MYSTICISM: Simone Weil—Encounters With Christ
From Waiting for God and The Notebooks of Simone Weil
In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow; by an extreme effort of concentration I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a perfect and pure joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words. This experience by analogy enabled me to get a better understanding of the possibility of divine love in the midst of affliction. It goes without saying that in the course of these services the thought of the passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.
There was a young English Roman Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance – for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence – made him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeen century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered a poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called “Love” [a poem of George Herbert], I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I made myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.
In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here blow, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard of things of this kind, but I had never believed them. In the Fioretti [stories about Saint Francis] the accounts of the apparitions rather put me off if anything, like the miracles in the Gospels. Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.
I had never read any mystical works because I had never felt any call to read them. In reading as in other things I have always striven to practice obedience. There is nothing more favorable to intellectual progress, for as far as possible I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat. God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact.
Yet I still half refused, not my love but my intelligence. For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.
Last summer , doing Greek with T_____, I went through the Our Father word for word in Greek. We promised each other to learn it by heart. I do not think he ever did so, but some weeks later, as I was turning over the pages of the gospel, I said to myself that since I had promised to do this thing and it was good, I ought to do it. I did it. The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest. I recited Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard.
Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once again succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse.
The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition.
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. The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity of the second or sometimes the third degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence.
Sometimes, also during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, but his presence is infinitely more real, more moving, more clear, than on that first occasion when he took possession of me.
He entered my room and said: “Poor creature, you who understand nothing, who know nothing. Come with me and I will teach you things which you do not suspect.” I followed him.
He took me into a church. It was new and ugly. He led me up to the altar and said: “Kneel down.” I said, “I have not been baptized.” He said, “Fall on your knees before this place, in love, as before the place where lies the truth.” I obeyed.
He brought brought me out and made me climb up to a garret. Through the open window one could see the whole city spread out, some wooden scaffoldings, and the river on which other boats were being unloaded. The garret was empty, except for a table and two chairs. He bade me be seated.
We were alone. He spoke. Form time to time, someone would enter, mingle in the conversation, then leave again.
Winter had gone; spring had not yet come. The branches of the trees lay bare, without buds, in the cold air full of sunshine.
The light of day would arise, shine forth in splendor, and fade away; then the moon and the stars would enter through the window. And then once more the dawn would come up.
At times he would fall silent, take some bread from a cupboard, and we would share it. This bread really had the taste of bread. I have never found that taste again.
He would pour out some wine for me, and some for himself – wine which tasted of the sun and of the soil upon which this city was built.
At other times we would stretch ourselves out on the floor of the garret, and sweet sleep would enfold me. Then I would wake and drink in the light of the sun.
He had promised to teach me, but he did not teach me anything. We talked about all kinds of things, in a desultory way, as do old friends.
One day he said to me: “Now go.” I fell down before him, I clasped his knees, I implored him not to drive me away. But he threw me out on the stairs. I went down unconscious of anything, my heart as it were in shreds. I wandered along the streets. Then I realized that I had no idea where this house lay.
I have never tried to find it again. I understood that he had come for me by mistake. My place is not in that garret. It can be anywhere – in a prison cell, in one of those middle-class drawing-rooms full of knick-knacks and red plush, in the waiting-room of a station – anywhere, except in that garret.
Sometimes I cannot help trying, fearfully and remorsefully, to repeat to myself a part of what he said to me. How am I to know if I remember it rightly? He is not there to tell me.
I know well that he does not love me. How could he love me? And yet deep down within me something, a particle of myself, cannot help thinking, with fear and trembling, that perhaps, in spite of all, he loves me.
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