Saturday, February 15, 2014

Simone Weil, Pope Francis and the Three Young Men

Simone Weil
Several weeks ago, my friend Toby posted this quote from a blogpost at Fare Forward: A Christian Review of Ideas.
According to Weil, the essential act of justice is affirmation that the sacred, innocent point in another human being’s heart still exists, an affirmation given through simple attention, which answers the other’s silent cry not to be hurt. This look of love, which is not blind to force’s sway over the other, combats his darkness, even before anything else is done for him. 
Weil insists that a true act of attention is something we have to learn, and practice. Real affirmation of another’s existence costs something, especially in the case of the afflicted, since their humanity is under attack. For the unpracticed, it is often impossible to discern the sacred point in someone who is afflicted, or to believe in its presence. 
Weil turns to beauty to teach us how to pay attention. Beauty gives us confidence that the childish cry still exists in those who are afflicted. Something beautiful radiates a light that helps us to distinguish what is precious from what is hideous in another, and comforts us when our attention costs more than we are able to give.
What a serious responsibility this is, and how often I fail to recognize it, or to act on it when I do. How often it seems that my attention will cost more than I am able to give, and so I fail to even try to give it. How often my own hideousness prevents me from even considering that there might be something precious to be sought in another. It's so overwhelming to realize that every day I might be continually called to dredge up the psychological and spiritual, not the mention the physical, energy to meet this challenge. How does one summon up the strength to persevere?

When I first read this quote, it immediately reminded me of a work of fiction that I recently read in which the protagonist is charged with finding that "sacred, innocent point" in the heart of a man who has given himself entirely to the evil one so that he can be given another chance. The person who is called to the task is a young girl who could not possibly accomplished the deed on her own, but who has previously fallen into the hands of the living God and found it fearful, yes, but then filled with light, and joy. She also experiences a sadness that she has to return to the world, and yet, when she does, she finds herself changed, a bearer of the light.

We can only find the courage to stare into the depths of another's darkness when we have first been willing to cast ourselves into the burning abyss of God's love. Terrifying though it is, and it is terrifying, we find that it is the only truly safe place, and we find ourselves walking around, accompanied by angels and singing the praises of the Lord like the three young men in the fiery furnace. I've always found strength and encouragement in their response to Nebuchadnezzar:
If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, you should know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.
Instead of showing their fortitude, I'm afraid, we often stand around the edge of the pit in agony, wringing our hands, and we risk sharing the fate of the men who were devoured by the flames.

I imagine that the sojourn in the fiery furnace was a glorious experience for Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego--akin to that of Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. I was praying the Luminous Mysteries the other day and it struck me that for some reason, when I come to the fourth mystery, I always think of it in terms of my own transfiguration, but that what I should really be thinking about is the fact that we need to constantly remind ourselves of whatever glory the Lord has revealed to us in our most fervent moments so that we won't get lost in the darkness. In this life, we can't stay in the burning abyss, or the fiery furnace or the on the mountain top for long, but our time there is meant to change us, and prepare us to transmit that light into the depths of another's darkness.

Shortly after I read that quote from Simone Weil, I came across this one from Pope Francis which reiterates what she says. I printed it out and put it on the bulletin board in my office. It is as good a way to close this post as I could imagine.
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.



  1. Dense, requiring meditative time. Thanks!

  2. May I learn to "constantly remind [myself] of whatever glory the Lord has revealed to [me] . . . so that I won't get lost in the darkness." May I learn to pay authentic attention to the persons I am called to be with.