Thursday, March 23, 2006

Inhabiting the Wilderness of the Spirit

[This essay is part of a work in progress currently titled 'Between the Beast and the Dream: Inhabiting the Wilderness of the Spirit'.]

Telling Stories

'Man is not totally compounded of the nature we profess to understand. Man is always partly of the future, and the future he possesses a power to shape. 'Natural' is a magician's word—and like all such entities, it should be used sparingly lest there arise from it, as now, some unglimpsed, unintended world, some monstrous caricature called into being by the indiscreet articulation of worn syllables. Perhaps, if we are wise, we will prefer to stand like those forgotten humble creatures who poured little gifts of flints into a grave. Perhaps there may come to us then, in some such moment, a ghostly sense that an invisible doorway has been opened—a doorway which, widening out, will take man beyond the nature that he knows.'
— Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower

He was an Inuit shaman-priest, a maker of songs of power for his people, and an Anglican priest. He was speaking to us in the old way, though we sat in chairs with our feet on the floor instead of on the ground with our legs stretched out in front of us; in a warm, pre-fab house instead of one made of skins or snow.

His shaggy white head was nodding rhythmically, his nearly-blind eyes turned inward, waiting for the vision. He spoke in Inupiaq first, then in halting English. He told us of sea ice that had disintegrated under him, how the dry suit made of bearded seal intestine, painstakingly sewn together by his wife, along with certain skills and attitudes, enabled him to survive in the frigid water for nearly an hour—a miracle, a lesson. Survival in Arctic waters is usually measured in seconds, minutes at most.

He spoke to us as if we were his grandchildren, with respect; he was communicating matters of life and death. The critical nature of this landscape allows little distinction between a lie and a mistake. If you observe wrongly, if your account is inaccurate, someone may die. Time and space are one in such a narrative, and, as we listened, we were carried into its vastness, freed from our Occidental notions of time ripped from its spatial context to be devoured like any other commodity.
The ancient song-maker repeated nearly every line in a half-chant. The long pauses between phrases gave us time to listen and remember, communicated to us the deliberation and review vital to survival in a marginal environment. This intent listening, this re-visioning of knowledge thousands of years old—the method, he seemed to be telling us, is as important to survival as the story's content.

A song of power is far more wonderful than magic, if by 'magic' you mean the illusion of casting a spell to control something so that it fits into the confining projections of your mind. A song of power makes you whole, tunes you to the rhythms of the landscape, awakens subtle senses, an antic attention, reminds you to listen, remembering that you are prey as well as predator, an integral part of a universal harmony, a wildness beyond imagining.

The practice of telling stories is as old as human beings, or older. We might even say that animals tell stories when they teach their young about survival: how to gather food, where to sleep, which creatures even among their own kind are enemies. But survival is only one reason for telling stories. Stories communicate cultural attitudes, emotional memories, transmit cautionary insights, myths about life and death that bestow knowledge by indirection. Stories convey grief, regret, wonder; the mysteries of the spirit, love, disaster. Stories mark the passing of an age whose perceptions and lessons might still enrich the lives of subsequent generations such as ours, when technology threatens to reduce the universe to merely observable 'facts'.

Stories are told as much in what is not said as what is, and the storyteller always conveys far more than she knows or or may intend. The process of listening to a story is itself instructive: it requires us to break from our habitual heedlessness, our half-crazed running after the phantoms of wealth, power and manufactured experience; it invites us to be still, to be aware, to imagine, to listen, to open the ears of the heart, to lose our selves in another narrative that will expand our sensibility beyond the limits we have imposed on our selves.

Stories that are written down add another element: solitude, a solitude that draws the reader so deeply into himself that he can become deaf to what is happening around him, aware only of what is leaping into his mind from the page. Written stories have much of the ineffable about them, for the words floating on a white background, and their tantalizing inexactness pulls us into a space where anything can happen, and Silence becomes the teacher. It is a world in which we lose our preoccupation with our selves, in which the eye that seems constantly to observe is focused elsewhere and our haunted sense of separateness dissolves for a time.

We have no language adequate to convey this integrative attention, any more than we have language that conveys a sense that we are an integral part of 'nature' and not separate from it. In fact, it is telling that we have no language to convey any relationship with the meta-human but this language of apartness, of alienation.

In consequence, we have a tendency to relate to our context and origin, that is, wild animals and their ecosystems, the biosphere, as if they were animatronic characters in an amusement park. As Umberto Eco says, 'Disneyland not only produces illusion, but—in confessing it—stimulates the desire for it. A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands....Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.... imitation has reached its apex, and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.' He suggests that the subtext of much of what is presented to the modern world as 'the goodness of nature' is Universal Taming—an Orwellian imposition of conformity on people as well as on the nature they wish to relate to in human terms.

The oscillation between a promise of uncontaminated nature and a guarantee of negotiated tranquility is constant.... The killer whales perform a square dance and answer trainers' questions not because they have acquired linguistic ability, but because they have been trained through conditioned reflexes, and we interpret the stimulus-response relationship as a relationship of meaning....Nature has almost been regained, and yet it is erased by artifice precisely so that it can be presented as uncontaminated nature. (Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-Reality)

The effects of these ways of thinking, now deeply ingrained, unconscious and habitual, have led to the devastation of the world around us as we demand that it give us 'experiences' that conform to our reified expectations. Whale-watching, for example, has become a big industry in the Northwest and in Alaska. While there are responsible guides who seek to be unobtrusive and to help their clients understand the complex and beautiful biosphere whose children we are, there are also many operators who are ignorant or even unscrupulous in their exploitation of humpback whales, killer whales, porpoises, seals and sea lions. They use terms such as 'eco-tour' or 'professional whale watching' to imply that they have acquired some special qualification or certification. There are no such qualifications or certifications; every pursuit of a marine mammal is an intrusion. In an attempt to alleviate the pressure the Federal Government has issued guidelines and regulations for approaching marine mammals, but there is not enough money or personnel to enforce them.

The reality is that a two-hour whale-watching trip in a fast and noisy boat is always destructive. There are a number of factors that make this so. Sound is not only disruptive to marine mammals, it can kill them, as experiments with Navy sonar have demonstrated. But even what most people would regard as minor noise can be harmful. It has been shown that orcas in Puget Sound now have to 'scream' to make themselves heard above boat engine noise. It has also been shown that this particular orca population has declined sharply as a direct consequence of this noise, which interferes with the echo-location essential to their feeding patterns and scatters the fish that are their food. Among the swarm of noisy whale-watching boats in our area there are two that are so loud they can be heard for 10 miles, even when there is a large island between the boat and the listener on the mainland. The effect of this noise on the sensitive ears of whales is inconceivable.

Humpback whales are particularly vulnerable to whale-watching because their movements, especially when they are bubble-feeding in a large group, are slow and rhythmic. The complex and precise choreography of this feeding pattern follows along a predictable course. Boats exploit this trait. I have seen them place themselves so that the pod will surround them when the feeding whales surge simultaneously to the surface, mouths open, scooping up the herring they have enclosed in their bubble net. When they suddenly find a boat in their midst, the pod falls into disarray; babies get separated from their mothers, and there is general chaos. The whales have only the summer in which to feed and store fat; they fast in the winter when they migrate to Hawaii.

I have even seen a whale-watching boat place itself so that a whale, surfacing to breathe, came up partly trapped under the keel of the boat so that it had to exhale sideways onto the passengers, which caused great squeals of excitement and doubtless led to bigger tips, but it must have been hell for the whale surfacing to breathe only to find a boat weighing several tons blocking its way. As there were at least a dozen other boats surrounding this whale in the narrow pass—including one of the fast ferries—the whale had no room to maneuver. Such interference is dangerous for the boats, as well as the whales; there is no predicting when a whale might panic because it cannot find room to get air, or lose patience; and in the swift currents, there is always the risk of boats colliding or grounding.

Often the drivers of these boats—for who knows what motive—harass endangered Steller's sea lions, hauled out on a buoy. They circle closer and closer until every last animal has panicked and thrown itself back in the water, where it thrashes, simultaneously trying to keep the boat in sight and to escape. It takes tremendous energy for a sea lion to haul out on a buoy and fight for its place, and even more energy is drained when the animals panic into the water. Every summer's day their energy is drained by human ignorance and, worse, greed, leaving them with diminishing resources to face the harsh winter.
We know relatively little about marine mammals, but we do know that these activities are harmful. Occasional low-key scientific intrusion may be necessary to help preserve them, but our contemporary cultural mindset that we have a right to disrupt these animals' lives for our entertainment is insupportable. There are good reasons simply to allow creatures to survive for their own sake and in the long run such an attitude is beneficial to humans as well.

Whales and other creatures, and the land and seascape might have a story to tell us, if only we will be still and listen. If we want to understand them, then we must allow them to reveal themselves to us—or not. It must be their choice. Otherwise, we are only creating an artificial context that will invariably yield an artificial result.

The whales' story is as much about us as themselves, not only the tale of our evolution from a watery past, and our increasing hunger to relate to the world from which we emerged and from which we are alienated, a world which is fast disappearing, but also about our need to objectify, control and dominate. Among human beings, these sorts of behaviors are often labeled 'abusive' and lead to the breakdown of social groups. Yet we seem to blind ourselves to the fact that our interactions with what is left of the biosphere is often just as abusive, and that the consequences will inevitably rebound on our selves. Stalking whales, the celebrities of the ocean, is a billion-dollar business, while stalking humans carries jail time. There are ways to be in nature (and to observe whales) that have minimum impact, but we must realize that our lust for creating, forcing and manipulating experiences we think we want to have is counter-productive, as opposed to simply being in a landscape without expectation, where experience that is beyond what we are able to imagine may come to us.

A cartoon in The New Yorker a few years ago showed two humpback whales and a boat loaded with tourists overhead. One whale was saying to the other, 'They have no lives so they watch us.' The anxiety that accompanies human emptiness can be overwhelming. We cannot bear to let go our fantasies about our selves, our illusions of power and importance. At the same time, there is something in us that wants precisely this: to lay down the burden of running the universe so that we may understand our part in it, to seek something that is greater than our selves. Paradoxically, to be human we must stay connected to our non-human sources. To find meaning, we must relinquish its pursuit.

Earlier cultures did not have this problem. Their lack of technology made them only too aware of the precarious nature of human relationships and the vulnerability of human beings alone on the sea or abroad on the land. Their stories and poems speak of loss in the same breath that they speak of welcome. They knew that

'Wisdom only comes when the abstract knowledge of moral codes and appropriate behaviors is catalyzed by experience into something personal and immediate, capable of powerfully engaging man's emotions of fear and awe and of channeling his spiritual energies.' (Vincent Gillespie, A Companion to the Middle English Lyric)

Our contemporary experience tends to be monochromatic, sanitized, lived in environments that are entirely artificial, yet the hunger for immersion into a context uncreated by human hands lurks just below the surface and is expressed through fascination with extreme sports, fantasy literature, film and videogames, and the occult. In a completely artificial world we lose our perspective and our humanity; without considered thought we decide to do things just because we can. Wisdom is not only forgotten, it is unavailable. Perhaps the tourists' urge to seek the whale-path could be understood in this light: a desire to know that there is something greater than themselves so that they may regain a sense of 'their own weakness and frailty, and, in recognizing their own impotence, [discover] how to seek mercy and forgiveness....' (Vincent Gillespie, A Companion to the Middle English Lyric)

But their mistake lies in thinking that this experience can be bought through a brief afternoon's whale-watching from the vantage point of a luxury catamaran or a fast jet-boat that run out to show the folks the spouts, backs and flukes (mostly flukes, as the whales try to escape) of the toy whales frolicking in the postcard sea under soaring cardboard peaks. The short trip in the boat may be exciting but it is ultimately unsatisfying, even troubling, for far from the transforming experience for which the tourist might have hoped, it was merely another act of human dominance and exploitation. The way we treat animals tells us a lot about the way we treat one another and our selves.

No matter where human beings live, they are affected at every level by their interaction with the rest of the created world, whether or not they wish to acknowledge their context. The creation is not something alien; the human species is not the collective ghost in the Earth machine. People may immure them selves in concrete and traffic, they may work in windowless boxes and breathe filtered air, they may exist in a desert instead of a rainforest, but survival depends as much on paying attention to the forces and creatures around them as the climber who strikes out alone to traverse a glacier.

Wilderness exists wherever we are; it is essential to being human. To think we can dispense with it is folly. As a species we evolved in wilderness; we learned from its conditions and its creatures. They gave us a language before we had language. As it is now thought that the structures of grammar are innate, so also is this other, more subtle language rooted at the very core of our being. Like verbal language, if it is not used it will cause tensions to build up as they do in children who cannot yet make themselves understood. To relieve this suffering, spiritual teachers in every age have taught the same first principle: explore the wilderness within; learn silence, stillness.

'The imagination of man, in its highest manifestations, stands close to the doorway of the infinite, to the world beyond the nature that we know.... Man's quest for certainty is, in the last analysis, a quest for meaning. But the meaning lies buried within himself rather than in the void he has vainly searched for portents since antiquity. Perhaps the first act in its unfolding was taken by a raw beast with a fearsome head who dreamed some difficult and unimaginable thing denied his fellows. Perhaps the flashes of beauty and insight which trouble us so deeply are no less prophetic of what the race might achieve....
Man, at last, is face to face with himself in natural guise. 'What we make natural, we destroy,' said Pascal.... It is not the outward powers of man the toolmaker that threaten us. It is a growing danger which has already afflicted vast areas of the world—the danger that we have created an unbearable last idol for our worship. That idol, that uncreate and ruined visage which confronts us daily, is no less than man made natural. Beyond this replica of ourselves, this countenance already grown so distantly inhuman that it terrifies us, still beckons the lonely figure of man's dreams. It is a nature, not of this age but of the becoming—the light once glimpsed by a creature just over the threshold from a beast, a despairing cry from the dark shadow of a cross on Golgotha long ago.' (Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower)

Pascal is not alone in his concern about our adaptive choices. It has been argued that nothing wild is left, that ‘nature’ (with or without a capitalized first letter) no longer exists; that every process on this planet is now influenced by human activity. As the human population has deepened its delusion of distancing itself from the rest of the created order, it has become fearful of it and has even sought to destroy it. We seem unable to understand that what we are losing are the resources to be fully human; we do not realize that the accompanying inarticulate grief and rage drive us to ever more heedless ecological destruction in the name of utility; that we are engaged in a futile search for ‘happiness,’ and that our enslavement to the possession of consumer goods makes us hate the material world.

How do we talk about the post-human race? For as surely as we are engaged in the most rapid mass extinction in the history of the planet we are destroying the possibility of knowing who we are. Not only are we intricately linked with every other living creature at the biological level, but the narratives we create to give our selves meaning—our symbolic and metaphorical life—also arise from this organic matrix. How could someone understand Blake’s poem if the only tiger they have seen is stuffed? In a culture of conformity whose members are coming more and more to resemble the single organism of ants in a mound, will there soon be but a single construct of self?

Throughout human history humans beings have exalted human potential and achievement, despising other orders of beings as 'lower' or 'bestial'. Drunk on our own rationality, we have, in part, measured what it means to be human (and associated words such as humane) by a series of idealizations of our self: a god, a little lower than the angels, the dwelling-place of the divine, the artist, the engineer, the poet, the architect, the explorer of inner and outer space. At the same time, humans destroy, rape, murder, torture, and plunder. In our denial we speak of these activities as ‘inhuman.' But they are quintessentially human.

What can help humans to understand how simply to be, to know who and what they are, which is far more than slaves of their own minds and technology and of violence and greed? What can help us to learn not that we 'become part of it' (the natural world), but to realize that we always have been, for better or for worse. This realization can emerge only when we no longer seek to do, to exploit, or to force what is other to fit our stereotypes and projections. Rather we must seek to listen, to hear unfamiliar stories that will change our ideas about ourselves and reveal the world around us.

The stories in this book describe encounters and epiphanies that are available to anyone who is willing to receive them. I went out on the whale-path alone, city-bred, with no special training, and not much hardiness or money. Perhaps my physical weakness and my poverty were to my advantage: in order to survive, I had to listen. My purpose was not to accomplish anything, but to learn to inhabit the landscape. In the process, I discovered that my slightest effort to be instead of to do was richly rewarded, and that similar riches are available to anyone who is willing to sit in stillness without expectation for twenty minutes. A landscape suitable for this purpose doesn't have to be in Alaska, where the pressure of unregulated tourism has made much of the state into a theme park, and has destroyed the silence and presence of many of the places described in this book; it does not even have to take place in the countryside: wild creatures are learning to adapt to city life. It can begin in a bare room, facing the wall.

In the end, it is not so much the context as the stillness that is important. At some point we have to realize that our restless seeking must come to an end, and that we must be where we are, carefully. Whether we come to this by sitting on a beach or listening to a story, we are seeking for a Word. A seeker in the fourth century would go to an elder in the Egyptian desert and say, 'Give me a word.' Whatever the elder said or did not say was taken as the next lesson of life. Implicit in this exchange is the seeker's admission that she has come to the limits of her own efforts, that she has understood that she is trapped by the boundaries of the small universe of her own ideas and perceptions. She can go no further on her own . By asking for a Word she is asking the elder to help open her understanding, to help her make sense of the tragic comedy that is life, the bewildering mix of failure and achievement, longing and pain, wonder and sorrow, joy and incomprehensibility; to show how her life makes sense in the larger scheme of things.

Like as not, the elder would say nothing, but offer bread and water and figs; at most, in terms of words at least, the seeker might depart with an aphorism echoing in her head: sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything. In the world of late antiquity, the term 'cell' was often associated with the hexagonal wax chambers in the comb that bees make to hold their honey. In modern American the word has rather different connotations. For the seeker both apply. The human heart is the true wilderness, and it can overflow with honey (though not without tears, as Climacus reminds us), or become a prison, a wasteland of bitterness.

Here be dragons, and angels too, and the ordinary stuff of life: a flower, a color, a human face. We do not need to pursue Leviathan to come to insight. Our perception, as the Ox-herding Tale reminds us, is at first oblivious, then overwhelmed and finally, when the extraordinary becomes the ordinary, all of a piece, at peace. Or, as Orthodox Christians are wont to say, the Transfiguration shows us what ordinary life is really like; what we normally see is more like a bad dream. Our wholeness, our integrity, comes not from separating ourselves but from realizing our integration. The meanings of the Latin root—integer— common to these two words tell us much: intact, sound, fresh, entire, complete, chaste, renewed, starting afresh.

It is the paradoxical nature of story-telling that we create narratives in order to communicate what life might be like if we could suspend human narrative, to receive back the meaning of what it is to be human from non-human creatures and an often hostile and always indifferent environment. In the event, we will be given only glimpses and echoes, but they are enough. Listening to Patrick, the Shaman-Priest, I was able to hear only fragments of what he was saying, but they filled me to the brim, pressed down and overflowing, spilling onto these pages. Perhaps these are simply the memories of an old woman, or a scrapbook of a world that once was and cannot be again: who knows what a story is? Perhaps every story is a song of power, an elegy for life received and transfigured.

Patrick died a few years ago. He died singing.

'Amidst the fall of waters on that desolate shore I watched briefly an exquisitely shaped jellyfish pumping its little umbrella sturdily along only to subside with the next wave on the strand. 'Love makyth the lover and the living matters not,' an old phrase came hesitantly to my lips. We would win, I thought steadily, if not in human guise then in another, for love was something that life in its infinite prodigality could afford. It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution.'
— Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Department of Infinite Sadness

"Well, if someone isn't ordained their work will be forgotten."

[Remark made during a meeting of senior seminary faculty members, September 11, 2005]

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Simone Weil: Force, Fragility and the Art of Kenosis

[Note: While researching this paper I became aware of two aspects in particular in regard to Simone Weil scholarship that have not to my knowledge been addressed so far. The first is that there is considerable evidence that she may have had Asperger's syndrome. The second is that, as in so many other areas of textual scholarship, academic convention has reached the point where it has begun to obscure the person and the writings. For example, it is commonly written of her that she was not exposed to Judaism until she was ten years old, but we know that her ritually observant granny came to lunch every Sunday and that there were culinary struggles between powerful personalities. It is hard not to conjecture that these conflicts affected Simone's attitude towards food, whatever her congenital digestive difficulties, and also it is almost inconceivable that there would not have been occasions on Sunday afternoons when her grandmother told her Jewish stories. I did not discuss either of these points in my paper as I felt that both these topics were outside of its focus, but they are both worth pursuing if we are to gain a more profound understanding of this amazing woman.]


Force, Fragility and the Art of Kenosis

For the American Weil Society 24th Annual Colloquy, April 23-25, 2004

Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey

In his book Three Outsiders, Diogenes Allen remarks of Simone Weil, ‘She treats [the] spiritual struggle in a new and original way [that is, as distinct from Pascal and Kierkegaard] by connecting it to the suffering caused by nature, society and the human psyche.’ (1) He also notes that her 'theory came after the experience'. (2) In Spirit, Nature and Community he reminds us of Kant's dictum that 'Impressions without concepts are blind; concepts without impressions are empty' and that 'every kind of experience involves the use of concepts; there is no experience that is 'pure.' (3) At Solesmes, Weil experienced 'an intersection of beauty and pain...[which] caused the thought of Christ's passion to enter into her permanently,' and through this and related experience she was able to 'assemble material to develop an epistemology that related beauty, truth, pain, and supernatural good....' (4) Weil's thought not only draws on her experience, it is profoundly affected by her embodiment of what she encounters. She is brought to consecration through the commonplace. (5) To put this another way, she examines her often negative biological, emotional and social experience through the discipline of philosophy to create a unique fusion of scientia and sapientia.

For all of her modern French education—or perhaps in spite of it—the process by which she came to her insights often seems far more like the praxis of the Desert Mothers and Fathers of 4th century Egypt and Palestine and that of earlier writers in Syria outside the Roman Empire, than what might be considered proper to a 20th century French philosophe—though of course she was that, too. Some of her insights echo those of early Syriac writers whose theology is based on kenosis, and who understand through their own experience that, however else they might be interpreted, the paradoxes of the Gospels are descriptors of the soul waiting for God.

With them Weil understands that when the soul consents to yield to God in divine reciprocity, it is given the grace to grow in the single-hearted (Syr. ihidaya) attention that is true virginity. (6) This apophatic gaze is the reality of baptism, of which water and words are but the token. (7) With these writers, she also believed that anyone who knew enough to hold out their hand at the altar should be fed, whether or not they were baptized. (8)

Although it might be pleasurable to do a comparative study of Simone Weil and the apophthegmata, or the writings of John the Solitary, Ephrem, Jacob of Serugh and Isaac of Nineveh, such a study is not the purpose of this paper. Rather I would like go directly to what she called 'the meeting place of soul and body' in her affliction. (9) We do not know exactly what was this affliction was, but it was formidable. The migraines were only one aspect. There was emotional pain and the social pain of rejection and isolation. There was much more.

She could have retreated, of course. She could have become an invalid, taken refuge in defensiveness, madness or suicide. Instead, she chose otherwise, and her observations of the suffering that was part of her effort simply to function from day to day, and her status as an outsider, gave rise to the questions that lie at the heart of her thought. (10) Because she was socially unentangled, she was able see more clearly than those who lead more conventional lives. It is this consent to use herself in the service of others in this way that gives her writing its depth, its power, its timelessness.

Her choice to accept the order of the world entails the willingness to accept what appears to be the disorder of her embodied self in the world, and the forces that press on her from within and from without. (11) She tells us that her first crisis came at the age of 14.

'I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth. After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment.'

Her headaches drove her on to 'persevere for ten years in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results.' (12) This was perhaps one of her foundational insights into the art of kenosis. For her, kenosis is the only possible antidote to the effects of force, worked out in the fragility of her body at the meeting point of 'grace and desire.'

By the time she writes her 'Reflections on School Studies' she has refined this first insight. 'Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts, perhaps, but it is a negative effort....' However, attention is very difficult. Using the hyperbole typical of earlier writers on the spiritual life, she says: 'Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.' (13)

When she reaches Marseilles she is ready to describe what happens when she says the Lord's Prayer in Greek, which has become a sort of mantra: '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....' (14) She has discovered for herself the way to stillness and silence that was transmitted through Cassian to the West from the desert solitaries.

She has learned the art of kenosis, art being, as she notes, a disciplining of the imagination, a combination of work and love that leads 'to something other than itself: to a life which is fully conscious of the pact between the mind and the world,' which is 'knowledge' and 'exploration.' (15) She has also discovered that prayer before the Blessed Sacrament facilitates this kenosis through attention; that whatever her legal status in the church, whose threshold has itself become a point of meditation, (16) the space of quiet becomes a table where she and her beloved may sit and eat. 'My heart has been transported forever, I hope, into the Blessed Sacrament on the altar.' (17)

At the end of her life she writes, 'There is no entry into the transcendent until the human faculties—intelligence, will, human love—have come up against a limit, and the human being waits at this threshold, which he can make no move to cross, without turning away and without knowing what he wants, in fixed, unwavering attention. It is a state of extreme humiliation, and it is impossible for anyone who cannot accept humiliation.' (18)

Thus '...we cannot seek God. It is only by attention to what is not God that we eventually have contact with him, a contact which becomes direct or explicit....' (19) If Simone Weil's fragility and integrity repeatedly brought her to her limit, this limit was also the meeting place with God. For all of her brilliant intellectual success, she failed at almost everything else she attempted in terms of direct action. She experienced social rejection, and the defeat of her country. By sitting in the darkness with these events and the thoughts and feelings that issued from them instead of running away or filling up her life with noise or possessions or prestige, she discovered that nothing in the world would satisfy her; therefore she chose nothing in order to discover what would. (20)

In the margin of her pre-war notebook she writes, 'The poem teaches us to contemplate thoughts instead of changing them.' (21) This is a key insight. Her attention to herself, vigilance, nepsis, was of necessity an attention to the world and its problems, and an attention to God, because she knew she was neither exclusively what her body suffered, nor what people reflected back to her of their own impressions. (22) It was only in the darkness of God that the truth of herself could emerge, and this truth she could never know. Her obedience had be so great that she abandoned even the desire to know who she was. She discovered that the stillness of attention is preparation for death, not only the death of self-consciousness necessary for a possibility of return to original silence, which is our resurrection, but also our physical death. The example of her prayer for paralysis which is often cited is neither speculative nor heuristic: it is autobiographical. (23) She had already experienced this stripping of her body and her faculties through her migraines and the temporary paralysis at the age of fourteen, and in retrospect she realizes their value both as part of her history and as instructive of decreation.

Although she understood how attention can be facilitated by rooting it in manual work, her own experience with manual work broke her. In her vulnerability she identified with others who were also despised and rejected, although doubtless for different reasons. Through her experience of work and ¬of the world's contempt for fragility she strengthened her passion for truth, justice, and the respect of the human person. She sought to embody this passion as an incarnate parable: inasmuch as you have lived among the least of these, you have lived in me and I in you. (Jn. 17:23) (24)

She made the discovery anyone makes who is willing to sit and watch thoughts swim by like fish on the screen of the mind: that what we think of as our identity, our personality, is a mere construct, and that the truth of the self emerges in proportion to the purity of attention to something else. The paradoxical nature of this attention means that we can never know our own truth. God, too, is engaged in the kenosis of attention. Self-outpouring is God's paradoxical nature and identity, and to the extent that we have attention we are like him. (25) One of the reasons that we find God through love of neighbor is that God's unknowability, our neighbor's and our own are the same unknowability. (26) It is in this way that we are made in the image of God. Weil realizes that in regard to this apophatic image of God all human norms, our own or those of others, are problematic, and that an equitable society must be rooted in a vision of what is humanly unattainable, which is truth in love.

'It is because the renunciation of the personality makes man a reflection of God that it is so frightful to reduce men to the condition of inert matter by plunging them into affliction. As God has created our independence so that we should have the possibility of renouncing it out of love, we should for the same reason wish to preserve the independence of our fellows. He who is perfectly obedient sets an infinite price upon the faculty of free choice in all men.' (27)

'Personality,' 'self',' 'ego': like her predecessors, Weil does not use this language consistently, and for the sake of the discussion that follows I would like to give simple definitions for the way I will use the words 'self consciousness' and 'experience'. I am distinguishing 'self-consciousness' from consciousness in general as the act of observing our selves. It is a part of consciousness, but not all of it. For example, in trying to help an awkward teenager we might say, 'Don't be self-conscious; just be yourself.' The listener can follow this instruction only by engaging in attention. Related to this commonplace meaning of 'self-consciousness' is the word 'experience'. By 'experience' I mean anything that happens to a person which the person notices. The noticing is self-consciousness at work, reflexivity; but, again, consciousness is not limited to self-consciousness.

If we are comparing our selves to others, to some idealized experience or to an imagined standard, the truth of our self cannot emerge. The same paradox obtains, Weil says, when it comes to making contact with God. 'Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object, no corner is left for saying "I."' She then goes on to give us a hint as to why so many spiritual authors, herself included, are driven to hyperbole: 'We cannot imagine such joys when they are absent; thus the incentive for seeking them is lacking.' (28)

'It is only by attention to what is not God that we eventually have contact with him, a contact which becomes direct or explicit.' (29) I would like to pause here to examine the importance of this paradox of intention, which is the key with which Weil unlocks the gateway to God, and which permeates her work. Over the centuries this paradox has been described repeatedly in spiritual and theological writing, but never with any consistency or with examples that everyone can understand. This lack has been much to our profit in that it has led to a wealth of literature, theories of the human person, languages of God and the self , but at the same time the absence of its clear transmission has been a disaster for Christian theology. Each religion seems to have its own tradition of this paradox of effacement and transcendence. It is set in opposition to the far more obvious human drives towards violence, tyranny, deceit and all the other destructive forms of force. As institutions develop, however, their leaders begin to realize how threatening this paradox is to the status quo. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu is wont to say, if governments knew how subversive contemplative prayer is, they would ban it.

Although there now exist illustrations of this paradox that make it easy to understand in its simplest form, it does not necessarily follow that a listener will be able to extend his understanding beyond the example. The horror vacui may be too great. This paradox (and similar paradoxes) cannot be comprehended; it must be inhabited. Once its threshold has been crossed, it draws one ever deeper into the aporia between opposites (30) until, having opened the gate to the ineffable by performing its function of silencing thought and turning the mind to wonder, the paradox effaces itself.

In 1987 Marvin Shaw published a book called The Paradox of Intention. Shaw is a social psychologist. He is interested in the frequency with which this paradox appears in religious texts, no matter how conflicting their theologies, and he is interested in its use in psychotherapy. He suggests several variations of the paradox, the most important of which, in my view, is the word on the tip of the tongue.

Every person experiences this phenomenon at some point. It is universal and probably hardwired. (31) You are talking about something and the next word or name is on the tip of your tongue, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot remember it. Only by forgetting what you are trying to remember and, in addition, that you are trying to remember can you create a space of opportunity—there is no guarantee—for recovering the lost word.

In this process of forgetting that you are trying to remember what you have forgotten, all illusions of control must be let go, all of your carefully constructed identity, any idea of yourself as a competent person. It is indeed humiliation, as Weil notes above. And there is perhaps a second paradox here: even while forgetting that we are trying to remember, we must, at the same time, hold on to a deep desire to remember, a desire so profound that we are willing to give up even our representation of our selves so that there might be a chance of its fulfillment.

Furthermore, we must trust that the information will return to us. We must believe, as Weil puts it, 'that what we are unable to grasp is more real than what we are able to grasp; that our power to grasp is not the criterion of reality, but on the contrary is deceptive.' (32) We will only hinder the process if we try to grasp at the word, to cheat and watch out of the corner of our eye for the mental 'place' where the word might pop up; we only prolong our frustration if we try to force it to appear by some other means. The use of force obliterates the space of opportunity where God can act. (33)

To engage in this forgetting in order to remember the lost word is a very simple form of kenosis. For Simone Weil as for so many of her spiritual predecessors, the paradox of intention in its infinite permutations appears to take us to the point of nothingness, the place of meeting, in which we become human by opening to the divine who awaits us there. (34) By analogy she calls it the 'lever of transcendence.' (35) In the light of God we discover that the lost information is our self, and that we can only wait in the darkness for it to be given back to us, even though we can never know either that this has happened or who we are, for it will happen only when we are in attention, in kenosis, when all reflexivity has ceased.

To remember by forgetting what we have forgotten and that we have forgotten goes against every frightened and selfish human instinct. It requires that we give instead of take, even in receiving. We can only be nakedly open. (36) It requires that we renounce what we desire, what would gratify us. It requires that we relinquish even the consciousness of our own mind at work on the problem. There must be at first a self-conscious effort to recover the word followed by a by a self-conscious effort that now with equal intensity forgets it is trying to remember. There is both struggle and surrender, and the surrender must be absolute. It seems absurd to choose nothing instead of the something we desire—or rather, to choose less than nothing, to choose to forget that we have a mind at all in regard to the object we seek. It seems especially risky since there are no guarantees that we will recover it. But in the end we are forced to consent to this necessity if we wish to have even a chance of recovering what we have lost. However reluctant we may be, however terrifying the prospect, this is what we must do. We have reached our limit; we must be crucified on our memory. The paradox of intention is a means—though it is neither mediator nor mediated—by which we might recover not only the word we cannot remember, but also the truth of our life in God.

The paradox of intention is critical to many areas of life and thought from the most banal to the most sublime. It is operative in texts, in the technique of their execution, in performance of themselves within the reader, and in their content and meaning. (37) Today we have time only to discuss meaning, and as an example I would like to look briefly at the Philippians passage (2:5-11) which appears repeatedly in the writings of Simone Weil, and at the Genesis story of which it is the mirror. Let us start at the beginning.

In the Garden of Eden it all goes wrong when conversation intrudes on the silent communion between God and humans, which is global, spatial and multivalent. The serpent's conversation gives the illusion of comprehending and controlling this eternal and spacious communion by reducing it to linearity. (38) This illusion of control distracts the humans from their reciprocally kenotic gaze with God and makes them self-conscious, reflexive. This is the Fall. As they become self-conscious, they also become confused. What is reality? They cannot find their way back to the vastness of their original simplicity of love and silence because of the thoughts, words and anxieties that now gibber in their minds. Having previously known only the unmediated silence and light of God, they now have no means by which they may recognize the difference between the noisy delusions in their minds and reality. There is only the horror of being trapped in the closed system of self-conscious projection. The angel with the sword, the expulsion, the curses—these are all the nightmare projections of a human race that has lost contact with its Source. God sighs, or maybe weeps, and makes them some clothes to cover their illusory self-image and their fear of death, which is now their primary focus, and which, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, is slavery to the devil. (Heb. 2:15)

The ancient hymn in Philippians turns this story back on itself. It reveals Christ's example, which is the way we must follow in order to regain the original attention of paradise. 'He did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped....' Here is the first clue. We have lost everything, and we are grasping at straws. We try to make substitutes but nothing will satisfy. In this state of mind we may discover the implicit forms of God but we end up trying to grasp them, which is futile, for God is ungrasping.

We grasp at phantasms. We create whole lives around what other people think, their standards of fashion, status, power, and cravings. We indulge the lust for control which gives us a sense of being little gods and by which we hide from ourselves the knowledge that we are, in fact, in free-fall. Our fear tempts us to grasp what is tangible and transient to our selves, but when we look at our hands, they are empty. In the following quotation, the thoughts Weil mentions at the end are parallel to divine geometry, and she would perhaps recognize them also as the no-mind of Zen.

'So long as a man submits to having his soul taken up with his own thoughts, his personal thoughts, he remains entirely subjected, even in his most secret thoughts, to the compulsion exercised by needs and to the mechanical play of forces. If he thinks otherwise, he is mistaken. But everything changes as soon as, by virtue of a genuine act of attention, he empties his soul so as to allow the thoughts of eternal wisdom to enter it. He then carries the very thoughts to which force is subjected.' (NR 291)

Christ took the form of a human being but while he lapsed into language, he did not fall for the narcissistic conversation and reflexivity. By refusing to grasp, he refuses to reduce the spatial and eternal to the linearity of illusion. Instead, he focused his self-consciousness into self-outpouring, emptied himself of the chatter of fallen self-consciousness, of everything that would interrupt the original silence. The word for obedience in Greek, as in Latin, is related to the word for listening. (39) Christ fixed his ear, his attention, his gaze on God and became obedient even unto death. It is as if the hymn itself and Paul's use of it are signaling that its interpretation is multivalent.

For example, however else it may be interpreted, we can understand this passage as a recapitulation of the Gospel accounts of the Passion and Resurrection, or as the inversion of the Genesis story, or as a text that has the potential to affect daily interior life and moral choice. In the same way, Christ's physical death has given us not so much an answer once for all as an ongoing instruction for life in him. The empty tomb is symbolic of emptied self. As Weil points out in the previous quotation, the person subject to his self-conscious delusions is the true slave for whom the silence of attention would seem death indeed, whereas the person who denudes himself of his delusions by means of silent attention is truly free and clothed in a robe of glory. (40) He is free to be only who he is because he has given up all claims of self-conscious knowing. He lives in the truth of himself, which is God.

The entire hymn turns on the word, 'therefore'. Perhaps this is the most important word in the Bible. This is not the 'therefore' of earthly geometry, a QED; there are no guarantees, and the crucifixion is not the first part of a formal proof. Or to change the metaphor to Weil's hated algebra, Jesus does not go to the cross knowing that the solution to the equation is resurrection. Rather this word 'therefore' [diò] signals that there is a space of opportunity for God to act. The static chatter of self-conscious delusion has been silenced; a hole has been torn in the membrane of fear that surrounds the world; the illusions of control and the need for it are vanquished. There is silence, and there is waiting in unknowing.

Although the passage in Philippians continues in the language of exaltation, in fact, the second half of the chiasmus is beyond language, which can only be reflexive, just as experience can only be interpretation. The second half of the hymn is a doxology that signifies the encounter with the ineffable that has taken place in the apophatic space to which the word 'therefore' gestures, what Weil tends to call 'the void.' We see the same literary pattern in many other accounts of the dark way of prayer such as the 'Dream of the Rood,' 'The Seafarer' and Bonaventure's Itinerarium. John the Solitary writes:

'How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not in the world of the word? for everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I depart from the voice, no longer remaining in things which the voice proclaims? when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things, when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice no word can bring.' (41)

Weil agrees: 'The silence of God compels us to an inward silence.' (42) 'The Word: silence in God, expression in creation.' (43) '...there are degrees of silence,' she says. 'There is a silence in the beauty of the universe which is like a noise when compared to the silence of God.' (44)

Kenosis is a function of attention. The word signifies the entire process, but it also refers specifically to the decreation that is the consequence of attention. It is attention that brings us back to original silence. Attention is like a fish swimming in grace. As it swims, everything extraneous to it is sloughed off by the water flowing past its body—dead scales, parasites, seaweed. This is what I believe Weil means by decreation: the more completely our attention is focused, the more we leave behind what is extraneous to our truth. In spite of the active, hyperbolic and sometimes violent language she uses, which is entirely in the tradition of this sort of writing, the effort is in the attention, not in trying to dismantle the construct. As she says, 'It is a grace that we receive. All we can do is to arrange things so that it may descend into them. We don't actually do anything.' (45)

The phrase 'arranging things' is critical. To choose attention is costly, but for Weil at every level, the need to avoid distraction is quite literally a matter of life and death. She cannot afford to cling to anything that will make her feel secure, especially ideas about her self. Her understanding of decreation has one of its foundations in the way that she has learned to relate to the world, and this discipline must be absolute. (46) She understands experientially at every level what is meant by the Gospel paradox of losing life to gain it, discussed above as the paradox of intention.

The art of kenosis is a fusion of discipline, discernment and love that points beyond itself. It is above all a fusion of desire, a desire that begins with God whose joy is the willingness to efface himself, to suffer until, with our consent, he ignites in us what is like himself.

'To consent to being anonymous, to being human material (Eucharist); to renounce prestige, public esteem—that is to bear witness to the truth, namely that one is composed of human material, that one has no rights. It is to cast aside all ornament, to put up with one's nakedness.' (47)

'Matter is our infallible judge.' (48)

Towards the end of her life she may have had an intuition that she had passed the point of no return, especially in terms of her physical condition, whatever its causes. She may already have had intimations that her heart was damaged. She was exhausted, exhausted from her struggle with the simple processes of life, exhausted by the energy required to negotiate truthfully in a world that dissembled, exhausted by the continual rejections, the seeming failures, the discounting of her ideas. She was exhausted by the war and the perfidy of even the Free French in becoming subject to political factionalism. But there is much more. (49)

There are signs that in some unfathomable way she has come to understand herself as sacrament, as if her love for a world mired in tragedy has now become so great that she must create a space of opportunity for it by abandoning it, so that her gift of life may now be released to be used for God's purposes. If she cannot receive Communion, then she will become it, she will nourish. (50) Her flesh is now a map of light. (51)

Baptism has become redundant. If Simone Dietz, in her convert's zeal, did in fact baptize Simone Weil on her deathbed, then she betrayed her. On the other hand, perhaps it did not matter: she had found another way. (52)

Her attention is now so complete that everything extraneous is falling away in the slipstream of her movement into eternity. She is the salmon, the swimmer, on whose spawning and death both the Alaska rainforest and the ecology of its waters depend. 'When the swimmer dies,' writes Margaret Craven, 'he has spent himself completely for the end for which he was made, and this is not sadness. It is triumph.' (53)



(1) Diogenes Allen, Three Outsiders (Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1983), p. 97.
(2) Ibid., p. 129.
(3) Diogenes Allen, Spirit, Nature and Community (Albany, State University of New York, 1994), p. 150.
(4) Ibid., p. 153.
(5) George A. Panichas, ed., The Simone Weil Reader (Wakefield, Moyer Bell, 1977), p. 435. Hereafter cited as SWR.
(6) Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem (Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 1992), p.131.
(7) See The Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, by Sebastian Brock (Poona, Jacob Vellian, 1979).
(8) 'On the other hand, I have, for a long time now, experienced an intense and ever-mounting desire for Communion. If the sacraments are considered a good and if I so consider them, too, if I desire them and if they are refused to me for no fault of my own, there has to be a grave injustice in all of this.' Dernier Texte, quoted in Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography by Gabriella Fiori, tr. Joseph R. Berrigan (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1989) p. 318-319.
(9) Letter to Joë Bousquet, SWR 90.
(10) 'Since affliction causes everything to be called in question, let us call everything in question in our own consciousness.' Simone Weil, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, tr. Arthur Wills (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), p. 191. Hereafter cited as N.
(11) 'Generally speaking, one should not wish for the disappearance of any of one's personal failings, but for the grace which can transfigure them.' N 300
(12) Simone Weil, Waiting for God, tr. Emma Craufurd (New York, Harper Colophon Books, 1951), p. 64. Hereafter cited as WG.
(13) WG 111.
(14) SWR 18.
(15) Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks, tr. Richard Rees (London, Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 40, 42, 44. Hereafter cited as FLN.
(16) 'I have always remained at this exact point, on the threshold of the Church, without moving, quite still....' SWR 21
(17) Idem.
(18) FLN 335.
(19) Allen, 1983, p. 121. 'The attention turned with love toward God (or, in a lesser degree, toward anything which is truly beautiful) makes certain things impossible for us. Such is the non-acting action of prayer in the soul.' (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, tr. Arthur Wills (New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1952. Hereafter cited as GG.) p. 132); 'We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.' (GG 169); 'To draw back before the object we are pursuing. Only an indirect method is effective.' (GG 170-171); 'Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.... The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry out a search.' Waiting for God quoted in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, New York Weidenfeld and Nicholsen, 1986, p. 5-6. Hereafter cited as SWA.
(20) 'One must turn oneself into a correct balance by stopping and submitting, motionless, to the impulsion; "take up one's cross". One perceives it then, since one instinctively resists it. One ceases to read a false translation of it outside.' N 202; 'There is the nothingness from which we flee and the nothingness toward which we go.' N 232.
(21) FLN 42.
(22) 'I, too, am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.' N 200.
(23) FLN 243-4.
(24) 'No thought attains to its fullest existence unless it is incarnated in a human environment, and by environment I mean something open to the world around, something which is steeped in the surrounding socieity and is in contact with the whole of it, and not simply a closed circle of disciples around a master. For the lack of such an environment in which to breathe, a superior mind makes a philosophy for itself; but that is a second best and it produces thought of a lesser degree of reality.' (Seventy Letters quoted in SWA 21.)
(25) 'He emptied himself of his divinity. We should empty ourselves of the false divinity with which we were born.' N 217.
(26) SWR 470 ff. See also Thomas Carlson's account of Eriugena in 'Locating the Mystical Subject', Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004). I do not, however, agree with Carlson's conclusion.
(27) SWR 485.
(28) GG 77.
(29) Allen 1983, op. cit. 'The wrong way of seeking. The attention fixed on a problem. Another phenomenon due to horror of the void.... We must not want to find.... To draw back before the object we are pursuing. Only an indirect method is effective.' GG 170-171. 'Not to think about—supreme faculty, ' N 110; 'The capacity to drive away a thought once and for all is the door to eternity. The infinite in an instant.' N 268. (With thanks to M. Andic.)
(30) The paradox thus gives us, paradoxically, an objective criterion of discernment: every true sacred sign effaces itself. (Most traditional criteria of discernment are subjective.)
(31) For discussion of a similar topic, see 'Whose Life Would You Save?' by Carl Zimmer, Discover, April, 2004, vol. 25, #4 on the work of Princeton philosopher/biologist Joshua Greene.
(32) N 220.
(33) 'When the silence of God comes to the soul and penetrates it and joins the silence which is secretly present in us, from then on we have our treasure and our heart in God; and space opens before us as the opening fruit of a plant divides in two, for we are seeing the universe from a point of view situated outside space.' Compare with Evagrius Ponticus, Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, Cistercian Studies Series 4 (Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 1981).ch. 61, cited in '"The Open Country whose Name is Prayer": Apophasis, Deconstruction, and Contemplative Practice' by Martin Laird, forthcoming.
(34) 'I have to love to be nothing. How horrible it would be if I were something. [Emily Dickinson made the same remark in her poem, 'I'm nobody, who are you?'] I have to love my nothingness, love to be nothingness; to love with that part of the soul which lies on the other side of the curtain, for the part of the soul which is perceptible to consciousness is unable to love nothingness, has a horror of it. If it thinks it does love nothingness, what it really loves is something different.' N 262. The meeting place with God is an aporia, and is marked as such throughout the bible: the formless void (Gen. 1); the cave of Elijah (I Kgs. 19:9 ff.); the cleft in the rock on Horeb (Ex. 33:22 ff.); the Mercy Seat in the Temple at Jerusalem, 'a vacant space between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies....the "great speaking absence between the images" [which] signified both...repudiation of earthly representations of the deity and the imageless space into which they sought to come by prayer and devotion' (Gillespie and Ross, quoting Rowan Williams, p. 53); the womb of Mary (Lk. 1:26ff.); the empty tomb, the new Mercy Seat, also surrounded by angels, who perhaps wear the masks of tragedy and comedy.
(35) F 134 cited in Andic, 'Supernatural Knowledge,' note 16; also N 218.
(36) There is no word in English to describe this action-non-action. Perhaps the French disponibilité comes closest.
(37) See Vincent Gillespie, 'Postcards from the Edge: Interpreting the Ineffable in the Middle English Mystics,' Interpretation: Medieval and Modern, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1992), pp. 137-165; Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, 'The Apophatic Image: the Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich,' The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge, D.S. Brewer, 1992), pp. 53-77; Michael Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994).
(38) Compare with Dorothy Tuck McFarland, Simone Weil (New York, Frederick Ungar, 1983), p. 124: '[Her] theology has a three-dimensional quality which it is impossible to reproduce in a linear way but which, when grasped in its totality, forms a coherent whole.' The word 'grasp' is an unfortunate choice of words on the part of McFarland, for the point of this theology is ungrasping; J.P. Little, 'Simone Weil's Concept of Decreation' in Richard Bell, ed. Simone Weil's Philosophy of Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 27: ' does one refer to a perspective, that is to say, God's perspective pre-creation or post-decreation, that is non-positional and therefore not truly a perspective at all? Our language cannot cope with perception that does not imply a limited perceiver.'
(39) hypakouo: listen to, obey, hear, 'Technically of door keeper whose duty it is to listen for the signals of those who wish to enter, and to admit them if they are entitled to do so, simply open or answer the door (Plato, Phaedo 59e; Crito 43a; Symposium 1,11; Acts 12, 13)". W. Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd edition (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1973. Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, Oxford University Press): answer when called. My thanks to Martin Laird for this reference.
(40) Brock, p. 85 ff.
(41) John the Solitary, On Prayer, tr. Sebastian Brock, Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 30 (1970), 84-101, p. 87,
(42) N 282. They both write also of varieties of silence, c.f., Brock, op. cit., pp. 97-98; SWR 490.
(43) N 267.
(44) SWR 490.
(45) N 543.
(46) '(As in the case of my headaches). I can either sully the whole universe with my misery and not feel it, or gather it up unto myself. To be like God, but God crucified.' N 213. Renunciation is indivisible. Whoever renounces one single thing truly and without compensation loses everything. He will only have, in exchange, the kingdom of heaven.' N 231.
(47) N 217; see also N 311; WG 135,177.
(48) FLN 364.
(49) F 354.
(50) Her understanding appears to resemble that of the medieval women described in Carolyn Walker Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987), and indeed Bynum mentions such a possibility on p. 297.
(51) Ulrike Wiethaus, Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics (Syracuse, University of Syracuse Press, 1993).
(52) Cf., Heb. 2:14-18.
(53) I Heard the Owl Call My Name (New York, Dell, 1973), p. 47.