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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is happiness!

9:21 pm, September 13, 2010  
Blogger Eric V. Jeuland said...

I would love it if you commented on Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, author. She's got a book on Centering Prayer I've long used as a reference, and I'm now getting through her more recent The Wisdom Jesus. She especially discusses Kenosis as central. What do you think of her treatment of it/of everything?

Eric Jeuland

1:46 am, November 08, 2015  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Eric: I have a policy never to comment on the work of an acquaintance. Sorry.

3:01 pm, November 16, 2015  

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