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

Ash Wednesday: A time for self-compassion

 

Alleluia ashes 2sm

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.

– Etty Hillesum[i]

 

Hillesum’s evocative image expresses the duality of the Lenten season. On the one hand, God is not the end product of spiritual attainment, something brought closer through our own efforts. The deep well of divinity is already present within us, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”[ii] We don’t have to go somewhere else to find it. Lent is a time to tune in, go deep, and pay heightened attention to the Presence we often miss.

At the same time, our awareness of – and relationship with – this Presence may be hindered or obstructed by any number of things, requiring some real digging on our part. The trouble is, that digging can quickly become a self-improvement project, with Lent’s success judged by the quality and success of our efforts. We imagine a more spiritually heroic self, and strive to make it come true.

The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, who fled the corruption and distractions of their culture to seek a holier life in the wastelands beyond Empire, might seem at first glance to be overflowing with heroic aspiration. A typical regimen would be to “get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[iii]

Such rigorous spiritual practice wasn’t for the halfhearted. But it risked the competitive sin of pride. Paul of Pherme, for instance, undertook the project of “continual prayer” – 300 prayers per day, keeping count with a pile of 300 pebbles in his lap. After each prayer, he tossed away one pebble. But he was crestfallen to learn of a certain woman who had been saying 700 prayers per day for thirty years! He would never catch up. Another desert father, Macarius the Alexandrian, warned Paul that his spiritual life lacked both balance and humility. But Macarius was no moderate. He once did penance for swatting a mosquito by moving to a swamp to endure six months of insect bites, without ever raising a hand in defense.[iv]

Thankfully, the extremists were not the norm. More prevalent was a spirit of deep humility about one’s capacities. John Climacus was a seventh-century monk at Mt. Sinai. His image of the spiritual life as a “Ladder of Divine Ascent” was later pictured in a famous twelfth-century icon.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

If you have ever climbed a very tall ladder, or done any rock-climbing, you know the degree of both effort and risk involved. John’s image makes it very clear that the spiritual life is strenuous and challenging. “We need to exercise ourselves greatly,” he wrote, “to lay upon ourselves many hidden labors after a life of negligence.” But then he said,

Be of good heart. If the passions lord it over us and we are weak, let us with great confidence offer to Christ our spiritual weakness and our impotence . . . He will help us irrespective of what we deserve, on the sole condition that we descend continually to the bottom, into the abyss of humility.[v]

So we don’t have to be heroes after all. What a relief! Humility, not heroism, is the way up the ladder. As the Rule of Saint Benedict teaches us, “by trying to climb we descend, and by humility we ascend.”[vi] That’s why Ash Wednesday strikes just the right note for the beginning of Lent. It brings us down to earth as creatures of ashes, dust and mud, undermining any pretensions of Promethean heroism. The Lenten journey is come-as-you-are.

Mary Oliver puts this perfectly: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[vii] Or as Simone Weil suggested, self-compassion means to “accept what one is, at a given moment, as a fact – even one’s shame.”

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen was favored in the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Oympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only yourself, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[viii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

As Mary Gauthier sings so beautifully, we could all use a little mercy now.

 

 

Related posts

George Herbert: Heart work and heaven work

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), August 25, 1941 (two years before she died in Auschwitz)

[ii] St. Augustine, Confessions III.

[iii] The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200

[iv] ibid., 288

[v] John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1st Step, 17, in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1993), 152

[vi] ibid., 156 (Rule of St. Benedict VII)

[vii] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110

[viii] From a talk given by David Whyte in the 1990’s

 

A feather on the breath of God

Hildegard at desk

When I was 42 years and 7 months old, a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my entire mind. Like a flame that does not burn but enkindles, it inflamed my entire heart … just like the sun that warms an object with its rays.

So wrote Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess, artist and activist whose feast is celebrated today. In a society where women were more seen than heard, it took her a long time to find an outlet for her voice. She had experienced visions ever since her childhood, but she kept them mostly to herself until she was in her forties. Her reticence wasn’t just due to social pressure. She also shared the self-doubting anxiety of every artist. Did her visions matter? Would the world understand or care? But as every artist knows, if you have a gift and don’t make it visible, it will sicken and die within you, and your own body will suffer the effects.

And Hildegard in fact became a sickly woman: “Not in stubbornness but in humility, I refused to write for so long that I felt pressed down under the whip of God into a bed of sickness.” But at last she overcame her inhibitions. Her call was too strong to resist. She began to write, and compose, and produce paintings of her visions. Her body was restored to health, and from then on, she tried to live the life only she could live.

In one of her visions, God told her: O how beautiful your eyes are when you tell the divine story!

Tell the divine story: That was the work she had been given to do. In addition to the normal duties of a medieval abbess in the Rhineland, Hildegard became a storyteller, a musician, an artist, a writer; and through all these media she obeyed the command given to every artist, to “make visible what, without you, might never be seen.” She was also an activist, reminding the powerful to show compassion to the poor, and railing against clergy who failed to blow “the trumpets of divine justice.”

Hildegard was always mindful of the source of her creativity:

The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.
Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.
The tone does not come out of the chord itself,
but rather, through the touch of the musician.
I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.

She put this even more succinctly when she called herself “a feather on the breath of God”

The bright-colored enigmas of her illustrated visions, painted by others under her supervision, are unlike anything else in western medieval art. Figures embedded within circles or mandalas express her experience of God as being “like a wheel, a circle, a whole, that can neither be understood, nor divided, nor begun nor ended … just as a circle embraces all that is within it, so does the Godhead embrace all …. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Hildegard’s music was as original as her images. Her compositions resemble the Gregorian chant of her time in their liturgical form and musical modes. They also conform to plainchant’s suppression of extroverted individuality for the sake of devotional calm. At the same time, they go beyond traditional chant in several ways: her melodies have an exotically wide range, often spanning two octaves, with sudden leaps from low notes to high notes; her texts are rhapsodic outpourings of strikingly original imagery; and her songs possess a freedom and exuberance that reflect an artist on the loose.

Her music wasn’t primarily a form of personal expression. It was a manifestation of deepest reality. “O Trinity, you are music, you are life,” she prayed. For Hildegard, “all of creation is a song of praise to God.”

She didn’t make up her songs; she listened in to the music of heaven:

Then I saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music, marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before. I heard the praises of the joyous citizens of heaven, steadfastly persevering in the ways of Truth; and laments calling people back to those praises and joys; and the exhortations of the virtues.

This was more than metaphor, as her writings make clear. Her compositions came to her whole, given by God, much like the auditory mysticism of St. John the Divine, who wrote in the Book of Revelation: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne.”

Hildegard believed that the music of heaven is in us and all around us. We have been created to harmonize with it. “The soul is symphonic,” she said.

She conceived a charming image of Adam before the Fall: he sang with a voice of pure honey, and the devil knew that as long as Adam managed to remember the sweetness of the heavenly songs, he could never be tempted. So with Adam, as with all of us who have come after, the devil set out “to trouble or destroy the affirmation and beauty and sweetness of divine praise and of the hymns of the spirit.”

In Hildegard’s opera, Ordo Virtutum, an allegory of the virtues, all the characters sing – except the devil, who can only heckle and shout. The devil’s work is dissonance, the shattering of harmony.

Hildegard once had a dispute with the bishops of her diocese, who tried to force her submission on a matter of principle by forbidding her nuns to take communion or to sing the liturgy. It was a terrible ordeal for her community to live without music. Hildegard remarked at the time that those who choose to silence music in their lifetime will go to a place where they will be “without the company of the angelic songs of praises in heaven.” It was her discreet way of telling the prelates to go to hell.

Every artist has to deal with philistines, but we can be thankful that Hildegard’s enormous gifts were for the most part supported by her contemporaries. She fell into obscurity for centuries after her death, but she returns anew to our own time with a voice we long to hear, a voice resonant with compassion, a voice aflame with justice, a voice attuned to the divine harmony for which all of us are made.

Sometimes Hildegard seems to live in a different universe than we do, a universe alive with multi-sensory evidence that God is “burning everywhere,” that everything in the world is dense with meaning and liveliness.

All the senses, in her universe, deliver this message to the receptive soul. Unlike the purely material universe proposed by modernity, a happenstance of mute objects and dead space, Hildegard’s universe was sacramental, alive with significant presence.

In one of her visions, a human figure stands in the center of a cosmic wheel. This Christlike image of Divinity declares to her and to all the world:

I, the highest and fiery power,
have kindled every spark of life …
I, the fiery life of divine essence,
am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows.
I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon and stars.
With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything,
I awaken everything to life.

Is this not the high calling of every saint – and every artist?
To awaken everything to life.
To set our imagination aflame.
To make visible the unsurpassable beauty of God.

As Simon Weil put it so well in our own era,

A sense of beauty, although mutilated, distorted, and soiled, remains rooted in the human heart as a powerful incentive… If it were made true and pure, it would sweep all secular life in a body to the feet of God.