Edouard Louis

I’ve been thinking all week about how to express this, how I felt after a talk by author Edouard Louis at Atout livre bookshop. To explain why I live for moments like these, why it made me feel so alive. The words don’t come out nicely, so I’m just going to list them here:

Because he writes about class and sexuality.

Because he is only 23 years old, meaning poverty and back-breaking economic  conditions are happening in France now, not 50 years ago.

Because it is not just his pain, but the pain of his whole family, his whole village, passing on from generation to generation.

Because not everyone in France is drinking champagne in cafes, living the good life that we are now supposedly trying to protect with restricted freedoms, racial profiling and tightening citizenship laws.

Because these are the people who will vote for the National Front, because they see it as their only hope, because neo-fascists are the only ones acknowledging their suffering.

Because I grew up watching my parents’ bodies buckle and break under hard physical labour in order to live the ‘Australian dream’.

Because it reminds me of my own childhood when I didn’t have a dollar to buy a sausage sizzle at the school’s fete.

Because my sister is a primary school teacher, whose children come to kindergarten without lunch, clean clothes and barely know how to hold a pencil.

Because someone asked him what he was committed to, and he said that he was committed to knowing suffering.

Because it’s not just about documenting or witnessing sorrow and misery, but even more importantly because it is political to say “look at this”, look at what we, most especially the Left in their rhetoric, would rather ignore.

Because class matters. Because it structures how we love, fuck, work, make art and experience life.

Because he said that writing for him is inherently political.

Because it is rare, exceptional and nearly a miracle to hear someone articulate these things in the literature world.

Because I know what it costs for him to be able to do so, to be able to fashion a deep cry into words for others to consume. Because what some people take for granted (writing, the arts), others have to fight for.

Edouard Louis’ books are “En finir avec Eddy Bellegeule” and « Histoire de la violence »

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#RichKids

You might have seen the viral Rich Kids of Instagram (http://richkidsofinstagram.tumblr.com) which displays young people unashamedly parading their inherited wealth in the form of private jets, luxury watches and other gratuitous gaudiness. But they’re only showing one particular type of rich kid: this kind are carbon copies of their father/mother, ambitious and wealth flaunting, they will probably skip 10 years of paper pushing to go straight to being VP of Daddy’s company.

But another type of rich kid is less known, yet in many ways just as pervasive. They are not the kind to admit they come from a wealthy family, never less flaunt it. This type of rich kid rejects the money-making path, and if anything has an agonised relationship with it. Youthful and impish, having turned their backs on their father’s mould and the background that they come from, this type of rich kid is the eternal Peter Pan figure.

Typically youthful-looking physically, they do not have the visible stress lines on their faces that comes with having to worry about how to pay the bills, nor are their bodies marked by having to do any kind of physical labour. These people have a sort of un-anchored feeling about them, because they live without real duties or material obligations towards anyone other than themselves. Similarly, nothing that they do has any material consequences in the real world, and they remain ever youthful and child-like well into their forties and fifties.

They have not been nailed by the necessity of survival, which for ordinary people involves surviving financially, working for a living, providing for others. These rich kids escape even the demands of their wealthy family backgrounds and the pressure to continue in their parent’s footsteps by rejecting it altogether (but not the money).To always be able to put yourself first is an illusion that some have the privilege to maintain for a very long time. And because they do not have to submit to any real form of necessity, and feel they are not responsible for anyone else much less themselves, they are usually disorganised, forgetful and unreliable.

One of the effects of having (a lot of) money is that it acts as a buffer from the inconveniences of real life. Missed their flight? They can just buy another ticket. Forgot where they left their phone/laptop/expensive electronic device? They can simply buy another one. Hence, there is no need to be organised, careful or reliable. They think their unreliability is a quirky character trait or personal defect, but what they don’t realise is that if they had to be concerned about being able to pay the rent at the end of the month, they would get organised quick smart. This ‘character trait’ is more the result of a whole lifetime of living with actions that have no material consequences, or being able to get away with things because money has bought them out of trouble, which amounts to the same thing.

Another characteristic of this type of rich kid is self-indulgence, although they would call it being “sensitive”. Again, this self-indulgence comes from never having to really fight to get anything. Therefore, this type of rich kid is always looking for help outside of themselves, despite having every possible advantage in life. By help, I mean psychic, mental and emotional support. It’s almost as if being given everything since they were young, they become incapable in later life to struggle to get things by themselves; incapable of accepting the struggle that is inherent in getting things.

But this type of rich kid believes this incapacity to be the result of extreme sensitivity rather than self-indulgence, and see themselves as very much being about connection and wanting to connect with others. However this is often just a euphemism for parasitic behaviour, because they only know how to get things through others, or through the support of others. And because of this particular psychological bent, they are more likely to enter into a typical vocation. They are more likely to become artists, writers, musicians or leader of a spiritual group (preferably new age or mildly eastern religion). For the most part these are economically unproductive activities, so only those from wealthy backgrounds who have the resources to support themselves are found in these fields. These type of rich kids are likely to be into world music, reading about the plight of third world women or yoga and bodywork; basically involved in activities that have no kind of real impact on the world, especially on the world outside of themselves. By default they end up in a kind of discussion amongst themselves, with people like themselves. An insular world propped up by invisible family money.

Which brings me to my main point about this type of rich kid. These are the kinds of people who will fill the cultural, artistic and academic ranks of the world. Meaning, these are the people who will write about and leave a legacy of what being humans means through the arts, academia and culture. It must be what gives these fields that aura of unreality- where the majority of people come from a certain kind of milieu that for the most part is disconnected from the reality of most people. The great irony and farce is that these are the people who will then go on to talk and write about the ‘human condition’.

It is disingenuous not to talk about your wealth. Because if there is not transparency, if there is not a continual revelation of how money undergirds a lot of ‘accomplishments’ to reveal the fallacy that often is portrayed as individual merit, then we will continue to believe that this type of rich kid, and all the other types, actually did something extraordinary to get where they are.

It is a political act to point out the invisibility of wealth, and how it shapes and structures many things, including everyday life. It is also a political act to demand that arts and culture be created by a more diverse pool of people, reflecting a range of life experiences not just those of the wealthy.

“The economic thing was always a problem. So much theatre drama and movies and novels are built on the premise of family troubles, the breakdown in relationships. If you had these problems but at the same time were having to worry about putting food on the table or paying a doctor’s bill or paying your rent…Everything is compounded.”

– the great short story writer, Raymond Carver

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An experience of spiritual community- some reflections

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What’s the difference between a spiritual community and other kinds of groups, for example a community of knitting enthusiasts or supporters of a particular football club? What’s the purpose of living in community? These were some of the questions I asked myself while I lived in Meditatio House in London as part of the community of oblates.

My actual experience of living in community was far from the utopian idea of community where everybody gets along with each other and love flows freely between us simply because we are all Christians and/or meditators, with the occasional problem popping up on the side. The people who come into community are a group of diverse people like anywhere else- with different agendas, expectations and needs. The crucial difference at Meditatio House is the central importance given to meditation and the way daily life is structured; all of it encouraging us to be present and reflective. In community, we willingly put ourselves in the way of obstacles in order to grow (in self-knowledge, in faith), and for most of us these obstacles are often other people. In the house, there is the opportunity that we can learn from living together with people whom we may not like or get along with; not only learning how to manage relationships like this but also learning how to be present with our own fears, desires, likes and dislikes that are triggered by others. Rowan Williams remarks on “how much the barriers of egoistic fantasy are broken by the sheer brute presence of other persons” and that it is other people who set the boundaries around our will. It is in trying not to escape this, but rather recognising that “God is to be apprehended under the form of those boundaries” that lies the true value of community. It is exactly through these relationships where we feel “constrained, attracted or repelled, irritated and tantalised” that we are able to cultivate a self that has de-centred the ego enough to let God and others in.

In surrendering to the experience, that is, being whole-heartedly present, something priceless can be gained: self-knowledge. It is about growing awareness, not perfection. Incredibly, I discovered that self-knowledge is mostly gained in and through relationship with others, not alone. I remember before I went into Meditatio House, Father Laurence asked me what I thought the meaning of life was, and I said something like purpose, finding purpose. And when he said that the meaning of life was relationship, I remember thinking ‘oh’ and feeling disappointed and disbelieving of the answer. How could people, who hurt each other so easily and are so weak, be the meaning of life. I always thought that it was about something higher or deeper than that, and that I would dedicate my life to it. But being at Meditatio House turned my head around all of that. I remember a retreat we did at Bere Island during Easter. At the cemetery at the back of the church on the island, the tombstones have engraved the names of all the family members buried together, listing father, mother, daughter, son. I thought that was such a striking and beautiful image about what it is that we leave behind, what it is that really counts in life and in death- who we have loved, how we have loved, what we have loved. That is our life’s work. That is the ‘purpose’ of life, if you will. To love and be faithful to love, as the sun faithfully rises every day.

And perhaps that is also the purpose and challenge of living in a community like Meditatio House: discovering that relationship is all that matters and to train us in relationship, through the gaining of self-knowledge. But it is sometimes a painful experience. Because living in community provides a space where we can encounter what in real life we mostly try to avoid or aren’t able to face for whatever reason. It provides an opportunity to confront this not only within ourselves, but also with others.

If I could do my time again in Meditatio House, I would confront more and avoid conflict less. Being more honest when I didn’t like what someone was doing and risk conflict. Because living in community magnifies our tendencies and my tendency is to not say anything while fuming, often for many days after. Avoiding conflict is a survival mechanism I’ve learnt, a way to avoid the danger of other people’s anger. But living in community provides a space where we can try to be as real with one another as much as possible and with ourselves; it is made for this. In the workplace, we may not be able to be as honest as we like because of office politics or the threat of losing our jobs. We may not have the time, energy or inclination to be around people who press our buttons or whom we find difficult, and to analyse why this is so. We may not be able to confront others and ourselves in ‘normal life’ due to a myriad of factors. But in community there is the time and space where conflict should be able to occur without the fear of being ostracised, fear of being punished. It should be the place where there is much less to lose in being honest with each other; a luxury in this world.

And this radical space could only happen because of the daily communal meditation practice, because of the way that life is lived at the house, because of the extraordinary vision and commitment of those who have made Meditatio House a reality. And because, dare I say it, of the presence of the Spirit, with whom ‘all things are possible’. We need the Spirit because life can be tough in community. Because being honest can at times be unpleasant, challenging and ugly. Because living in community involves a continual trespassing of boundaries: being trespassed and doing the trespassing. Living this can be very difficult and we do need fellow companions along the way with whom we feel a connection and can share the experience with; one or two people are sufficient. Simone Weil says that true friendship is a rare gift, and living in the house is an opportunity to deepen any connections we have with others in a very real and meaningful way. In the House I have made friendships that I will treasure forever, a total blessing in itself.

I found that the way the House was organised allowed us to experience how faith is a practice, one that has to be lived in the small detail of everyday life; that it has to be translated into what Rowan Williams terms an “active holiness”. This emphasis on daily conversion, the ordinariness of it, is in line with the incarnation. Laurence has said on numerous occasions that the language of Christianity is that of incarnation, that is, of the body. In the flesh and blood of life, in relationships and in putting our bodies on the line in how we live the everyday, that is incarnation. The crucified Christ nails us to the particular, to specific people, actions, and lives, rather than to abstract ideals. It calls for a real cost, that of action, because words are cheap. Meditatio House as a community meditating and living together is the training ground for a new kind of sacredness that involves a return to the body and daily life as sacrament; where cultivating a relationship with God has to be done firstly, and primarily, through the body in terms of a meditation practice, how we live and our relationship with others. It is community as an expression of the incarnation.

Love our enemies, Jesus exhorts us. It might be extreme to say that our enemies live in community with us, but it is definitely realistic to expect to be living with and being around people who are very different from us: with different perspectives, coming from vastly different backgrounds, having different political affiliations, who may not like us, whom we may not like. But living in community can provide a container, a training ground for us to ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us’.

With the seeming domination of violence, conflict, inequality and greed in the world, we need more people than ever capable of sitting at the table with others that they don’t agree with, that are different to them, maybe even with people who want to hurt them – this category is larger than we think, if we take into account economic and structural sin committed by the wealthy and powerful that hurts billions of people (about 21,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes according to the UN).

And perhaps to not only sit at the same table, but to one day be able to see a brother or sister become apparent in their worst ‘enemies’.

Simone Weil: an introduction

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This was a talk given at Meditatio House in October 2014. 

I’m not a Weil scholar, nor do I have a background in philosophy, I’m just an avid reader of her work.
In this talk, I’ll present some of her writing but encourage you to read her work for yourself.

I can’t really express how much she has touched my life. Her writing is the lens through which I view the world. Reading her for the first time it was like recognising an image that I had seen before, an image that resonated within me.

So I’m going to talk about Weil from my perspective, from my experience of her writing. I’ll give a brief bio of her life and although her short life and work took on a breath-taking range, I’ll highlight an aspect of her thought that is most relevant to this community, WCCM and to Christian meditation; namely that of suffering and attention as ways to ‘love thy neighbour’.

Simone Weil in her life time was a philosopher, teacher, labour activist, Christian mystic, factory worker, farmer, writer. Reading Simone is like being exposed to a tornado, being hit on the head and drinking a cool clear glass of water all at the same time. I think writers and thinkers of genius aren’t necessarily giving us completely original thought, as if there anything new left to be said. But they can give us a different perspective, or prod us to think more deeply about things and in that way say something new to us. I think there are two things about Weil’s writing that mark out her work for me.

Firstly, the wholeness of her vision- she was able to see relationships and make connections between things. Although very much a Christian thinker, her thinking was inspired by Ancient Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and myths, amongst others. Her writings covered politics, art, philosophy, science, classics, mythology, religion; she was also proficient in ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit thanks to a privileged upbringing and education as well as an insatiable thirst for learning. Some of the central concepts she developed in her writing include attention, affliction, necessity, force, metaxu, beauty, oppression, and the mysticism of labour.

The first thing that struck me when I initially read her was the link she made in her writing between politics, ethics, philosophy and spirituality. A totality and interconnectedness between these dimensions in her thought, in what she was concerned with, in the way she lived her life, that I had never seen before. And that is actually quite rare in modern Western liberal thought which operates in specialisations and divisions between religion and politics, art and life,

Secondly, her writing style: the form and expression she gave to her thinking. Though a person of incredible genius, and the product of an elite education, she favoured clarity of prose that at the same time expressed profound thought, coupled with striking images used as analogy. She wanted to reach as many people as possible and did not think that deep thought was the domain of the educated privileged. When she was working in a factory, she wrote about the Greek tragedy Antigone and its relevance to the workers. She wanted to popularise classical texts without vulgarising them, and believed they had something to say, in fact, more to say, to the workers than to the educated elite who had access to them.

Short bio

Simone Weil was born in 1909 into a wealthy agnostic Jewish family. She had a life of privilege going to the elite school ENS in Paris before becoming qualified as a philosophy teacher in the 1930’s. However, she took several breaks in her teaching due to poor health but also due to her involvement in political activism, primarily in the trade union movement, teaching classes on the weekends in French and political economy to workers and participating in demonstrations and strikes. Then at age 25 she took a year off teaching to live and work as a factory worker, surviving on the salary she got working in a number of factories, including the Renault car factory and Alsthom Electrical Works, in order to get direct experience of the working conditions for factory workers in France. She saw with growing concern the rapid industrialization of factories in France as being a place for workers’ oppression and exploitation.

Her decision to become a factory worker came from her desire to experience for herself the conditions of the workers. Despite her active involvement with trade unions and political groups, she felt that only through directly experiencing the conditions as a worker herself, could she understand and thereby propose solutions to improve workers’ conditions:

Only, when I think about the major Bolshevik leaders pretending to create a free working class and yet none of them- definitely not Trotsky, and neither I think, Lenin – without a doubt have not stepped foot into a factory and therefore have the least idea of the real conditions which determine the servitude or freedom of the workers- politics seems to me like a sinister farce. 

In a letter to one of her former students she stated that it was a “contact with real life” she was searching for. In joining the factories as one of the workers, she wrote that, “I have the feeling, above all, of escaping a world of abstractions and finding myself in the middle of real people- good or bad, but with a real goodness or badness”. As one biographer of Simone Weil put it, “Her whole effort was that of a student, in the old root sense of that word: she had an insatiable, unyielding zeal for testing, for finding out”. Her time in the factory was also a spiritual experience, where she came to develop a mysticism of work, of physical labour as sacrament, where she states that poetry and beauty was made for the workers and those engaged in physical labour.

In 1932, Weil visited Germany to see the situation for herself and to help communist activists there. At the time, the German Marxists were considered to be the strongest and best organised communists in Western Europe, but Weil saw that the fascists were gaining traction, and that alarmingly the communists and unionists were being rather slack about it. When she returned to France, her political friends dismissed her fears thinking Germany would never fall to the fascists. Of course, they were wrong. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Weil spent time trying to help German communists flee his regime, including housing some of them in her family’s apartment in Paris. This was despite her growing disillusionment and disagreements with the communists and the trade union movement. In fact, Trotsky briefly stayed at her family’s apartment as a safehouse, and once during a discussion and said to her in exasperation “But you disagree with me almost on every point. Why have you invited me here?!”

In 1936 she joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, joining the anarchist militia. However she only stayed a few months due to her clumsiness, where she burnt herself over a cooking fire. A month after she left her whole unit were all nearly killed. Her time in that war was enough though for her to witness the brutalities committed on both sides, and to produce writings on the nature of war. In some of her letters to friends she described how war “revealed the presence of death in every moment”, and how she felt within herself a capacity to kill.

After leaving the war, she went to work for a few months on a potato farm and vineyard. She also took trips to Italy and Portugal, where she was to have a couple of mystical experiences. In a letter to a priest published in the book Waiting for God, she wrote:

After my year in the factory, before going back to teaching, I had been taken by my parents to Portugal, and while there I left them to go alone to a little village. I was, as it were, in pieces, soul and body. That contact with affliction had killed my youth. Until then I had not had any experience of affliction, unless we count my own, which, as it was my own, seemed to me, to have little importance, and which moreover was only a partial affliction, being biological and not social. I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and first-hand experience of it. As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue. What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave. In this state of mind then, and in a wretched condition physically, I entered the little Portuguese village, which, alas, was very wretched too, on the very day of the festival of its patron saint. I was alone. It was the evening and there was a full moon over the sea. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, making a tour of all the ships, carrying candles and singing what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it. I have never heard anything so poignant unless it were the song of the boatmen on the Volga. There, the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.

Despite these mystical experiences which led her to fervently believe that she was Catholic, she refused to be baptised in the Church for several reasons she gave in that same letter.

In 1942, she was able to escape to the United States with her family as the Germans occupied Paris (The day that the Germans came in to Paris, her family was able to take the last train out of Paris to the South, Marseille and from there to Casablanca before arriving in New York).  After a few months she left the U.S. to go back to Europe; not being able to stand the thought of deserting her country to its fate, she wanted to go back and help. We can only imagine the anguish her parents must have felt as they said goodbye to their daughter, as well as the courageous folly of this young Jewish woman voluntarily returning to Europe during the war to join the Free French Alliance in London. It was to be the last time her parents would see her. I remember reading in a biography on her, her parents said that when she said goodbye to them in New York before taking the ship to London, “If I had two lives, I would give you one of them. But I only have one, so I have to go”

In London, she volunteered herself to be sent to any mission back to France, of course got told that her obvious Jewish appearance made it impossible and instead got assigned a desk job. She was told to write what French society would look like after the war, to aid the reconstruction of the country- the outcome for this was published after her death as the book The Need for Roots. In 1943, while still in London she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She finally died from cardiac failure in a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent. She was 34 years old. Apart from some articles on social and economic issues mainly for trade union journals, most of her writing was collected and published after her death, including her notebooks, essays, letters and a play. Many of her friends were surprised at the mystical and religious dimension of her writing because she never talked about it to anyone apart from a few people such as the priest Father Perrin and the philosopher Gustave Thibon.

Suffering

You could say the central preoccupation for Simone was the question of suffering.

Simone herself suffered from debilitating migraines that had no known cause all her life- she described this pain as being everyday ‘without stop’. In her biography, friends talked about how she would have to stop in mid-conversation due to a migraine coming on. Her frailties were exacerbated by her time at the factory, an experience that she never quite physically recovered from. No doubt all of these experiences of pain as well as witnessing the pain of others informed her own writing on suffering, in particular her essay on The Love of God and Affliction published in Waiting for God.

Weil explores the nature of a kind of suffering that she takes to be different from what we usually mean by it. To paraphrase, there is a level of suffering possible in the world that completely annihilates the self, that affects all aspects of the person- physical, mental and social – what she calls ‘affliction’ (malheureux). Affliction includes at once suffering physical pain, distress of the soul, and social degradation.

If we suffer and can still ask ‘why me?’ then although we may be suffering very deeply, we are not in that state of affliction, because to believe that you deserve answers, that you deserve justice and that you are entitled not to suffer means that there is still a self somewhere intact. A lot can be painfully suffered through but without ultimately  questioning the belief that, ‘I don’t deserve this’, or ‘I should not be suffering’. The person that affliction strikes no longer has this belief. Furthermore, the afflicted person often goes unrecognised, or unacknowledged. In affliction:

A state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. We pass quite close to them without realizing it. What man is capable of discerning such souls unless Christ himself looks through his eyes? We only notice that they have rather a strange way of behaving and we censure this behavior.

Afflicted people’s lives and deaths pass away without notice. No memorials will be built for them. It is to become less than human. It is to become a thing. Weil likens the afflicted to the equivalent of the slave in Roman times and says that even persecuted persons are not suffering at this level of affliction, because they have some social recognition, are still recognised as existing, albeit existing to be annihilated:

The martyrs who entered the arena, singing as they went to face the wild beasts, were not afflicted. Christ was afflicted. He did not die like a martyr. He died like a common criminal, confused with thieves, only a little more ridiculous. For affliction is ridiculous.

She then goes on to say: “Affliction constrained Christ…to believe he was forsaken by the Father”.

To be in a state of affliction is to bend and break under a force that is bigger than you, helpless before it and realising that you are nothing – whether it’s an economic, political, psychological or social force. However, economic privilege ensures that a person never has to reach that kind of affliction because not only can money buy a certain level of physical comfort, but also social recognition (as a human being who should not suffer), if not power. So physical suffering has a special place in affliction, because of its ability to nail our thoughts down:

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.

As I read Weil’s writing about the afflicted, I think of:  modern slavery of exploited labourers, the homeless, prisoners/tortured persons, trafficked humans, but also the extremely addicted, the institutionalised mentally ill. I think of people who had to experience colonisation and these days who live under the devastating ideology of neoliberalism and the free market.

I think that afflicted persons both far from us and near to us are actually quite numerous, but go unrecognised, whether it is because of a lack of media attention and awareness, because of our willing ignorance or by the fact that affliction leaves the other almost mute. Quote from Simone:

As for those who have been struck by one of those blows that leave a being struggling on the ground like a half crushed worm, they have no words to express what is happening to them. Among the people they meet, those who have never had contact with affliction in its true sense can have no idea of what it is, even though they may have suffered a great deal. Affliction is something specific and impossible to describe in any other terms, as sounds are to anyone who is deaf and dumb. And as for those who have themselves been mutilated by affliction, they are in no state to help anyone at all, and they are almost incapable of even wishing to do so. Thus compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility. When it is really found we have a more astounding miracle than walking on water, healing the sick, or even raising the dead.

Attention

So if according to Weil, real compassion for the afflicted is an “impossibility”, and that when it exists it is an “astounding miracle”,  how are we to give compassion to a person in a state of extreme suffering that we don’t understand, cannot even imagine?

Although requiring close to a ‘miracle’, Weil believes that it is possible to give compassion to the afflicted by developing what she calls ‘attention’. The act of ‘attention’ is a concentrated, unwavering focus of energy on an object. It is marked by an ardent waiting with desire. It is not an act of will where we go in search of knowledge. In fact, if we do search, Weil contends that we will end up finding false truths rather than truth, because we do not have the ability to discern the difference between them. Instead, we can only wait with earnest attention for truth, like God, to come to us. Attention therefore is an emptying out of the self and a waiting for the object of our attention to penetrate us.

This self-emptying kind of attention then can bridge the gap between ourselves and the other in extreme affliction. For Weil, this attention becomes absolutely necessary in relieving the suffering of another, in fact it is the only way and for this reason, it is crucial that we aim to develop our capacity for attention:

In the first legend of the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host), it is said that the Grail belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a King three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, “What are you going through?”To love our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: what are you going through? It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

Weil links lack of attention with evil because it is essentially a refusal to see- a turning away from truth. This is particularly true when we are talking about looking at extreme suffering, something which we naturally turn away from. Attention then becomes a way of seeing when it is turned on the other; it is a capacity to see the other’s distinctiveness and specificity. This is particularly needed in affliction where the nature of it is that the afflicted suffers anonymously and without recognition, and where they are seen as no more than a thing by others. What people who are suffering need most is for someone to acknowledge their specific pain, to see them beyond a category: Quote

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

Weil shows remarkable perceptiveness in her analysis of the difficulty of attention, and our need to turn away from it. She says that there is something in our soul that has a violent repugnance for true attention. Therefore it requires effort on our part but also supernatural grace. It is a mark of our time and a common theme of our age that this lack of attention manifests as escapism and rampant addiction. For Weil, she says that “We live two thirds of our lives in imagination”. This may seem extreme, but not really when we think about every time we put expectations, projections, desires on situations or people, rather than seeing what is actually there. Furthermore, in imagination and fantasy, everything revolves around us, we are at the centre. For Weil then, imagination is a turn away from the real:

We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the centre, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence. A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense and psychological impressions. It is a transformation analogous to that which takes place in the dusk of evening on a road, where we suddenly discern as a tree what we had at first seen as a stooping man, or where we suddenly recognise as a rustling of leaves that we thought at first was whispering voices. We see the same colours, we hear the same sounds, but not in the same way. To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world, to discern that all points in the world are equally centres…

Living in unreality also affects our relationship to God. She says that in fixing our gaze towards God in attention, the ‘I’ feels condemned to death. And it does not want to die, so it fabricates falsehoods in order to divert our attention. She says that one of these are the false gods that are given to the name of God. We might believe that we are thinking about God when what we really love is certain people who have talked to us about him, or a certain social atmosphere, or certain ways of living, or a certain calm of soul, comfort, or consolation. Therefore, we should not seek God.

It is not for man to seek, or even to believe in, God. He has only to refuse his love to everything which is not God. This refusal does not presuppose any belief. It is enough to recognize, what is obvious to any mind, that all the goods of this world, past, present or future, real or imaginary, are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire which burns perpetually within us for an infinite and perfect good. All men know this, and more than once in their lives they recognize it for a moment, but then they immediately begin deceiving themselves again so as not to know it any longer, because they feel that if they knew it they could not go on living. And their feeling is true, for that knowledge kills, but it inflicts a death which leads to a resurrection. But they do not know that beforehand; all they forsee is death; they must either choose truth and death or falsehood and life. If one makes the first choice and holds to it, if one persists indefinitely in refusing to devote the whole of one’s love to things unworthy of it, which means everything in this world without exception, that is enough. It is not a matter of self-questioning or searching. A man only has to persist in this refusal, and one day or another God will come to him.

So this is in a sense a via negativa way to God, through a refusal of everything that is not God, and instead orientating our attention towards him with all the intensity of which one is capable, bringing it back when it has wandered. Weil says this is by far the hardest thing to do, but it is the only thing we can do, until across “the infinity of space and time, the love of God comes to possess us”. We only have the power to consent to receive him or to refuse him when he comes. Quote “We can only consent to give up our own feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”

Attention as love

So attention then is indispensable to love, is the way to love; love of God, and love of neighbour. Attention can also bring into light and question what we usually understand or practice as love in human relationships. In our personal relationships, Weil argues that most of the time we desire others as objects to satisfy our psychological and physical cravings. Driven by ego needs deeply similar to hunger, we are caught in what Weil terms as “cannibal love.”

It’s worthwhile here to read an extensive quote from Alexander Irwin, who commented on this aspect of Weil’s thought, because it really illuminates her thinking on this:

Hunger in the form of psychological cannibalism is the binding agent in our intimate interpersonal relationships. The driving force in our love relations is not disinterested valuation of the other’s beauty, nor moral commitment to her welfare. The force in love is the rage of our own hunger to use the other as a means to fill (or at least conceal) our psychological voids, and to enhance our power. The overflowing, giddy energy we experience during the brief flourishing of a new romance is the empirical demonstration that in love we metabolize the other being. He quotes Weil, “We love as cannibals,”… “Beloved beings…provide us with comfort, energy, a stimulant. They have the same effect on us as a good meal after an exhausting day of work. We love them, then, as food.”

Irwin goes on to say: “Weil is offering more than the banal observation that we sometimes behave selfishly toward those we love. In love, cannibalism is not an exception, an occasional cloud drifting across the otherwise tranquil sky. It is the sky, the very structure and substance of the relationship. And this is so not because we moderns are an especially sinful and depraved segment of historical humanity (although Weil thinks this is also true), but simply because human selves, doing what we do naturally — that is, positing ourselves as the center of the universe — cannot love in any other way. It is less a question of individual guilt than of a structural aspect of human selfhood as such. The exploitative, assimilative mode of relationship flows inevitably from the configuration of the self. Psychological like physical hunger is an expression less of individuality than of a trans-personal necessity. We need energy (psychic and physical) to live. We obtain that energy from the most convenient source. Approaching another human being we may claim to love and respect, we are in reality vampires in search of a meal.  He quotes Weil, “We love someone,”…”that is to say, we love to drink his blood.”

The antidote for this cannibal love, according to Weil, is to get our energy from a supernatural source, God, instead of using others. This means re-orientating our desire towards God. Perhaps this is the meaning of conversion: turning away towards God. Instead of using other people as a means to fulfil our needs, or making people in our lives the ends; God is both the means and the end. But this involves staying hungry, loving and desiring emptiness which we experience as a void:

We have to fix our will on the void—to will the void. For the good which we can neither picture nor define is a void for us. But this void is fuller than all fullnesses. If we get as far as this we shall come through all right, for God fills the void. It has nothing to do with an intellectual process in the present-day sense. The intelligence has nothing to discover, it has only to clear the ground. It is only good for servile tasks.

In terms of love towards others in our personal relationships, Simone Weil’s conception really makes me think of love as restraint. As a holding back of our own expectations, projections and desires in order to allow space for the other, so that she can be. With attention, we can remove ourselves from the centre and give space to the other, in order to truly see and therefore love.

This is contrary to what is usually called love in our culture. Love is usually paraded as excess, as sentimentality, or as a warm abstract feeling that just is there. Often times it just hides the manipulation of others to fulfil our own ego needs. Weil reminds me that love is effort, a disciplining action, and an ethical project towards the other that can only be achieved through attention. She reminds me of the real cost (but also the real worth) of love.

It reminds me of the concept of seduction in Islamic traditional thought. Seduction is forbidden, that is, the manipulation and coercion of another person’s desire because this is thought to lead to a loss of self-control, not only on the individual level but also on the social level. This is contrary to our Western liberal society where seduction is not merely permitted, but it is positively valued as a sign of individual freedom. We see a violation occurring only if it touches property rights or those of the body. And it could be argued that our economy thrives on the consumer being seduced and the subsequent loss of self-control.

I’m also reminded of that event in one of the gospels, Jesus at his tomb. Where Mary first mistakes him for a gardener, then finally recognises Jesus and says ‘teacher’. Jesus replies ‘do not touch me’. I see it as a call to restraint of our possessiveness in our closest human relationships, as well as in our relationship with God.

Weil takes seriously the damage that we do to one another when we act out of our own hunger and ego needs. She takes seriously the enormous difficulty and effort it takes to truly love someone, for love to be real. She also takes seriously our capacity for delusion, our capacity for distraction and lying to ourselves, what she calls imagination and day dreaming – in short to turn away from reality:

I believe that the root of evil, in everybody perhaps, but certainly in those whom affliction has touched and above all if the affliction is biological, is day-dreaming. It is the sole consolation, the unique resource of the afflicted; the only solace to help them bear the fearful burden of time; and a very innocent one, besides being indispensable. So how could it be possible to renounce it? It has only one disadvantage, which is that it is unreal. To renounce it for the love of truth is really to abandon all one’s possessions in a mad excess of love and to follow him who is the personification of Truth. It is really to bear the cross…it is necessary to recognize day-dreaming for what it is. And even while one is sustained by it one must never forget for a moment that in all its forms– those that seem most inoffensive by their childishness, those that seem most respectable by their seriousness and their connection with art or love or friendship– in all its forms without exception, it is falsehood. It excludes love. Love is real.

Her relevance today

It is startling how relevant her thought is still so relevant today for our world, that is quite broken. She combined a life of contemplation, thought, and action and I see the WCCM and Christian meditation as providing the practical steps for Weil’s vision. It provides the practice necessary in order to live the vision, meditation as a way of stripping away, challenging the ego and being still before God. I see the WCCM as resurrecting the practices and thought of the early Christian monastics, the Desert Fathers and the Rule of St Benedict, who all advocated a praxis of spirituality, which usually included ascetic practices of working on the self. Meditation and prayer, meditation as prayer is a fundamental practice in this regard, and in delving into these traditions, it is reassuring to know that for centuries people have been struggling with the same things, that we are not exceptional, and that in fact what we are struggling with is what it means to be human.

What needs to be done in our own everyday practice, in living an ethical and spiritual life can be summarised in this last quote by Weil – so typical of Weil, it is at once an ethical position, a spiritual orientation, a moral vision with political and practical implications as well as an aesthetic sensibility. According to Weil, we need:

“To contemplate what cannot be contemplated (the affliction of another), without running away…and to contemplate the desirable without approaching- that is what is beautiful”

Question for discussion

  • What is your experience of meditation as love? How does meditation relate to love of your neighbour for you?

Trip to a museum

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2 November 2009

We went to the Musee du Quai Branly today; for free musuem day (the first Sunday of the month means free entrance to most public museums in Paris). For those of you who don’t know, the Quai Branly museum basically collects and exhibits artefacts from ‘primitive’ cultures from Asia, Africa, Americas and Oceania. Lots of baskets, clothing, jewellery; you know the sort of thing.

I had visited once before three years earlier when I first came to Paris. It was a hugely discomforting visit, filled with an awareness of all the historical-political-social ramifications of what this institution represented and the practices that has enabled it to not only exist, but provide jobs for the people who work there, provide for our eyes something to gaze at. The short descriptions on the plaques that accompany each item gives the visitor no real idea of how these objects arrived here, and placed, totally out of context. We only know it came from such and such a region, from such and such an expedition in the 1930’s. My guess is that expeditions in the 1930’s did not negotiate with locals to carry back such items, did not give anything back, perhaps; no probably, did not even ask.

Today, I went back but with a different consciousness that meant something struck me as I was walking through the Oceania exhibit. Totem poles, ritual objects, masks from Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands in the Pacific- it hit me that what we were looking at, what had been taken, were sacred items. These objects had meant something, to someone, to a group, a whole culture. Not just everyday objects, but of spiritual significance and meaning. And here they were, cut off from all of that, for us to gawk at.

“Hey, come and have a look at this” my husband waved me over to a glass cabinet, and peering back at us were five life-size effigies. Reading the plaque it said these were funeral effigies of important deceased males in a tribe- after the funeral rituals were over, the body of the effigies were abandonned and the skull masks placed in the sacred men’s hut.

The masks stared back at us through the glass, strangely alive; the eye holes in the masks full of expression, almost beseeching. These weren’t just representations of the dead, for all intents and purposes, these were the dead. We had taken them out of their resting place by taking them out of context. My husband said, “It”s like they’re saying, why are we here?”. The sacrilege, the trespassing over something sacred was so stark, so intense. “It’s like if they had unburied the graves in Pere Lachaise (a famous cemetary in Paris) and took them back with them to put on display” my husband said. “It would be the same thing”. The effigies of these once powerful men looked powerless and lost, cut off, behind the glass.

Next to this exhibit was another one, a recording of traditional funeral lamentations sung by the women of a particular tribe. The echo of the lamentations haunted me throughout the visit, as I realised that within the context of this musuem it was not only a song for the dead, but also for the double death that had occurred for these ‘objects’.

Man on street

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10 November 2009

There he was, keeled over and lying on the ground, with some kind of liquid trickling from his body on the pavement and into the gutter, Parisian autumn night meant it was too dark to see if it was water, or urine, or blood. His hands were shaking, hard to see if he was conscious or not.

I’m writing to expiate my guilt. Noone else around us stopped. I didn’ stop.

Does the fact that people sleeping or drugged out on the streets of Paris is an everyday phenomena mean that I’m less guilty? No.That it occurs often, and that we are used to seeing prone, sleeping bodies on the street, does not wipe away my guilt. Despite that voice telling me to stop, I too kept walking, and the shame is that I felt secretly glad to have gotten away.

I wanted to tell my husband who I was with, to stop. But as he looked and also looked away, I didn’t. In the seconds it took to walk away, I gave myself the reasoning that even ifI wanted to stop, he would never agree to it anyway and perhaps we’d argue about it. He would say ‘what can we do?’ and perhaps think, ‘what an inconvenience’. But even as I felt the shame of saying nothing I was secretly glad that I was with him, who also kept on walking and did not want to stop; I could use him as my excuse.

And we weren’t even in a hurry, merely going for a nightly stroll…but really would I be any less guilty if I was in a hurry and didn’t stop because of that? No. It was so easy to reason that this was yet another homeless/druggie/lunatic on the streets. And so what if he were? Is this normal, that human beings lie on the street, worse than dogs in a rich city, sometimes in different states of consciousness and we do nothing, barely look at them? With winter approaching like a bloodless hound? Are they less than human to us?

And I hold myself so high, that the disparity between what I believe and what I do makes me even more responsible, at least more than my husband, who does not cloak himself in grand words. What is the point of all the books I’ve read, things I’ve said and thought about, when in the final moment when it really counts, I didn’t act.

A note on seduction

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12 January 2010

Paris is a city of seduction: visual, sensual seduction. It grates against me, (which is partly why I strongly resist against the city) and challenges me as a woman. Seduction is revered and what it means to be a woman (here) is coloured by this.

A woman has power seducing, but she must be careful because if she is too ‘successful’, she loses that power socially- by being easy, she is a ‘slut’, ‘tramp’, ‘whore’. Her only solution is to be a cockteaser, which men hate more than a frigid woman because it’s a continual wielding of power by her over him. I can understand the seduction of wanting to be seductive. It’s the only power offered a young woman in the power sexual game. She believes she has power and is empowered because it is a heady seductive power, being able to ‘attract’ men, she mistakes that power for herself and her self-worth. Better to be seductive than to be ugly and have no power at all; which is to be rendered invisible, an object that nobody looks at.

And at least to be seductive; you are the one in control. Otherwise, regardless of whether you want it or not, a woman can be subjected to being ‘endowed’ with sexuality by others (being whistled at on the street, being made a pass on by unsavoury men, even being made a pass on by men you like) which is to become prey; which is to become a victim.

Men gain prestige the more successful they are in getting laid (hence the continual bragging about ‘picking up’ and sexual conquests) and conversely, women lose prestige (or power) the more they screw, get picked up; i.e the easier they are sexually. (Of course, in this day and age a woman can pick up men, but it is no triumph because there is no conquest involved; a woman will always have a man around who would be willing to have sex with her, therefore it only shows how easy she has been).

Women are in the true double bind being damned if you do (having illusory, fleeting power through being seductive but being careful not to be too ‘easy’) and damned if you don’t (losing that power by either being a) too ugly to be seductive or b) being too easy)

If these are the only options I can have, it is easy to see how one might opt out of the game altogether. I have derision for men who cannot see this, and who blindly go into the sexual power game with horns ablazing thinking that it’s only about ‘sexual attraction’ i.e. their dicks (which for them in a certain sense it is, because it is their privilege to be able to experience it this way. But I’m not interested in people who are not willing to give up their unearned privileges) and women who not only unconsciously follow and believe in it, but will also subject other women to it by holding them up to this standard.

This power is not real. It is outside of herself and socially dictated by others.

Furthermore, seduction almost always involves implicit coercion and manipulation because simply being is not enough; one must create a veil in which to lure the other. In seduction, the other is hidden from me and I hide from the other.

In the times when I have been conscious of trying to seduce, and seduction is not only sexual, but also in friendship or social interaction, I am aware that I am not myself- I am trying to please, to manipulate. I am trying to be other than myself. Almost as if as I am is not good enough.

In our oversexualized culture, we are told we can fuck and screw whomever we please without much censure, and that in fact we should. This after all, is liberation, freedom to do as we please. So why do I experience it as the total opposite to freedom?

Seduction is ultimately, an escapism. You cover yourself in veils of illusion in order to capture the other. Most of all, you are escaping from yourself. In trying to seduce you can focus your energy, sexual and otherwise on some fantasy goal of obtaining the other, who is no longer a real person in front of you.

Sexuality is at the core of a human being. Just because I am against seduction doesnt mean I’m against sexuality. On the contrary, exactly because a person’s sexuality is so precious and central to their very being, it is not something to be played around with. It should be an unveiling, a revealing of the self, rather than a covering up.

Because at the heart of sexuality is a longing for union with the other; to paraphrase something Simone Weil wrote about carnal love (romantic, sexual): to do wrong to someone in the area of carnal love is the biggest sin, because that is when people are unconsciously trying to unite with God.

A short note on marriage

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7 June 2009

Various discussions with a few people recently have made me reflect on marriage, the relationship in a marriage. Some people think that it is something which no longer means anything, an outdated mode of being, or that public vows are made only so that people are forced to keep them.

I’m not talking about marriage as only those sanctioned by the church and state, I’m talking about marriage as any relationship where a (usually public) ceremony occurs between two people affirming their commitment to each other. I’m speaking of marriage as commitment.

And in reflecting on the value of marriage as commitment, I’ve come to realise that marriage is not about other people or even about the specifics of the other person; it’s mostly about oneself. It’s about our human capacity to stay or to abandon the other, and through that ourselves.

Just as we unconsciously betray ourselves in small and sometimes significant ways everyday, it is easy to ‘betray’ a commitment that we made in the best of intentions at the time, including a commitment to another person. The marriage ceremony, where the ritual of public vows are exchanged, adds power to the commitment- in any ritual the act is inscribed in the body as well as mind, heart, spirit.

The ritual of the whole marriage ceremony (and not necessarily a traditional ceremony), vows and status of being ‘married’ is actually a protection. A protection against the many ways we consciously and unconsciously betray the best of our intentions, the best of ourselves. Being in a marriage makes me think twice before ‘betraying’ that commitment. It reminds me of my original intention when I made that vow, and the vow that was made to me.

The power of that vow forces me to deeply reflect and assess the relationship in the midst of the fighting, miscommunication and deep hurting of each other, when the only (and easiest) way seems to be to get out, to leave. It makes me take myself and the other person more seriously than if I were in a relationship where that vow had not yet been made.

So many rituals are done away with in our culture. Yet it is rituals that support and protect us through the different stages in life, and I believe the fact that rituals are public is important. Yes the commitment is between two people, but in the act of committing to each other we are taking part in something bigger than ourselves, not only connecting us to our ancestors before us who have taken on similar vows but also to something that is a part of a wider cosmos- our lives and our actions have meaning and resonance in the universe.

And what’s the point of even committing to someone or something? When the re-commitment that is required everyday, at every moment can be so freaking difficult? I don’t really know, except that in being with someone I paradoxically experience my fundamental aloneness as well as capacity for togetherness, which I guess is part of what is grandly called the ‘human condition’. I can only say that I have grown from it, that it allows me to directly experience what it means to be human in all the messiness, glory, and everyday routine of being with someone.

This is not to say that a commitment can’t be broken- life is not a fairytale and there are no guarantees. It takes as much heartfelt courage to break a commitment as it does to stay, if it’s done consciously. And I do believe that there are times when a commitment needs to be broken, when there is a growing awareness that it’s no longer serving its original purpose.

There’s a place for broken commitments I think, but the difference is in the intention; whether I’m breaking a commitment as a form of escapism, or whether it is necessary for growth.

Why stay at Meditatio House?

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Originally posted at WCCM Meditator’s blog: http://wccm.org/content/why-stay-meditatio-house-may-ngo

‘Love – stronger than Death and harder than Hell’           – Meister Eckhart

I lived at Meditatio House for 3 months towards the end of 2014. I came primarily wanting to deepen my mediation practice, and hoped that living in the house where there was the discipline of three communal meditations a day would help me establish a regular meditation practice which I was struggling to do in my ‘normal’ life. To meditate itself requires an initial leap of faith- aside from an intuition that this is something important, it requires some kind of faith to keep persevering in daily meditation when the fruits of it are not immediately obvious and when it’s sometimes a struggle. The structure of the house enabled me to keep persevering through ‘bad’ meditations in that the choice was taken away from me, no matter how I was feeling or what had happened, we meditated three times a day. This was crucial for allowing my experience of meditation to deepen over time- it also helped to develop meditation as a ‘habit’; something that I need to do daily as much as brushing my teeth. But what I also received from living in the house was much more than that, in a way that was completely unexpected.

At Meditatio House, control is taken away from us over two things that we all value the most but probably appreciate the least: time and space. In terms of time, meditation and the Divine Office is set three times a day, with daily meetings for the Rule of St Benedict, daily communal lunches, weekly team meetings, chores, activities, guests and other events planned at the house that are largely out of our control or consultation. Time becomes a precious commodity that must be negotiated with the schedule of the house and the other oblates, and which can also change as the unexpected regularly occurs. In terms of space, anything outside of our bedrooms was technically communal space, open to people who worked upstairs in the International Office and to guests and visitors. But this space was also our home in which we lived, ate and slept in so the usual boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘home’ were blurred. In addition, also out of our control was who would come to visit as guests or for events, and who lived with us in the House as oblates. As you can imagine, my one day off a week became a much cherished and much needed necessity.

It was only really after sometime during my stay that I realised this was the whole purpose of the house, rather than an inconvenience that has to be put up with. Because then challenging the ego becomes a very real thing, not just something read or talked about, or something restricted to the meditation room. Removing the ego from the centre becomes not just a thought about what we ‘should’ do but a challenge for us in daily life together at the House, where the will to power, prestige and control are tested in everyday, mundane ways in the “daily rub of communal life”; where the needs and expectations of others jostle alongside our own.

In the House we attempt to practice the demanding ethic of hospitality and of welcoming all. The hardest part of this was being seen as always available, whether it was from the other oblates, the office, or guests in a way that was emotionally and physically draining. On some days it felt like there was no off-switch or place to retreat to, unless it was your bedroom or outside of the house. Going to the kitchen for a cup of tea, you might run into someone when you least feel like talking. Visitors who come to the house for an event might want to stay and chat when all you wanted to do was go to your room exhausted. You had to be open to and available for people who you may not like. It made me feel not in control of my availability to others, which I also realise now was the (painful) point. As Rowan Williams states, “the daily dying, daily taking of the cross, is precisely this exposure of the self to the devouring needs of others”. Notice though how he uses the word “exposure” rather than “door mat”: it’s less about fulfilling everyone’s demands than it is about willing to expose ourselves to it and dealing with it, which at various times can mean setting limits with others and challenging their encroachment on our boundaries; an art form in itself. This is challenging, but another thing I also realised about living in community is that it’s not about the ideal, but about the actual experience itself of doing, ‘failing’ and learning.

If I could characterise time at the House by one thing, I would say that it is an encounter with our delusions, as well as the delusions of others (though of course, it is always much easier to see others’ self- delusions first). In Meditatio House, we have to walk the walk, not just be able to say the right things. It is to be exposed in a very real and necessary way; where we see others and others see us not only by what we say but more importantly by what we do and how we are present. There are much less places to hide in Meditatio House. In the way that life is structured and lived at the House, how often we delude ourselves becomes much more obvious. How much there can be a difference between what we believe of ourselves, what we say to others; and what we actually do. How much we actively fight for recognition, status and power even as we believe that we are being faithful and selfless. How much we are resistant to reality and to what is happening when it doesn’t conform to what we want or need.

But maybe it is only in the recognition of that gap, in that disconnect between our illusions and reality that humility can truly occur. Humility that is accompanied by pain; to realise that we are not what we like to present ourselves to others, that we always have ulterior motives, that we want to think of ourselves as good or better. Challenging illusions is painful and always come at what feels like a real cost, because it is played out in real action. Perhaps that is the sign that our ego fantasies are really being challenged, as it always involves a continual stretching of our limits. Otherwise the things that we speak of and pray for like humility, patience, faith and ultimately love are just mere words that we use to make ourselves feel good, a form of spiritual delusion and false consolation.

Perhaps true humility then is always a kind of crucifixion. In the Gospel, Peter saw his delusions break at the crowing of the cock after his denial of knowing Jesus, when he realised that he was not the disciple he thought he was; it sent him weeping on his knees. But maybe it is only in this experience of seeing through our delusions and in accepting its reality, that an immeasurable gift is given us: the seeds of faithfulness. I discovered over time that living in community was about trying our best to be faithful, in all senses- faithfully coming back to the mantra during meditation when the mind is distracted, faithfully turning up to and maintaining a meditation practice, and most importantly remaining faithful to the experience of living together in community. Being faithful to the experience by accepting to be continually exposed to and present with all aspects of it, both pleasant and unpleasant.

What I discovered over time was that in staying faithful and present to the experience of living in community, to my amazement, my capacity for faithfulness also grew. Alongside the expansion, however small, of my limits and the deepening of my meditation practice, there was the surprise realisation that I was capable of more than I thought I could- of doing more, enduring more and giving more. If I was to encounter ‘God’ at all, it would not be through some abstract, fantasised God that would inevitably be in my own image and serve my own ego needs, but through a commitment as best as I could to the daily life at the house: to meditating, cooking, cleaning, eating and to the people there, a commitment that had to be renewed every single day. And the faithfulness, when I inevitably fell short and wanted to get away from the experience, to get back up the next day and commit again.

This intention to give as much as possible of myself to the experience no matter what was happening could only have occurred because there was something other than myself that was also participating. Over time, there was a sense that I was being carried through the experience; that no effort is ever wasted, but that effort alone is also not enough. I came to know in a very real way that it wasn’t only me who was getting through the experience, if that were true, I would probably have left the house long before the end of three months. And that is perhaps the most treasured gift to be received: a growth in faithfulness and faith, if we can first be faithful to the experience of living in community. And what is love ultimately without faithfulness?

To stay at the house is a rare opportunity, an immense privilege because there are not many places like this in contemporary life, and few people in situations where they are able to take the time out to do so. The goal of the house is not to make us insulated or hide away from the world, as if that was actually possible anyway except for a privileged few. The vision that I got a taste of during my time at the house seemed to be much more radical: to teach us how to truly be in the world, to equip us for transforming our world through being transformed ourselves.

And this involves a training that is a kind of stripping away, which is what is surely meant by poverty of spirit. Wittgenstein said, “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself”; from these self-deceptions are real consequences in our actions, with an impact on others and the world. A place like Meditatio House takes seriously the need to actually work at uncovering our illusions and self-deceptions, for the sake of ourselves, for others and for our relationship with God. It takes seriously the fact that the process of self-emptying, kenosis, as St. Paul exhorts us to do in the footsteps of Christ, requires practice, support and guidance. So that when we finally leave Meditatio House and enter the world again, it is not with our achievements, status or qualities, but that we leave poor, in a recognition that it is only in a spirit of poverty can we truly be open and receptive to the Spirit.

“Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty;

though you have no money, come!

Buy corn without money, and eat,

and, at no cost, wine and milk.”

Isaiah 55:1

References

Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhart

Faith and migration

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My family in an Indonesian refugee camp. I’m sitting on my grandfather’s lap in the centre of the photo.

8 September 2013

My interest in faith and religion in migration was first piqued by an exploratory trip to Morocco, before starting fieldwork. Coming directly from Australia, I remember feeling like I was entering into a world of faith, not only of the country, but also of the sub-Saharan African migrants I talked to. Faith as a lens through which to understand and see the world; and not necessarily a coherent one (just like a ‘secular’ lens is never always coherent and without contradictions).

I remember a migrant activist in Morocco telling me that you can’t understand African migration without understanding faith. Without understanding how migration comes out of a context where worlds of faith/s and faithless worlds interact and reproduce each other. As he talked about how migration with all its uncertainties and physical and emotional hardships, is always accompanied by faith, I remember feeling like this was a dimension that would be key to an understanding of the dynamics of migration in Morocco.

I also remember when he said faith is always a part of migration, I objected and said that yes maybe it is true of African migration, but when I reflect on my family’s own refugee and migration history it is not true, and that maybe the dimensions of Asian migration are different. I never remember my parents or wider family ever talking about the importance of faith when they have told us about their experiences of war and migration. In terms of religion, my parents always insisted that the Buddhist/ancestor worship cultural practices we did were always out of respect for tradition and our elders, but that they never believed in them. I always understood the ‘religious’ practices we did as being cultural and part of ‘tradition’. He insisted again that within migration faith is always an important dimension, but I was doubtful.

A year later back in Sydney after I had finished fieldwork in Morocco, my family and I went to visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. This grandmother gave me my earliest recollections of love and was like a mother to me. Sitting by her tomb, waiting for the incense to finish burning before we could pack up the food offerings, my mother started reminiscing about my grandmother, and our family’s journey over to Australia which spanned years from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia before finally arriving in Australia.

My family (grandparents, aunts and uncles on both my parent’s side, my parents, my sister and me as a few months old baby; about 15 of us in total) along with many others did the journey from Cambodia to the Thai border by foot in order to reach the UNHCR refugee camp that was on the other side of the border. This route was extremely dangerous, with bandits and robbers preying on the masses of people trying get there. My mother said that everyone got robbed along the way, several times usually, not just by gangs but also by the authorities and sometimes by the ‘smugglers’ (people that you paid to guide/take you there) themselves. Not just robberies, but killings and rapes, with bodies left on the roadside. They didn’t carry anything with them except gold jewellery that my grandmother had everyone hide in their clothes, in their shoes, and in their underwear. But each time they were accosted by armed robbers, it would be found and taken. “We were lucky we had something to give them”, said my Dad. “Those who had nothing were sometimes killed”. As I was a baby at the time, my grandmother had given my mother gold to hide in my can of powdered milk and in the baby blanket, but they found that too. “They really knew how to look”,  Dad said. The only thing they didn’t find was a necklace my mother had put around my neck, which was hidden by my baby fat (!). My mother said we used this to buy food once we arrived at the refugee camp, which was another “very dangerous place”. Apparently the robbers had also wanted to take me away with them, but my mother steadfastly refused. Luckily, they didn’t insist. I’m not sure where I would be now if they did; small incidences like these that change the fate of whole lives.

During one of the robbery incidences along the route, the robbers told my two young aunts (who were around 19 and 20 years old at the time) to go into a nearby forest with them. They were of course armed and there was no way to refuse them. My mum said everyone was shaking from head to foot in fear of what they would do to my aunts, if they would even return from the forest.  She said that my grandmother was terrified for all of us, for two of my uncles who had left before us and from whom we had not received any news, and now for my two young aunts who, while on the road as young women, were constantly at threat of being raped. “The danger was so real, so constant. The situation was so beyond us, beyond anything that we could do, that your grandmother could only see help as coming from above”. As they waited for the return of my aunts from the forest, my grandmother made a vow to Buddha that if we made it safely across the Thai border to the refugee camp, she would shave her head in gratitude. “She was crying, crying, and praying to Buddha to help us, to help your aunts”.

My aunts came back from the forest unharmed. They said that they had just been questioned and searched; the robbers found some jewellery that my grandmother gave them to put in their underwear, and they were then released. “Thank God for the gold” said Dad. “Without it, they might have been raped, or worse”. When we eventually crossed the border into Thailand (another story of terror in itself) and made it to the camp, my grandmother shaved her head. I remember seeing long ago some photos of us from when we were in camp, the emaciated figures of my family members and my grandmother’s shaved head, and remember thinking that was a little odd. She looked like a Buddhist nun.

I think that if we cannot speak of God or Buddha, we can at the very least speak of miracles. A miracle that we made it when so many didn’t ,“we were stepping over bodies as we walked”; a miracle that I am alive thanks to the ingenuity, perseverance and courage of my family, to sheer luck, and perhaps to something more. When at so many points along the way we could have perished as so many others did, I sometimes can’t find an existential/moral/logical explanation or reason for why we did; only that we know in our very bones the utter precariousness of life and the reality (and randomness) of its counterpart, death. That a political or social situation could change like the wind, and in the next moment you will be at the feet of the gods, praying for your lives. Only those who have never experienced a similar thing can believe in the illusion of control and security, and even more, can believe that they are entitled to it. “We could write a book about our experiences” my parents say, “We have so much we could tell you”.

It is not by accident that I have chosen to work on the topic of migration, but it is also not by accident that I have not chosen to work directly within the context that my family comes from. Although the dynamics of sub-Saharan African migration in Morocco is different, as well as a different period of time in world history; listening to migrants tell their migration stories and the journeys they took reminds me of the stories my parents tell me of our family’s migration journeys; the similarities in the unimaginable physical and emotional stretching of your limits in such an experience, but also similarity of the emotions they evoke within me. And hearing from my mother that part of the story about my grandmother’s vow while on the journey made me think back to what that migrant activist had said to me about the inextricable link between faith and migration.

Letter to a student

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My translation of a letter from Simone Weil to a student

This letter to one of her students is my favourite letter by Simone Weil. I remember the first time I read it: it felt like she was writing directly to me. All that she says here resonates deeply; reflecting my own thinking as well as giving me so much to think about. In particular, her thoughts on: contact with real life, activity over sensation and the egoism in the search for sensations (and for experiences), love and the struggle for freedom, and what struck me to the core at the time when I read it:  “What is important, is to not waste your life. And for this, you must be disciplined.”

Simone was a philosophy teacher when in 1934 began a year of factory work to experience for herself  the conditions of factory workers. She saw with growing concern the rapid industrialization of factories in France as being a place for workers’ oppression and exploitation.  Despite her active involvement with trade unions and political groups, she felt that only through directly experiencing the conditions as a worker herself, could she understand and thereby propose solutions to improve workers’ conditions.

*******

Dear little one,

It’s been a long time since I wanted to write to you, but factory work hardly encourages letter writing. How did you know that was what I was doing? By the Dérieu sisters no doubt. No matter, besides, I wanted to tell you. You, at least, don’t talk about it, even to Marinette, if it hasn’t been done already. It is this “contact with real life” which I told you about. This came about only as a favour; one of my best friends knows the administrative director of the company, and told him my wish; the other understood, which denotes a largeness of spirit completely exceptional in these kind of people. In our day, it is nearly impossible to enter into a factory without a work certificate- especially when we are, like me, slow, awkward and not very strong.

I tell you now- in case you would have the idea to orient your life in a similar direction- that, whatever my happiness at arriving at factory work, I am not less happy to not be chained to this work. I simply took a year’s annual leave for “personal study”. A man, if he is very skillful, very intelligent and very strong, can at most hope, in the current state of the French industry, reach a post in in the factory where he is permitted to work in an interesting and humane manner; and still the possibilities of such things diminish day by day with the progress of rationalisation. The women, they are cooped up in work that is entirely mechanical, where all that is demanded is speed. When I say mechanical, do not think that you can dream of other things while doing it, even less reflect. No, the tragedy of this situation, is that the work is too mechanical to offer material for thought, and that nevertheless it forbids all other thoughts. Thinking, is to go less fast; there are norms of speed, established by ruthless bureaucrats, and it must be achieved, at once to not be fired and to earn enough (the salary is paid by the piece). Me, I have not yet reached this, for lots of reasons: not being used to it, my natural clumsiness which is considerable, a certain natural slowness in movements, headaches, and a certain obsession with thinking that I cannot let go…

Also I think that they would boot me out without any protection from above. As for leisure hours, theoretically we don’t have it bad, with a day of 8 hours; in practice they are absorbed by a fatigue that often reaches degradation. To complete the picture, add the fact that in the factory we live in a perpetual and humiliating subordination , always at the orders of the bosses. Of course, all of this makes you more or less suffer according to character, physical strength, etc.; there are nuances; but still, on the whole it’s like this.

This doesn’t prevent that- in suffering all of that- I am more happy than I can say to be here where I am. I’ve wanted this since I don’t know how many years, but I don’t regret not arriving here until now, because it is only now that I am in a state to take from this experience all that I can learn from it.  I have the feeling, especially, to have left a world of abstractions and to find myself amongst real men- good or bad, but with a real goodness or badness. Goodness especially, in a factory, is something real when it exists; because the least act of good will, from a simple smile to a service rendered, demands that we triumph over fatigue, the obsession with salary, all that oppresses and encourages us to turn inward. Even thoughts demand an effort nearly miraculous to rise above the conditions we live in. Because here it is not like at university, where we are paid to think or at least to pretend to; here, the tendancy is more to pay not to think; so, when we see a flash of intelligence, we are sure that it is real. Outside of all of that, the machines themselves attract and really interest me. I add that I am in the factory principally to find out for myself a number of very precise questions that concern me, and that I cannot enumerate to you.

Enough talk about me. Let’s talk about you. Your letter alarmed me. If you persist to have as a principal objective the knowledge of all possible sensations- because, as a passing mindset, it is normal at your age- you will not go far. I really liked it better when you said that you aspired to have contact with real life. You believe perhaps that it is the same thing; in fact, it just the contrary. There are people who live nothing but sensations and for sensations; Andre Gide is an example. They are in reality the dupes of life, and, as they confusedly feel this, they always fall into a deep sadness where they are left no alternative but to drown in miserably lying to themselves. Because the reality of life, is not sensation, it is activity- I mean activity in thought and in action. Those who live for sensations are, materially and morally, nothing but parasites in relation to men who are workers and creators, who alone are men.

I add that the latter, who do not search for sensations, nevertheless receive a good more alive, more deep, less artificial and more real than those who search for it. In short the search for sensation implies an egoism that gives me horror, as far as I’m concerned. It obviously doesn’t stop us from loving, but it leads to considering the beloved as simple occasions to enjoy or to suffer, and to completely forget that they exist by themselves. We live in the middle of ghosts. We dream in place of living.

As for love, I don’t have advice to give you, but at least some warnings. Love is something serious where we often risk committing forever one’s own life and that of another human being.  We risk it even always, as long as one doesn’t make the other his toy; in this last case, which is very common, love is something odious. You see, the essential of love, consists in sum that a human being finds themselves having a vital need of another being- a need reciprocal or not, lasting or not, according to the case. From then on the problem is to reconcile such a need with freedom, and men have struggled with this problem since time immemorial.  This is why the idea to search for love to see what it is, to put some animation in a too dull life etc., seems to me dangerous and especially puerile. I can tell you that when I was your age, and later also, when the temptation came to search to know love, I moved away from it saying to myself that it is better for me not to risk committing all my life in a sense that is impossible to predict without having reached a degree of maturity that permits me to know exactly what I want from life in general, what I expect from it. I do not give this to you as an example; every life plays out according to its own laws. But you could find here matter for reflection. I add that love seems to me to carry a risk even more alarming than to blindly committing one’s own existence; it is the risk to become the arbiter of another human existence, in the case where we are deeply loved. My conclusion (which I give you only as a guide) is not that we must run from love, but that we must not go in search for it, and especially when we are very young. It is much better then not to meet it, I think.

It seems to me that you should be able to react against the atmosphere. You have the unlimited kingdom of books; it is far from being everything, but it is alot, especially as preparation for a more concrete life. I would like also to see you interested in your work in class, where you can learn alot more than you think. First to work: as much as we are incapable of working, we are good for nothing in any domain. And then you train your mind. I will not start by praising your geometry. As for physics, can I suggest to you the following exercise? It is to make a critique of your manual and your class in trying to discern what is well-reasoned and what is not. You will find in this way a surprising amount of false reasonings. An amusing game, extremely instructive, the lesson often fixes in the memory without thinking of it. For history and geography, you hardly have anything in this subject except false things due to it being simplistic; but if you learn them well, it will give you a solid base to acquire later by yourself the real notions of human society in time and in space, indispensable things for whomever is concerned with the social question. I will not talk to you about French, I am sure of your style and form.

I was very happy when you told me that you have decided to prepare for the Ecole Normale, that frees me from an anguishing concern. I regretted even more strongly that it seemed to have left your mind.

I believe you have a character that condemns you to suffer all your life. I am even sure of it. You have too much ardour and too much impetuosity to be able to ever adapt to the social life of our time. You are not alone in this. But to suffer, that is not of importance, as long as you also experience real joy. What is important, is to not waste your life. And for this, you must be disciplined.

I am very sorry that you cannot do sport: it is something you need to do. Make some more effort to persuade your parents. I hope, at least, that joyous wanderings through the mountains are not forbidden to you. Greet your mountains for me.

I have perceived in the factory, how paralysing and humiliating it is to lack vigour, dexterity, sureness of eye. In this regard, nothing can compensate, unfortunately for me, for what one did not acquire before age 20. I cannot recommend you enough to exercise the most that you can your muscles, your hands, your eyes. Without such exercise, we feel singularly incomplete.

Write to me, but expect a response only from time to time. Writing costs me an excessively terrible effort. Write to me at 228, rue Lecourbe, Paris, XVe. I’ve taken a small room close to my factory.

Enjoy the spring, smell the air and the sun (if any), read beautiful things.

[χαiρε] (in Greek in the text)

The Mysticism of Work

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A translation of Weil’s Prerequisite for Non-Servile Labour (Condition première d’un travail non-servile) 

Simone Weil was preoccupied with work and the working conditions of physical labourers. She herself spent periods of time as a factory worker and farm labourer in order to get direct experience of their actual working conditions, and her writings on work and labour such as this article largely came from this experience. Direct experience was something that she craved most, and saw as being of the utmost importance:

When I think that the great Bolchevik leaders claimed to be creating a free working class and probably not one of them — surely not Trotsky, and I don’t think Lenin did either — ever set foot in a factory and hence did not have the faintest idea of the real conditions which determine the servitude or freedom of these workers — politics seems a sinister farce indeed.

This parallels my own interest in labour, as someone who had both parents working in hard physical labour for most of their lives, and seeing the physical degradation and slavery this entailed for them, for the whole family. All of my interest in labour comes from them.

The article astounds me in its clarity, understanding and vision; and the uncompromising demands it makes on behalf of workers- not the usual kind of demands we are used to hearing from trade unionists or communists (movements which Weil was very active in but at the same time highly critical of), but a demand for all workers what is their birthright as human beings: beauty.

For Weil, this beauty must come from the tools and labour of the workers themselves; it is the transformation of their work into a spiritual sacrament. This beauty’s only source is God.

Her ideas are complex and philosophical, deceptively clothed in succinct, precise language. It is difficult to translate this clarity while at the same time trying to maintain the depth of her ideas, especially without referencing her other work because she touches on ideas here that are explored elsewhere in her writings; ideas like her concept of ‘attention’, affliction and her analysis of liberty and oppression.

This translation (like all translations) is only an interpretation; it is Weil seen through my eyes. It is an interpretation not only of language, but inevitably of meaning because the word choices and even the mistakes in translation betray my own understanding and interpretation of her work. I’ve only translated the first part of the article, which had the most impact on me- perhaps I’ll translate the other part later.

Is there a relevance of Weil’s work to contemporary labour? Of course I would answer in the affirmative- this is the most important aspect of her work for me. Weil wrote about factory conditions for workers in France in the 1930’s, but these conditions still exist today if not in a worse form and to a higher degree. We only have to look at the modern factories, sweatshops, mining, tobacco and cocoa farms etc in ‘developing’ countries that produce products en masse for us to consume over here to see how we have turned the exploitation of workers to a fine art, and how her description of the workers’ horror of the soul is no exaggeration…

                                                              

Prerequisite for Non-Servile Labour

Written in Marseille, 1941. Partially published in Cheval de Troie, no. 4 in 1947

In physical labour and more generally in repetitive work, which is work properly speaking, there is an irreducible element of servitude which even a perfectly equal society will not erase.

It is a fact that physical labour is governed by necessity, and not by finality. We do it because of a need, not for an inherent good; “because we have to make a living”, as they say. In physical labour, we can only have what we get through our own efforts, without this continuous effort we lose what we have.

But, in human nature, there is no other source of energy for effort than desire. And it is not in man to desire what he has. Desire is an orientation, the beginning of a movement towards something. This movement is always towards a point where we are not. If the movement starts to loop back to its point of departure, we turn like a squirrel in a cage, like a prisoner in a cell. To go round in circles like this quickly produces disgust.

Disgust, weariness, nausea, are the great temptations of those who work, especially if they work in inhumane conditions, and even otherwise. Sometimes these temptations affect the best even more. 

To exist is not an end in itself for man, it is only a support for all the good in life, real or false. The good adds to existence. When it disappears, when existence is no longer decorated with any good, when it is naked, it no longer has any relation to the good. It is even an evil. And it is at this moment that even if existence substituted for all the absent good, it becomes in itself the sole end, the only object of desire. The desire of the soul finds itself tied to a naked evil and without a veil. The soul is therefore in horror.

In all conditions where we necessarily find the same situation on the last day as on the first day after a period of one month, one year, or twenty years of effort, there is a resemblance to slavery. The resemblance is the impossibility to desire anything other than what we possess, the impossibility of directing our effort towards the acquisition of a good. We make an effort only to live.

The unit of time is the day. In this space we turn in circles. We oscillate between work and rest like a ball that is bounced between one wall and another. We work only because we need to eat. But we eat in order to be able to continue working. And we continue to work to be able to eat, and so on.

Everything is an intermediary in this existence, everything is a means, finality takes hold nowhere. The things made are a means, they will be sold. Who can impart on them a good? The materials, the tools, the body of the worker, his soul itself, are the means of production. Necessity is everywhere, the good is nowhere.

Do not look for causes to the demoralisation of the people. The cause is here; it is permanent; it is essential to the condition of labour. We must seek the means which, in previous periods, have prevented demoralisation from occurring.

Only with a great moral inertia and physical force that makes us nearly indifferent in our efforts, can we support this emptiness. Otherwise there must be compensations.

The ambition for a higher social status for himself or for his children is one. Easy and violent pleasures is another, which is of the same nature: it is dreams in place of ambition. Sunday is the day where we want to forget that the necessity to work even exists. For this we must spend. We must dress as if we did not work. There must be satisfactions of vanity and illusions of power that a diploma procures very easily. Debauchery has exactly the function of a narcotic, and the use of narcotics is always a temptation for those who suffer. Finally, a revolution is also a compensation of the same nature; it is ambition transported into the collective, the mad ambition for an ascent of all workers outside of the workers condition.

The revolutionary sentiment is for most people at first a revolt against injustice, but it rapidly becomes for most, like it has historically, a workers’ imperialism completely analogous to national imperialism. It has as its goal completely unlimited domination by a certain collectivity over the whole of humanity, and over all aspects of human life. The absurdity is that, in this dream, the domination will be in the hands of those who execute and who will then not be able to dominate.

As a revolt against social injustice, the revolutionary idea is good and healthy. As a revolt against the essential suffering in the very condition of the workers, it is a lie. Because no revolution will obliterate this suffering. But this lie has the biggest hold, because this essential suffering is felt more critically, more deeply and more painfully than injustice itself. Usually we confuse them. The name for the opium of the people that Marx gave to religion can be applicable when religion betrays the people, but it is fundamentally applicable to revolutions. The hope for a revolution is always a narcotic.

The revolution satisfies at the same time the need for adventure, being the most opposite to necessity, which is again a reaction against the same affliction. The taste for fiction and thrillers, the tendency for criminality in some adolescents corresponds also to this need.

The bourgeois have been very naïve to believe that the right solution consists of transferring to the people the goal that governs their own lives, that is to say, the acquisition of money. We have reached the limits possible in piece work and the expansion of trade between cities and the countryside. But we have done so bringing dissatisfaction to an exasperatingly dangerous degree. The cause of it is simple. Money as a goal of desire and effort does not have in its domain the interior conditions which make it possible for a person to be enriched by it. A small manufacturer, a small trader can grow and become a great manufacturer or trader. A teacher, a writer, a minister is still a teacher, writer or minister, whether rich or poor. But a worker that becomes rich ceases to be a worker, and it is nearly always the same for a peasant. A worker cannot be bitten by the desire for money without desiring to get out, with or without his comrades, from the workers’ condition.

The family obtains finality and purpose under the form of raising children. Yet, even if the worker hopes for another social condition for their children- and by the nature of such things, social mobility is necessarily exceptional– the spectacle of their children condemned to the same existence means that even this hope cannot buffer them from the painful emptiness and heaviness of this existence.

This heavy emptiness makes them suffer a lot. It touches even people who are not cultivated or have a weak intelligence. Those who, by their condition, don’t know this emptiness, cannot fairly judge the actions of those who must support this emptiness all their lives. It doesn’t kill them, but it is perhaps as painful as hunger. Perhaps more. Perhaps it is literally true to say that bread is less necessary than the remedy to such pain.

There is not a choice of remedies. There is only one. Only one thing makes bearable the monotony, it is an eternal light; it is beauty.

There is only one case where human nature supports the desire of the soul not towards what might be or what will be, but towards what exists. This case is beauty. All that is beautiful is an object of desire, but we do not desire it to be something else, or we do not want to change anything about it, we desire it exactly as it is. We look with desire at the starry sky on a clear night, and what we want, is exactly what is.

Since workers are constrained by necessity and must carry all their desire onto what they already have, beauty is made for them and they made for beauty. Poetry is a luxury for the other social conditions. The people need poetry like bread. Not poetry enclosed within words; these, by itself, cannot be of any use to them. They need the substance of everyday life to be poetry itself.

Such poetry can only have one source. This source is God. This poetry can only be religion. By no trick, no process, no reform, no revolution, can finality and purpose enter into the universe where the workers are placed by their very condition. But their universe is perhaps wholly suspended by the sole end which is true. They can be attached to God.  The workers condition is one where the hunger for finality which constitutes the very being of all men cannot be satiated, except by God.

It is this, their privilege. They are the only ones to have it. In all other circumstances, without exception, particular goals leads to activity, distraction. There is no particular end or purpose, when it comes to the salvation of the soul, that does not make a screen and hides God. It is through detachment that one must pierce through the screen. For the workers there is no screen. Nothing separates them from God. They only have to look up.

The difficulty for them is to raise their heads. They don’t have, like in the case of other men, too many things which they must let go of with effort. In fact, they have too little. They lack

intermediaries. When we advise them to think of God and to give him the offering of their pain and suffering, we do nothing for them.

People go to church expressly to pray, yet we know that they could not pray if we did not give for their attention intermediaries to support their orientation towards God. The very architecture of the church, the images which they are full of, the words of the liturgy and prayers, the ritual gestures of the priests are all intermediaries. In fixing their attention on it, they find themselves oriented towards God. How much more the need for such intermediaries in a workplace, where we go just to make a living. There, everything ties thought down to earth.

But we cannot put in place religious images and propose to those who work there to look at them. We cannot suggest to them either to pray while working. The only material objects that they can give their attention to, are their tools, the gestures of their work. If these objects themselves do not transform into mirrors of light, it is impossible that during work the attention will be oriented towards the source of all light. There is no other necessity more pressing than this transformation.

It is only possible if we find in the material, in what work gives to men, a reflective property. Because it is not just about making fiction or arbitrary symbols. Fiction, imagination, dreams have nowhere less a place than in anything that concerns truth. But luckily for us there is a reflective property in matter. It is a mirror tarnished by our breath. It must only be cleaned and the symbols read; symbols which are written in matter for all eternity.

Non seulement que l’homme sache ce qu’il fait – mais si possible qu’il en perçoive l’usage – qu’il perçoive la nature modifiée par lui. Que pour chacun son propre travail soit un objet de contemplation.

‘Not only that man knows what he makes- but if possible that he perceives its usage- that he perceives that nature has been modified by him. That for each person, their work becomes an object of contemplation.

To the Red Virgin*

A poem for Simone Weil

16 July 2010

(Sentences in italics are taken from Simone Weil’s factory diaries)

* This was the ‘nickname’ given to her at university

Precocious child
A star in a sea of grain
Flowing with the water
Yet resolutely against it

You grew up to be
No one else with your breadth
And depth
Your boundless self-discipline

Oh Simone
Sister, teacher, stern critic
You are for me.

‘Painful morning – My legs hurt – I’m fed up, fed up…’

Eternal outsider, eternal light
I can only imagine how lonely you must have been
They ridiculed you-
But you had your eyes on a bigger prize
Beyond anything anyone could see

Oh Simone, I’m afraid
That I fall very short of your example
That I can’t live up to your light

‘I woke up in agony; I went to the factory in fear: I worked like a slave.’

Your words reach across space and time
Like an echo I heard long ago
Reaching some internal, eternal part of me
Resonating

Explorer of suffering
And the human condition
Unflinching

‘A worker made coils with the hooks a centimetre too short. The foreman said to him: “If they are screwed, you’re screwed.”

Deprived yourself of
Food
Consolation
False gods

Putting yourself beneath the lowest of the low
It is there you knew
You would find
Him

In our day and age
We understand nothing about sacrifice
I’m afraid, Simone
That if you were alive now
They would still not listen to you

‘The worker with tuberculosis was fired for having missed an order.’

They said you were
Crazy
Holy fool
You put your body on the line
Again and again

A Jew who did not want to be a Jew
A woman who did not want to be a woman
A bourgeois who refused to be privileged
I see how your own demons
Allowed you to empathise
With the oppressed

‘At any moment, from clocking in to clocking out, a new order may come.’

You were marked by your hunger
Oh Simone, the hunger haunts me too
How did you bear it?
Did you let it grow inside you
Like a grain of gold
Precious
Hidden

‘My sense of personal dignity as it has been manufactured by society has been broken.’

And at the moment of your death
Having lived your short life
As you had believed
You went away
Quietly.

About

PhD graduate in Anthropology. Interests in religion, secularism, migration, politics, development, theology and fiction. Tweets at @mayngo2

“She may be basically irreligious but we are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness. She tries and tries violently and has a great deal to struggle against and to overcome. The violent bear it away.”

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

“And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

Matthew 11:12 Douay-Rheims Bible

“Art has two constants, two unending concerns: it always meditates on death and thus creates life. All great, genuine art resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John.”

Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago