearance two days from now, and do not have sexual intercourse with your wives.”img_5635

On the morning of the third day there was a terrific thunder and lightning storm, and a huge cloud came down upon the mountain, and there was a long, loud blast as from a ram’s horn; and all the people trembled.  Moses led them out from the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  All Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Jehovah descended upon it in the form of fire; the smoke billowed into the sky as from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake.  As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God thundered his reply.  So the Lord came down upon the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended to God.

But the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to cross the boundaries. They must not come up here to try to see God, for if they do, many of them will die. Even the priests on duty[a] must sanctify themselves, or else I will destroy them.”