Reading in France

Dormitory, Abbey of Senanque.

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. . . If [the pilgrim] does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him.  

 – Simone Weil

I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking a river in France. Late summer blooms sway in the gentle breeze. The trees resound with birdsong. Back home, my country is in turmoil. What a week to be away! 

The stakes are high in the U.S., and I celebrate the rising of the women and the trembling of the patriarchy. But to be unplugged for a time need not be escape, but renewal. As the Dordogne rolls on placidly below me, I think of a line from William Stafford:

What the river says,
that is what I say.

Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac.

It’s a vacation. And yet, the book here on the table under the umbrella is Robert Coles’ Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. A reflection on the life and thought of the uncompromising French thinker and radical believer, whose posthumous influence has been so profound, is bound to put the placidity of a pleasant afternoon into question. What is one to do with a voice that says so matter-of-factly, “Salvation is consenting to die”?  

Crucifxion, Abbey of Saint Foy, Conques.

Weil’s life was rooted in renunciation, whether it was rejecting the career path of a brilliant thinker or refusing proper nourishment when she was dying in hospital. “For God to be born is renunciation,” she wrote. “The birth of Christ is already a sacrifice. Christmas ought to be as sad a day as Good Friday.”

That may not be a winning sentiment for church growth, but Weil insisted that the life of faith demands no less than everything. Her image of God waiting to eat us is certainly unsettling. Nevertheless, she believed, it’s all about surrender:

“We must give up everything which is not grace, and not even desire grace.”

Isaiah, priory church of Souillac (12th century)

I did bring some lighter reading as well on this journey, but Weil has been an insistent companion. She will not be ignored. Her rigorous ideas, not just conceived but inhabited, beg the question, “So what are you doing with your life? Are you holding anything back?”

As I’ve read Coles’ book, I’ve discovered that some of the places visited on this trip were associated with Weil: Auxerre and Le Puy, where she taught, the Ardeche region where she worked on a farm, and the garden at her college in Paris, where her fellow students, intimidated by her philosophical brilliance, called her “the Categorical Imperative in skirts.”

So I suppose I’m on a Weil pilgrimage by accident. We’ll see where it leads.

Chapel of St. Michel-d’Aiguille, Le Puy.

My itinerary also coincides with the Camino de Santiago, visiting three of the four starting points for the French portion of that great pilgrimage: Paris, Le Puy, and Arles (Vezelay is the fourth).

I walked a 70-mile segment of the French “Way of St. James” in 2010, and all 500 miles of the “Camino Frances” culminating in northwest Spain in 2014 (you can read about the latter here and here). 

Blessing of pilgrims on Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Cathedral of Le Puy

When I watched a band of joyful pilgrims set out last week from Le Puy after being blessed at the cathedral mass, I felt a little wistful to be only a tourist sightseeing by car. I felt a pull to join them. But then I remembered that for the desiring heart, the pilgrimage never ends.

Pilgrimage is the image Coles used for the all-to-brief life of Simone Weil, which ended at 34 in 1943, a bleak and violent year when, in Weil’s words, “it took a special person to be hopeful.” In our own dark and foolish time, Coles’ summation has particular resonance:

Hers was a modern pilgrimage; she entertained all our assumptions, presumptions, and anticipations – her journey is ours. She experienced, in the few years she knew among us, our buoyancy, our optimism, and soon enough, our terrible discouragement and melancholy. She saw Pandora’s box open, revealing its cheap tricks, its deceptions. She saw clear skies cloud up overnight. She saw all the castles we have built in the skies; she entered them, took their measure, and left with tears or anger, bitterness. In the end only one sight was left for her eyes; in the end, that modern pilgrimage so swiftly concluded, she looked upward, affirmed unflinchingly her last hope, the hope of heaven – and died, one suspects glad it last, glad to be hurrying home, to be with God…

Dordogne River, La Roque-Gageac.

 

All photos by Jim Friedrich

Forty Years of Chewing Sand

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]

 

In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”

Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.

 

 

Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.

[iii] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54.

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.