Monthly Archives: June 2021

The Original Vision

The original vision of childhood is not ‘an imaginative fancy but a form of knowledge that is essential to the development of any mature understanding’. This quote is from Alister Hardy’s foreword to a book by Edward Robinson of his study of religious experiences. This is not to do with theological orthodoxies or conventional ideas of what religion is but rather people’s early experiences of the ‘divine flame burning throughout one’s life’. When people were invited to send their experiences of a power beyond themselves to the religious experience research unit (then at Oxford and now based at Lampeter University- where you can do a research MA) it was found that 15% of the then 4,000 started by going back to something that happened to them in their earliest years. ‘All my life I have been able to look back and remember …’

Here’s an example from a woman aged 55 who at the age of five is sitting in the garden watching a colony of ants and realising that she was large to them – invisible to them except perhaps as a shadow over their lives – but she had the power to destroy them although outside the sphere of their knowledge.

‘Turning away from them to my surroundings, I saw there was a tree not far away, and the sun was shining. There were clouds and blue sky that went on for ever and ever. And suddenly I was tiny – so little and weak and insignificant that it didn’t really matter at all whether I existed or not. And yet, insignificant as I was, my mind was capable of understanding that the limitless world I could see was beyond my comprehension…’

She sees that any watcher of her would be vaster than the world and space and yet ‘I was aware of him, in spite of my limitations. At the same time, he was, and he was not, beyond my understanding.’ The realisation was also that the whole could not be complete without her own particular contribution and yet she was so insignificant as to be almost non-existent. ‘Every single person was a part of a Body, the purpose of which was as much beyond my comprehension now as I was beyond the comprehension of the ants. I was enchanted…’

‘It was a lovely thing to have happened. All my life, in times of great pain or distress or failure, I have been able to look back and remember, quite sure that the present agony was not the whole picture and that my understanding of it was limited as were the ants in their comprehension of their part in the world I knew.’

 

Spiritual pioneers on the edge – Simone Weil

 

Simone Weil, philosopher, political activist and religious mystic, was born in Paris in 1909 and, after graduating in philosophy in 1931, she taught in secondary schools while pursuing an active career as a trade union organiser. She wanted to learn from the inside about the oppression of factory work and so took a year’s leave in 1934 and was employed on the factory floor for the production of Renault cars. She became physically ill from the strain and this pattern was repeated when in 1936 she spent a brief period with the Socialist forces in Spain, but had to be invalided home. Her mission to be amongst those whom she saw as oppressed took her to the South of France where she worked as a farm labourer. In 1942 she escaped from France with the intention of collaborating with the Free French in London. Simone Weil’s desire was to be sent back behind German lines in occupied France but failing to achieve that goal, she confined herself to the miserly food rations allowed the occupied French. Once more her health gave way and she died in a sanatorium at Ashford in Kent on 29th August, 1943. Simone came from an agnostic background but was deeply involved in mysticism – she has been called a Platonic Christian mystic – as she saw her life as impelled by mystic impulses that lovingly advanced her toward the utterly unknowable. Her journey she saw as involving ‘an expenditure of self in the form of a powerful love that seizes this subject – an expenditure that comes at the price of subjectivity’. Her desire was for love to take her ‘across the threshold of experience’. Fr Perrin a Dominican priest in Marseille, who she first met in 1941, encouraged her deepening relationship with God and much of her religious writing is based on their conversations.

Her experience of God is one of absence, ‘the void is God, the void is primordial’. She believed that the soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, ‘or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself. Then, one day, God will come to show himself to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it, as in the case of Job.’

It is through love, as Simone discovered, that we pass from death to life. Love for her fellow human beings was the mainspring of Simone’s existence, and the chief reason she gave for refusing baptism and staying outside of the Church but close to God – she wanted to identify with ‘the least’ in society without gaining any special privilege. Speaking of the materialism of the world and its need for love she explained in a letter to Fr. Perrin:

‘I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them, so as to love them just as they are.’

She believed in the need to train the will and submit to discipline. But ultimately it is not we who seek God, but God who reaches out to us or, as she expressed it: ‘We cannot take a step towards the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us.’

Spiritual pioneer – Thomas Merton

Merton has played a central part in my spiritual awakening and there’s so much material to choose from to show his role as a spiritual pioneer. Currently I am re-reading volume 6 Learning to Love and so these extracts and reflections are taken from the first part of this journal. Here Merton the theologian of experience is very present and his pioneering spirituality opens up the connections within his inner world and what is happening to him in the outer. It is authentic and painfully honest. After all what other theologian or spiritual leader do you know who so openly reflects on the passion and the desolation of human love?

What strikes me is that Merton is one of those spiritual guides who can clearly speak to one’s inner condition. He writes as a human being connecting with the reader – as if speaking directly to one’s concerns; this has been called his compassionate transparency – there’s space here for the reader to connect and reflect on themselves in the light of what Merton writes. This journal includes much material on the solitude Merton experiences in the hermitage: he feels that he is really getting grounded in solitude. On retreat in the hermitage in late January 1966 Merton reviews his life and his involvement in war and peace studies, racism, literature in general and monasticism. He considers his health, demands to alter the liturgy, and, correspondence on poetry. He concludes the review with one central option:

‘to let go of all that seems to suggest getting somewhere, being someone, having a name and a voice, following a policy and directing people in “my” ways. What matters is to love, to be in one place in silence, if necessary in suffering, sickness, tribulation, and not try to be anybody outwardly. Not try to have a public identity.’

In March 1966 Merton has a back operation, meets M. a student nurse and begins a loving relationship with her. After the operation Merton returns to the hermitage commenting on how after the hospital experience, he notes that he is becoming more and more himself, deeper and deeper: ‘It is shocking to realize that you sometimes have to fight to get yourself back when some great trauma has broken in on you.’ He plans future work in order to give to others and fearful in case another operation might be needed he comments: ‘I have got to be faithful, detached, obedient, concerned not only for my own life as I want to live it, but for God’s will that remains to be realised in and through me. That is all.’

Becoming very involved with M. Merton comments that in times when he is groping for support and strength where else would he turn except to God’s word: from 1 John 4: ‘Little children you belong to God … for He who is within you is greater than he who is in the world …’ (TM’s italics) So confused and immersed in the relationship with M. Merton decides to pray for her ‘as earnestly and honestly as possible and leave the rest to God.’ He sees that his life tries to be in God and tries to dwell at the point ‘where life and grace well up out of the unknown.’